01.01.2009 Feature Article

Time to stop ‘copying blindly’?

Time to stop copying blindly?
01.01.2009 LISTEN

It is a natural human trait to want to copy or imitate things we admire or examples of good practice that we see around us – this is among the highest forms of admiration. All around the world, ideas inspired by successful practices witnessed elsewhere have been implemented to good effect. Why reinvent the wheel if a good one already exists? Japan, for instance, partly owes her emergence as a global economic force and a world-leader in Technology to a decades-old strategy of concerted learning and effective application from all over the world.

For every successful 'borrowed idea', however, there is probably a failed one. This in itself is not necessarily a bad thing; some implementation attempts will inevitably fail, and humans, in any case, tend to learn more from failure than from success. There can be any number of reasons for such failures, one of which is the lack of suitability for the receiving environment. Adoption of ideas and practices is necessary, but there must be some adaptation.

The need for environmental equilibrium
As a general principle, things work best when they are in a 'dynamic equilibrium' with their surrounding environments and any relevant external stimuli. Balance is critical for optimal equilibrium, but environmental conditions are rarely static, and interactions with them must be continually adjusted to suit. When humans cease to be in equilibrium with their environments, the results can be damaging and terrifying. This is evident, for instance, from the way our excessive consumption of resources is impacting our world (e.g. climate change and extinction of some species). Even the most spectacular and theoretically-sound ideas are liable to failure if they are unsuitable for the environment into which they are to be implemented. It is therefore important to consider environmental conditions and sustainability when selecting and implementing ideas and practices seen elsewhere.

Too keen to copy, but to copy blindly
There are many examples of ideas and practices that Ghana has imported. Some have worked well, but many have not achieved the desired results. There is nothing wrong with 'borrowing' ideas and practices from other countries and people. In fact, in a world where 'civilisation' is not peculiar to one group of people, this is one of the best ways to 'fast track' development – as Japan did. Ghanaians though, in my humble opinion, are too keen and quick to look elsewhere, and we often copy blindly. We sometimes rush to implement ideas and practices that are either not suited to or easily adaptable for our environment, and risk losing our identity as Ghanaians. We seem to forget about our unique environmental factors – perhaps an inevitable consequence of globalisation.

Why, in a country with a tropical climate, do some of us dress as though we lived somewhere in Northern Europe? Our lawyers and barristers go to Court in full 'old British' legal regalia – sometimes sweating profusely in the process. We persist with the use of 'man-power' to tackle labour-intensive projects – often during the hottest times in the day – and we wonder why our productivity is not quite up to scratch. Our security forces wear uniforms fashioned out of thick, dark-coloured material – I guess no-one told them that dark-coloured materials absorb heat. Many of our schools still rely on outdated syllabuses and teaching practices that were copied from other parts of the world; the originators have moved on, but we haven't. We build roads and other land-based infrastructure somewhat oblivious to our heavy rains and hot sun. Unsurprisingly, most don't last.

Sometimes we miss the point completely. Take, for instance, the way some of us use the principle of 'freedom of speech' to peddle half-truths and unsubstantiated concoctions, in our pursuit of personal interests and to the detriment of our communities. We also don't always recognise the need for solid foundations, and end up putting the 'cart before the horse'. We try to build credit referencing systems similar to those used in developed countries, without the requisite identification and home address systems. The missing ingredient seems to be that special something – the proverbial 'x factor' – needed to transform our attitudes, mentalities, and motivations.

Developing suitable ideas and practices
One of the key reasons for the failure of seemingly good ideas is their lack of suitability for the environment within which they are to be implemented; other critical factors include lack of commitment, absence of a common purpose, and constrained resources. Socio-economic conditions and political factors must be considered; where these are deemed to be a hindrance to progress, they should be tackled head-on. Africa needs better human development, and some significant effort needs to go on developing the mechanisms that would promote and support this.

One way to develop this widespread ability to implement more suitable ideas and practices is through a much-improved educational system. We need to develop a more capable human resource pool which is able to conjure up effective and progressive home-grown ideas and practices, as well 'borrow' and implement suitable practices from elsewhere. For this, we need a more effective educational system that encourages and promotes practical application and lateral thinking – underpinned by a slightly less risk-averse culture. This would be a long-term strategy that requires buy-in from all key stakeholders. In the short- to medium-term, we ought to go for existing practices that better suited to our environmental conditions. For example, why can't we 'borrow' and adapt the concept of the Spanish siesta, so that we can increase productivity by reducing labour-intensive activities during the hottest periods of the day?

To be regarded and respected in today's world, and to have a real say in world affairs, a country must provide the world something it wants or needs – skills, knowledge, mineral wealth, energy – and not just be consumers. For Ghana to offer something the world wants or needs, we must develop related capabilities using methodologies that will work for us. Our unique abilities and strengths have gone largely underutilised. Is it time to stop copying blindly, and to start playing to our strengths?

Comments and feedback welcome at [email protected]