Opinion Editorial by Athif Shakoor, economic expert and co-founder of Maldives Economic Review, on the pressing need for decentralisation, by relocating the operations of government institutions to islands.
The COVID-19 global lockdown compelled us to think, act, interact and manage in ways we had not thought possible.
Institutions and agencies, multi-lateral, national and corporate, were managed online. Social, family, and personal relationships, too, were managed and strengthened online. Not because we had planned for it, but because we had no choice.
Here in Maldives, too, all manners of affairs were managed online.
President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih managed the national effort on combating COVID-19 online. Cabinet meetings were held, and relevant decisions were taken online. Parliament sessions were held, legislative proceedings tabled, debated and voted online. The Chief Justice and Justices of the Supreme Court held court hearings online. Ministries and state agencies conducted their affairs online with senior staff and civil servants working from home.
Terms like ‘paradigm shift’ and ‘sea-change’ have, because of over-use, lost the sense of the monumental jaw-dropping changes they were initially coined to signify. But there is no doubt, that what we have just been witness to, is an actual paradigm shift, as the term was first referred to.
We have proven to ourselves, much to our surprise and astonishment, that we do not need to physically converge to a single location to manage the affairs of the state.
This is today an irrefutable fact. Much follows from that premise.
While decentralization has been a much-promoted concept touted by politicians of all creed and colors, across space and time, people have continued to converge to the greater Male’ area. Creating unhealthy living conditions, astronomical rent prices, increasing crime, unbearable strain on public utilities and overall deterioration of the condition of life.
Despite much resources mobilized for development of infrastructure like harbours, schools and hospitals in the islands, people continued to converge to Male’, leaving some surprised, others confused and the majority of the people unhappy.
History teaches us that people will migrate, have always migrated to, where jobs are available, even if it is to live in desperate circumstances.
The lesson of history is clear, people will converge, as is manifestly evident even illegally, to where job prospects are better. They will cross stormy seas in un-sea-worthy vessels, illegally cross-armed borders, bear the wrath of society and the law, and live in dismal and unhealthy circumstances for the opportunity to earn and provide for their family.
The lure of turf grounds and open parks are not sufficient to confine people to islands as they assume family responsibilities.
Therefore, even if the school is spacey with dedicated teachers, the hospital is equipped with trained doctors, the harbor is dredged, protected and completed with quay walls, the roads are levelled and paved, the beaches clean, the sea alluring, even then, unless and until job opportunities are created, people will hear, heed and respond to the call of jobs.
Two plus decades of well-intentioned public projects in the islands, worth billions in MVR, have not stemmed the tide.
The lockdown has taught us that we need not converge to a single geographic location to run the machinery of the state. Not today.
We can, today, manage state agencies while staff are dispersed. Literally from any location. The technology is no longer in doubt. It is time to move, even as a dare, at least one Ministry to an island announced for de-centralization. Pioneers who are willing to take the risk and lead the way, can lay the groundwork for real and affordable decentralization to happen in our lifetime.
The shift of state agencies to selected islands will, apart from creating jobs in the islands, allow for agencies to be run cheaper as rent rates are considerably lower in the islands. Good jobs will pull people away from the capital. It will pave the way for rent rates to climb down in Male’, making life affordable and creating space to actually breathe and finally walk the streets of Male’.
As jobs grow in the islands and families start to earn, small businesses will start to thrive. Stable jobs will help create other jobs in the island. SMEs like café’s, saloons, and small workshops will open creating more jobs and therefore employ more people. The opportunity for fishery and home-based agriculture to survive and thrive will increase.
The speed and reliability of internet connections of such an island will, no doubt, be an issue. But the telecom providers will also, without doubt, invest in upgrading their services in islands when they see the potential for return on investment increasing. Let there be no doubt about that.
Additionally, perhaps almost incidentally, when politicians with real political strength are required to work in such islands, their political muscles will flex with enough power to make sure such improvements happen. Quickly.
Let us dare imagine a scenario where the Ministry of Communication, Science and Technology step up to be the pioneers. To forge a path on the road not travelled and decide to locate to Kulhudhuffushi in Haa Dhaalu Atoll.
The trained and qualified professionals at the Ministry, with their experience and access to information on how similar processes have happened elsewhere, will create the perfect playbook. But let us also imagine how it can be implemented.
1. The Ministry looks for an adequate office space in the island. The adequacy of the office space thus required need not be the same size of space that was required in those heady days when all staff arrived at office, at one given time to manually punch-in. (Immediately leaving the office after securing the vital sign-in evidence and converging in popular waterholes for hours on end, for the essential daily dose of socializing need not delay us here.)
a. The Ministry, firstly, make a determination of how many staff will be required to attend office on a regular basis and how many can work from home. Of the total required to work at office, the Ministry will then decide on the possibilities of organizing shifts work, such that the total number present at office, at any given time, are further reduced.
b. The Ministry will then, look for an office space adequate for just the one shift of work. The workspace thus required for shift work is bound to be first smaller and also cheaper as rent rates are cheaper in the islands
2. Staffing the Ministry. The Ministry may then,
a. Announce for the hire of essential bare-bone structure that will need to attend their office in Kulhudhuffshi on a daily basis.
b. People who are interested and qualified for the jobs will apply and they need NOT be resident at Kuhudhuffushi at the time of application. The majority of Civil Servants working in Male’ are not from the island of Male’. Most of them have migrated specifically for the purpose of applying for and serving at a job where jobs were available. Qualified and motivated people who are already resident in the island will, it is true benefit the most. However, when the process is well planned and pre-announced, others too will apply and will include Kulhudufushians who had earlier migrated to Male’, but who can go back home and earn.
c. Trained and experienced staff from other islands too will apply when they are assured of fair treatment and the permanence of the job in the island. Their move to Khulhuduffushi can be traumatic and expensive. But it is, dare we say, less expensive and less traumatic than moving to the ‘furnace of stress and sin’ that is today the capital city.
d. Staff employed for jobs that are determined as not being necessary to attend a central location, can continue to serve from Male’. But it is also important to note that if the job can be done off-site, it need not be filled by a person resident in Male’. Those jobs, that can be served while working from home, will, in the future, be open and available to all who are qualified and willing to serve from home, whichever island home may be.
3. The Minister and his political cadre
a. This displacement if it happens will be because of a political decision. It will require political will and stamina from the very top to start, to sustain and then to expand. Therefore, while it might not be functionally essential for the Minister to anchor himself in the island of Kulhudufushi, his presence and the presence of his political cadre, will be central for the success of the effort as their manifest presence on the island will be essential for success. If, unfortunately, some are less than enthusiastic, there will no doubt be many who will volunteer. Not just for the benefit of the considerable stable state salary but also for the allure of power, such appointments always confer on the appointee.
b. While Cabinet Meetings and other political discussions, we know can be, and are being held on-line, there will be times, it is assumed that the Minister, and his political cadre, will require a face-to-face, at the capital. Being resident and working in Kulhudhuffushi does not prevent these occasional, we hope infrequent tête-à-têtes, that are seen to be essential to oil the machinery of the state.
If such a move can create only 20 jobs in another island it will be a beginning. 20 families resident in Kuhlhudhuffushi can start earning a stable income. This income group will allow for 20 more jobs to be created in the SME arena. It can initially allow for a few families to move from Male’, paving the way for more outward migration in the future. A minimum of 20 jobs would have been created in an island without substantial public investment.
Clearly something to be attempted, even for an experiment, and then expanded.
There is bound to be obstacles for setting such a course in such unchartered waters. But the biggest obstacle will be political will and the audacity to dream.