Saturday, July 07, 2007

Let them bike (1)

Friends, listening to your exhaustive list of concerns [about how the World Bank could best assist countries in their development] I was reminded of the moments when I had to teach my daughters how to ride their bikes: I heard their mother’s anxious calls in the background; I felt my own nervousness; nonetheless, I just knew I had to let them go.

One could find and read thousands of manuals about how to put a bike together safely; about all the safety implements a kid should wear, such as helmet and wrist-guards; about all the precautions he or she needs to take, not going downhill or out on the main road; but nowhere can you find even a single manual that clearly and exactly instructs you how to learn to ride a bike. Left leg up, right leg down! Or was it right leg up first?

We need to understand that development is a bit like learning how to ride a bike and, at the end of the day it is something that must be done on one’s own. In fact, no matter how much we could help in the preparations, we will not stand a chance to achieve lasting results if we are not willing or do not know how to let them go.

It is not easy to let go, I probably even closed my eyes for fractions of seconds after letting my girls roll away on their bikes, but I let them go and they know how to ride a bike now.

So, my colleagues, in these discussions, not as caring parents but as caring development partners, let us try to act accordingly, letting them go, always remembering that, at the end of the day, countries need to do it on their own. What else could ownership mean?

Of course, anyone might fall trying, but that is exactly the risk we need to be able to take if they are going to achieve real sustainable development results and, if they fall, there is probably nothing more to do than to help them rebuild their confidence so that they can just have another go at it.

Moreover, if you try to hold the bike while they ride it, the bike might not really behave like a bike, and so they might never get the hang of it. What we really should be concerned about is that they have what is most needed at the time of trying: sufficient confidence in themselves. In fact, what unwillingly might be the first victim of all our other secondary concerns is precisely that, their confidence.

So, my colleagues, let them go, again and again and again, learning to ride their bike, and as they believe a bike should be ridden.

I know it is not as easy as it sounds and in fact I would only give someone the freedom to try it on their own whenever he or she convinces me he or she is truly ready for it, in a sufficiently confident way.

(1) Extract from Voice and Noise and that reflects what I said to my colleagues at the World Bank Executive Board while discussing in 2004 the issue whether developing countries should be allowed to use more their own country systems.