Editorial for Project Mangement World Today Web Magazine. Published here September 2000


Musings Index

People, Work and Projects around the World

For many people the months of July and August are times for a pleasant and relaxing holiday break. A time when we can escape from the pressured of daily work, relax a little and perhaps contemplate the world around us. We have certainly tried to do so ourselves.

From South Africa

Our contemplation has been much spurred by an insightful research paper by Andre Philip van der Merwe of the Rand Afrikaans University, South Africa. His paper "Economic Development, Social Spending and Project Management" is a must read for those who have any concern for how the economy develops wealth, how that wealth is distributed internationally, and our collective ability to survive comfortably through access to work.

In his paper, van der Merwe examines three types of development: industrial, business and social, in three economic groupings: First, Second and Third World. In a telling paragraph, he states "... 20% of the world's population is responsible for producing 80% of the world's wealth and consumes 80% of what is produced. Alternatively it means that 80% of the world's population produces 20% of the wealth and consumes 20% of all goods and services." Sliced differently, he asserts that "[Industrial and Business Development in the First and Second World economies] is 80% of wealth's production and [Social Development in the Third world] is 80% of aid's consumption. [Industrial and Business Development in the First World] produces most of the world's profit and [Social Development in the third world] produces most of the world's debt."

Technology not the answer
After examining the history of social and economic development, van der Merwe finds that technology is a competitor to employment and, deployed in third world countries does not create jobs, upon which social development may be built. Instead it just increases the number of beggars. In short, technology is not the solution. Van der Merwe concludes that "development of economies, business or people must be seen in a coordinated holistic manner where improved efficiency means more work for more people, not less." Quite so. Of course, there is much more to his paper than we can comment on here, and you should read it for yourself.

Living beyond our means
However, a legitimate question seems to be: "For the 20% of the population that produces all that wealth, i.e. from the 80% of production, why should they not enjoy the fruits of their labors?" The answer to that question lies in the fact that 'production' requires the consumption of resources to a greater or lesser degree and the issue is from whence have those resources been obtained? Aside from the direct consumption of energy and materials in fabrication, all human activity consumes the earth's natural capital of land for planting, dwelling and waste disposal, and air and water for pollutants and effluent disposal. Collectively we are already living beyond our means and have been doing so for decades. It has been calculated that if all six billion of us lived like today's North Americans, it would take at least two additional planet earths to produce the resources, absorb the wastes, and otherwise maintain life-support.[1] (You can do your own math to calculate the alternative solution.)

Is growth good?
In short, technology is likely to solve neither the problem of resource consumption, nor poverty due to a lack of jobs, indeed quite the reverse. How does this affect the project management business? Well, business development keeps right on going because of our perception of practical economics and a mind set that says "growth is good". Industrial and engineering infrastructure construction follows likewise to satisfy increasing population demands with massive consumption of resources and "sustainable development" is clearly an unobtainable goal. At the same time, information technology projects abound to improve service, efficiency, and profitability, meaning more energy consumption, less human intervention and hence fewer jobs.

A ray of hope
All very contradictory and confusing. But there is a ray of hope. The Internet and especially E-business can and does at one and the same time provide an increasing number of jobs for design, and maintenance of content, and information and business activity for those who use it. It can also free people from the necessity to travel daily to a place of work. Best of all it can create all this economic activity with relatively low consumption of resources. All it requires is the manipulation of a few magnetic particles on suitable storage media. If it also serves to provide entertainment and thereby lower the urge to procreation, as TV has done in India in the last half century, we might just have an all-round winner!

Meanwhile, in France
The French have taken a different approach to work, treating it as a limited commodity. To reduce unemployment, France has recently passed a law setting a limit of 35 hours per week, with only limited permission for overtime. In pursuit of the law, state officials have been known to check people arriving and leaving from the company parking lot to ensure that the weekly total is not exceeded. As a consequence, many companies have reinstated 'clocking in and clocking out' to track the time worked to prove compliance with the law. It is unlikely that would go down well in North America, but in any case, what of the project people who like to "get things done" irrespective of the hours? Hardly conducive to achieving project goals unless you work as a self-employed contractor/entrepreneur.

Thankful but mindful
For those of us who enjoy a 'western' life style wherever we may live, we should be thankful — and mindful of the excessive waste we create. If you have been so lucky to have a vacation this summer, we hope that you too have taken the time to contemplate the world around you, its problems — and projects designed to provide possible solutions.

1. Wackernagel, M., and W. Rees, Our Ecological Footprint, New Society Publishers, 1996, p15
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