J.F. Rischard’s book High Noon… ten years on

Speaking of books, in 2003 J. F. Rischard, then Vice President for Europe of the World Bank, and based in Paris, wrote and published High Noon: 20 Global Problems, 20 Years to Solve Them.

We’re halfway to his deadline. How are we doing? And how well is Mr. Rischard’s book standing the test of time?

Worth a look.

First some background on the book itself.  This CliffsNotes version won’t do the book justice. It merits a thoughtful, relaxed read in its entirety. But here’s the gist. Mr. Rischard notes two great trends: explosive population growth, especially in countries ill-equipped to handle it, and the globalization of the world’s economies. The first trend produces stresses. The second stresses us as well, but also creates opportunities. Mr. Rischard notes that government attempts worldwide to provide stability in the face of these trends instead of adapting to the changed circumstances have allowed a number of problems to fester and grow more urgent.

Mr. Rischard acknowledges that inventories of these problems are a subjective matter and might vary. Some people might see ten problems; others fifty. He offers a list of twenty, binned in three categories, nicely labeled:

(1) Sharing our planet. Global warming. Biodiversity and ecosystem losses. Fisheries depletion. Deforestation. Water deficits. Maritime safety and pollution.

(2) Sharing our humanity. Poverty. Peacekeeping. Education. Disease. The digital divide. Natural disaster mitigation.

(3) Sharing our rulebook. Consistent rules worldwide for: Taxation. Biotechnology. Financial architecture. Illegal drugs. Trade, investment and competition. Intellectual property rights. E-commerce. International labor and migration.

He next points out that we don’t have all the time in the world to solve these problems (hence the book title’s channeling of the 1952 Gary Cooper western film). Perhaps for some it’s as short as ten years. For others, it might be fifty. So, he says, let’s just say twenty. He argues that in nearly every case, the first five years are the most important and urgent. He then (rhetorically) asks: how many of us think that government, in any of various combinations – individual countries, the United Nations, the G-7, the European Union, etc. – are up to the job? He closes by suggesting the formation of what he calls global issues networks to deal with each. Each network would bring together governments, private enterprise, and academic expertise to tackle a problem. The idea is that experts from all three sectors will supply the best thinking, and that after a year or so of global brainstorming,  governments, whether singly and in combination, could start to take over the task of implementing the more practicable ideas. (This is evocative of something like an IPCC-process for each issue. Mr. Rischard himself , though referring to the IPCC in the global warming section, doesn’t make this connection, and you shouldn’t be put off by any baggage you happen to associate with the IPCC, unless and until you have read his full description, or have a better idea yourself to offer.)

The book wears well with age. Remarkably, it looks to be pretty much as fresh and insightful today as it did when first published. For example, the worldwide financial-sector meltdown of 2008 stemmed from concerns he identified under the section on financial architecture. Subsequent multi-lateral efforts to build in more margin and resilience into the financial sector exemplify the steps he’s suggesting. The same can be said for many if not all of the other nineteen issues. While the world hasn’t fully embraced Mr. Rischard’s prescription, we do see organizations of various stripes taking steps similar to what he’s proposing. I might be alone in this, but I actually see the IPCC process, with all its flaws, as a rousing success story.

What about actual progress? Are there any victories to be claimed? Well, it could be argued we’re making progress with respect to global poverty. But in most instances, we see a pattern of small, isolated victories, as well as a number of battles lost, and the outcome of the twenty “wars” still very much in the balance.

The bottom line for you and me? We could do worse than to read (or re-read) this book, make a connection to that piece of the puzzle where we have something to offer (there will be one or more for each of us), and then pitch in.

Oh, and did I mention that this book is a great read? A real page-turner? Mr. Rischard has a flair for clear exposition, and a magical way of keeping the arguments grounded, accessible, and compelling. Got an e-book or Kindle? Within minutes, you can reading his book over your weekend coffee. It’s crisp, engrossing… a quick read. You can be finished by Monday morning, and hit the workplace with a spring in your step and a renewed sense of purpose and understanding of your role in making the world a better place.

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