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Fifty shades of grey for our times

By Kristof Decoster
on February 8, 2015

Valentine is coming, as you might know (or prefer to ignore), and some wicked commercial minds in Belgium have decided that ‘The time is Now’ to release ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’, the movie version. As you can imagine, no sensible man wants to see this movie with his partner or lover, so Belgian movie theatres organize ‘Ladies at the Movies’ nights instead. (If you don’t know the movie or the best seller on which it is based, you probably lived on Mars for the last few years. It’s what they call a ‘hype’ – for reasons not entirely clear to me. But I’m not a woman, so I don’t feel qualified to comment.)

Anyway, I don’t want to talk here about the secret fantasies and lust for control of Mr Grey – if that’s your cup of tea, just go and see the movie. I want to argue here instead that our world needs fifty shades of grey, and badly so. Or in global health jargon, “Now more than Ever”.  Manicheist views again seem to get the upper hand in many countries. As the complexity and interdependency of our world increase, many of us, if not all, find comfort in ideas and ideologies that somewhat feel like home.

As this is a blog, I’m allowed to start with a personal example.

In global health, I naturally feel more at ease with the overall discourse of the People’s Health Movement, a strong public sector, the right to health, etc.  Conversely, dominant philanthropic foundations or a Performance Based Financing discourse sound  less enticing to me. Foundations don’t fit my (arguably biased) world view – which can be summarized as ‘Tax the corporate sector till it doesn’t have any money left to spend on philantropy’. And then some more. As for PBF, as a human being, I just don’t like the overriding importance of ‘performance’ – it just feels too neoliberal.

As you might know I do read plenty of articles every week, yet I still end up with a rather simple world view (even if I’m aware of it), so you get an idea of the problem on a global scale. (Bill Gates probably has a similar simplistic world view, on the other side of the political spectrum, also totally understandable from his point of view as a former CEO and technology buff.)

Granted, even allowing for this bias, I think it’s possible to acknowledge that the Gates Foundation does a lot of good, and that PBF can and does have merits in the right circumstances. I don’t expect Gates to talk politics all the time – that’s not what he’s good at; and when it comes to tackling inequality, other people seem better placed to take the lead (if only for Microsoft tax reasons). I think it’s fine his foundation focuses on where it thinks it can make a difference, and that others should fight global inequality as a political issue.  So I do discern some grey, even if goes reluctantly.

The problem is, of course, that some of the more powerful stakeholders in global health don’t seem very keen themselves on allowing  “fifty shades of grey” (or ‘a thousand flowers blooming’, as we would have called it in another, less capitalist era). Too many of them push in a rather authoritarian way for ‘getting results’, ‘value for money’ and the like. They prefer Grey over grey, if you want; control rather than romance and freedom.  Others have described this tendency for what you might call ‘TINA in global health’  in far more detail, so I don’t need to go into that here. And I’m well aware this is again a crude generalization. I also know results are important – especially in global health. Just ask the Ebola victims.


The work floor

I personally dream of a world in which people – for example on the work floor – wouldn’t just be assessed in terms of their productivity and performance, in a black or white way:  does he/she “perform” or not? Or a world in which people are not assessed in terms of their ‘success’ in life. (If I allow myself another generalization, Americans and economists seem to have more trouble to get this than others, for some reason.)

It’s not just a dream, actually, I even think it’s necessary to change our world so that these kinds of working relations become the ‘new normal’. People should be allowed to contribute to the work place according to their work-life balance, skills, personality, energy level, health situation …  without necessarily putting the right  ‘price’ on that (in line with their ‘added value’ to the company).

More bluntly, even failure should be accepted. Not failure in the ‘innovative entrepreneurial’ resilient sense – that ‘every failure is an opportunity to learn, and to do better next time and bounce back’ etc.  No. Failure, as in failure. Full stop. We all fail, in our lives, both in our jobs and in our personal lives. Not all the times obviously, but it’s part of life. Some people more than others, perhaps, but it would be good if we would be somewhat less judgmental of others and also organize the work floor in such a way, a less “economic” way – as now, if people don’t ‘deliver’, or are considered “too expensive”, they’re out.  Nobody just wants to be competitive, productive or  ‘billable’… not even at the office or in the company. People should all be able to make a contribution, to the extent they can.

I know the trend still goes in the opposite direction – enter ‘Centres of excellence’, further automation & robotization, …. So some people might think this is just dreaming or worse, utopia. It is, at least in 2015, but on the other hand, the current model leads to increasing polarization between ‘high-net-value individuals’ and people with less or no value at all for our presumably very “efficient” labour market (and new technology will only increase this gap, it seems). So the latter model seems unsustainable too, as it marginalizes increasing segments of the population.  There has to be a middle ground between Utopia and an unsustainable nightmare.

The same goes for the old distinction between low income countries, middle-income countries and high-income countries. It’s time for a lot more shades of grey too, there. From what I heard, in Bangkok (PMAC) there were preliminary discussions on this issue. The new SDG agenda, which starts from the assumption that challenges are now universal – also seems to acknowledge this more diverse world, to some extent, but not everybody is already  on the same page.


Our personal life

Last but not least, I think it’s important that we start to acknowledge the fifty shades of grey in ourselves. The perfectionists among us perhaps struggle more with this than others. We can only teach the young that the world is more nuanced than they might want to hear at a young and typically gung ho age, if we accept the shades of grey in ourselves and the young feel we do. And that includes our personal lives. It’s for a reason that all mindfulness gurus stress that acceptance is one of the key ingredients. We need not just to value the white (the successes, the happiness, …) in our lives but also accept the black, and the various shades of grey in between.

In a world where young people are once again “radicalizing” and saying they want to go and fight injustice, often to the despair of their parents, and some end up black as ink in wars and gross human rights violations, I think as many people as possible should talk about the nuances of the world and human life, to the young.

That is not easy – it’s a lot easier on paper than in real life. But it seems necessary.

So I hope that in their next annual letter, Bill and Melinda Gates will discuss the fifty shades of grey in their own life. And how it influences the way they see the world and want to change it for the better.

Our world needs fifty shades of grey.

(As for ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’, the jury is still out.)

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