Beware of unintended consequences when searching for solutionWritten by Ahmad Badri Abdullah
We are living in a highly connected world with a complex socio-economic models and networks that often generate issues for which linear problem solution method do not offer adequate resolutions.
The current pandemic crisis has proven this as we explain.
Normally, when a quick fix is attempted to unravel symptoms of a problem, the solution invariably creates unintended consequences that may exacerbate the problem over time.
Unfortunately, people tend to discount the truism that those dire consequences derive from their quick fixes and even more so when they apply more of them.
The same fix that seems to overcome a problem in the short run often creates unintended consequences that further exacerbate that problem.
Terms such as 'fixes that fail' or the 'cobra effects' have been coined to illustrate an event when a solution unexpectedly worsens the problem. Scenarios such as these were apparent during the initial phase of the movement control order (MCO) in Malaysia.
For instance, the government order to halt mass gatherings and promote social distancing unexpectedly led people to gather in stores for panic buying and bus stations to return to their hometowns.
A long list of unintended consequences of Covid-19 related policies developed one after the next, ranging from mental illness due to isolation, domestic violence, shutting down of small businesses and disruptions of the democratic political processes.
This list is expected to grow even longer with the reopening of public spheres and businesses after the MCO period in the absence of careful systems-oriented thinking and preparation.
It is important for policymakers therefore to thoroughly analyse and mitigate any unintended consequences emanating from their decisions.
"A policy is better when the more of these unintended consequences it takes into account before the policy is administrated" argues Homa Zarghamee, an economics professor at Bernard College, New York.
A systemic approach of thinking, planning, and leadership is thus essential in managing complex crises such as the one unfolded by Covid-19.
This involves cultivating a shared understanding of the nature and risk of the pandemic through mass communication, visualising causal relationships and effects through systems modelling and mapping tools (e.g.: dynamic interacting map published by the World Economic Forum) to spot unforeseen risks, identifying critical leverage points to instigate effective actions and enhance the capacity for coordination, and collaboration across different sectors.
In the context of Islamic jurisprudence, forecasting consequences of actions or decisions is technically known as i' tibar al-ma 'al, which relates to our concerns.
Its legitimacy primarily derives from Qur'anic verses that demand people to carefully look into the outcomes of their action such as the verse in which Muslims are advised not to insult the dieties of pagans and idol-worshippers for fear of reprisals that may then lead to greater social enmity and hatred (al-An'am, 108).
Hence adequate planning and consideration of the consequences of words and actions is highly recommended for all Muslims, especially for their leaders, law makers and governments.
In the current situation, policymakers and the society at large should be keenly aware of the complexity of our highly interconnected globalized world with reference especially to unintended consequences of decisions.
This can be better done by promoting a systemic approach for officials, industry players, and civil society organisations.
For many Muslim societies such as ours that are expected to return to a new normal post the MCO period, mainstreaming systemic thinking and its approaches should become part and parcel of the decision-making process, particularly in the attempt to mitigate dire unintended consequences.
The writer is a Research Fellow at the International Institute of Advanced Islamic Studies (IAIS) Malaysia.
Published in: The New Straits Times, Tuesday 12 May 2020