“Hail the Maintainers”
“Capitalism excels at innovation but is failing at maintenance, and for most lives it is maintenance that matters more”
Don’t worry: this article has nothing to say about economics, but bear with me for a moment.
The above quote is from an essay I came across a few months ago titled “Hail the Maintainers”. In it, co-authors Andrew Russell and Lee Vinsel (on behalf of a group self-named “The Maintainers”) seek to downplay the role of innovation and elevate the importance of maintenance in the future of technological development. The gist of it is that innovation is disproportionately emphasized through capitalist structures, even though the majority of innovations are enjoyed only by elites. In reality, the majority of the world would benefit much more from the maintenance of past innovations, and making these more accessible to a wider population.
The article came out around the same time that U.S. productivity scores dropped for what I’m told are a significant period of time (the longest decline since 1979, apparently). Commenting on these productivity trends, Robert Gordon’s book The Rise and Fall of American Growth makes the argument that much of the technological innovations that we think would have made our work more productive, have been reserved for our personal lives. Here, Adam Chandler of The Atlantic quotes Gordon: “Most of it [the U.S. economy] is operating by the same business methods and procedures that have been in place for at least 10 years” (“Why Are Americans Workers Getting Less Productive”). In Gordon’s opinion, it seems as though technological innovation has failed to bring about the productivity growth that was hoped for.
Whether or not Gordon’s commentary on the statistical fall is correct or not (and I am certainly not qualified to speak on such matters), the principle is an interesting one: It seems that innovation is not bringing about the kinds of changes hoped for. Like the argument made by The Maintainers, could it be that we have prioritized innovation over maintenance, and neglected to take seriously the slow and tedious job of making past innovations more accessible and widespread?
When I first arrived to begin my internship with Asian Forum, I quickly found the need to immerse myself in the major policy touchstones that give context to the advocacy work that Asian Forum and other Nepali organizations in the field of labour migration are engaged in.
I found it interesting that while Nepal has not signed or ratified the three key international documents that directly and most comprehensively address labour migration (The International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families (ICMW), ILO C97 Migration for Employment Convention, and ILO C143 Migrant Workers (Supplementary Provisions)), stakeholders are still able to draw on earlier and less specific conventions and declarations as they advocate for the rights of migrant workers. And in appealing to these earlier statements, the hope is that the very components present in the three key documents listed above will be brought about indirectly. This is only true because the earlier documents possess the blueprints that the newer documents are using in order to construct.
And so, my fundamental question here is whether we should spend more time developing and revising the original blueprints, or set them aside as we create new ones. Should we focus on maintaining the old, or innovating something new?
While this is a hugely oversimplified binary, I think it introduces a perspective into the conversation that is essential to consider. A perspective that is taught to us by The Maintainers.
Maintaining is not sexy, like innovation – which “Hail the Maintainers” shows has become a buzzword that some CEOs are banning from their workers’ vocabulary. We love the new. We like to launch out into the unknown and restate things unconstrained by formalities and traditions. We want to give it a new title. We don’t want to review old documents; we want to write new ones. And we want to be the ones who say it in our own way.
The problem however is that in the proliferation of new conventions and statements, we risk elevating innovation over maintaining: newer documents do not sufficiently learn from or consider the older ones, and we risk saying the same thing so many ways that our fight for change becomes less effective.
Articulating your stance on a certain issue is one thing, but articulating your stance in relation to another stance is quite another. Context challenges us. Similarly, past conventions and declarations confront us with the disparity between what we said 10 years ago, and where we are today. They force us to recognize our failure, and challenge us to be more honest about what we can really commit to this time around. They also cause us to address our blind spots, as we look back on specifics that we felt so passionately about last committee meeting, but no longer give the same attention to.
If we want to learn what is working and what isn’t, we need to take the work of maintenance seriously by revising old declarations, and situating ourselves in relation to them. When we situate our statements, we show respect to history. And when we show respect to history, we show respect to the present, because we affirm that our present efforts will be reviewed and used to inform the future.
Situating our learning is also a step of humility, by recognizing that your thoughts were not developed in a vacuum, but in dependence upon the conversations you have had. We are far less original than we can possibly understand.
I should be clear. Nowhere would I ever want to discourage writing and articulating anew. The process of learning that happens through collaborative approaches to documents and declarations is invaluable. The result of a cohesive piece of writing that can be signed off by a group of people is encouraging and essential in building a movement to catalyze change.
What I have been saying, then, does not discourage new policy – it simply seeks to situate it. The only question is the context in which the articulating, writing, and discussing happens. Does it start a new conversation, and abandon the past ones? Or does it situate itself in such a way that gives momentum to the old conversation, correcting and clarifying where necessary, adding momentum to an already living organism.
In Nepal’s Foreign Employment Act 2007 and Rules 2008 there is repetition of several of the aspects that come up in the CEDAW, and various ILO Conventions on discrimination, trafficking, and minimum wage and age, that have already been signed and ratified. What’s the point in saying these again? The documents that Nepal produces itself will always carry more weight than an International Treaty, at least in practice. And so articulating something in a specific context is crucial. (Importantly, the Foreign Employment Act is currently being reviewed and revised, which is precisely in line for what I would advocate for. Creating policy that engages that which has come before.)
(Aside: This leads me to question whether it is important to adopt foreign and international standards, or rather to develop the policy that is already in place. For example, is it more effective and/or efficient to reform the Foreign Employment Act to look more like the ICMW, ILO C97 and C143, or is it best practice to simply ratify these conventions themselves? It seems that the scale tips in favour of the former, since using International Treaties come with significantly more responsibility in terms of periodic reporting on implementation, and much more importantly they are harder to adopt since national laws already in place need to be brought to align with them – in short, choosing something context sensitive will be more realistic, even if it is not as idealistic as international standards. Of course, this is certainly not mutually exclusive to using the International Treaties as conversation partners, and even best practices, but the importance becomes writing something sensitive and realistic to country-specific realities.)
Last week, the 2nd National Conference on Migration took place, organized by a number of NGOs and INGOs working across Nepal, and bringing various kinds of government voices, returnee migrants, researchers, and practitioners together for two days to engage one another on current issues in Nepal concerning labour migration. The 1st Conference in 2013 produced a series of 38 recommendations that were signed by all parties, and the plan for he 2nd Conference was to similarly produce another set of recommendations. Some questions that arise from this post are: what was done with the 1st Conference’s recommendations, what will be done with the 2nd Conference’s recommendations, and what is the relationship between the two?
I’m encouraged that the recommendations that came out of the Conference last week will inform the advocacy of the National Network for Safe Migration (NNSM), a joint body that brings together several NGOs working in labour migration in Nepal. This means that there will be a common document that can bolster the work of all these organizations doing great work to make migration safer and more productive for Nepali migrant workers. This is a great success. As we spend the coming weeks debriefing the 2nd Conference, we will need to work to make sure these recommendations and declarations mean something and are followed through on. We need to work hard so that we are not desensitized to declarations.
The work of maintaining is difficult. It is tedious.
As we continue our work, and look for more effective ways to advocate for necessary change to make labour migration more safe and productive, I close with this: Perhaps our declarations need to look more like Talmud, which has commentary written around commentary written around commentary to explain and elucidate that which was written before in order to understand the Torah. The document without such appendages and annotations is safe. It gathers dust, at least in terms of its political and social capital. Let’s have less new declarations and conventions, but cause the older ones to come alive. Amidst innovation that is praised, let us reserve an ever more special place for maintenance.
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