…about “Why not?” people

7 May 2015

Someone once said that there are two kinds of people in this world: those who believe there are two kinds of people and those who don’t. George Bernard Shaw must have been the former, because he wrote that ““You see things; and you say ‘Why?’ But I dream things that never were; and I say ‘Why Not?’”

Americans have long been the ultimate “Why not?” people of the world. “Sure, let’s try it. Whatever.” This “anything goes” spirit still permeates American entrepreneurship, with all kinds of people having all kinds of crazy business ideas, some of which even work.

But politically the U.S. has become more of a “Why?” country. Too often the public discourse asks “Why?” instead of exploring “Why not?’. “Why should we do that?” For example, why get rid of the Electoral College, even if it did elect a president who came second in the popular vote (George W. Bush in 2000)? The consequence is that the country so renowned for embracing technological change is experiencing a good deal of social gridlock.

I think the Brazilians have now become the “Why not?” people of the world. “Sure, let’s try it.” Brazilian expressions are indicative of this spirit, for example dar um jeitinho, meaning to find a way around, and quebrar um galho, literally to break a branch and so create a way through. When French President Charles de Gaulle allegedly declared that Brazil was not a serious country, rather than being insulted, most Brazilians were amused, even proud.

As a consequence, Brazilians are in the vanguard of addressing problems in creative and pragmatic ways. For example, an ethanol initiative brings this alternative to gasoline into every automobile; there is community participation in the budgeting of many municipalities; the Liberation Theology movement has been carried furthest in Brazil; and, not surprisingly, the World Social Forum started in Brazil as a counter to the World Economic Forum of Davos.

Particularly telling is how the country dealt with its HIV/AIDS crisis. While the World Bank was issuing dire predictions about the spread of the disease there, Brazilians were innovating in all kinds of compelling ways, for example by distributing millions of condoms at Carnaval and introducing stories in their famous soap operas about living with AIDS.

As Gui Azevedo, a Brazilian, wrote in a 2012 article we co-authored about the “Why not?” people of Brazil: in place of “any identifiable leader, or general blueprint, was a great deal of creative cooperation,” including associations of homosexuals, prostitutes, and haemophiliacs. The government was also deeply involved, challenging the global status quo on pharmaceutical patents:

Unable to convince pharmaceutical multinationals to reduce the price of antiretroviral drugs, and facing American threats of economic sanctions and punitive tariffs, the Brazilian Ministry of Health…ordered federal research laboratories to develop the necessary technology and granted “compulsory licenses” to produce the medications locally. Eventually, surprised by the laboratories’ success…major multinational pharmaceutical companies agreed to negotiate royalty rights. When, in 2001, the United States challenged Brazil’s compulsory licensing at the WTO, Brazil responded in the United Nations Human Rights Commission, pushing for a vote on AIDS treatment as a human right, which passed with a 52-0 vote, the U.S. being the only country to abstain.

In 1990, the World Bank estimated that in a decade Brazil would have 1,200,000 infections. In 2002, it had fewer than 600,000.

Hope lies with the “Why not?” people of the world, who keep searching for new and better ways. Of course, one need not live in a “Why not?” country to be a “Why not?” person. Nor need one be greatly creative to come up with a creative solution. Many a “Why not?” person has stumbled across a solution that has changed the world. (See the March 5 TWOG on “The Extraordinary Power of Ordinary Creativity.”)

© Henry Mintzberg 2015, Excerpted from Rebalancing Society…radical renewal beyond left, right, and center (Berrett-Koefler, 2015).