For some time now politicians have been flinging “road maps” at us. Not Planners mind, or Traffic Engineers, but Politicians. The most visible of these road maps has been in connection with the Palestinian Israeli conflict, but there are also other geopolitical “road maps” for removing military interventions, and there are many others dealing with issues as diverse as nutrition, education and health. In short any issue in need of some form of resolution is assigned a “road map” that will somehow describe how to solve the problem.
Quite where this semantic absurdity first sprang from I don’t know, and frankly I can’t be bothered to find out, but you can bet your bottom dollar it was some vocabularian challenged manager in USAID or DFID or some similar acronym, such as, yes, the UN! Its provenance will not really help as an explanation of its meaning – which is, of course, intentionally obscure, and which on reflection suggests phony management speak from the Harvard School of Business Talk.
Lets unpack this (hardened management speak) and work with me on this one (folksy management speak). Pardon the baby talk but you do have to drop into the vernacular to explain the bizarre! So, moving on - “Road Maps” then . . .
As a reminder a Road Map originated as a two dimensional depiction of a system of thoroughfares. It shows a grid of a variety of different interconnecting road types in relation to each other and to various points of interest, such as towns, lakes, beaches, war memorials, mountains and such like.
From this invaluable information a driver or navigator (conventionally the driver’s wife) can plan and execute a journey between points “A” and “B” and successfully arrive at their destination safely and in a frame of mind sufficiently stable to mutually commence divorce proceedings. The beauty of the “Road Map” is of course that once several “left turns” have been misconstrued as “right turns” – either because it was the wrong “left”, or because “left” was misheard as “right” – then alternative routes can be found through careful scrutiny of the aforesaid Road Map based upon the knowledge of ones actual position, which of course is rarely where you actually expect to be.
To digress ever so slightly my abiding childhood memories of road journeys were of my Mother having to turn the road map (which was bound in convenient book form) upside down in order to orientate herself with the road ahead. This of course meant that effective speed reading of place names and road numbers was a bit of an issue when travelling South (or East or West for that matter). More recently there have been occasions too numerous and embarrassing to recount where my Wife and I have got hopelessly lost because we have a road map rather than relying upon and following our instincts. Mind you I’m not so sure that our instincts are particularly reliable. Family journeys often degenerated into rows of such intensity that the daughters threatened us that they would rather get out and walk and leave us to get more helplessly lost on our own.
Latterly of course there are sat-nav devices which apparently (I've never succumbed) describe in real time the navigational mistakes you are making and direct you in an androgynous, pseudo mid-Atlantic accent towards unfamiliar, narrow, single lane cul-de-sacs in violent, unlit, gang infested down-town neighbourhoods.
Okay then so that’s a “Road Map” – a barely reliable diagram of lots of roads connecting lots of places together. It’s a sort of two dimensional tapestry that bears no relationship whatsoever to real life. I challenge you to look out of the window of your car at any point on a journey and be able to identify where you are on your road map. “Look at that lovely pink flowering tree over there; we are obviously here on the map”!
For some crazed reason the aforesaid politicians and their cohorts of political planners and think-tankers have created a euphemism for a plan. It might be a plan of action (a rarity), a plan of in-action (by the planners), a plan cloaked in secrecy (more often than not), or a plan that is actually so obscure that few except the planners can actually understand it.
The fact is that in order to achieve the aims of a plan there needs to be a process, and, I do accept, that a process may be defined as a “route” if you really want to analogise (and this is a word of such supreme ugliness that only an American spell checker would both recognise and accept without demur. Try it out and see!)
A route describes a process and can delineate that process in relation to various mile-stones (another wonderful road typology analogy!). If you want to be really clever or (heaven forefend) lyrical I am sure that there are poetic ways of describing the route in relation to the socio-political landscape in order to make the plan sexier or less unpalatable for those who might be most adversely affected by it.
But let’s unpack “Roads” as an entity.
Here again is the use of a comfortable familiar little euphemism that is used to wrap up something of far greater import, or complexity, or perhaps danger than the man in the street, or for that matter a reporter behind a lap-top keyboard can really comprehend. Wrapping it up in cheerful Christmas present paper will somehow make it all so much more a folksy, white picket fence solution.
Roads in their conventional form are an uneconomical and environmentally damaging vector for transporting goods and people. In many geo-economies they are a very poor alternative for distributing heavy goods between places of manufacture and places of distribution for consumption. For many people roads are riotous, dangerous, stinking, potholed causeways of people, animals and belching vehicles. For others they are strips of hard surfaces along which highly expensive machines are propelled at speeds fifty times faster than the average person can walk. Between these two extremes there are any number of types of thoroughfare, serving any number of types of neighbourhood or purpose. What is common to all of them however is the role they play in environmental degradation and national and international mortality and injury rates.
According to Wikipedia (the fount of all popular stats!) car crashes are the 6th most lethal activity in the developed world and the 11th most lethal activity worldwide. The source readily admits that the statistics quoted are outdated but the fact remains that roads per se are a major contributor to world-wide mortality rates. Stretching this line of investigation to almost snapping point (we are in the realms now of Mitchells Law), in 2004 it was estimated that worldwide 1.2 million people were killed (2.2% of all deaths) but on top of that 50 million more were injured in motor vehicle collisions. The global economic cost of traffic accidents was estimated then (2003) at $518 billion per year of which $100 billion occurred in developing countries.
So there you have it. In order to dress up some geo-political strategy, or some form of socio-political policy; the politico-planner invokes the phrase “road-map” to cloak an unpalatable or frankly arcane set of actions in a folksy framework; without any real thought of the implications of such.
So next time you hear some politician bleating about a “road map” for the withdrawal of troops from a country they shouldn’t have invaded in the first place, or read a press release from an international aid agency pontificating about an “education road map that is a multi-stakeholder document on education priorities” bear with them and give them the benefit of the doubt that they really don’t deserve. Ignore the fact that a “map” is not “route” or a pathway and try not to visualise the essentially chaotic nature of roads which are responsible for more worldwide deaths than many forms of cancer and are responsible for more avoidable costs than the annual GDP of most medium sized states.
You may of course want to have a quiet chuckle about the fact that this daft euphemism is actually nearer to the truth than most would want to admit – because the cause of the situation now in need of a “road map” was actually as chaotic, damaging and unavoidable as the euphemism now being employed as a description of the palliative.