25-05-2024
8 minutes

Time to Break Free from the Periphery!

In recent days, the Ministry of Funds and Regional Policy has almost simultaneously announced the start of consultations on the National Development Concept until 2050 (KRK) and the initiation of work on a medium-term socio-economic development strategy until 2035. The KRK is inherently a visionary document, outlining what may happen globally and where we, as a society, would like to see ourselves in 25 years. Of course, over such a long time horizon, one can only speak of possible directions, which is exactly the case with the KRK, presenting four scenarios. The medium-term strategy, however, is somewhat different. Its shorter time frame inherently requires it to be more concrete and operationalizable.

In the context of both strategic documents, I would like to address a key issue that seems crucial to me today. It relates to a fundamental choice that I believe we face, which is: Continuation of the Golden Age or Decline.

 

The Key Challenge: Peripherality

If we were to summarize all the challenges facing Poland into one, it would be breaking free from peripherality. Peripheral economies is a term used in the world-systems theory initiated by I. Wallerstein. It refers to countries and regions on the fringes of the so-called core (or center) economies, the most developed and dominant ones in the world. Peripheral economies are generally characterized by socio-political instability, high levels of corruption, weak institutional solutions, low levels of innovation and the resulting inability to create modern technologies (leading to dependence in this regard on foreign countries), underdeveloped infrastructure, limited capital resources, an industrial structure oriented towards relatively low-level products/processes, a high share of agriculture in production/employment, and labor migration.

Of course, it is important to remember that peripherality has many faces, and for most African countries, we are probably the embodiment of core countries. However, since we are situated in Europe as part of the Western world, compared to neighboring countries, we still exhibit many characteristics of a peripheral country. This is particularly evident in:

  • The position of our industrial producers in global value chains,
  • Our role as a kind of “service provider” for Western corporations (transport services, business service centers, etc.),
  • The fact of “nameless development” – the inability to create our own brands and innovations,
  • Institutional mimicry (we copy rather than create our own solutions),
  • Technological dependence.

As a result, the added value per employee is still several dozen percent lower than in countries considered leading (Fig. 1).

 

What Is Needed to Break Free from the Periphery

It is, of course, impossible to leap from being a relatively underdeveloped country, as we were in the early 1990s, directly into the “core.” Therefore, it is worth appreciating what we have achieved over the past 30 years. One could say that we have become “advanced periphery.” Our current position allows us to consider aspiring, after a period of transformation, to take on the challenge of joining the core—that relatively small and quite hermetic group (which hasn’t seen much reshuffling in the last century) of the most advanced economies. These are the economies that are creators of new solutions and are capable of setting global trends.

It must be said upfront that this is a significant and difficult challenge. While achieving our current level of development is not that rare in the world, the opportunity to join the ranks of global leaders has opened up—and been seized—by only a few. In recent decades, these have mainly been the countries of Southeast Asia (South Korea, Taiwan, some regions of China).

In this context, the question arises: why is it so difficult? Breaking through from the periphery to the core of the global economic system requires overcoming numerous structural, economic, social, and institutional barriers. To leap into the core, peripheral countries must, in a sense, “anticipate trends,” for example, by investing in infrastructure and education that will ensure success not in the current but in a desired model. An additional challenge is the global environment, where unfavorable trends can hinder the advancement process. There is also a kind of paradox here: global stability can be disadvantageous as it reinforces the positions of leaders, allowing them to entrench themselves. This is different in times of breakthroughs, including technological ones, where a kind of leap can be made. These are times of relatively rapid advancements but also of downfalls.

Anticipatory State

As can be easily inferred from what I wrote above, the fundamental condition for success and advancement to the highest league is that the state acts in an ANTICIPATORY manner (anticipates and creates trends), rather than reactively (responds to what others have created). This, in my opinion, is a significant issue in our country.

For the state to act in an anticipatory manner, declarations alone are not enough; it requires the creation of an entire system of “thinking and designing the future.” A good example of this is Finland (Fig. 2), where the future is considered by everyone, from the parliament, through research institutes and universities, to local governments. Here, there is little thinking about the future; we mainly “put out fires” resulting from being “surprised again” (because even if we knew something might happen, we took no mitigating actions—see Russia’s aggressive stance and our defense spending, which didn’t budge after the first conflict in Ukraine broke out).

In Finland, the focus on the future allows for the shaping of appropriate public policies, particularly in key areas such as:

  • Education: The Finnish education system is designed to provide equal access to high-quality education for all children, regardless of their social background. Teachers are well-paid and enjoy high social prestige. Their training and professional development are a priority, which translates into the quality of teaching. Finnish schools promote critical thinking, creativity, and collaboration, rather than focusing solely on tests and exams.
  • Innovation: Finland has an effective system for supporting the research and development sector, which promotes innovation and economic growth. Finland was also one of the first countries to introduce broadband internet as a civil right, facilitating access to information and public services.
  • Ecology and Sustainable Development: Investments in renewable energy mean that the share of fossil fuels in electricity generation is negligible. Effective waste segregation and recycling systems contribute to the efficient functioning of a circular economy. Meanwhile, extensive protected areas and biodiversity conservation programs are a clear expression of thinking about the future of the planet.
  • Security: I won’t elaborate on this as it was recently well described in the interview article “We Will Be Ready.

Where Is the Source of Our Problem?

At first glance, it might seem that we also have public policies in all the mentioned, as well as other important areas. However, the problem lies in their orientation: in Finland, these policies function with the aim of creating the future, while in Poland they are often there “just to be” (because, for example, the EU requires them from us).

This brings us to what I believe is the crucial issue: WHAT WE HAVE IN OUR HEADS and what the Finns have in theirs. We do not differ in abilities and skills, but we do differ significantly in MENTALITY AND BROADLY UNDERSTOOD CULTURE. And here lies the key, in my opinion.

I recently wrote about our mentality in “Do We Have the Potential to Become a European Leader?“. In contrast, Finnish culture is based on a high level of social trust, both between citizens and towards state institutions. Transparency in public administration, easy access to information, and strong anti-corruption mechanisms build trust in the state and its policies. This trust is crucial for the effective implementation of public policies, social cooperation, and building consensus. As a result, in Finland, political parties, trade unions, employer organizations, and other social groups collaborate towards COMMON, FUTURE-ORIENTED GOALS.

Social dialogue and compromise are key elements of the Finnish model, allowing for political stability and continuity in the implementation of long-term policies. An inclusive approach is also a hallmark of Finnish culture—no one (unless they choose to) should be left alone, whether it be the elderly, the unemployed, or others in need. This creates a solid foundation for social stability.

Our mentality and culture make us focus on the past instead of the future. We prefer tribalism (the interests of the party are more important than the country) over community as a whole. Inferiority complexes, pettiness, and an inability to accept feedback prevent us from building deeper levels of trust.

This Is the Time

There is no denying that the challenge is enormous. We lack many of the cultural attributes and solutions needed to join the “core.” However, this should not discourage us. Looking at the past 30 years, it is clear how much can be changed in a relatively short time. Especially since “time has accelerated,” and changes will occur much faster both globally and in our country. However, the direction of these changes is crucial.

To achieve success, we must stop focusing solely on hard parameters such as productivity, schooling, GDP structure, etc. We need to recognize the necessity for CULTURAL CHANGES. And then make that change. The only way to do this is to choose the right LEADERS, people who will themselves be models of NEW WAYS OF THINKING AND ACTING.

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