Opinion: Short-termists miss the bigger picture

Looking back over the year just past is a fashionable media obsession at this time of year. One article I had read early in 2004 in the Economist haunted me as I watched the devastation caused by the tsunami in Asia. It had warned of such events in this age of climate change and advocated that the early warning systems in place in the Pacific since 1965 also be provided for the poor nations around the Indian Ocean.

No one took any notice and as I write the death toll there is exceeding 120,000. The system wouldn't have saved them all, but it would have given some of them up to two hours' warning of the arrival of the huge waves, and that would have been enough for many to escape inland. Now the wealthy nations of the world are gearing up to spend billions on reconstruction. A chunk of that vast bill might have been saved if we had previously coughed up the few millions needed for the early warning system.

Short-termism is a blight on our world. It seems to go hand-in-hand with modern consumer-driven capitalism. Do the minimum today and beggar tomorrow. We all prefer to spend than to save, but in the past you could see the folly of it. No longer.

In prisons, to quote an example closer to home, millions are spent on extending the places for inmates, but very little on the question of why so many youngsters end up in jail. That would need expensive and unrewarding work with the kids excluded from schools, those who leave at 16 illiterate and with no hope for the future. The government's own Social Exclusion Unit has put the cost to society of this group of alienated youth at £11bn, yet we spend peanuts on helping them.

What sort of madness is this? If you point it out, those in authority blame it on the system. No-one wants to risk electoral unpopularity by proposing short-term pain to taxpayers to achieve a long-term social gain. Perhaps it is asking too much of politicians and civil servants, but it should not be too much for the third sector. It is why we are here: to be prophetic, to think the unthinkable.

We can feel impotent in the face of a disaster like the tsunami waves that swept across the Indian Ocean and wreaked such havoc. But I propose that we can learn from it a lesson about the folly of short-termism and make 2005 the year when we campaign for policies that take into account the needs of not just 2006, but of 2016 and 2026 as well.

Peter Stanford is a writer and broadcaster and sits on various trustee boards

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