Making Hay…or clutching at straws

This year’s Hay Festival took place online, rather than in its normal home in the Welsh border town. The literary festival provided a platform for a wide ranging group of authors of different backgrounds. Many of their contributions had implications for the UN’s Global Goals and helped demonstrate their inter-connectedness.


The adaptability of the festival setting provided evidence to support Tim Harford’s contention that the Covid pandemic could well be a shock to the system that will spawn plenty of innovation in both products and processes. Innovation was also central to Peter Lacy’s vision of a more circular economy, which reduces material inputs and waste, protects nature, increases productivity and provides business opportunities. The lessons of the pandemic may well have a significant impact on many supply chains as they become less ‘just in time’ and more ‘just in case’.

Historian William Dalrymple used the example of the East India Company to demonstrate the positive and negative impact of innovation (from weapons and military strategy to corporate structures and financial systems) on development and the early stages of modern globalisation. The story of the EIC provides evidence of the unsustainable nature of processes that are essentially extractive, rather than inclusive, along with the dangers of the capture of governments by powerful vested interests.

Despite some of the lessons of history, Rutger Bregman’s new book ‘Humankind’ is based on the premise that deep down human beings are basically decent and are hard wired by evolution to cooperate. Along with evidence from numerous academic sources to support this, he cites the experience of six Tongan boys shipwrecked for fifteen months on a Pacific island in a real life ‘Lord of the Flies’ with a very different outcome. He remains a supporter of measures such as a universal basic income to provide security and to allow people to realise their full potential.

Nobel prize winning economist Esther Duflo reflected on the connections between inequality, poverty and health. She emphasised the importance of using well designed trials to understanding what policies work best, to allow budgets to be well targeted, lever other resources and generate outcomes that wouldn’t otherwise have happened, or would have been slower or to a lower quality. She has concerns that a universal basic income may not be sufficiently well targeted, but supports a universal ultra-basic income to reduce poverty.

Statistician David Spiegelhalter emphasised the importance of collaboration in sharing intelligence to better understand the virus, reduce uncertainty and carry out well informed risk analysis to support public policy and individual responses to the pandemic. He also warned about the selective use of statistics and how they are framed. He advises to always ask why a particular number is being used, and in what context. For example, is a small number being made to look bigger, or a large number smaller?

Professor of Global Public Health Devi Sridhar also highlighted the importance of collaboration at this time, particularly between scientists, governments and companies to develop vaccines and cures as quickly as possible and make them widely available at low cost. The scale and geographical reach of the pandemic makes it essential that the response to it isn’t framed as a zero-sum game between countries.

For Paul Krugman the global dimension of the pandemic was clear evidence of the need for effective multi-national institutions to co-ordinate action between states to promote health and development and reduce the risk of inefficient competition between states, free riders and protectionism.

Social justice which balances the freedom of the individual with the common good requires effective institutions at all levels of government. According to AC Grayling ‘The Good State’ needs a genuinely representative democracy, which gives everyone a voice and doesn’t allow itself to be captured by powerful interests. He identifies a written constitution, proportional representation, clear separation of functions and a voting age of 16 as key components of such a democracy.

This is just a flavour of what took place at this year’s festival and its relationship to the achievement of the UN SDGs. For those interested in exploring further, all the contributions are available on the Hay Player.

Author: scotinsight

The Scottish Universities Insight Institute supports programmes of knowledge exchange which address and provide insight on substantial issues that face Scotland and the wider world. Our programmes break down disciplinary and organisational barriers in bringing together academics from different backgrounds, policymakers and practitioners to mobilise existing knowledge in fresh ways through sustained and collaborative focus on a shared issue. Our member universities are: Aberdeen, Dundee, Heriot Watt, St Andrews, Strathclyde, and Glasgow School of Art.

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