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Mar 8, 2018
The Daily Star
The game needs your skin
Dima El Hassan| The Daily Star
Humanity is shaped by our propensity for risk-taking or risk aversion, but the one strategy that is certain to fail is not to take a risk. Had human beings not taken the risk to hunt, we would not have eaten meat and survived.
If Bill Gates had not dropped out from Harvard, we wouldn’t have had Microsoft to ease our lives. In this context, sciences, research, medicine, politics, social interaction, businesses and entrepreneurship are all based on our perception of doing what we do not know. However, we also encounter the issue of moral hazards in the sense that we are keen and willing to take more risks when we are insured against risks.
This is what the New York Times bestselling author of “The Black Swan,” Nassim Nicholas Taleb, averts us from in his newly released book “Skin in the Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life.” The book shows us how to perceive life with a precautious eye helping us to better understand the world, spot imbalances, succeed in life, influence others and contribute to equality, by applying the symmetry of skin in the game in every aspect of our daily life.
So what is skin in the game? It is a phrase mostly used in the investment world referring to a situation in which “high-ranking insiders” use their own money to buy stock in the company they are running.
To have “skin in the game” is thus to have incurred risk (monetary or other) by being involved in achieving a goal or being affected by the consequences.
Taleb in his great work “Skin in the game” reveals that the symmetry of skin in the game is a simple rule that is necessary for “fairness and justice” and so “never to trust anyone who doesn’t have skin in the game.”
The book reviewer Matthew Syed said in The Times, that the guiding principle Taleb gives in his new book is to never take advice from experts who have no risks at stake, and thus to listen to people according to “how much of their necks they are putting on the line.”
Nassim Taleb provokes our conventional knowledge about risks and winning and losing, by applying his theory on skin in the game on concepts like peace and war, religion, politics, social justice, finance, medicine and personal responsibility.
He confronts decision-makers, from those who provoke wars to those who make financial investments, to reach those who spread religious convictions, all equipped with moral hazards and thus carefree from the unseen consequences of their acts.
Indeed, I’ve experienced the concept of the “skin in the game” through my work in the field of development and by applying it accordingly we can somehow rationalize how development should be channeled, and by who, in order to be able to reach a state of earned development.
It was maybe hard to understand why and to detect the impediment that makes almost every development goal unachievable, every development achievement practically unsustainable and every development fund mostly impractical.
But now, it becomes clearer why those big institutions and international organizations, who set development agendas and goals, are not able to achieve their ultimate goal of moving the so-called “developing countries” to the level of advanced ones: they simply don’t have their skin in the game.
To be clearer, when you and your family are threatened of being killed, being doomed with poverty, being not able to get the basic needs to live and sometimes to survive, then you cannot truly understand what are the needs of those people whose skins are in the game.
The skin here can thus be poverty, hunger, health and the livelihood of the people in question; and the game is the development process that is imposed on them, making them believe it is for their own benefit.
To know about what development can do and how can it be fair and balanced, let’s first identify the risk(s) on its stakeholders.
First, the so-called beneficiaries have the highest risk since their state of living is on the line.
Second, the donors may have the risk of losing their money, but many donors give grants so that they have no actual monetary risk.
Third, the makers of development agendas, priorities and goals, are insured against all risks and I guess this is, according to the concept of “skin of the game,” what blinds them from rational balanced calculation of risks and thus impedes every achievement to be sustainable or reachable. The decision on priorities should hence begin from within.
That can explain the rise of small-sized local initiatives and ultimately entrepreneurship that tackles the need of developing societies, having by its relatively minimal act a greater impact than any intervention by international organizations. Hence, the right thing to do is to rather empower their capacities for a greater impact while being fair to all.
I think that the book is revolutionary impelling us to conceive a governance model whereby leaders and decision makers shared their skin in the game of developing our societies as it is becoming the sole way to justice.
Dima El Hassan is director of programs at the Hariri Foundation for Sustainable Human Development.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 28, 2018, on page 3.
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