what you get here

This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It generally uses books (old and new) and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours. So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Thursday, December 18, 2014

One of Bucharest's best-kept secrets

The Sala Radio is one of Bucharest’s best-kept secrets – with great acoustics and the recitals broadcast on the radio. Its Radio Chamber Orchestra kept us on our seats last night with first a Romanian composer (Toduţă)’s charming piece - violin Concerto No.1 for String Orchestra. Then JS Bach : Concerto no. 1 in A minor for Violin and Orchestra, BWV 1041 F – with virtuoso soloist CRISTINA ANGHELESCU; and then a rollicking Mendelssohn : Symphony No. IV in A major, op 90 – Italian. The young conductor - Mattei POP - cut a gangly but effective figure on the podium

Pensioners can get a 3 month season ticket for 35 euros – that’s about 1 euro a performance! Little wonder they are such afficandos! And one of Bucharest’s ancient trams (number 24) takes you right there (from Piate Viitoreii). 
About time Bucharest’s dreadful butcher mayor took time off from destroying the past and looked at the spanking new trams Sofia is adding to its fleet……

Romania's best classic station - Radio  Muzical - is playing here now

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Access to National Galleries

I’ve been a bit sniffy in the past about Sofia’s National Gallery of Art – so let me take my hat off to them for their display of digital facilities. I was a bit annoyed on Thursday to be denied access to an exhibition of Nouveau Art’s Nikola Rainov (for reasons of some private party) but was placated by being given the opportunity to use a smart phone to access some 200 watercolours of the past century which have not so far been available to the public – along with useful information about the painters.
This is part of a wider project of gradual digitization of the entire archive of the museum in 2015.

I managed to see the Rainov exhibition the following day – you don’t often see his work. And it was accompanied by a superb small catalogue – sadly almost entirely monolingual.
Running in a neighbouring room, was another delightful small exhibition of urban life here a hundred years ago – with a charming video of an elderly lady displaying various artefacts from the period.

And my ever-ready camera was able to catch this shot of a very sharply-dressed elderly visitor to the gallery…..

Lack of translation is one of two features which used to distinguish the National Gallery from the municipal one across the road – whose catalogues have been bilingual for quite some years. The second feature is pricing – the national Gallery used to charge 5 euros (now 3 – with pensioners half price). The municipal gallery was free – until last year when a nominal charge was introduced (with pensioners free). 

It reminded me of one of my political colleagues in the 1970s Janey Buchan (who became an MEP in the 1979), She was a tireless advocate in the 60s of the rights of ordinary people (before the days of the Consumer Association) and was particularly strong on the importance of free entry to museums and art galleries, Thatcher put pressure on to introduce charges (although the British Museum held out) but entry was made free again in 2001 – with significant subsequent increases in visitors.

And I was glad to see that the Neil Mc Gregor, the renowned Director of the British Museum had declined an invitation to direct New York’s Metropolitan Museum because it charged an entry fee.   

The attitude of Sofia City Gallery is yet another proof of the superiority of municipal to central government

Wednesday, December 10, 2014


I enjoy writing which focuses on objects – WG Sebald’s use in his novels of old photos; Edmund de Waal’s focus in a family history on amber miniatures; Neil McGregor’s various histories built on various cultural artefacts eg Germany – the memories of a nation – whose entire podacst can be heard here. It’s good also to see some of the objects – on an excellent blogsite

For me, this particular approach offers a real window into how people have lived their lives in the past. My little book on Bulgarian Realist painters (subtitled “How to get to know the Bulgarians through their paintings”) lists 140 painters from the early part of the 20th century and tries, in a few lines, to capture their significance.
This wasn’t easy – I first have to put the artist’s name in Cyrillic script and then copy and paste on Bulgarian google – then google translate what seem to be promising entries. Then there is the problem that these give the barest facts (except long lists of exhibitions and honours which add not a jot to our understanding of the person!) And it goes without saying that most art “criticism” is gobbledygook…

What I need is a sense of the character – how they lived their lives…..the friends they had. I am, for example, very fond of the Gregor Naidenov’s aquarelles of café life in Sofia in the 1930-1950s – but, so far, have been unable to find out anything about the man. And I was impressed with a book on Boris Denev which included lovely black and white photographs of him with friends and in various studios and exhibitions….also a recent book on a classic Bulgarian photographer, Stoyan Sertev which not only reproduced many of the old photographs (including lovely ones of Nicola Tanev) but included a CD of the quartet he led.

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about the 700 page book I had discovered here based on Ruhmen Manov’s personal collections of old Bulgarian photos and cultural artefacts A Fairy Tale about Bulgaria which gives a wonderful sense of the history of the country…….

Earlier in the year my E-book Mapping Romania – notes on an unfinished journey used 16 different ways to try to get a handle on the country - namely travel guides; travelogues – which can be divided into the serious or the (sadly increasing number of) tongue-in-cheek type; histories - which deal with what are considered to be the key events in the shaping of a nation; novels; social and cultural histories (including jokes) – which give insights into how ordinary people lived their lives; memoirs and diaries – dealing with those who were more “distinguished”; blogs; magazines; television, films and plays; photographs; paintings and caricatures; buildings; conversations and encounters; friendships; music; food and wine

It’s not easy to find books which do justice to countries – travel books do their best but are somewhat one dimensional. More serious books suffer from being written from one particular academic discipline - be it history, economics, politics. Anthropology seems to offer more eg this one I unearthed - The anthropology of Ireland. And this series on the cultural history of cities is quite excellent.

So perhaps it’s about time that someone gave Bulgaria/Sofia a cultural treatment. Rumen’s book (which I bought at a discount yesterday – 75 euros) is a useful start – linked to the book on Stoyan Sertev; to Sofia Enigma and Stigma which contains eveocative black and white photos of old, crumbling buildings in Sofia; and  to the marvellous 600 page Sofia’s Mount Athos which is a superb study (complete with photos and GPS coordinates) of the 46 monasteries which cluster around Sofia  - many since the 14th century. And Elisabeth Kostova’s The Historian.

Despite the continuing political silences about the 42 years Bulgaria spent under communism, the 20th century can still be felt in Sofia - only this week I bought a (copy of) a little 1947 litho scene  of the part of Vasil Levsky Street which has the University at the end, complete with one car and a horse and cart – part of a series dictator Georgi Dmitrov apparently commissioned of artists then. That was the same day I came across a lovely 1935 landscape by Boris Denev – banned by the communist regime from paintings after 1944 – which had been lying in a house for several decades. It still has the typical white frame used in the 1940/1950s.

And one of my prize possessions is a 1942 journal on every page of which are several pencilled figures - clearly the work of Ilyia Beshkov, the famous caricaturist. 

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Desperately seeking...Satire

I’ve talked before about the power of satire. Fortuitously, this morning, I found a good example of its use. Contrast today’s report from the OECD about the “wealth gap” and the failure of the “trickle-down” theory of change with this satirical diatribe on the Daily Show  (which I found as a link on the discussion thread)
Until now, I wasn’t a fan of John Oliver – he just didn’t seem to be able to hold a candle to Jon Stewart on the show but what I’ve seen in the clips I’ve viewed so far today has changed my mind. The combination of biting comment with irreverent (and irrelevant) photoshots and sound bites is a powerful mix – as you will see in his treatment of the issue of “net neutrality” which he effectively parses and deconstructs, in Orwellian fashion, as actually “f***in corporate takeover”  

Satire has long been a powerful weapon against the pretensions of power – Voltaire’s Candide and Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels are well-known literary examples. Ralph Steadman and Gerard Scarfe are modern caricaturists in the tradition of Hogarth; and the Liverpool poets (Roger McGough, Adrian Henry) sustained the protestors of the 1960s. British people are not so familiar with the Bert Brecht’s City poems or the savage anti-bourgeois paintings of Georg Grosz in the 1920s and 1930s.

A powerful satirical essay “Democracy, Bernard? It must be stopped!” was penned by the author of the Yes Minister TV series and exposes the emptiness behind the rhetoric about democracy and government. It is available only on my website at -
In 1987 Management Professor Rosabeth Kanter produced “Ten Rules for Stifling Initiative” which I have often used to great effect in Central Asian training sessions.

1999 saw the appearance of The Lugano Report; on preserving capitalism in the twenty-first Century which purported to be a leaked report from shady big business but was in fact written by Susan George.
Management guru Russell Ackoff’s great collection of tongue-in-cheek laws of management – Management F-Laws – how organisations really work ( 2007)  As the blurb put it –“They're truths about organizations that we might wish to deny or ignore - simple and more reliable guides to managers' everyday behaviour than the complex truths proposed by scientists, economists and philosophers”.  An added bonus is that British author, Sally Bibb, was asked to respond in the light of current organizational thinking. Hers is a voice from another generation, another gender and another continent. On every lefthand page is printed Ackoff and Addison's f-Law with their commentary. Opposite, you'll find Sally Bibb's reply. A short version (13 Sins of management). A typical rule is – “The more important the problem a manager asks consultants for help on, the less useful and more costly their solutions are likely to be”.

Robert Greene’s 48 Laws of Power may not be satire but it is a very salutary counter to the thousands of unctuous managment  texts which attribute benign motives to senior management. 

A spoof on the British Constitution produced a few years ago is another good example of the power of satire. A Guardian article just a couple of days ago drew our attention to the apparent decline in Britain of the genre and linked to an older piece in the LRB

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Intellectual autobiographies

We all search for meaning in our lives – which is why I find it puzzling that intellectual biographies and histories seem so rare….. I mentioned, the other day, the recently published Worldly Philosopher – the odyssey of Albert O Hirschmann
Another book of that genre I enjoy dipping into is Comparative European Politics – the story of a Profession – which presents a portrait of a profession, through intellectual (auto)biographies of the older generation of leading scholars in the field such as Hans Daalder, Juan Lintz, Richard Rose, Giovanni Sartori and Vincent Wright. The book gives a wonderful picture of intellectual endeavour in the post-war period showing how particular experiences turned them towards the study of politics when it was still a quiet field.
My uncle – Wilfrid Harrison - was actually one of the first post-war UK Professors of Politics which may partly explain the turn my life took – with the fateful decision in 1962 to switch at University from modern languages to politics and economics!

“The Story of a Profession” describes the scholarly infrastructure for international research which they developed in the post-war period and offers stories of academic careers, of achievements and of doubts, of lessons learned or imparted.

But patient surfing on the internet on the last 24 hours has unearthed quite a treasure trove – starting with a great interview with political anthropology Professor Cris Shore  whose work (on the EC) I had noticed some weeks back and who turns out to be the son of a famous Labour Minister (in the 1960s Wilson Government)
That, in turn, led me to these reflections of leading Public Admin Professor RAW Rhodes – whom I had come across in the 1970s as he was starting his academic career – and to an amazing number of articles and books easily available in which he dissects and challenges the British political tradition. One review puts it as follows
Rhodes’s project is to offer an account of what he and Bevir call the ‘stateless state’. This is an image of the state that focuses on the agents of the state – the civil servants, politicians and special advisors – rather than its institutional structure. The state for Rhodes is effectively the sum of their actions. But they do not have free reign: their agency is situated in various webs of relations and beliefs, which are themselves shaped and influenced by particular longstanding narratives and traditions.
Rhodes identifies three particular narratives which are highly influential: the Westminster narrative, which are the longstanding codes of conduct around political neutrality and service to the minister which govern the behaviour of civil servants;
the managerial narrative, which has become increasingly prominent in the UK since the 1960s and in which the practices of managing, reputedly based on the private sector, according to identifiable targets and with appropriate sanctions shape conduct in the departments;
and the governance narrative, in which coordination is achieved through the internal and external organisation of networks across the state and often into civil society as well.
These narratives are not necessarily complementary and often competing. The image that is produced is one of various agents reproducing the state through their constant negotiation between these received traditions and the problems and dilemmas that confront them, rather than the more familiar image of the state as powerful, hierarchical and ossified institutions wielding structural power
On my surfing I also came across a charming tribute to another comparative political scientist; and also this autobiographical essay by the neglected development economist Andre Gunder Frank  

Friday, December 5, 2014

Why are the reflective consultants hiding?

I referred in the last post to the tens (if not hundreds) of billions of euros spent in recent decades by international bodies on what we might call the “development industry”. That translates into thousands (if not hundreds of…) individuals like myself who transit the world’s air terminals and hotels working on projects designed to build organisational capacity in countries receiving technical assistance.
For almost as long as I remember, I’ve written reflections on my endeavours and published them
In this venture, I seem almost to be unique….Robert Chambers – a much more exalted figure than I could ever claim to be – is someone who, from his institutional base, has been able to combine practical work with theoretical reflections in the manner I aspire to. Albert Hirschmann is perhaps the real doyen of the genre. 

This morning I was delighted to encounter a new blogsite with the wonderful name Aidnography with a post – Where are the consultants hiding?which is the first I’ve seen to deal with this deficiency
Every so often I receive a short email from a senior development consultant – women and men with probably 15, often 20 or more years of paid professional employment inside the ‘aid industry’ – they basically started before it was even called an ‘industry’!  The messages are usually short, sometimes straight from ‘the field’ (i.e. really uncomfortable, dangerous and complex locations) and often along the lines of ‘little do you/that researcher/this journalist really know about organization X or the crisis in region Y’. 
But with very few exceptions, these voices rarely make into the development blogosphere, let alone find their way into virtual, classroom or policy discussions. The proverbial ‘I will write a book about my time in the industry once I have retired’ approach only works for very few and even if they manage to write that book, the distance of a few years between what happened in, say, Rwanda and the publication creates a safer, but often also less relevant story. 
Why are senior consultants ‘hiding’? There are some more obvious reasons why senior consultants are often not very visible in public debates:·         They tend to be very busy: they have carved out their niche and are on the go to the next assignment in ‘their’ country, region or area of expertise
·         They tend to be older and may not have been socialized in the digital culture of sharing, being online and maintaining a digital presence or even a brand
·         They actually have something to lose if public critique leads to fewer assignments for a favourite organization or they are perceived as ‘difficult’ (many freelance senior consultants have quasi-employment status with some of the largest bi- and multilateral organizations)
·         They know development is a job; after decades of work, every profession, job or calling has been met with plenty of reality checks; even if you are not cynical or burned-out it is difficult to have similar discussion regularly or get excited when the latest ‘participatory bottom-up community design project’ turns out to be just like any other project with a budget, log-frame and quarterly reports
·         They do not really like the academic reflection business and prefer to get an assignment ‘done’ rather than reflecting on an industry that may not be responsive to critique anyway (see previous point)
On the other hand, their detailed and nuanced insights would be beneficial in many discussions on why certain organizations do what they are doing, who was resisting an idea and how difficult and political consensus building really is; they could also shed light on many realities in the field, the grey areas, the trade-offs, the secrets of the industry of how to get positive change going and how to avoid bureaucratic pitfalls etc. Or how they maintain marriages, families, well-being and gruesome travel schedules. 
How do we get access to senior consultants and get them to share their wisdom, stories and experiences (if they want to…)? Traditional formats, like inviting them to (academic) conferences and workshops, usually fail or are limited to the context of one event.  The IRIS Humanitarian Affairs Think Tank is an interesting approach that connects researchers and humanitarian practitioners in an academic framework with support from SaveThe Children. And there are probably similar projects that I am not aware of and that you are most welcome to share with me so I can add it to this post.  So what other formats can we think of? Writing retreats that aim at producing a publication through a book sprint rather than going through traditional publishing channels?  Or do we need more traditional, multi-sited research that works along those busy schedules and may include interviews in unusual locations, e.g. airport lounges, R&R hotels or organizational debriefings?
At this point in time, I am thinking out loud really and I am grateful for comments, suggestions and ideas!

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The Missionary Position

Getting to Denmark” seemed an appropriate title for the collection of musings I’m trying to edit about the challenges which technocrats and academics funded by international bodies have wrestled with over the past 2 decades in ex-communist countries – particularly those of us working to try to build the capacity of state bodies there – whether central or local. 
Several billions of euros have been spent on such efforts (not including the hundreds of millions spent in the last decade by Structural Funds in these countries which have employed local rather than international staff)
The musings are a small selection of blogposts I’ve done over the past 5 years - which build on two long papers I produced a few years ago -
- “administrative reform with Chinese and European characters” (2010)  - whose last section  is a summary of the sort of lessons I felt I had learned about public administration reform in Western Europe 
- “The Long Game – not the logframe” (2011) was a caustic paper I presented to the 2011 NISPAcee Conference ( building on an earlier paper to the 2007 Conference) in which I took apart the superficiality of the assumptions EC bureaucrats seemed to be making about the prospects of its Technical Assistance programmes  making any sort of dent in what I called (variously) the kleptocracy  or “impervious regimes” of most ex-communist countries.  

But the adrenalin released by the 50 lengths I try to swim regularly in the Rodina Hotel here made me realise today that “The Missionary Position” is a better title – not only in the sense of potentially getting more hits but of its hitting the target better…… 
After all, what have most of us “Westerners” in ex-communist countries been doing these past 25 years (however little we may have recognised it) – if not “proselytising” (in almost evangelical fashion)  for better systems of what the jargon has (significantly also since 1989) taken to calling better “governance”???

I have always had a problem with this term - which seemed to cover broadly the same issues as the discipline I had known as “public administration” – although I grant you that “governance” has given more emphasis to anti- corruption, coordination, transparency and pluralism.
Volumes have been written about the change of terms – and its significance (one of the best is Whatever Happened to Public Administration? (2004)

In 2007 I did actually use the title “Missionaries, Mercenaries or Witch-Doctors?” for a paper I presented to the Annual NISPAcee Conference (in Slovenia) but, until now, I hadn’t made the connection between my activities since 1990 and the wider process of evangelism – let alone “colonisation”.  Only today did I read an article which used an anthropological approach to interpret the sort of people who go on “missions” to “developing” countries

Most “experts” are trapped in their particular world (geographical and/or intellectual) – be it of “political science”, “sociology”, “economics”, “management”, “public administration”, “europeanisation” or “development”.
Each has its own distinctive networks of socialisation, approval and punishment. Those of us who prowl the edges of these disciplines run the risks all renegades do – of neglect, ridicule, calumny, ostracisation ….except that we were never there in the first place to be ostracised!