what you get here

This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links 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!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

nomad in central europe and central asia




It’s not easy to give up a powerful position in such a large organisation which was doing such interesting work – let alone to leave one’s country of birth. But that is what I effectively did one bright autumn day in 1990 – when I set sail from Kingston on Hull en route for Copenhagen and what was supposed to be a short spell with the Director of Public Health for the European division of the World Health Organisation. On the basis of my presentations of our urban strategy to their Healthy City network, she had invited me to help her identify the opportunities for preventive/public health work in the newly-liberated countries of East and Central Europe; and so began a series of visits to the Health Ministries and voluntary initiatives in each of these countries. The 6 weeks turned into 6 months – and basically set me on a new career as consultant. The EU was putting together its programme of technical assistance and I was one of the first consultants to the CzechoSlovak Republic – working with their new local government system.
When that work finished in late 1991, I returned to the Region – but only as an interim measure because, by then, I was clear that my time in Scotland was over.
Margaret Thatcher was killing local government[1]. I had left my academic base in 1985 under pressure from students understandably hostile to my absences and had therefore been a full-time regional politician for 5 years. At my age (mid 40s), I could not start a new career in Scotland – particularly holding such a high profile public position. Anxiety about my future had, in fact, led me to periods of depression and the breakdown of my marriage. I had, however, used these 5 years to network in Europe[2] – and it was now beginning to pay off. In particular a German colleague recommended me as Director – of all things – of the EC Energy Centre in Prague where I passed a very happy year in 1992. The hypocrisy and exploitation I saw in that position was, however, to lead me to write a very critical paper; send it to the European Parliament and resign from the position. But, on the basis of my CV, other assignments in Romania, Hungary and Slovakia quickly followed. But I was increasingly uneasy with the nature of the EC Technical Assistance work.

The blind leading the blind?
Nobody had ever lived through a triple transformation (Markets, nations, democracy) ever before. People had been writing profusely about the transition from capitalism to communism – but not the other way around. The collapse of communism was a great shock. Few – except the Poles and Hungarians[3] - were at all prepared for it. And understanding such systems change requires a vast array of different intellectual disciplines – and sub-disciplines – and who is trained to make sense of them all[4]? The apparently irreversible trend toward greater and greater specialisation of the social sciences places more power in the hands of technocrats[5] and disables politicians from serious involvement in the discourse of the international bodies whose staff therefore engage in the reconstruction of other country’s state systems with no effective challenge – from any source. Strange that these are the very people who preach about accountability and corruption!!!
Those of us who have got involved in these programmes of advising governments in these countries have a real moral challenge. After all, we are daring to advise these countries construct effective organisations – we are employed by organisations supposed to have the expertise in how to put systems together to ensure that appropriate intervention strategies emerge to deal with the organisational and social problems of these countries. We are supposed to have the knowledge and skills to help develop appropriate knowledge and skills in others!

But how many of us can give positive answers to the following 5 questions? -
- Do the organisations which pay us practice what they and we preach on the ground about good organisational principles?
- Does the knowledge and experience we have as individual consultants actually help us identify and implement interventions which fit the context in which we are working?
- Do we have the skills to make that happen?
- What are the bodies which employ consultants doing to explore such questions – and to deal with the deficiencies which I dare to suggest would be revealed?
- Do any of us have a clue about how to turn kleptocratic regimes into systems that recognise the meaning of public service?[6]

These were the questions I posed in a paper I drafted and presented to the 2007 NISPAcee Conference. You can find the paper in "key papers" on my website.

[1] By three strategies – legal limits on spending; transfer of functions to other sectors; and abolition of municipal bodies. She killed the Greater London Council in 1986; the English counties a bit later – and her successor John Major abolished the Scottish Regions in 1996.
[2] I was one of the British group on the Council of Europe – the Standing Conference for local and regional authorities; member of a IULA research group which produced a book on public participation in 1988; and member of the Ricardo Petrella ROME group on urban change
[3] who, with other countries admitted in 2004, had experienced these systems earlier in the 20th century!
[4] Elster and Offe were early in the field – but do not seem to have followed through
[5] JR Saul is one of the few who have tried to expose this – in his tour de force “Voltaire’s Bastards” (1992). And Harold Perkin’s "The Third revolution – professional elites in the modern world" (1996) is a more moderate argument about the self-seeking nature of professional classes. Why is it rarely get the chance to read books which are more than 5 years old?
[6] Anti-corruption strategies have, of course, become very fashionable in the international community – but seem to me a good example of a mechanism which serves the interests of donors (jobs) and beneficiary countries who have such strategies wished upon them. For the latter it gives the pretence of action and also fits with the traditional culture of rhetorical exhortation.

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