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!

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

World Social Forum

Every now and then I bemoan the lack of journals giving an adequate coverage of European life and policies. Any amount of stuff on Europe as a concept or European Union policies – but virtually nothing which gives us a comparative sense of national policies (in those fields still within the control of member states). Today I came across a French website - Books and Ideas - which does at least seem to offer, in the English language, some non-Anglo-Saxon perspectives.
And one of its contributions offered an answer to something which had been puzzling me since last summer when I wrote an article for a special issue of a Romanian journal which was devoted to the world a decade after 09/11. My piece was entitled "The Dog that didn’t Bark” and focussed on the general failure of radicals to capitalise on the global crisis – and, more specifically, the apparent failure of the World Social Forum which had been so active until 2005. The Forum is apparently right now holding another of its huge meetings - in Brazil (significant that I get the detail only from a German media source) - and Geoffrey Pleyers suggests two things in his article in BooksandIdeas - first that the Forum has been a victim of its own success (with many politicians now using their rhetoric); and, second, that the movement has now fragmented around three distinct trends -
1. A Focus on the Local Level
Rather then getting involved in a global movement and international forums, a wide “cultural trend” of the alter-globalization movement considers that social change may only occur by implementing participatory, convivial and sustainable values in daily practices, personal life and local spaces. In many Italian social centres, critical consumption and local movements have often taken the space previously occupied by the alter-globalization movement. Local “collective purchase groups” have grown and multiplied in Western Europe and North America. Most of them gather a dozen activists who organize collective purchases from local and often organic food producers. Their goal is to make quality food affordable, to bring an alternative to the “anonymous supermarket” and to promote local social relations. The movement for a “convivial degrowth” belongs to a similar tendency and aims to implement a lifestyle that is less of a strain on natural resources and reduces waste.


2. Citizens’ and Experts’ Advocacy Networks
Rather than massive assemblies and demonstrations, another component of the movement believes that concrete outcomes may be achieve through efficient single-issue networks able to develop coherent arguments and efficient advocacy. Issues like food sovereignty, Third World debt and financial transactions are considered both as specific targets and as an introduction to broader questions. Through the protection of water, activists raise for instance the issue of global public goods, oppose global corporations and promote the idea of “the long-term efficiency of the public sector” (“Water network assembly”, European Social Forum 2008). After several years of intense exchanges among citizens and experts focusing on the same issue, the quality of the arguments has considerably increased. In recent years, they have become the core of social forums’ dynamic. Although they get little media attention, these networks have proved efficient in many cases. During the fall of 2008, the European Water Network contributed to the decision by the City of Paris to re-municipalize its water distribution, which had been managed previously by private corporations. Debt cancellation arguments have been adopted by Ecuadorian political commissions, and some alter-globalization experts have joined national delegations in major international meetings, including the 2008 WTO negotiations in Geneva.

3. Supporting Progressive Regimes
A third component of the movement believes that a broad social change will occur through progressive public policies implemented by state leaders and institutions. Alter-globalization activists have struggled to strengthen state agency in social, environmental and economic matters. Now that state intervention has regained legitimacy, this more “political” component of the movement believes that time has come to join progressive political leaders’ efforts. It has notably been the case around President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela as well as President Evo Morales in Bolivia. New regional projects and institutions have been launched on this basis, like the “Bank of the South” that has adopted the main tasks of the IMF in the region. For historical reasons and their political cultures, Latin American and Indian activists are used to proximity with political parties and leaders.
And a German journal gives a frightening insight into the Greek situation -
The Greek economy is not productive enough to generate growth. Aside from olive oil, textiles and a few chemicals, there are hardly any Greek products suitable for export. On the contrary, Greece is dependent on food imports to feed its population.
"Greece has been living beyond its means for years," an unpublished study by the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW) concludes. "The consumption of goods has exceeded economic output by far."
Especially devastating is the assessment that the DIW experts make about the condition of an industry that is generally seen as a potential engine for growth: tourism. According to the DIW study, the Greek tourism industry concentrates on the summer months, with almost nothing happening throughout the rest of the year. There is almost no tourism in the cities, which translates into low overall capacity utilization and high costs for hotel operators. By contrast, capacity utilization in the hotel sector is much more uniform in other Mediterranean countries.
According to the study, a key cause of the problem is the relatively poor price/performance ratio. In Mediterranean tourism, Greece has to compete with non-euro countries like Croatia, Tunisia, Morocco, Bulgaria and Turkey, which can offer their services at significantly lower prices. The per-hour wage in the hospitality industry was recently measured at €11.39 in Greece, as compared with only €8.49 in Portugal, €4 in Turkey and as little as €1.55 in Bulgaria. The study arrives at grim conclusions, noting that the drastic austerity programs will not only remain ineffective, but will also stigmatize the country as "Europe's problem child" for a long time to come.
The painting is a....Turner, of course!

Monday, January 30, 2012

Cohesion Policy - part IV

The last few posts have been about the apparent lack of public knowledge (including mine - let alone discussion) about an issue which has been absorbing the energies of thousands of specialists throughout Europe in the last 2-3 years – namely the future shape and management of the huge amounts of money which Europe disburses to Regions and which take up the energies and time of so many officials in countries such as Bulgaria and Romania – with so much acrimony (confusion, corruption and penalties) and so few apparent results.
My concerns are not populist – since I have always accepted the existence of „market failure” and the case for government intervention and spending programmes.
My recent experience in the field in Bulgaria raises the following sorts of questions -
• What was actually achieved in the period since 2007 by the 50 billion a year spent on what most of us know as EC Structural Funds (although technically it comes from 6-7 differently-named programmes)?
• Where is the country by country analysis?
• Can one programme do justice to the needs of 27 countries – even granted its management is in the hands of each country?
• Particularly a programme of which amost half is in new member states (still in transit from centralised political cultures) and which yet makes no mention of the specifics of these countries?
• Has it not been a mistake to run the programme as a regional development one when the needs are more institutional and developmental?
• In what precise ways is the new proposed policy from 2014 different from that which has ruled for the 2007-2013 period?
• And what weaknesses of the previous policy explains the changes?
• What exactly is the "place-based approach” which is trumpeted in the new policy ??
• Where are debates which deal clearly and honestly with these questions?

I am encouraged by one semi-official report (of 250 pages) which appeared in 2009 – the Barca Report - which seems very well written, draws on a wide range of discussions and openly admits (a) the conceptual and political confusion; (b) the difficulties in measuring impact; and (c), in the very first page, the lack of public debate -
What is lacking is a political debate about whether that particular way of spending public funds adds value compared to sectoral or national approaches. And when and where it is effective. The same failure is visible in the academic debate, where very often a line separates the “cohesion policy experts” and the rest of academia.
I've a long way to go in reading this report - so please be patient. And, in the meantime, I stick with my main accusation - that there don't seem to be any journalists writing about this issue!

Today Romanian media have been celebrating the birthday of their most famous dramatist - Caragiale - who was born 160 years ago. The Romanians are very fond of him and his mocking of the political process.Mitica was a character who cropped up in his plays and whom the Transylvanians particularly associated with the slippery southerners. Wikipedia have a very detailed entry on his life and works.

The painting is a Levitan

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Briefings on the new Cohesion Policy

A summary of the new Cohesion Fund which the EC is proposing to replace the present Structural Funds is available here.
The University of Strathclyde’s European Policies Research Centre can generally be counted on for clear summaries of the issues involved in EC regional policies and duly produced two years ago a paper “Challenges, Consultations and Concepts – preparing for the Cohesion Policy Debate

Last August the Centre presented an updated 150 pages briefing on the issues to the European Parliament - Comparative study on the vision and options for Coherence Policy after 2013 – although its Executive Summary does not seem quite up to its normal standards of clarity. Judge for yourself -
The Commission proposes to reinforce the urban agenda, encourage functional geographies, support areas facing specific geographical or demographic problems and enhance the strategic alignment between transnational cooperation and macro-regional strategies.
Unsurprisingly, there is resistance to some of the more prescriptive elements. Yet, the territorial dimension could benefit from a greater strategic steer at EU level, potentially drawing on the recently agreed Territorial Agenda for 2020 to clarify and reinforce future territorial priorities for Cohesion Policy. A more strategically focused approach to the territorial dimension of cooperation must also be a priority, including a greater focus on priorities and projects of real transnational and cross border relevance, seeking greater coherence with mainstream, external cross-border cooperation and macro-regional strategies and the simplification of administrative requirements.
And what, exactly, does this mean???

The 2009 Barca Report was a bit long (250 pages plus 10 annexes) but did at least give a good summary of what we know about the impact of Structural Funds -
20. The state of the empirical evidence on the performance of cohesion policy is very unsatisfactory. The review of existing research, studies, and policy documents undertaken in the process of preparing the Report suggests, first, that econometric studies based on macro-data on growth and transfers, while providing specific suggestions, do not offer any conclusive general answer on the effectiveness of policy. This is due partly to the serious problems faced by any attempt to isolate at macro-level the effects of cohesion policy from those of several confounding factors, and partly to the fact that existing studies have largely analysed the effect on convergence, which is not a good proxy of the policy objectives. The review also shows both the
lack of any systematic attempt at EU and national/regional levels to assess whether specific interventions “work” through the use of advanced methods of impact evaluation, and a very poor use of the system of outcome indictors and targets formally built by the policy.


21. Despite these severe limitations, the available quantitative evidence and a large body of qualitative evidence lead to two conclusions on the current architecture of cohesion policy. First, cohesion policy represents the appropriate basis for implementing the place-based development approach needed by the Union. Second, cohesion policy must undergo a comprehensive reform for it to meet the challenges facing the Union.

22. The strengths of cohesion policy, which indicate that it represents the appropriate basis,
include, in particular:
• the development of several features of what has come to be called the “new paradigm of regional policy”, namely the establishment of a system of multi-level governance and contractual commitments that represents a valuable asset for Europe in any policy effort requiring a distribution of responsibilities.
• A good track record of achieving targets, both when cohesion policy has been implemented as a coherent part of a national development strategy and when local-scale projects have been designed with an active role of the Commission and the input of its expertise.
• A contribution to institution-building, social capital formation and a partnership approach in many, though not all, regions, producing a lasting effect.
• The creation of an EU-wide network for disseminating experience, for cooperation and, for sharing methodological tools in respect of evaluation and capacity building.

23. The most evident weaknesses which indicate the need for reform of cohesion policy are:
• A deficit in strategic planning and in developing the policy concept through the coherent adoption of a place-based, territorial perspective.
• A lack of focus on priorities and a failure to distinguish between the pursuit of efficiency and social inclusion objectives.
• A failure of the contractual arrangements to focus on results and to provide enough leverage for the Commission and Member States to design and promote institutional changes tailored to the features and needs of places.
• Methodological and operational problems that have prevented both the appropriate use of indicators and targets – for which no comparable information is available - and a satisfactory analysis of “what works” in terms of policy impact.
• A remarkable lack of political and policy debate on results in terms of the well-being of people, at both local and EU level, most of the attention being focused on financial absorption and irregularities.

The new Cohesion Policy as a case-study in Orwellian language?

Having made a casual reference a few days ago to a rather superficial paper on EC Structural Funds (with which I have a tangential link in my current Bulgarian project), I was understandably attracted by the title of one of the LSE lecture series - Redesigning the World's Largest Development Programme: EU cohesion policy - by the Special Adviser to the current EC Regional Commissioner (Austrian Johannes Hahn) – one Phil McCann, a Professor of Economic Geography. Particularly because it also offered a 91 slide presentation.
Before I started to listen to it, I checked on Googlescholar to see whether McCann had perhaps not written an article on the subject - which I could read in a fifth of the time necessary to stick with the lecture. Unfortunately McCann’s papers are highly academic and almost impossible to read – eg here.
The guy seems very chatty in person but the more he gets into his subject, the more naïve he (and his type) seems. The academic discipline of geography has always seemed, for me, one of the best of the social sciences with its strong multidisciplinary bias. So (and from the title) I had hoped to get an insight into the intellectual and political aspects of the european-wide discussions of the past 2 years about the future shape of this central piece of the “European venture” (now almost level pegging spending with the wasteful CAP).
What I got was a frightening Orwellian presentation of the latest fashionable EC phrases. I have still to read all the relevant documentation which has poured from the EC presses in the past 2 years (and to which I do brief justice in the sections below). All I know is that the key adviser to the Regional Commissioner seems to know nothing about policy analysis; seems completely taken in by words and phrases; and seems blissfully ignorant about the various reasons for implementation failure. I do concede that he was speaking to a student and graduate academic audience - and that this may be one reason why he focussed on words rather than realities.
Discussions on the future of EU Cohesion Policy - €347 billion between 2007 and 2013 – were launched amost 3 years ago.
Two key documents which appeared almost simultaneously in April 2009 have served as a basis for discussions on regional policy reform: first a reflection paper by Danuta Hübner, who had just demitted office as commissioner in charge of regional policy (from Nov 2004) and amost immediately became chair of the European Parliament’s Committee on Regional Development (!!)
The other document was a report she had commissed - and which was drafted by Fabrizio Barca, director-general at the Italian Ministry of Economy and Finance.
Both papers categorically rejected any attempt to renationalise Cohesion Policy - which was the thrust of the Open Europe Report I had mentioned earlier in the week.

Barca’s report, in particular, pays homage to the legitimacy of a policy, which he considers essential to pursuing European goals. The policy, says the report, must serve two objectives: development of territories based on local/regional possibilities; and improvements in social welfare (combating social exclusion). Like Hübner, Barca suggests placing territories at the centre of EU strategy. Both papers considered that EU intervention must be refocused on a few key objectives.
The report's recommendations for reform seem typical in their language of such documents. They are based on ten “pillars” and I would ask the reader – as a mind-game – to try reversing the phrases to check for how much meaning they contain -
1: Concentration on core priorities (how many of us would suggest focussing on inessentials??)
Dr Barca says the EU should concentrate around 65% of its funding on three or four core priorities, with the share varying between Member States and regions according to needs and strategies. Criteria for the allocation of funding would remain much as now (i.e. based on GDP per capita). One or two core priorities should address social inclusion to allow for the development of a "territorialised social agenda".
2: A new strategic framework
The strategic dialogue between the Commission and Member States (or Regions in some cases) should be enhanced and based on a European Strategic Development Framework, setting out clear-cut principles, indicators and targets for assessing performance.
3: A new contractual relationship, implementation and reporting
The Commission and Member States should develop a new type of contractual agreement (a National Strategic Development Contract), focused on performance and verifiable commitments.
4: Strengthened governance for core priorities
The Commission should establish a set of “conditionalities” for national institutions as a requirement for allocating funding to specific priorities and should assess progress in meeting targets.
5: Promoting additional, innovative and flexible spending (how many of us would suggest inflexible spending????)
The Commission should strengthen the principle of "additionality", which ensures that Member States do not substitute national with EU expenditure, by establishing a direct link with the Stability and Growth Pact. A contractual commitment is needed to ensure that measures are innovative and add value.
6: Promoting experimentation and mobilising local actors (ditto)
The Commission and Member States should encourage experimentation, and a better balance between creating an incentive for local involvement in policies and preventing the policy from being “hijacked” by interest groups.
7: Promoting the learning process: a move towards prospective impact evaluation
Better design and implementation of methods for estimating what outcomes would have been had intervention not taken place would improve understanding of what works where, and exert a disciplinary effect when actions are designed.
8: Strengthening the role of the Commission as a centre of competence (as distinct from a centre of incompetence?)
Develop more specialised expertise in the Commission with greater coordination between Directorate-Generals to match the enhanced role and discretion of the Commission in the policy. This would imply significant investment in human resources and organisational changes.
9: Addressing financial management and control (as distinct from ignoring them???)
Achieve greater efficiency in administering the Structural Funds by pursuing the ongoing simplification agenda and considering other means of reducing costs and the burden imposed on the Commission, the Member States and beneficiaries.
10: Reinforcing the high-level political system of checks and balances
A stronger system of checks and balances between the Commission, the European Parliament and the Council, through the creation of a formal Council for Cohesion Policy. Encourage an ongoing debate on the content, results and impact of the Cohesion Policy.
Such an approach argues for a Cohesion Policy which continues to address all EU regions, both Barca and Hübner say. Pawel Samecki, who succeeded Hübner as commissioner (but for one year only until replaced by an Austrian who is contesting accusations of plagiarism in his doctorate)), follows the same logic. Since both (or all three) defend the need to concentrate the greatest share of funds on less developed regions, where GDP per inhabitant would remain the reference indicator for prioritising funding, we are no longer talking about a ‘Sapir-style’ scenario. This was named after the Belgian economist André Sapir who, in 2003, drew up a highly controversial report for the Commission, which recommended a Cohesion Policy almost exclusively for regions in the new member states. For the Commission, a regional policy addressed to all is especially necessary since challenges, such as globalisation and climate change, affect the whole of the European Union – the EU15 as much as more recent members – at a time when national exchequers are stretched. There is no doubt, however, that some member states will call on the Sapir scenario in discussions on the new Cohesion Policy
During her mandate, Hübner frequently insisted on the need to strengthen the Commission’s strategic role in defining the policy to be implemented. The same idea is taken up in the Barca report. This envisages a seamless process starting with a real political debate and leading to adoption of a European framework and signature of “strategic development contracts” between the Commission, member states and, possibly, regions. In the Barca scenario, regional and local authorities would be more widely involved than today, which the Commission is also said to support. These contracts would formally commit signatories to a strategy, results and follow-up reports.
A genuine assessment for monitoring the performance of programmes and results would also need to be established – something Barca considers is lacking today. In her reflection paper, Hübner talks of setting up a “culture of monitoring and evaluation”. Commissioner Samecki also highlighted the need to concentrate further on results and performance. In this, they are slavishly following the fashion of today - and that part of McCann's presentation which dealt with this issue was positively embarrassing in its naivety and failure to relate to the wider and highly critical literature about performance management.

One of the problems about EC policy-making is that, despite (perhaps because of??) the emphasis on transparency and consultation, the processes are conducted by insiders - many of them paid by the EC itself (academics and not a few journalists). Outsiders like myself are discouraged by the language, complexity and sheer volume of paper. It would be interesting to spend some time reading the relevant stuff on Structural Funds (regional policy, social funds, coherence et al) and explore some basic questions about Value Added!!!

Thursday, January 26, 2012

EC Structural Funds - Cui Bono?

I'm cocooned at the moment in a cosy flat in a wind-swept and snow-bound concrete block in down-town Bucharest.
The ever-watchful Open Europe operation has targeted two big elements of EC spending in reports just out – on Structural Funds and its Development (or “external” assistance). Its report on the latter subject has been drafted for the UK House of Commons Select Committee on International Development which has started an investigation of the EC’s Development Assistance budget. In combination with Member States’ own aid budgets the EU as a whole provides 60% of global Official Development Assistance (ODA) making it the largest donor. "Despite some improvements", the Committee says, "concerns have been expressed about the effectiveness of EC development assistance, the slow disbursal of aid, the geographical distribution of EC aid and poor coordination between Member States".
This blog (and papers on my website) have also made a more detailed critique in relation to its state-building programmes in transition countries. The committee points out  that
Total EC external assistance in 2010 was €11.1 billion. The UK share of this was approximately €1.66. A new Commission policy paper, “An Agenda for Change” was published in October 2011 for approval by the Council in May 2012. At the same time, negotiations are proceeding for the Multi-Annual Financial Framework, and the replenishment of the European Development Fund. Together these will set the parameters for EC development aid from 2014-2020. The Committee invites evidence on:
• The comparative advantage of the EU as a channel for UK development and humanitarian assistance and the UK’s ability to influence EU development policy;
• The proposals set out in the “Agenda for Change”;
• The proposals for future funding of EC development cooperation;
• Progress towards policy coherence for development in climate change, global food security, migration, intellectual property rights and security.
The Open Europe paper is a fairly political briefing on the issues of geographical distribution, administration (costs and waste), EC “value-added” and policy issues (eg questionable reliance on budgetary support) – but seems to have been written by epople with little familiarity with the field of development work.

Its other paper – on EC Structural Funds - is a rather better one which actually looks at what the research has actually tells us about the success over the years of this funding in dealing with its basic objective – namely reducing regional differentials within countries. The answer is "difficult to prove”. Of course, the 60 billion euros a year programme is now more about building up the missing technical and social infrastructures of new member States and the paper argues that this should be properly recognised by the richer member states being taken aut of the programme’s benefits. The paper reminds that
the previous UK Labour Government proposed limiting the funds to EU member states with income levels below 90% of the EU average and suggests that this could create a win-win situation. Such a move would instantly make the funds easier to manage and tailor around the needs of the poorest regions in the EU. The paper estimates that 22 or 23 out of 27 member states would also either pay less or get more out of the EU budget, as the funds are no longer transferred between richer member states.
Structural Funds are, however, an important political tool for those committed to "the European project” in developing and sustaining clienteles. This should never be forgotten!

I have never been a fan of the EC Structural Funds which I have seen expand from almost nothing in the 1970s to 350 billion euros in the 2007-2113 period (60 billion a year – eg 5 billion annual contribution for UK). As a senior politician with Strathclyde Region which was the first British local authority to forge strong relations with the European Commission in the 1980s (when we had no friends at Margaret Thatcher’s court), you might imagine that I was positive about the European funding which we then received. In fact, I was highly critical – mainly for the dishonesty of the claims made about its net benefits. The British Treasury simply deducted whatever we gained from our European funding from our UK funding.

The programme really expanded in the Delors era on the watch of Scottish politician Bruce Millan as Regional Commissioner (1989-1994). In those days, we believed in regional development. In my own case, it was my whole intellectual raison d’ etre! The subject was coming into its own academically – and it was indeed the subject I first focussed on in my own academic career (before I moved into public management). It spawned thousands of university departments and degrees many of which seem still – despite public spending cuts - frozen in institutional landscapes. And I have never seen an intellectual questioning of what it has brought us – although I did recently come across this short critical article on the related field of urban development.

This Open Letter by some prominent Hungarians has just been published about the situation in that country - and is a useful briefing on the issues - as is this EuroTribune one. When I worked in that country, I vividly remember one of my older Hungarian colleagues telling me that she hoped that, this time, the country might actually succeed in something - since the history of her country to that point seemed to have consisted of a series of failures.She must be crying herself to sleep these nights!

The cartoon is one of Honore Daumier's - "The Gargantuan". At times like these, we are in desperate need of the caustic insights of the likes of Daumier, Goya, Kollwitz et al - and those influenced by them such as the Bulgarian caricaturists of the early and mid- part of the last century.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Scintillating writing

Left the Sirnea valley (1,400 metres up) not a moment too soon – with heavy snow being forecast even in Bucharest and the southern plain. But not before I had made a special trip to buy 4 kilos of the pungent home-made burdurf from my neighbours down the hill – for my money the place they make the best cheese in the Balkans. Initially with a strong cheddar taste, it matures into a variety of classic cheeses – depending on where you keep it. I’ve known it as a variant of an Italian Parma but, when stuffed into jars and kept in the cellar, it comes out as a juicy, pallat-blowing Pont L ‘Eveque French cheese. I felt like an urban coward as I abandoned the hardy villagers to the winter conditions – and excused myself with reference to the lack of water (from which several other houses too high up the hillside were also suffering) and also with my hacking chest cough .
Morning did indeed dawn with blustering winds and snow blanketing the cars. So the planned visit to a Black Sea workshop is off.
Instead I immersed myself in Chris Hitchins’ Hitch 22 - a Memoir which had arrived last year in Sirnea and whose first half covers exactly my own period of growing up and coming to political consciousness in Britain. I made no reference to his death last month – partly because I was somewhat offended that it eclipsed the obituaries of Vaclaw Havel. Whatever one may think of the man, he was a magnificent writer who captures so well in this book the nature of Britain the 1960s and 1970s - whether it was the totalitarian system run by the pupils of schools who have groomed the offspring of its governing elites for their on their own future roles; or the atmosphere and values in the local branches of the Labour Party in those days.
He became an early activist in the International Socialist movement (whose people I fought in the labour party) but then, sadly, became an apologist for American interests. In that sense, he continued the great English intellectual tradition of the earlier part of the century of switching sides. Terry Eagleton’s review of the book is a good summary of what his enemies think -
The Oedipal children of the establishment have always proved useful to the left. Such ruling-class renegades have the grit, chutzpah, inside knowledge, effortless self-assurance, stylishness, fair conscience and bloody-mindedness of their social background, but can turn these patrician virtues to radical ends. The only trouble is that they tend to revert to type as they grow older, not least when political times are lean. The Paul Foots and Perry Andersons of this world are a rare breed. Men and women who began by bellowing "Out, out, out!" end up humiliating waiters and overrating Evelyn Waugh. Those who, like Christopher Hitchens, detest a cliché turn into one of the dreariest types of them all: the revolutionary hothead who learns how to stop worrying about imperialism and love Paul Wolfowitz.
That Hitchens represents a grievous loss to the left is beyond doubt. He is a superb writer, superior in wit and elegance to his hero George Orwell, and an unstanchably eloquent speaker. He has an insatiable curiosity about the modern world and an encyclopaedic knowledge of it, as well as an unflagging fascination with himself. Through getting to know all the right people, an instinct as inbuilt as his pancreas, he could tell you without missing a beat whom best to consult in Rabat about education policy in the Atlas Mountains. The same instinct leads to chummy lunches with Bill Deedes and Peregrine Worsthorne. In his younger days, he was not averse to dining with repulsive fat cats while giving them a piece of his political mind. Nowadays, one imagines, he just dines with repulsive fat cats.
The novellist, Blake Morrisons is a more sympathetic reviewer -
The best parts of the book are those dealing with his parents – his mother, Yvonne, who committed suicide when he was 24, and his father, a former naval officer known as "the Commander". Yet even here, the polemicist is in danger of eclipsing the memoirist. "I had once thought that he'd helped me understand the Tory mentality, all the better to combat and repudiate it," he writes of his father. "And in that respect he was greatly if accidentally instructive. But over the longer stretch, I have come to realise that he taught me – without ever intending to – what it is to feel disappointed and betrayed by your 'own' side."
Hitchens began to leave home almost from infancy. A precocious child, whose first words came out as complete sentences ("Let's all go and have a drink at the club" was one of them, allegedly), he was packed off to boarding school at eight – a strain on the family budget, but if there was going to be an upper class, Yvonne wanted her son to be part of it. By 10 he knew all there was to know about dictatorships. But though beaten and bullied, he was never buggered. And there were books, starting with War and Peace and moving on to Wilfred Owen and George Orwell. When a housemaster warned him that he was in danger of "ending up a pamphleteer", he felt encouraged.
1968 was a heady year to be a student. He appeared on University Challenge, spoke at the Oxford Union and dined with government ministers. But he also held forth from upturned milk crates, organized sit-ins and was charged with incitement to riot. The spirit of the times was intoxicating but there were limits: sex and rock'n'roll were fine, but not long hair (an affront to one's working-class comrades) or drugs (a "weak-minded escapism almost as contemptible as religion").
At Oxford he met his first Americans, including Bill Clinton, who took his dope in the form of cookies rather than inhaling (and whom he accuses of snithving to the American authorities on the US draft-dodgers). Clinton aside, Hitchens admired these Americans, and he began to have a recurrent dream of finding himself in Manhattan and feeling freer for it. "Life in Britain had seemed like one long antechamber to a room that had too many barriers to entry," he writes. In truth, every door in London seemed to open to him. But the contradictions of his journalistic career were troubling ("with half of myself I was supposed to be building up the Labour movement and then with another half of myself subverting and infiltrating it from the ultra-left"), and perhaps that's what attracted him to the US, to which he flew on a one-way ticket in 1981 – here was a chance to quit the British class struggle and be wholly himself.
There's a lot to argue with here. But to take issue with Hitchens you will need to be formidably prepared (as widely read, widely travelled and rhetorically astute as he is) and to forget the idea that he "only does it to annoy", out of contrariness rather than conviction. You'll have to sharpen your invective, too. Humour is one of his deadliest weapons and there's plenty on display, some of it gently directed at himself
For those who want to hear the text itself, Utube has serialised the entire book (although I can't get any sound!)

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Back to basics

The northern skies looked more promising as light came to Ploiesti and, after de-icing, the car headed to the mountains at 09.15 and started to encounter the snow at the royal station of Sinaii – or rather its branch of Pennywise.
But the roads were good – even up past Bran and Moiecu - and only got problematic on the village track where passing returning weekenders was a tight squeeze between the piles of snow at the sides of the road.
Impossible to park in my usual places in the village – so I eventually skidded up to the hotel car-park and abandoned the car there.

Walking – let alone carrying the stuff I’m starting to transfer from the Sofia flat – in the metre of snow (almost) which now blankets the fields is a real test of fitness!

The new road which lies now at the foot of our garden was, of course,  both impassible and invisible – but I did notice that we had lost the gate which did allow the car onto the garden slope on the odd ocassion the track was dry enough to get me far enough to the house.
I was carrying so much in the car (books, wine, rakia, 7 paintings and an old carpet) that I had not wanted to add the camera – and now regret it. The old house was looking fantastic – with lights from all 6 windows on the middle level casting a superb glow as I struggled up the hill from the old neighbours who greeted me so warmly (and with hot tuica).
We have, however, no water – and no gas (a split canister?). But the kitchen fire quickly spread warmth – and gave the necessary heat for soup et al. The cat – who was last here in late September – seems glad to be back in the nooks and crannies but doesn’t quite know what to make of the metre of snow.  

The European future

Venturing north now on the last stage of this trip - to see how the mountain house is coping with the weather. I fear some frozen pipes since I proably lost some anti-gel in last year's tap split and leak.

I referred a couple of weeks ago to the debate about the future of Europe in the Eurozine network. Ywo more interesting pieces by Swedish authors are now available - Per Wirten’s Where were you when Europe fell apart?
In his book, Ill Fares the Land, Tony Judt predicted that neoliberal agitation for a "minimal state" would cease after the crash in 2008 and be replaced by the return of the state and a battle about its characteristics: should it be democratic or authoritarian, kindly or malevolent, based on surveillance or trust? He turned out to be right. That battle is being fought already.
The longstanding, wishful call for "more Europe" has been converted into a meaningless platitude. Sharper, more focused opinions are now necessary: the parliament must be the engine of politics, the Commission must submit to the will of the parliament, social responsibility and a redistributive policy from wealthy to poor regions must become a reality – otherwise there is no future either for the euro or the European idea .
and Bjoern Elmbrant’s Whose Europe are we living in?
The euro crisis has shown that this is the Europe of the big nations at the small nations' expense, the Europe of banks rather than of citizens. Instead of demanding that their own banks take responsibility, imposing debt rescheduling and a higher equity, Merkel and Sarkozy have rigged what critics call a "fake debate". What was in fact the consequences of the financial crisis of 2008 has instead been described as the result of budgetary indiscipline. Although this might be true for Greece and possibly Portugal, countries such as Ireland and Spain had a large budget surplus and low national debt when Lehman Brothers crashed in 2008......


It is a Europe characterized by increasing nationalism. Just like during the Weimar republic in Germany in the 1920s, today's nationalism is kindled by political ineffectiveness and an economically strapped petit bourgeoisie. The issue concerns not only the new poverty in indebted countries in the south. In northern Europe, the margins of the middle class are gradually getting smaller – deep in debt, they no longer think that solidarity is something they can afford.
Nationalism is the next-door neighbour of selfishness and self-interest. We see rightwing populism at work also when popular and intelligible EU reforms are made void, for example when the Danish People's Party reintroduced controls at the borders to Germany and Sweden. Border controls can now also be "temporarily" reinforced in other parts of the union "in extreme situations". If countries are allowed to decide for themselves what an extreme situation might be, Schengen belongs to the past.
Migration issues are a Pandora's box, if you open it just a little, hatred and dirt emerge. We are now seeing that box opening

Is Europe democratic, then? Less and less. Swedish political scientist Sverker Gustavsson has described three conditions for democracy to work: democracy must "deliver", i.e. be able to solve problems; democracy must admit that there are various routes and that opposition is legitimate; and democracy must be predictable, not arbitrary.
If we use these criteria to test the way the euro crisis has been handled, the result is discouraging. The ability to solve problems is weak. Mistakes have been made and decisions have been wrong and ill-timed. Fear of a free debate about the financial markets has resulted in politicians lying – this has been admitted. But how do you make citizens interested in an imminent crisis when there are no clear alternatives and when politicians don't dare to tell the truth? Finally, there has been a lack of predictability, as the EU keeps changing its stand, adopting ideas it rejected one month earlier. Paragraph 125 of the Lisbon treaty stipulated that no rescue packages were to be allowed, but then rescue packages were issued. It is forbidden for the ECB to buy government bonds from countries in crisis, yet this has been done through the back door.

The fact that indebted countries are now governed by "guardians" is also harmful to democracy. These countries lose their sovereignty as austerity measures are forced onto them from above and devaluation is not an option. Schools are shut down. Hospitals reduce the number of operations. Salaries are cut. Pensions are cut. State property is sold off. In Greece there is talk of selling off "cultural goods". Are we talking about the Parthenon here? Where is the respect?
The question why the citizens should bow down to decree is legitimate. Especially when they have hardly been able to influence these measures, for which there is no majority within the population. The sense of powerlessness is a breeding ground for large-scale rightwing populism. The design of the euro not only threatens the EU but democracy in general.......
And so we have been left with a European Union dominated by the German obsession with budget discipline. There is nothing wrong with having your budget in order, but in turn it has paved the way for a neoliberal agenda and the argument that we have too much welfare

Friday, January 20, 2012

Romanian paintings

Januaries in Bucharest were bitterly cold and snowy a decade or so ago. I remember the snow covering cars in the mid-1990s. These days it was just a bit nippy as I zipped through the various bookshops – and took in the incredible (renovated) palace which now houses the Artmark auctioneers at C Rossetti 5. I have to say that such opulence (and staffing) completely turns me off. It simply shows the huge mark-up they must put on the paintings they sell. Although the prices seem a bit more reasonable than they were, there were in fact no paintings which interested me in those displayed for the 26 January auction which, this time, includes quite a bit of the Ceaucescu family possessions and memorabilia which you can see in the catalogue on the site which can be downloaded. It brought back the memory of the (private) visit I was able to make in 1990 to the richly-endowed mansion the couple had at the back of the Peles palace in Sinaii. Gold-plated bath taps no less - at a time when the population was starving! I had good connections in those days as I was working for WHO - which had been in with the old governments! I was there to show a new face - and explore new possibilities. Which I did in the gloom and in the front of an ambulance which was the means of transport for the young doctor who took me around the country.
The ArtMark auction paintings were hiding the gallery's more interesting permanent exhibition. Better to visit between auctions!

I had noticed in the Humanitas bookshop a new book (rather pricey at 25 euros) on a superb classic Romanian painter unknown to me Camil Ressu (born 1880) A good video of his portrait work is available here.
But I was persuaded to buy in Artmark a fascinating and well-crafted 300 page plus book (in English) – The Self-Punishing One; arts and Romania in the 1980s and 1990s on the works and times of 3 uncompromising Romanian artists (Stefan Bertalan; Florin Mitroi, Ion Grigorescu). How writers coped with the "communist" repression is a common theme of discussions (I mentioned the Herda Mueller exchange here in November recently) but I come across discussions about the effects on artistic endeavours much less frequently. The only thing I can find online on a similar theme is in German.

Whence to the experience of visiting the Ploesti Art GalleryThe "Ion Ionescu-Quintus" Art Museum of Prahova county's activity, with the two departments, Art Museum Ploieşti and Memorial House of painter Nicolae Grigorescu in Câmpina, in accordance with the Law 311/2003 to give it its proper title (needed if you are to find it on the internet!). It is housed in a splendiferous palace in Ploiesti’s centre - which is a large city 50 kms north of Bucharest on the main highway to the Carpathians and Europe. Its oil resources gave it strategic and economic importance at the beginning of the 20th century – evident in some of the architectural gems which can be seen if you look hard enough. Josef Isser is perhaps the city’s most famous artistic son although the country’s most famous painter (Nicolae Grigorescu) comes from the county (Prahova) and is also well represented in the gallery’s collection - as is Theodor Pallady.
However, we apparently arrived at an inopportune time – 15.50 Friday – and got no response when we rang the bell as requested. The security guard was concerned – not least because an alarm was ringing - and ran around the building a couple of times before assuring us that the gallery was open until 17.00. After 10 minutes I was depositing my business card with a message of disappointment when the huge door suddenly opened and a surprised-looking woman explained – to the security guy not us – that there was no electricity although the lights appeared a few seconds after her “explanation”. Thereafter the usual shrill altercation between Romanian custodians and citizens – with no sense from the former that any apologies were due. And a special graphic exhibition had taken over the building – with only half a dozen of the permanent exhibits being on display. The (European) graphics had been hung so low that it was very difficult to see their detail. The best feature for me was the building - with superb entrance hall, painted ceilings and old and fully-functioning tiled stoves keeping the rooms at their required temperature. We were supposed to pay 2 euros – but somehow managed to emerge without payment. Another typical Romanian experience of public services!

Two courageous speeches

I have admired – if not envied - the German political system since I first encountered it in the 1960s as a student – and was able in the 1970s and 1980s, on my various European trips, to compare the seriousness with which politicians (national and regional) were taken in Germany (eg the interviews in the weekly Der Spiegel magazine) with the shallow and elitist coverage of the London media. Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt were both, in their very distinct ways, inspiring Chancellors – and their Green politicians blazed a trail.
Helmut Schmidt (age 92) came out of retirement in December and gave a very powerful address to his Social democrat colleagues about Europe. It’s worth watching (in German) and reading (in English) – first for what he says about German responsibilities -
For all our surpluses in reality constitute the deficits of the other nations. The claims that we have on others are their debts. It is a case of undesirable damage being done to what was once elevated by us to a statutory ideal: »external balance«. This damage must unnerve our partners. And when foreign, mostly American, voices – then they came from all quarters – have been heard to call for Germany to take the leading role, all this together causes further unease in our neighbours. And it revives bad memories.
This economic development and the simultaneous crisis in the ability of the organs of the European Union have continued to force Germany into a central role. Together with the French president, the Chancellor has accepted this role willingly. However, there has appeared in many European capitals and likewise in the media of many of our neighbours a growing concern about German dominance. This time it is not a question of an overly strong military and political central power, but rather of an overly powerful economic centre.
At this point, it is necessary for a serious and carefully considered warning for our politicians, our media and our public opinion to be issued.
If we Germans allow ourselves to be seduced into claiming a political leading role in Europe or at least playing first among equals, based on our economic strength, an increasing majority of our neighbours will effectively resist this. The concern of the periphery about an all too powerful European centre would soon come racing back. The possible consequences of such a development would be crippling. And Germany would fall into isolation.
The very large and very capable German Federal Republic needs – if only to protect us from ourselves – to be embedded in European integration. For this reason, ever since 1992 and the times of Helmut Kohl, article 23 of our constitution obligates us to cooperate »with the development of the European Union«. Article 23 obligates us as part of this cooperation to the »principle of subsidiarity«. The present crisis regarding the ability of EU organs does not change these principles.
Our geopolitically central location and, in addition, our unfortunate role in European history in the first half of the twentieth century and our current capacity, all these things together demand from every German government a very large measure of sympathy towards the interests of our EU partners. And our willingness to help is essential.
We Germans have indeed not achieved our great reconstruction of the last sixty years alone and through our own might. Rather it would not have been possible without the aid of the Western victorious powers, without our involvement in the European Community and the Atlantic Alliance, without the aid of our neighbours, without the political break up of eastern Central Europe and without the end of the communist dictatorship. We Germans have reason to be grateful. And likewise we have the duty to show ourselves worthy of the solidarity we received through providing our own solidarity towards our neighbours.
As for what he says about the financial measures Europe needs to take -
The governments of the entire world in 2008/2009 saved the banks with guarantees and taxpayers’ money. Ever since 2010, however, this flock of highly intelligent (but also prone to psychoses) financial managers have continued to play their old game of profit and bonification. In any event, the countries that participate in the common European currency should join together to put into practice far-reaching regulations of their common financial markets. Regulations to separate normal commercial banks from investment and shadow banks, to ban the short selling of securities at a future date, to ban trade in derivatives, provided they are not approved by the official stock exchange supervisory body, and regulations for the effective restriction of transactions that affect the Euro area and are carried out by the currently unsupervised ratings agencies
And it was remiss of me not to have mentioned before now the courageous speech given in Berlin in November by the Polish Foreign Secretary who dared also to talk about German responsibilities, Here are some of the responses.

Romania's demonstrations - in perspective

Monday’s blogpost carried an excerpt (and heading) from The Economist magazine’s Eastern Approaches blog about apparent riots in Romania. After visiting the location here in Bucharest of the demonstrations and reading both the (Romanian) comments on the Economist blogpost and local papers, I think the Economist got the balance wrong. One of the discussants put it well -
1. The violence was limited in scope and intensity. It is now clear that it was provoked by fans of two football teams (Dinamo, Steaua) as a reaction against a recently enacted law requiring violent supporters to register with police stations before the match. The picture and the title suggests that the protests were very violent and much broader than they were in fact. The leaders of these football fans organizations made it very clear in the press they were not interested in politics and that their agenda was different.

2. Protests themselves are small in scope. It seems that at the peak, they were not more than 1,500 (more like 1,200) in Bucharest. Very few of them can explain the reasons they are protesting for. This is very typical for Occupy-type movements. Bucharest population is well over 2 mil. Also typical to Occupy-type movements, the are slogans are EQUALLY directed against opposition (USL) and government (PDL+UDMR). Some protesters are what you'd define as anti-globalization (against what they believe is new world order etc., you know the story), some are against the Rosia Montana gold mining project, some are from animal protection NGOs etc. The crowd is very colourful.
3. Protesters have been summoned by USL (socialists+liberals, the opposition). There are evidences on all major newspapers (check www.evz.ro). Some were called by SMS etc. The protests turned against opposition as well (they booed when Orban appeared).
4. About protests in other cities,In Iasi, major city, 320,000 (20-120 protesters):
In Craiova, major city of 300,000 population (<100 protesters)
5. Don't use sources such as Realitatea TV or Antena 3. They have a known political agenda for years. They compare with FoxNews, just that they are much worse. There are so many other sources. Since so much of the press is somehow connected politically, you should use as many different sources as possible. Just to give you an idea: Realitatea TV was showing the case of a retired military earning 500 EUR/month (state pension), WHILE at the same time being employed as assistant professor in some (private? I don't remember) university and earning a salary. He committed suicide because he was too poor. They were over-dramatising this episode.
As far as I could find out, only the pensions of the military personnel have been trimmed. These were huge anyway (more than 1,500 RON, I'd guess on average 2,000 RON?). Many of the military employees have received early retirement when joining NATO (probably out of fears that they may still be connected to KGB structures); the Romanian army was considered as oversized. They have received large pensions and many of them have IN ADDITION other jobs, since they are still relatively young (I have examples in the family). This group has been very vocal lately. Some participants in the 1989 events were receiving special pensions as well, apart from other privileges (free land etc.). Apparently these pensions were large and have been trimmed.
One additional remark: The Economist blog ran a story some time ago (entitled Can an Englishman rent his castle?) showing that in Romania very few live in rented flats, very few have mortgages (these are essentially the high-income earners). Most people own outright their homes and the housing costs are very low. The situation is not that bleak. There are other, more complex social and psychological problems affecting the population.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Some typical Bucharest encounters

Some typical Bucharest experiences in the first 24 hours.
Paying bills – first for flat administration, always 2 months in arrears and in inscrutable handwritten notes with all the memory complications this involves – 75 euros for 2 months in our case (water, heating, common facilities (incl. cleaning, lifts and concierge).
Then for 3 months cable TV (10 euros a month); and internet (ditto).
It was the latter (Vodaphone) which caused the most stress. Their shops are superbly equipped – but often abominably managed by youngsters who are simply incapable of putting themselves in their customers’ shoes (and this also goes for their managers). When you are enter, you see a row of desks/counters scattered casually to left and right. If you are particularly observant, you will see, on your left, a machine with multiple choices - one of which you are supposed to punch to get a numbered ticket. That’s not as easy as it sounds since it offers about 6 choices and you have to understand what, for example, a personal legal entity is! I was, however, looking to solve a problem with my internet contract (out of the country for 3 months, disconnected and facing surcharges) . I could see an “internet” label and was duly presented with a number. Trouble was that only one of the 7 desks I could see was displaying electronic numbers and, when I approached desks for clarification, I got no real help. “We’ll call out the numbers” one guy said – but, of course, this was done in Romanian and not all distinctly.
After a 10 minutes’ wait and a second rebuttal from the only desk which was managing to deal with customers, I asked to see the manager to whom I suggested some more (customer) effective management systems. “Look, I said, these two desks have been tied up for the last 15 minutes with customers buying hardware. Why don’t you have a desk which deals with customer queries?” “And how on earth am I supposed to understand to go when I come in – with only one of the 4 desks being manned actually dsiplaying its electronic numbers?”
After a philosophical discussion about the difference between management and efficiency, the guy confessed that they paid no attention to customer waiting time. “But”, I protested, “we customers do!”

This was clearly a Pauline moment in the 30- year old manager’s life. “You may well have a point”, he conceded, “I will talk to my staff”. I have to remember this is the country of Ionesco!
He offered no personal help for my simple query – and I departed with a strong warning that I was a disgruntled customer who would now write a formal letter of complaint to the Vodaphone management.
At another branch (Bvd Magheru), I had a much more helpful reception – and was led to understand that (a) I had (in the usual smallprint) signed a contract which rolled over automatically after the year’s expiry; (b) it could not be cancelled until I paid the outstanding charges (20 euros); and (c) that a facility was now available to allow me to buy a monthly prepaid card for only 10 euros a month.
What a contrast! Hats off to that Magheru guy!

In between this, I stumbled first on a small art gallery which, at last, seems to cater for my taste here in Romania – with quite a few Bessarabian painters at similar prices to the Bulgarian galleries (the ratio has generally been 5-1)
And, then, in the Carturesti bookshop, a back collection of London Review of Books; and Times Literary Supplements! Enough to make a guy like me climax! I emerged with 10 of them – and will be back for more.
And I also came away with a superb bilingual edition of TS Eliot poetry – the last part of which covers The Four Quartets.

In between all this, I dropped in to see the hard-core of the demonstrators still demanding, at Piata Universitate, the government;s resignation - after the victory of the (Palestinian) Deputy- State Secretary of Health who had resigned in protest last week after the attempt to privatise the emergency service system he had put in place and had been managing for the past 20 years. It is quite amazing that that thousands of ordinary Romanian citizens in 40 cities turned out spontaneously to support him!

By the way, when I tried to give the reference to Ionescu. I learned that Wikipedia are on srike for a day in order to draw our attention to the threat to internet freedom from a bill currently being considered by the American Congress. A very good tactic by Wikipedia - bringing home to us how much we depend on this spontaneous system! For more on the serious implications of the Bill see here.

Memory corner.
Some great US winter paintings from a century ago at this great painting blog; and, as I head to Transylvania at the weekend, an old post about the traditional farming system there.

Neglect of Bulgarian painting patrimony

We reached Razgrad via a quiet country road from Targovishte with the sparkling snow fading as we hit the vineyards. Razgrad is a fairly isolated town of 40-50,000 people lying on the plain between Russe on the Danube and Varna on the Black Sea. Its town centre is clean and lively – with the huge mosque (which I have on one of my paintings) acting as the centre for the pedestrian area in which the attractive and modern-looking municipal gallery is located.
Typically however, it being 12.10, it was closed for the long lunch break and – despite the seductive poster advertising a special exhibition – we moved on for Russe on the basis that we could visit next week when a workshop is being held nearby.

I’ve wanted to visit the Russe municipal gallery for some time – the town, after all, has more than 200,000 people; has been an important port on the Danube for a long time; and has a proud tradition of culture – with quite a few well-known painters to its name eg Marko Monev. And the gallery was not difficult to find – the girls in the OBV petrol station at the central station roundabout knew it was just round the corner. However the gallery is in a scandalous state for such a city – with (a) no heating and (b) the paintings in one of the three rooms lying propped on the floor with no means of identification. Unlike all the other regional galleries I’ve visited in Bulgaria, the Russe one charges for entrance – OK only 50 pence - but that does raise expectations a little. No Monev paintings were on display but there were some superb works from Vladimir Dmitrov-Maistera, Atanas Mihov, Benchko Obreshkov and Nenko Balkanski – all, however, at risk from the disgraceful conditions. What was even more galling was that an expensive book was on offer – at 25 euros – celebrating 75 years of the gallery. It must have cost 5,000 euros to produce – money which would have been much better spent to keep the paintings in a safer condition.
I can understand the galleries of smaller municipalities being in poor conditions – but there is asolutely no excuse for this neglect for a city such as Russe. Places like Razgrad and Kazanlak – with one fifth of the population – clearly do so much better! Pity the poor young warden who sat wrapped up and freezing in his cubicle as I happily snapped the choicer exhibits.
What sort of future does he have? He shrugged his shoulders when I asked about the Monev paintings – and smiled sadly when I asked if there was a feedback book available for me to make my comments! At the very least, the city authorities should relocate the paintings to a smaller place which is easier to heat! And it doesn’t take much money to produce a CD of the gallery collection.
Of course art galleries are a municipal responsibility and rightly so. And the Sofia and Kazanluk galleries show what can be done by committed local authorities and staff – with both organising special exhibitions and having a range of products (including CDs) for sale. But the protection of Bulgarian painting patrimony is surely a national issue.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Disturbances in Romania?

Tomorrow, weather conditions allowing (we had 7 cms of snow this afternoon), we drive north to Bucharest. It’s less than 150 kms and fairly flat (via Razgrad and across the Danube at Russe) and would normally not be a problem. What we will find in Bucharest is beginning to worry us – with riots apparently taking an increasing hold. An Economist blog gives what seems a fairly neutral report - "
POLENTA doesn't explode" is the gnomic phrase Romanians use to describe the attitude of resigned acceptance typical to the country. But this weekend something snapped. Thousands of people took to the streets in Bucharest and 40 other towns, venting their anger at their leaders' perceived incompetence in dealing with Romania's economic crisis.
The centre of Bucharest was hit by violence on a scale unseen in two decades. Traian Băsescu, the centre-right president, is the main target of the protesters' ire. "Get out, you miserable dog" they chanted, as they hurled paving stones and smoke bombs at riot police. Water cannons and tear gas were used to dispel the crowds.
The immediate trigger for the riots was the resignation of Raed Arafat, a popular official in the health ministry, who stepped down after clashing with Mr Băsescu over a set of controversial reforms to the health-care system. Mr Boc has now offered to revise the plans, and offered an olive branch to Mr Arafat.
The Palestinian-born doctor, who emigrated to Romania in the 1980s, had helped set up a professional medical emergency system. He disagreed with a government proposal to privatise it, as part of its drive to cut public spending. "Quality does not automatically arrive with privatisation. For the patient, the system will be weaker," he said announcing his resignation. A day earlier Mr Băsescu had called Mr Arafat a liar on television, adding that he had "leftist" views.
Mr Băsescu is well known for his undiplomatic, mercurial manner. On Friday, however, as peaceful pro-Arafat demonstrations spread throughout the country, the president asked the government to pull its draft health-care law. He blamed "media manipulation" and was unable to resist noting sarcastically that "the emergency system works perfectly."
Much more graphic coverage from a very committed outsider can be seen here. In fact, if you follow the discussion thread of the Economist post, the reality (as always in Romania) seem rather more complex - if not prosaic. I hope to come back to this later in the week. 

Cultural diversions
The Targovishte Art Gallery has a rather remote location (at least for present wintry conditions) in a park on the town’s periphery next to a lake which must be glorious in summer (and also to the football stadium). From the outside its cavernous size held some promise – but this was quickly dashed by the iciness of the air as we stepped inside. There was no heating (and loud leaks from the roofs) for the Gallery’s 2 huge rooms – which held little of interest. One Neron and one Svetlin Russe which must be fast deteriorating in such conditions.

Celebrating national bards

A positive glow from the snow-bound fields around Sofia as we headed east on the smooth Highway which cuts a swathe through the Balkans; then on a French-type RN to and past Veliko Trnovo (where the snow was thinner).
By then we were picking up Romanian Radio which was celebrating the birthday of Romania’s most famous poet Mihai Eminiscu (1850-1899) whose star diminished somewhat after 1989 – at least amongst the intellectuals who questioned his simplistic nationalism. But ordinary people stuck with his love poetry . Next week, all over the world, wherever there is (or has been) a small congregation of Scots, our national bard, Rabbie Burns (1759-1796) , is celebrated at dinners with poetry, whisky, speeches and music. Apparently during the Cold War one of the greatest celebrations was in Moscow – since Burns’ egalitarianism was held in high regard there. I was never into this when in Scotland – although it was de rigeur for the members of the local elites to come together for drunken ribaldry every 25th January. But since leaving the country in 1990 I have developed a respect for his poetry – and this way of celebrating it. I even had my kilt flown over specially from Scotland for the Copenhagen dinner in 1991!
As we drove, we mused about how many other poets are celebrated in this way.

Hills and small gorges took us into Targovishte where another 2-day workshop is being held –starting the final phase of this training project on EC Structural Funds after the hiaitus caused by the November municipal elections. Unlike Northern Europe, municipal elections here can often lead to personnel changes.

Targovishte has the size (and sadness) of my home town in Scotland – 60,000 people and its first traces are from the 16 C when it had the name Eski Djumaya. In the 18th century its market offered access to the Turkish Empire dealing with Austria, Germany, England, Russia and Middle East. At the time of the Bulgarian revival the first economical college was established here – as well as many churches and libraries, the crafts, trade, tobacco industry are grown. In 1934 it was named Targovishte. In 1959 the town become the administrative centre of the region. Sunday it looked totally desolate – apart from a small area some of whose traditional, revival houses have been beautifully restored.
The hotel nestles in an attractive woody and grassed park at the bottom of hills outside the town - and the architect  has superbly exploited the site with the large lobby windows giving full advantage of the view. The young staff are as courteous as I always find them in this country - and the food and (famed) local wine as excellent as usual.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

user-friendly cities - a missing argument

A visit last week to the office which manages the project I lead here led to another interesting conversation with one of the many pleasant young Bulgarians one finds here in consultancies, academia and foundations. As always, there was a surprised reaction to my characterisation of Sofia as one of Europe’s best capital cities. I gushed – as I usually do – about the charm of central Sofia
with only a couple of high-rise buildings, its small shops, narrow streets, trams and atmosphere, the owners on the doorstep with a coffee and cigarette talking with friends; with its parks and buskers with their retro music.
Of course the downside of such charm is that those (young and old) who run the tiny vegetable, dressmakers, tricotage (thread); hairdresser shops and various types of galleries barely make a living. How many of them are rented, I wonder, and therefore vulnerable to landlord rental hikes and commercial redevelopment?
And I wonder how many of those who engage in this sort of soulless redevelopment realise what they are destroying – the sheer pleasure of wandering in friendly and attractive neighbourhoods. Is there nothing which can counter this Mammon? Do the city authorities realise what an asset they have? If so, are they doing anything about it? The lady mayor is certainly a huge improvement on her predecessor who, I was told yesterday, used to charge significant sums for those who wanted an audience with him to discuss their problems.
Mayor Jordanka has introduced traffic-free days; cleared many cars from the pavements and created bike lanes (where Denmark, Germany and Netherlands have blazed a trail). Here she is with a new Deputy Mayor who was, until October 2011, Deputy Minister of Culture

But have her advisers looked to the examples from Italian cities - whose city fathers well understood the treasures for which they had responsibility - and introduced regulations, decades ago, which made it very difficult to change the commercial use of centrally-located shops. Banks and mobile phone shops are an abomination – and should be located in side-streets (like whore-houses).
We need to understand the reasons which have produced such soulless, homogeneous monstrosities in so many European cities. The explanation is generally simple - a combination of political pygmies and professional advisers seduced by commercial interests. Their fall-back argument is the loss of municipal revenue from freezing commercial useage which serves the needs of the average citizen – as against the fickle purchases of young, transient, gentrifying residents who resemble so much the destructive Genghis Khan hordes who swarmed through these areas centuries before.

So, those who respect this human-scale really do need to meet this argument. I've mentioned several times the writings of Paul Kingsnorth who is one of the few people to deal with this isse. Even he, however, has not dealt with this central question.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

European Failure - of knowledge management

I want to return to a theme which I have mentioned several times on the blog – the apparent absence in English-language texts (whether books, journals or blogs) of analysis of the many positive models of socio-economic practice which can be found in European countries such as France, Germany, Netherlands and Scandinavia. There are many academic texts on the history and politics of these countries – and many academic journals devoted to their literary or political aspects. But they are all academic in tone and style and highly specialised – although I seem to recollect from the 1990s a few academic journals which had more open content and style eg West European Politics; Journal of DemocracyGovernance – an international journal of policy, administration and institutions; and Government and Opposition. However a quick look at the titles of their current issues suggests that they have, in the meantime, become very specialised and recondite.
Where, therefore, do you now turn if you want to learn on a regular basis (and in clear analytical text) either about success stories of, for example, organisational change or social policy in these countries or, even more interestingly, about how exactly that success was achieved ?

Few books are written about such matters written, at any rate, in a style calculated to appeal to the average activist or journalist. The book market caters for universities (a large niche market) - or for the general public. University course are specialised - so we get a lot of books and journals on public management reform - but almost nothing on comparative policy outputs (although a fair amount on the process of comparative policy-making - but very badly written). My fairly simple question and focus falls in the cracks and therefore gets no coverage. A good example of market-failure!
Eurozine is a rare website which does bring articles by thinkers of all European nations together in one place – sometimes under a thematic umbrella - and has received several honourable mentions on this blog. But the papers don’t deal with policy mechanics – but operate at a more rarified level of philosophical discourse.

Of course one of the roles played by many Think Tanks is to bring appropriate foreign experience to the notice of opinion-makers in their countries – but this is generally done in a partial and superficial way since most Think Tanks these days are associated with a political party and have an axe to grind. Experience is selected to fit an agenda – and the positive aspects are stressed.eg the one on Free Schools which came out in 2009. Those interested in the role of Think Tanks (and how they have become politicised) could usefully read the paper Scholars, Dollars and Policy Advice by James McGann (2004) the doyen of the field on the American side; Think Tanks in policy-making - do they matter ? from the Friedrich Ebert Foundation (September 2011) which is a good and up-to-date European perspective; and Recycling Bins, Garbage Cans or Think Tanks ? Three Myths about policy analysis institutes by Diane Stone (2007) who is the European doyenne of the field.
Then there are, of course, the EC and OECD networks and exchanges which do go into depth on the whole range of concerns of governments – whether the policies and systems of health and education; systems of public management ; or « wicked » problems such as social exclusion. But the extensive results of their work are not easily available – OECD puts most of theirs behind a paywall and few of the EC network outputs are placed in the public domain.

It is here that the mainstream media fail us. Journalists can access the OECD material free-of-charge and specialist journalists equally would have no problems obtaining copies of the EC material.

If I am right about this gap (and I appeal to my readers to correct me), this is a devastating comment on the « European project ». Hundreds (if not thousands) of millions of euros have been spent on university and cultural exchanges, communications and research – and what is there which ca answer my basic need ??

The power of stories

In the past few weeks, I’ve been going through the 500 pages of text and pictures which the blogging of the past 2-3 years has produced – and asking myself where exactly I am (or should be) going with it. The daily process of thinking about a particular aspect of my life’s work of tinkering with government institutions is a useful discipline. Since an early age, I have had the habit of writing critical analyses of policy initiatives – in the naive belief that this was the route to improved performance (I had forgotten that this habit led to Socrates having to drink hemlock!). Many of my reflections about these various efforts – whether at community, municipal, regional or national levels - are available on my website 

And the daily copying of reading references – whether of journals or books – has also helped build up a useful virtual library. As, however, Umberto Eco has remarked – the beauty of a good library is that only a minority of the texts have actually been read!

The question with which I am now wrestling is whether to continue with this process – a bit like the 5- minute Thought of the Day programme which the BBC has been running for decades – or to take time out to read more closely the material in the library and try to write something more focussed and coherent. My blogposts reflect the gadfly which is (and has been) an important part of me – alighting for some time on a flower and then moving on to another.
It is, however, the process of going over my blogs which has made me realise how much value I place on the ideas embodied in books. Most people are sceptical about the power of ideas and assume that baser motives make the world go round. John Maynard Keynes opposed this vew with great elegance in 1935 when he wrote
The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back. I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas
But we all need to make sense of the world. Some do so with their own, home-built view of the world which, all too often, is two-dimensional if not demented. Most of us, however, seek some external guidance – but there are so many voices today that we require mediators and popularisers to help us make sense of things - whether committed journalists like Will Hutton, Paul Mason and George Monbiot; essayists such as Malcolm Gladwell and serious analytical blogs such as Daniel Little’s Understanding Society. Matthew Taylor is one of the few bloggers who, like me, has straddled the worlds of theory and practice and continues, in his role as Director of the UK Royal Society of Arts to reflect on his reading. He had a good post recently on a seminar which featured Nassim Taleb -
The event was packed out and the chairman was at pains to emphasise the powerful influence of Taleb’s ideas on Government thinking. In essence Taleb’s argument – based on a fascinating, but occasionally somewhat opaque, mixture of philosophy, statistics and metaphors – is that big systems are much more prone to catastrophic failure (or in some cases sensational success) than small devolved ones. From bankers to planners to politicians, a combination of ignorance, complacency and self-interest leads to a systematic underestimation of the inherent risk of large complex systems.
The British Prime Minister is clearly looking for a fig-leaf with which to clothe his moral nakedness and finds Taleb’s arguments a useful cover. The RSA site actually has a video of David Cameron in conversation in 2009 with Taleb when he was Opposition Leader. Taleb has many useful insights to offer. He questions our reliance on the "narrative fallacy", the way past information is used to analyse the causes of events when so much history is actually "silent". It is the silence - the gap - the missing energy in the historical system, which produces the black swan. Imagine, says Taleb, the problem of turkeys:
Every single feeding will firm up the bird's belief that it is the general rule of life to be fed every day by friendly members of the human race 'looking out for its best interests', as a politician will say. On the afternoon of the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, something unexpected will happen to the turkey. It will incur a revision of belief
Those wanting to find out more about Taleb’s arguments will find a useful paper from him on the Edge site I mentioned yesterday
Matthew Taylor then asks a powerful question on his post about the logic and consistency of the Coalition Government’s use of Taleb’s thinking -
why is a democratically accountable and relatively weak organisation like a local education authority portrayed by ministers as the kind of overbearing power that needs to be broken up while Tesco (to take just one example) is left free to grow even more powerful and major Academy chains, massive welfare to work providers and various other large scale private sector providers are encouraged?