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!

Thursday, August 13, 2015

The Tribalism of the intellect

Normal people get hooked on detective novels….eccentrics like me get their fixes from books about things like development.. The habit started 20 years ago when I found myself (as we performance artists put it) “resting” between projects and, as a result, haunting the book-stacks of the (then well-endowed) British Council library in Bucharest. The books I read then are still listed in my annotated bibliography for change agents (section 7) – all 24 of them! And there have been more since.

I’m not a development economist – although my mother (then heading for her 100th birthday) had difficulty understanding exactly what sort of craft I was plying in exotic places such as Tashkent, Baku and Bishkek. That reflects better on her time and values than ours – which have invented such crazy and questionable occupations……it was Robert Reich, I think, who talked about “symbolic analysts”…….. 
So what draws me to books with titles like The World’s Banker (2005); Ideas for Development (2005); “Aid on the Edge of Chaos” (2013); The Limits of Institutional Reform in Development (2014) and Easterly’s “Tyranny of Experts”??

One reason may be that such books are remarkably like detective novels – there is a mystery (why do countries fail/not grow?); a plot; victims, suspects; goodies and baddies. What, however, they generally lack are character studies and, often, even a feel for place
 I may not be a development economist but, as several posts this past year have emphasised, I have been in the development business all my life. Except that (a) the approach I have been drawn to has been political and institutional rather than economic; and (b) the focus has more often been local than national.

But I feel strongly that there is an underlying commonality to “development endeavours” which virtually all writers on the subject (tragically) miss – since almost everyone is corralled inside the barbed-wire fences which mark off the territories of intellectual disciplines and sub-disciplines (such as rural development, urban development, institutional development, economic development……)

I remember first being aware of this in the late 70s – working then as I was in the field of community development and urban politics - and seeing planners, social workers and educationalists all trying to adopt a more inclusive approach to the newly-discovered problems of the marginalised urban poor but using slightly different terms….."community planning"; "community work"; "community education"

I had a curious position then on the edge of a variety of well-patrolled borders – Secretary of the majority party’s Cabinet on Europe’s largest local authority (SRC) but also a Lecturer at a nearby Polytechnic which was developing a new Degree structure. I had been appointed an economist but was more of a policy planner with an obvious interest in the political and organisational side of public administration – a subject rapidly going out of fashion. After 4 years of freedom heading up a Local Government Centre, I was needed for academic work; forced to choose; opted for the Politics department; despaired of the narrowness of the curriculum I was expected to teach and hankered after the wider, inter-disciplinary focus I had been accustomed to……

Little wonder, therefore, that I was soon pushed out. It’s not easy to reinvent oneself at age 45 but I was lucky in having what was then the modest income of a full-time Regional politician and experience which proved thoroughly marketable as a consultant when the Wall fell down in 1989. I have always been my own man – able to follow my passion – and am now so grateful that I was rescued from a miserable academic existence and able to continue to prowl forbidden borders…..      

Yesterday we visited the superb Campulung-Muscel yet again - Romania's first capital with an amazing location and replete with old houses, some of which we visited.... the photograph is one of the externally-painted murals on an unknown church in what seemed the town's nicest area........ 

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