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!

Monday, July 17, 2017

When will it ever change???

Another long post whose basic argument I can perhaps best summarise thus –
- People were overly optimistic in 1990/91 when they talked of one or two generations being necessary for a democratic culture to take hold in central europe
- most locals in Bulgaria and Romania are fatalistic about the glacial pace of reform
- but know exactly where the blockages are
- few external academic or consultants have even bothered to look at progress in improving state capacity in this part of the world – in the ten years during which billions of euros of European Structural Funds has been under local control...

Ralf Dahrendorf was a famous German sociologist/UK statesman who wrote in 1990 an extended public letter first published under the title “Reflections on the Revolution in Europe” and then expanded as Reflections on the Revolution of our Time. In it he made the comment that it would take one or two years to create new institutions of political democracy in the recently liberated countries of central Europe; maybe five to 10 years to reform the economy and make a market economy; and 15 to 20 years to create the rule of law. But it would take maybe two generations to create a functioning civil society there. A former adviser to Vaslev Havel, Jiri Pehe, referred a few years ago to that prediction and suggested that 
what we see now is that we have completed the first two stages, the transformation of the institutions, of the framework of political democracy on the institutional level, there is a functioning market economy, which of course has certain problems, but when you take a look at the third area, the rule of the law, there is still a long way to go, and civil society is still weak and in many ways not very efficient.”

He then went on to make the useful distinction  between “democracy understood as institutions and democracy understood as culture” 
“It’s been much easier to create a democratic regime, a democratic system as a set of institutions and procedures and mechanism, than to create democracy as a kind of culture – that is, an environment in which people are actually democrats”.

These are salutary comments for those with too mechanistic an approach to institution-building.  Notwithstanding the tons of books on organisational cultures and cultural change, political cultures cannot be engineered. Above all, they will not be reformed from a project approach based on using bodyshops, cowboy companies, short-term funding from the EC Structural Funds and the logframe.
The European Commission made a decision in 1997 which shocked me to the core – that EC technical assistance to central European and Balkan countries would no longer be governed by “developmental” objectives but rather by their ability to meet the formal legal requirement of the Acquis Commaunitaire (AC)…….ie of EU membership

In the mid 90s, the Head of the European Delegation to Romania (Karen Fogg 1993-98) used to give every visiting consultant a summary of Robert Putnam’s Making Democracy Work – civic traditions in modern Italy (1993). This suggested that the “amoral familism” of southern Italian Regions (well caught in a 1958 book of Edward Banfield’s) effectively placed them 300 years behind the northern regions.
Romania, for its part, had some 200 years under the Ottoman and the Phanariot thumbs - but then had 50 years of autonomy during which it developed all the indications of modernity (if plunging latterly into  Fascism). The subsequent experience of Romanian communism, however, created a society in which, paradoxically, deep distrust became the norm – with villagers forcibly moved to urban areas to drive industrialisation; the medical profession enrolled to check that women were not using contraceptives or abortion; and Securitate spies numbering one in every three citizens.
The institutions of the Romanian state collapsed at Xmas 1989 and were subsequently held together simply by the informal pre-existing networks – not least those of the old Communist party and of the Securitate. Tom Gallagher’s “Theft of a Nation” superbly documented the process in 2005.

These were the days when a body of literature called “path dependency” was raising important questions about how free we are to shake off cultural values…. Authors such as de Hofstede; Ronald Inglehart; FransTrompenaars; and Richard Lewis (in his When Cultures Collide) were telling us how such values affect our everyday behaviour.  

Sorin Ionitsa’s booklet on Poor Policy Making in Weak States (2006) captured brilliantly the profound influence of the different layers of cultural values on political and administrative behavior in Romania which continue to this day. His focus was on Romania but the explanations he offers for the poor governance in that country has resonance for many other countries and therefore warrant reproduction  
- “The focus of the political parties is on winning and retaining power to the exclusion of any interest in policy – or implementation process”
- “Political figures fail to recognise and build on the programmes of previous regimes – and simply don’t understand the need for “trade-offs” in government. There is a (technocratic/academic) belief that perfect solutions exist; and that failure to achieve them is due to incompetence or bad intent”.
- “Policymaking is centred on the drafting and passing of legislation. “A policy is good or legitimate when it follows the letter of the law − and vice versa. Judgments in terms of social costs and benefits are very rare”.

“This legalistic view leaves little room for feasibility assessments in terms of social outcomes, collecting feedback or making a study of implementation mechanisms. What little memory exists regarding past policy experiences is never made explicit (in the form of books, working papers, public lectures, university courses, etc): it survives as a tacit knowledge of public servants who happened to be involved in the process at some point or other. And as central government agencies are notably numerous and unstable – i.e. appearing, changing their structure and falling into oblivion every few years - institutional memory is not something that can be perpetuated”

His booklet remains one of the few which explores such issues which are so crucial for the development of this part of the world; and he also refers to other “pre-modern” aspects of the civil service – such as unwillingness to share information and experiences across various organisational boundaries. And to the existence of a “dual system” of poorly paid lower and middle level people in frustrating jobs headed by younger, Western-educated elite which "talks the language of reform - but treats its position as a temporary placement on the way to better things".

 “Entrenched bureaucracies have learned from experience that they can always prevail in the long run by paying lip service to reforms while resisting them in a tacit way. They do not like coherent strategies, transparent regulations and written laws – they prefer the status quo, and daily instructions received by phone from above. This was how the communist regime worked; and after its collapse the old chain of command fell apart, though a deep contempt for law and transparency of action remained a ‘constant’ in involved persons’ daily activities.
Such an institutional culture is self-perpetuating in the civil service, the political class and in society at large”. “A change of generations is not going to alter the rules of the game as long as recruitment and socialization follow the same old pattern: graduates from universities with low standards are hired through clientelistic mechanisms; performance when on the job is not measured; tenure and promotion are gained via power struggles.

“In general, the average Romanian minister has little understanding of the difficulty and complexity of the tasks he or she faces, or he/she simply judges them impossible to accomplish. Thus they focus less on getting things done, and more on developing supportive networks, because having collaborators one can trust with absolute loyalty is the obsession of all local politicians - and this is the reason why they avoid formal institutional cooperation or independent expertise. In other words, policymaking is reduced to nothing more than politics by other means. And when politics becomes very personalized or personality-based, fragmented and pre-modern, turf wars becomes the rule all across the public sector.”

Ionitsa’s booklet was, of course, written more than a decade ago but I see nothing to suggest that much has changed in Romania in the intervening period. Since 2007, of course, it has been Romanian experts who have been employed as consultants but they have essentially been singing from the same song-sheet as western consultants
I’ve used the phrase “impervious regimes” to cover the mixture of autocracies, kleptocracies and incipient democracies with which I have become all too familiar in the last 27 years; have faulted the toolkits and Guides which the European Commission offers consultants; and proposed some ideas for a different, more incremental and “learning” approach.
I’m glad to say that just such a new approach began to surface a few years ago – known variously as “doing development differently”, or the iterative or political analysis…….it was presaged almost 10 years ago by the World Bank’s Governance Reforms under real world conditions written around the sorts of questions we consultants deal with on a daily basis - one paper in particular (which starts part 2 of the book) weaves a very good theory around 3 words – acceptance, authority and ability. I enthused about the approach in a 2010 post

But there is a strange apartheid in consultancy and scholastic circles between those engaged in “development”, on the one hand, and those in “organisational reform” in the developed world, on the other…..The newer EU member states are now assumed to be fully-fledged systems (apart from a bit of tinkering still needed in their judicial systems – oh…. and Hungary and Poland have gone back on some fundamental elements of liberal democracy…..!). But they all remain sovereign states – subject only to their own laws plus those enshrined in EC Directives…. Structural Funds grant billions of euros to the new member states which are managed by each country’s local consultants who use the “best practice” tools - which anyone with any familiarity with “path dependency” or “cultural” or even anthropological theory would be able to tell them are totally inappropriate to local conditions..…

But the local consultants are working to a highly rationalistic managerial framework imposed on them by the European Commission; are, for the most part, young and trained to western thought. They know that the brief projects on which they work have little sustainability but – heh – look at the hundreds of millions of euros which will continue to roll in as far as the eye can see…..!!!

Someone in central Europe needs to be brave enough to shout out that ”the Emperor has no clothes!!” To challenge the apartheid in scholastic circles….and to realise the relevance of Ionitsa’s 11- year old booklet and Governance Reforms under real world conditions 

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