what you get here

This is not a blog which opinionates on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers to muse about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

The Bucegi mountains - the range I see from the front balcony of my mountain house - are almost 120 kms from Bucharest and cannot normally be seen from the capital but some extraordinary weather conditions allowed this pic to be taken from the top of the Intercontinental Hotel in late Feb 2020

Sunday, October 31, 2010

A brave lawyer

Lawyers generally get a poor press - so I am pleased to pay tribute to those Chinese lawyers who, for the past decade, have been the vanguard of the struggle for rule of law in that country. Reading of individuals who risk everything by standing up for the right of ordinary people to be treated with respect and decency (by the forces of authority) always brings tears to my eyes. It's one reason why I admire Criag Murray - whose Murder in Samarkand should be on the required reading list of all soial science students. And I had been appalled by reading of the treatment of the blind lawyer Chen Guagcheng who made so enemies by his taking municipal authorities to court for the way in which they dispossed villagers of their homes to allow the authorities to sell the land for property development. The clear (if slow and reluctant) progress China is making in building rule of law is due to such individuals.
Recently, prominent human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang had a verbal exchange with Dong Yansheng, deputy director of Fengtai Section of Domestic Security Department of Beijing Public Security Bureau, when Pu was detained following the Nobel Peace Prize announcement. The following transcript is taken from Pu Zhiqiang’s tweets describing the incident. Pu Zhiqiang is a lawyer at the Beijing Huayi Law Firm who takes on many civil rights cases. He was a student leader in the 1989 protests and is a close friend of Liu Xiaobo’s. This is an incredibly brave initiative.

Translated by China Digital Times:
On October 10, Dong Yansheng dispatched Wang Yigang, a police officer from Fengtai Section Of Domestic Security Department of Beijing Public Security Bureau, to take me away and detain me. Wang Yigang apologized for his brutality on the spot, but they detained me in Fanjiacun Police Station, and I quarreled until one o’clock in the early morning. I refused to promise not to receive media interviews, and invited People’s Daily, Xinhua News Agency and Global Times to interview me about the Nobel Peace Prize Award, so I was lucky to be “triple-accompanied” [Editor’s note: slang for being escorted, in this case under tight police surveillance] for three days in Zhouyang Hotel which is near the Sanhuan New Plaza. Last night I was released and went home, but was still not allowed to turn on my cell phone. Today I came to Yichun city to handle Feng Yongming’s case, under surveillance. Thanks for the care and attention from friends; I will give a more detailed account of what has happened later on.
Deputy Director Dong Yansheng brusquely said, “Liu Xiaobo won that award, what’s the big deal? Look at you Pu Zhiqiang. You jump around all excited, like you are drugged. I tell you, granting the award to Liu Xiaobo is the action of the western anti-China forces’ conspiracy to subvert the Chinese government. And you people receive foreign media interviews, which is assisting the western anti-China forces to subvert the Chinese government!”

I answered Dong Yansheng: “Awarding Liu Xiaobo is the mainstream civilization’s [the world’s] acknowledgment of his peaceful, non-violent efforts. Such good news cannot be hidden or suppressed, and I am excited and send Xiaobo and his wife my best greetings. The Chinese Communist Party needs to learn how to face the fact that the Nobel Peace Prize Award winner is sitting in a dark jail in China. Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao don’t know what to do about this, so it’s time to lift the media censorship, pave a way for the whole society to reach a consensus, and move forward. You are acting blindly and this will just further tarnish the image of your party bosses.”

I corrected Dong Yansheng: “You were talking about the anti-China forces’ attempt to subvert the Chinese government, but such nonsense only reflects you’re outdated and shallow, like you are stuck in the 1980s. Your remarks went against the lines marked by Wen Jiabao in his recent speeches and that of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. See, only Ma Zhaoxu (MFA spokesman) dared to criticize the Nobel Prize Award Committee for blaspheming against the award; how come such a low official like you dares to make such a blunt speech to create enemies for the Hu administration? I am asking you to show me, where are the anti-China forces from the west?

Dong Yansheng pointed at my nose and said: “You denounce the Chinese Communist Party, so you are making yourself a target for attack by the public security authority. I am now officially informing you, you are subject to my control [管制]. Where I want you to go, you need to go. When I want you to leave, you need to leave!” I started to educate him: “Control [管制] is a criminal punishment and is only decided by a court verdict. You are law illiterate, not even qualified to speak! The government deserves to be vilified, and so long as I am not breaking the law I can use my own devices. But you need to have procedures otherwise you are violating the law.”
Dong Yansheng put a label on me: “ Pu Zhiqiang, you are a f**king traitor and running dog for the western countries. You received foreign media interviews, just like Liu Xiaobo, you are a damn f**king traitor to your motherland!” I asked him: “ Who is a running dog? Who is betraying his country? We both know very well in our hearts. You said I am a traitor, but could you explain to me who sold out the country? Who marked the new boundaries between China and India? Do you know which rank is qualified to sell his country?”
Dong Yansheng laughed and said: “You must have made quite good money, eh? Bought a new house? You’d better move the hell out of my turf, you are driving me mad!” I replied, quite frankly, “Yes, I made good money , bought another house. But when I move, I will pray you are promoted to head the security troop in the district I am about to move into. I will find out which district you are about to be assigned to, and I will definitely buy a house and transfer my residence file to that district. We are familiar with each other, so I will glue myself to you until you have to peel off your dirty police uniform and lose your job!”
Dong Yansheng said:”Tell me how you allied with Liu Xiaobo to conspire to draft Charter 08. Have you changed your attitude?” “You interrogated me on this issue last spring,” I responded. “Today you dragged me here afraid I will receive media interviews. So this topic is irrelevant to your duty today, and I need not answer your questions in this regard. But I tell you, I am just one of the signatories and I didn’t participate in the drafting. I don’t have the research skills or level of theory. You go home and take a good look at the Charter 08, and find out how similar it is to the values that the Chinese Communist Party tried to sell during the 1930s at Yan’an [when the CCP gathered in the Yan’an revolutionary base and prepared themselves to fight the Kuomintang government]. Charter 08 is not reactionary, don’t you understand? ”
I bragged to Dong Yansheng: “My friend Xiao Shu is a famous guy. He compiled all the beautiful words the Communist Party used in an attempt to flatter the Americans when it was trying to overthrow the Kuomintang dictatorship in the 1940s, including many pieces from Xinhua Daily commentaries and official top leaders’ speeches, and published a book titled “Pioneering Voices in History.” But, it was banned by the authorities. Why? Seems the CCP still has a sense of shame. But why did people like you take on the duty and become bloody shameless?”
Dong Yansheng said : “Don’t make yourself believe I have no way to deal with you. I am telling you, the CCP has measures to take care of traitors like you! When you went back and forth to Shijiazhuang city, we carefully recorded all the details, where you went, who you talked to. Sooner or later, we will get you for this! Tell us where you went the other day, whom you met, and what you discussed!”
“I don’t remember,” I responded. “You’ve taken such good notes, so why bother asking me again?” “I want YOU to tell me!” “I just won’t, what are you going to do to me?”
Dong Shansheng and Wang Yigang have both asked me: “Hey, why did Norway give the award to Liu Xiaobo? How much money will that award bring then? He has no way to go abroad, who will go to help him pick up the award then? How will you folks split the money? You’re all so greedy.” I answered: “Those five old men, they are free from government control, they can give the money to whomever they want to, and this year, they decided to grant the award to this big ‘stammerer’.” [Editor’s note: Liu Xiaobo stammers and his friends joke him about this]. Also a man like Liu Xiaobo, he can keep his cool on things like this. This is called going down in history, you understand?”
At six o’clock in the evening, the domestic security officers dragged me to the public security station, and Dong Yansheng arrived soon after. I was still in a bad mood: “Your men broke the law!” “Here you go again! What did they do to break the law? Whatever we do to you will never be understood as violating the law. We are taking out a summons against you according to the law! We have power, we can take out a summons on you whenever we want!” “Where is your legal procedure then? Do you have it?” “Oral authorization! I tell you, we have all the authorization we need! Procedure is easy!” “Easy? Then why can’t you show it to me?”

Dong Yangsheng coaxed me, showing tough mercy: “Making money is good, isn’t it?” he said. “With such good conditions and so much space, all of us in the system have actually given you a lot of face. Do you really believe you grew so successful solely on your own?”
I yield to neither coercion or persuasion. I said: “Money is good, but how much is enough? I have never gotten favors from anybody, I made my success because of my own efforts.” I heard Wang Yigang exhale loudly, so I turned around, stared at him, saying: ”What’s up? You don’t agree? Do you believe if you take off your uniform, you are nothing?
I also tried to persuade him: ”You haven’t made good money but have developed quite a lot of faults. You deserve to be made a scapegoat. You’re running around blindly but never know what you are running after, and you are not allowed to ask. Why do you have to jump up and down like this? What’s the reward? I know in your system, there is no place for reasoning, but do you want to be promoted? I can give you some tips. Old Dong, you are a deputy director, if you want to become the chief, the only shortcut is to hire two murderers to kill the incumbent chief.”
I complained to Old Dong that Wang Yigang had injured my left shoulder, but he tried to protect his team by playing dumb. He said: “If you are embarrassed to cooperate with us, you should just be flexible. Don’t strike back when they are trying to catch you. If you hit back, they no doubt have to use force. Hey you,” he shouted at his team buddies. “If Old Pu resists again, you should do the same thing again!”
I tried to change the topic by saying. “Once again, today you acted in bad faith. You spent three hours asking for orders from your superiors but still failed. You tell me do you really have authority or you are also just a running dog?”
By October 11th, I was notified that one of my cases would open trial in Yichun City. That afternoon, Dong came. “You have a court hearing to go to?” he asked. “Yes.” “They sent you a summons?” “No, they didn’t.” “No? Then how did you know it?” “My colleagues told me.” “How did they pass you the information?” “ Via email.” He put on a long face, “You used the Internet? Who approved you to use the Internet?” I got angry: “I did use the Internet! So what? Did I break the law? Who said I couldn’t use the Internet? It’s you who broke the law and I am going to write all of this down and make it public!” “Absolutely don’t write it now!” “Then fine, I will write it right after I am freed! ”
Following the quarrel on October 11th, Dong started to have a heart-to-heart chat: “Just between us, I am here for your own good, to let you reflect and do thought work on you; this is still based on your rescue.” “Thank you so much! The relationship between the CCP and me should be categorized as enemy contradiction, but you are handling it as an internal conflict. On the other hand, any problems that surface among the people in this country should fall into internal conflicts while you police handle them as enemies. Since when did you police officers start to manage people’s thoughts? You want to manage my thoughts? You must be joking. There is only one guy surnamed Dong who could do this, but he was bombed to hell a long time ago. [Editor’s note: In the CCP’s revolutionary history textbook, a PLA solder named Dong Cunrui was commemorated as a model of selfless sacrifice, after he lost his life in a battle against the Kuomingtang military.]

On October 10th, Dong was feeling magnificent. “You listen to me!” he said. “I tell you, you should be clear about the current situation and don’t brag to me!” “It’s you who are talking big! “ I interrupted. “Remember,” I said, “ I am f***in awesome! I bet you dare not use force on me, nor is it necessary to use forced interrogation, because I have made my actions and behavior extremely clear to you. So let’s see what are you going to do? You don’t even have legal authorization, but have bullied me, and you dare to talk big with me?!”
By 5:30pm, October 11th afternoon, Old Dong stood up and said : “OK, you can go on your business trip now. Have a good trip but don’t receive media interviews!” “On a specific topic or on everything?” I asked. “On the case of Liu Xiaobo!” he said. “No, I cannot agree,” I responded. “If you dare to talk to the media…” he said, but I once again stopped him by asking, “Then what? You will run to the northeast to arrest me?” “You will pay as soon as you get back!” he responded. “Nonsense,” I said. “All you can do is “triple-accompany” me, anything else? How will I pay? Hah, Old Dong, your words can be really tough!”
“I won’t waste my damn time talking with you,” he said.

I just refreshed my memory, the second half of the conversation with Dong Yansheng was on the afternoon of October 12th, not 11th, sorry. Actually he is not a bad man. He is from the background of criminal police and good at what he does, and basically kind to his buddies and even enemies like me. It is not easy to be in the domestic security police force. He is just in the role of a police officer, so he and I always clash. Once he overcomes his own mental block, I believe we eventually will be friends
The painting is a 16th Century Dutch painting of The Lawyer's Office

wine, women and books

The Saturday weekend clean-up drove me out of the apartment – and I went to check first what refrigerators (what a word!) are on offer which can actually fit our tiny flat (no more than 56 centrimetres across to get into the small verandah) - and picked up some lovely (purple) Turkish figs at a nearby market. The greenish/white figs I found growing on the Baku tress transformed my attitude to that fruit. And I also managed to find some Iran dates – which are so easy to find in Sofia. Hope to use them for my red cabbage recipe. The next step was to check the quality of the wine (a very challenging task!) on offer in the Matache area – a rather down and out part of the city very near the Gara de Nord where there are several shops which have barrels of wine fot tasting from several different wine areas – the best are Dealul Mare and Recas.
The first Degustare I visited specialises in the first area (Urlati to be precise)– and they offered me both red and white Pelin. Reluctantly I agreed to taste the red – I had been a devotee of this quasi-Vermouth when I first tasted its white version in Bulgaria but have subsequently gone off it. But the Romanian red variety is actually very tasty. I was also persuaded to buy 2 litres of Feteasca Alba and Cabernet Sauvigon but was not quite convinced I had quite the same quality as the wine cellar in Rasnov offers so I went round the corner to the Recas (on Danube) shop and found a superb Riesling-Pinot Gris mixture – all for less than 2 euros litre.
My recent writing efforts have been interrupted by hilarious gusts of laughter (and unsolicited translations) from my partner who bought an EM Cioran book a couple of days ago as we were waiting for the dreadful Russian film on Beria. Cioran, although born in rural Romania, lived in Paris all his adult life in cultivated poverty wrote disjointed pessimistic and absurdist epithets which you enjoy, I am assured, by not taking them seriously. Here, for me, is a typical one -
"I seem to myself, among civilized men, an intruder, a troglodyte enamored of decrepitude, plunged into subversive prayers."
I am told that this is not typical – so, from the 151 Cioran quotes available on internet, let me offer another
"Never to have occasion to take a position, to make up one's mind, or to define oneself - there is no wish I make more often."
I prefer the verse of Marin Sorescu – whose Asking Too Much is one of my favourite poems. Thanks to Michael Hamburger and the Poetry Foundation, here it is
Suppose that, to give a few lectures,
daily you had to commute
between Heaven and Hell:
what would you take with you?’

‘A book, a bottle of wine and a woman, Lord.
Is that asking too much?’

‘Too much. We’ll cross out the woman,
she would involve you in conversations,
put ideas into your head,
and your preparation would suffer.’

‘I beseech you, cross out the book,
I’ll write it myself, Lord, if only
I have the bottle of wine and the woman.
That’s my wish and my need. Is it too much?’

‘You’re asking too much.
What, supposing that daily,
to give a few lectures, you had
to commute between Heaven and Hell, would
you take with you?’

‘A bottle of wine and a woman,
if I may make so free.’
‘That’s what you wanted before, don’t be obstinate,
it’s too much, as you know. We’ll cross out the woman.’

‘What do you have against her, why do you persecute her?
Cross out the bottle rather,
wine weakens me, almost leaves me unable
to draw from my loved one’s eyes
inspiration for those lectures.’

Silence, for minutes
or an eternity.
Respite. In which to forget.

‘Well, suppose that to give
a few lectures you had to commute
daily between Heaven and Hell:
what would you take with you?’

‘A woman, Lord, if I may make so free.’
‘You’re asking too much, we’ll cross out the woman.’
‘In that case cross out the lectures rather,
cross out Hell and Heaven for me,
it’s either all or nothing.
Useless and vain my commuting would be between Heaven
and Hell.
How could I even begin to frighten and awe
those poor creatures in Hell -
without teaching aid, the woman?
How strengthen the faith of the righteous in Heaven -
without the book’s exegesis?
How endure all the differences
in temperature, light and pressure
between Heaven and Hell
if I have no wine
on the way
to give me a bit of courage?’

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Opportunistic theory of change

I left the mid-October discussion about public sector reform in transition countries rather hanging in the air. It was triggered by a review of Tom Gallagher’s recent book about Romania and its accession to the EU – reminding us all how skilfully, for 20 years, the political class has been able to resist external reform exhortations, drawing on the collective skills the country’s elites have developed over the generations in minimising external efforts at control or influence - whether from Moscow or Constantinople. And, of the other countries I know well, a recent report on Azerbaijan and article on Uzbekistan remind us how many traditional power structures have been able to maintain themselves.
I left the discussion with three draft questions -
• what advice would I give anyone looking to undertake real reform of such kleptocracies as Romania or Azerbaizan?
• How can such people be encouraged - what examples can we offer of government reform programmes actually making a difference?
• How can the effort to ensure good government be sustained in such countries – given the strength of financial and commercial systems and the iron law of oligrachy?

We have to face the possibility that technical assistance in these countries does little more than give the younger political elite a different political vocabulary to use in their grab for power. An interesting book I was able to download recently from the World Bank site Governance Reforms under real world conditions is written around the sorts of questions we consultants deal with on a daily basis -
1. How do we build broad coalitions of influentials in favour of change? What do we do about powerful vested interests?
2. How do we help reformers transform indifferent, or even hostile, public opinion into support for reform objectives?
3. How do we instigate citizen demand for good governance and accountability to sustain governance reform?
The paper by Matthew Andrews which starts part 2 of the book weaves a very good theory around 3 words – acceptance, authority and ability.

Is there acceptance of the need for change and reform?
• of the specific reform idea?
• of the monetary costs for reform?
• of the social costs for reformers?
• within the incentive fabric of the organization (not just with individuals)?

Is there authority:
• does legislation allow people to challenge the status quo and initiate reform?
• do formal organizational structures and rules allow reformers to do what is needed?
• do informal organizational norms allow reformers to do what needs to be done?

Is there ability: are there enough people, with appropriate skills,
• to conceptualize and implement the reform?
• is technology sufficient?
• are there appropriate information sources to help conceptualize, plan, implement, and institutionalize the reform?

A diagram shows that each of these plays a different role at the 4 stages of conceptualisation, initiation, transition and institutionalisation and that it is the space of overlapping circles that the opportunity for change occurs. “Reform space”, at the intersection of acceptance, authority, and ability, determines how much can be achieved. However the short para headed - Individual champions matter less than networks – was the one that hit nerves.
The individual who connects nodes is the key to the network but is often not the one who has the technical idea or who is called the reform champion. His or her skill lies in the ability to bridge relational boundaries and to bring people together. Development is fostered in the presence of robust networks with skilled connectors acting at their heart.
My mind was taken back almost 30 years when, as the guy in charge of Strathclyde Region’s strategy to combat deprivation but using my academic role, I established what I called the urban change network and brought together once a month a diverse collection of officials and councillors of different councils in the West of Scotland, academics and NGO people to explore how we could extend our understanding of what we were dealing with – and how our policies might make more impact. It was, I think, the single most effective thing I ever did. I still have the tapes of some of the discussions – one, for example, led by Professor Lewis Gunn on issues of implementation!
A few years back, I developed for the lectures I gave to middle managers in these kleptomanic states what I called an “opportunistic” theory of change

• “Windows of opportunity present themselves - from outside the organization, in crises, pressure from below
• reformers have to be technically prepared, inspire confidence – and able to seize and direct the opportunity
• Others have to have a reason to follow
• the new ways of behaving have to be formalized in new structures
Laws, regulations and other policy tools will work if there are enough people who want them to succeed. And such people do exist. They can be found in Parliaments (even in tame and fixed parliaments, there are individual respected MPs impatient for reform); Ministries of Finance; have an interest in policy coherence; NGOs; Younger generation – particularly in academia, policy shops and the media
The question is how they can become a catalytic force for change – and what is the legitimate role in this of donors?”
I have the weekend to see if I have anything to offer the next NISPAcee Conference which takes place in may just down the road - at Varna on the Black Sea. Since delivering the critical paper on TA in 2006, they have actually set up a working group on this issue and I really should do a follow up paper. But what?

Friday, October 29, 2010

Vegetable markets

Vegetable markets are always good at this time of year – but Bulgarian and Romanian ones particularly so with the richness of their produce shown at best in the sunny, blue skies. I’m just back from a trip to the new Obor market which lays the products out according to their county (Judet) of origin. The cauliflowers were particularly superb – and even brocoli so cheap. Bucharest markets, of course, are no match for the Tashkent ones – with their prestigious rows of nuts and spices - let alone the pickled delicacies offered by the Korean women whose families were stranded there (and in Kyrgyzstan) decades ago by Stalin. And it is Bulgarian vegetables which are, rightly, famed here for their superiority (with the plain between Georgiu and Bucharest being populated by Bulgarian vegetable growers). The year I spent in Sofia I lost all my bad cholestorol thanks to the vegetable regime I had – if it was too early for their superb large tomatoes (threatened, I’m told, by EU regulations) and leeks, then Turkish and Greek vegetables rolled up easily from over the borders).
Sofia, in my view, should be one of the pin-ups of the slow food movement. The modest grid-iron system which is its centre developed after the 2nd WW bombing; has kept cars in their place; and created small spaces which old and young alike have been able to use to pursue their dreams – whether shops where they sell the clothes they design themselves, micro art galleries, tobacco, wine cellars . Only in Sofia and Tashkent could I boast my own wine merchant – in Sofia a tiny step-down cellar on Bvd Stambouslska which had a few barrels and cases of select wine at such reasonable prices (in Tashkent a medical doctor who was experimenting in Pashkent – an hour’s drive from Tashkent – with mountain herbs and wines and brought bottles of the latter to me weekly to taste). Perhaps, however, I have now at last found one here in Romania. Although the area around the Bucuresti Gara de Nord has various wine shops with wine from the barrel, none compares with the small wine cellar I found recently in Rasnov (between Brasov and Fundata). They offer wines from my favourite area – Dealul Mare – just north of Ploiesti – and the dry whites and reds are quite spectacular at less than 2 euros a litre)
The open market in central Sofia (down from the mosque and synagogue) is in a really down-at-heel area which I feel will soon spring up again like the some of the old Viennese market squares I saw 20 years ago. Unlike Bucharest, it has quite a few Arab shops where incredible ingredients can be bought. One of the other (many) delights of Sofia are the serious coffee-drinking cafes (particularly the smoking one behind the National Art Gallery) – or of the sight of people carrying their coffee in the street. I have never been a smoker – but I feel that the anti-smoking drive has gone too far!
One final comment about vegetables. I remember very vividly from my childhood my mother’s jam-making. It is something which I therefore respect – and which I am so pleased to see continued here in Romania. At this time of the year it is something which Daniela (who normally leaves the cooking to me) spends time on. As she says, it is one of the ways her parents kept the family alive in winter. It reminds me of one of the jokes I read in the Ben Lewis book on Hammer and Tickle I am now reading – “why was Ceaucescu particularly keen on the first May celebrations?” Because he wanted to see how many Romanians had survived the winter!
And, while we're on the subject of agriculture, here is an excellent post

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

One less good man in Romania

Romania lost this week someone it can ill-afford to lose – Ion Olteanu – whom I first met 15 (?) years ago in a small office in the prestigious Office of Government just round the corner at Piata Victoreii. He had been made a State Secretary - with a background not in politics or civil service but in philosophy and the voluntary sector. Indeed he was one of the founding fathers of the real aspects of that sector here – with a strong commitment to help younger people get involved in politics. Establishing youth parliaments in various parts of the country was very much his life – with all the European networking and fund-raising that involved. And his job in the Government Office was to help the government sector understand how to dialogue with and use properly the skills and energy of the voluntary sector. After a few years, he returned to full-time work with youth – with all the minimal finance that gave. To visit the family house was always amazing – with the rooms bulging with files, visitors and – open friendship.
A heavy smoker, he was diagnosed two years ago with lung cancer – but continued to the end to work. And we never heard any complaint.
We never appreciate our friends sufficiently – until they are gone. May God forgive us – and give Ion the mix of serenity and philosophical exchange which he would want and which he deserves!

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Russians are coming

I have warned that the combination of Bucharest and the small flat is not conducive to thought and blogging. My first day back was spent cooking, arguing and browsing the bookshops – and a small art gallery. This morning I was diverted from the auction which was at 11.00 to one of the films in the special Russian film festival (under the title Vin Rusii) being held here. Days of Eclipse (made in 1988 by Alexandr Sokorov) is one of the most stunning films I have ever seen. Shot essentially in sepia (with occasional colour) and with an amazing soundtrack of asian and western music (fusing in the last few minutes of its 2 hour duration, it is based in the a village in rural Tajikistan – showing (in the words of the Strictly Film School website on which I now draw) “an unassimilated culture foundering in the vacuum of an imposed, meaningless, ritualized order”.
The reluctant witness to this soul-sapping, Dante-esque existential limbo is the young, idealistic physician Malyanov (Aleksei Ananishnov) who, at the instigation of the government in its push to modernize the rural Asiatic territories, relocated from Gorky in order to set up a clinic in the village. Ethnically and linguistically unassimilated into the local culture (and whose advice and medical practice are largely ignored by the impoverished villagers), his limited interaction with the outside world is relegated to the company of other kindred exiles: his suicidal neighbor, an underemployed engineer demoralized by the futility of his unrealized plans and who has been occupying his time by writing journals that no one else reads (a ritual that is paralleled in Malyanov's own perpetual typing of unsubmitted reports to pass the time); his estranged sister who questions his determination in continuing his practice in the village despite the profound isolation and disappointment of his empty, mind-numbing station; a cherubic, lost boy (who may have been abandoned or ran away from home out of hunger or abuse) who insinuates himself into Malyanov's care; his aimless and increasingly paranoid friend who continues to bear the residual psychological scars of generational trauma after his parents were driven from Russia during the Stalinist purges.
Sokorov is apparently one of the heirs of Tarkovsky – one of whose films I hope to see tomorrow. And such Directors knock not only all American but most European Directors into a cocked hat (admittedly I remain so impressed by Tree of the Wooden Clogs that I have managed to get a copy now for Sirnea). The film was not only monochrome but very poor quality; the actors for the most part unknown; and the scenes of poverty (and imbecility) quite distressing – and yet the totality was riveting.

A good discussion about some books on the Chinese future

Friday, October 22, 2010

competing elites, confucianism and group-grid theory

Yesterday’s post made the point that the UK budget cuts of 81 billion pounds over the next 4 years are as much ideological as financial in intent. Colin Talbot’s Whitehall Watch makes two important points – first that welfare, defence and the criminal justive system have taken the brunt of the cuts rather than education or health .
And, second, the extent too which government leaders have reneged on what they promised during the April election campaign eg on student fees.
How far we need to cut is the really big issue that has been obscured by the ‘how fast’ cyclical debate and to which we still don’t have a full answer. Nick Clegg and other have been emphasising the four-year Spending Plan (up to 2014-15) only takes public spending down to 41% of GDP, the same of New Labour’s proportion in 2006. True, but that’s already 2% points below the 50-year average (43%) and more to the point the Government plans are still headed downwards after 2014-15. They are planning to cut still further in 2015-16, even after they have balanced the books, stripping out another £15bn or so of public spending and taking us down to under 40% of GDP. How much further do they want to go is the real question? Are we heading for a qualitative “rolling back of the frontiers of the state”? So far we don’t have a clear answer, but the indications suggest we are.
If so this does represent a massive change in policy for the Conservatives and their Liberal Democrat allies. It was only three years ago that the Tories were happily signed up to matching Labour’s spending plans (then at about 41% of GDP) and the Lib Dems wanted to spend even more! No talk then about public spending “crowding out” the private sector or the state being too big. Shrinking the size of the state is a perfectly legitimate policy aim – but it is not one anyone voted for at the last Election because none of the three main parties put it forward.
The British public has never had a high opinion of its political masters – and respect sunk to a new low after the revelations of MP expense claims. Now, however, a critical link has been blown away from the chain of argument for representative democracy. When you promise several things in manifestos and campaign statements and then do the opposite only a few months later (with no changes in conditions to be able to use as justification) then you have destroyed the basis for political legitimacy. Now we have at last, in the full light of day, the Schumpeterian system of democracy – one of „competing elites”. The role of the unwashed public is simply to choose (on whatever basis – looks or trust) who will govern us – not in any way to influence what they will subsequently do. The one problem in such a political system that the elites then have no real legitimacy – ie no reason to expect us to obey them – as the French (and indeed Chinese) have long recognised with their traditions of popular mobilisation and government retreats.
Seen in this light, differences between Chinese and most western systems relate less to the operation of the formal political system than to the issue of freedom of citizen and media expression. Most European governments are coalitions of parties (in which policies are hammered out in secrecy after elections). And the monopoly Chinese communist party has 75 million members after all. Political parties are simply the mechanism for selecting leaders who then negotiate policies (within adminstrative, financial and political constraints which are fairly similar everywhere). I have to confess some growing sympathy for the Confucian idea of leadership selection discussed by Daniel A Bell – whereby they are formally groomed according to clear criteria. At the moment, political leadership is subject to the „accidental”or „fatalist” principle (to use the language of grid-group theory; for example, noone designed George W Bush – he just emerged from a tortuous process and series of accidental events! Confucianism uses a more deliberative and hierarchical process to try to select leaders who are judges to have the qualities reckoned to be needed for leadership. As someone with strong anarchistic leanings, I should be drawn more to the fatalist school – but I simply don’t like the results!
The real difference between systems seems in fact to be how openly critical the public and the media are allowed to be – and this has got 2 dimensions. First the amount of actual choice on offer in the media (very limited in the USA where all media channels are basically owned by 4 companies); and, second, the consequences of adopting dissent positions (very harsh in China).

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Coalition Government's 100 billion cut

From the priest’s chants, it appears that it is yet another feast day? So I limit the external work to reducing the large pile of branches outside the house to sackloads of sticks which I store in the backroom – and to carrying the very light stuff to the track at the bottom of the garden for burning. No power saw today! I don’t want to scandalise the neighbours!
I’m glad that Craig Murray is back blogging again – after some major house rehabilitation apparently. He has a brief remark on the UK Coalition budget which has just announced 100 billion of public spending cuts over the next 4 years.
The Comprehansive Spending Review announced today is designed to bring public spending back to the same level in real terms that it was in 2006/2007. It is not radical. It is not nearly radical enough. The state sector is much.much too large in this country. We could have a much smaller public sector which at the same time was much more effective at wealth redistribution. 500,000 public sector job cuts hardly scratches the surface of needed reductions in our ludicrous bureaucracies. The Private Finance Initiative, Internal Market mechanisms, fee and academy schools - and their hordes of accountants and administrators should all go and be replaced bysimple direct provision of necessary services. Local income tax should fun over half of public spending, decided upon and provided close to the point of delivery. And the UK should be broken up anyway.
Murray does know what he’s talking about – having been an HM Ambassador and also Vice-Chancellor of a University.

There is some confusion about how much of the financial debt of the british Government comes from the banking bailout; how much from the significant increased public spending of the previous 5 or so years which Brown chose and thought would be covered by economic growth which was torpedoed by the global meltdown; and how much from the welfare consequences of the economic decline of the past 2 years. But a recent blog did an excellent job of exposing some myths being perpetrated by the government. And the BBC economics correspondent - Stephanie Flanders - whose blog I have only today discovered - cast the appropriate light on the confusion. And it is consistent with Craig Murray's argument.
What, however, seems clear is that the coalition is using the consensus about the crisis to push through an ideological agenda. The maverick John Grey has a good post on this. And both the increase in the budget of the International Development Department and the sacle of the cutback of the BBC budget are proof of that.
Prospect magazing gives an interesting insight into how of the influentials see the problem and its solution - as well as an overdue comment about the money which tighening up tax avoidance could realise.

I thought something interesting was going to happen when 37 Conservative MPs indicated they would vote last week against the latest, utterly unacceptable demand from the EU for an increased budget. But it was not to be. What sort of planet is the European Commisison living on to expect increased budget when all members are reducing their budgets – and what sort of pusillanimous creatures are the various EU national governments made of to accept increased payments to a system which pays its officials such salaries, pensions and severance payments???? Actually it's worse than that - the EU for leading member state politicians and officials is like heaven - a better place to go after their life in national systems finished. So they have an interest in the totally immoral level of payments - open and hidden.
I’ve been wanting for some time to write about this. Open Europe does a good job of exposing the various nonsenses. See also BBC Gavin Hewett's comment.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

party control and discipline

I paced myself better yesterday – with an hour’s sawing session in the morning and another in the afternoon. But another couple of sessions are needed before all the wood is neatly stored away. And I’m pleased to say that my new window is now complete – the old wooden flaps protecting the frames were duly hammered into place after the foam was trimmed.
There is absolutely no planning system here in Romania – so I shouldn’t have been surprised to see a small hotel beginning to emerge at the top of the hill opposite the house. It would be impossible anywhere else in the EU to get permission for such a development. Like 2 other houses on the same stretch which mushroomed last year, it will have superb vistas of the valleys which contain Moiecu and Bran but will impose demands on water which the system is incapable of coping with and will also probably interfere with pedestrian rights. I’m tempted to take civic action – after all I do pay the local taxes! One of the reasons for not lopping branches off the tree I was advised to trim is because its leaves mask that hill from my study window!
And a nice little story In Transition Online about one Romanian MP’s attempt to control journalists!

An article in the current issue of London Review of Books summarises how the communist party in China works
Nominations to key posts – in Party and state organs, but also in large companies – are made first by a Party body, the Central Organisation Department, whose headquarters in Beijing have no listed phone number and no sign outside. Their decisions, once made, are passed to legal organs – state assemblies, managerial boards – which then go through the ritual of confirming them by vote. The same double procedure – first the Party, then the state – obtains at every level, including fundamental economic policy, which is first debated by the Party, and its decisions then implemented by government bodies.
So what’s new? For my sins, I was, for 16 years, Secretary of the Labour Group on Strathclyde Regional Council in Scotland. Each Monday morning all the Council Chairmen would meet to consider an agenda which had been drawn up by myself and the Council Head. These consisted of key items which were coming up for discussion in the various Committees of the Council in the forthcoming week. Our recommendations would then be put in the afternoon to a meeting of all 70-odd of the Labour Councillors on the Council. These were generally accepted and this then became the line which would be taken at those Committees. And that, of course, is how the House of Commons operates. Such whipping has had a bad press – but, at a local level, certainly it was one way to avoid corruption. And, once we accept the case for parties, it is difficult to argue against the need for party discipline – which is supposed to ensure that you get what you vote for. So I think we have to be very clear about what we find so objectionable about the operations of the Chinese Communist Party. Every political system has a small group which gives strategic guidance; that is not the issue. What is at issue are such things as the secrecy (uncontestability) with which the process is conducted; and the incorporation of the judiciary, police and army into party control as the article indicates.
The gap between Party and state is most obvious in the anti-corruption struggle: when there is suspicion that some high functionary is involved in corruption, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, a Party organ, investigates the charges unrestricted by legal niceties: suspects are liable to be kidnapped, subjected to harsh interrogation and held for as long as six months. The verdict eventually reached will depend not only on the facts but also on complex behind the scenes negotiations between different Party cliques, and if the functionary is found guilty, only then is he handed over to the state legal bodies. But by this stage everything is already decided and the trial is a formality – only the sentence is (sometimes) negotiable
An excerpt here from the book produced in June about The Party (by the Financial Times journalist in Beijing) puts the system in a useful comparative context.
Like communism in its heyday elsewhere, the Party in China has eradicated or emasculated political rivals; eliminated the autonomy of the courts and press; restricted religion and civil society; denigrated rival versions of nationhood; centralized political power; established extensive networks of security police; and dispatched dissidents to labor camps.
The original text of the Charter 08 document for which the latest Nobel Peace Prize winner was put in jail can be found here and also a useful summary of the latest developments. Foreign Affairs has a useful overview of the general Chinese situation -
Increased misappropriation of land, rising income inequality, and corruption are among the most contentious issues for Chinese society. China’s State Development Research Center estimates that from 1996 to 2006, officials and their business cronies illegally seized more than 4,000 square miles of land per year. In that time, 80 million peasants lost their homes. Yu Jianrong, a senior government researcher, has said that land issues represent one of the most serious political crises the CCP faces.
From 1996 to 2006, Chinese officials and their business cronies illegally seized more than 4,000 square miles of land per year. In that time, 80 million peasants lost their home.
China’s wealth gaps have also grown; according to Chinese media, the country’s GINI coefficient, a measure of income inequality, has risen to about 0.47. This level rivals those seen in Latin America, one of the most unequal regions in the world. The reality may be even worse than the data suggest. Wang Xiaolu, the deputy director of the National Economic Research Institute at the China Reform Foundation, estimates that every year about $1.3 trillion in income -- equivalent to 30 percent of China’s GDP -- goes unreported. More than 60 percent of the hidden income belongs to the wealthiest ten percent of China’s population, mostly CCP members and their families. The use of political power to secure inordinate wealth is a source of considerable resentment, and the wealthy are keenly aware of it. They now employ more than two million bodyguards, and the private security industry has grown into a $1.2 billion enterprise since it was established in 2002.
Since 1999, when China’s senior leadership amended the constitution to protect private property and allow capitalists to join the CCP, the CCP has embarked on a program of internal political reform. It has strengthened collective decision-making, established principles for balancing factional interests, developed rules for succession to leadership posts within the party, and improved the system for internal promotions so that performance is considered in addition to political factors. Although the CCP suppresses external critics, it now permits its own members to debate its political future openly, especially within the Central Party School, which trains China’s future leaders.
In pursuing intraparty reform, CCP officials have become more sensitive to the need to win support from within the party and from society to remain in power. Competition for wider support has encouraged some officials to endorse local experiments in political reform, but reforms that increase competition and openness also carry risks.
But although ongoing experiments with village elections have somewhat improved oversight and accountability at the grass-roots level, the CCP has refused to scale the experiments up to the township or county level. Experimentation with increasing public participation in township-level politics, such as budget decisions, has likewise been limited.
My better half phoned me today to ask about two 18th century French novels by Diderot I had never heard of. – Jacques the fatalist and Rameau’s Nephew. Both looked fascinating when I looked at them on googlebooks – so they have duly been ordered from Amazon. She also asked about a Montaigne essay on „salutory failures” which I can’t actually find in his Complete Works but the query has encouraged me to keep this vast book nearer to hand and also to complete the charming book on his work by Sara Bakewell which I bought at the beginning of the year

problems pasting word text into blog

Today, suddently, I wasn't able to paste my copied word text into the blog. A quick consultation on google gave me the answer -
This is very simple, try this. In Blogger you have two tabs on the screen "Edit Html" and "Compose". Paste into the "Edit Html", NOT the "Compose". That will fix the error
It worked - and is useful to know - but why did it suddeenly happen?

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

What was the question, again?

My bones are aching as I write this – after a day of sawing, gathering and storing the branches of the two remaining limbs of the corner tree which, with another, stands guard over the front of the house. A power saw (Druzhba „friend”in Romanian) is quite tiring to use for this sort of work – as you are using all sorts of angles and levels to get at the branches of the trunk as they lie in the grass. No need for dumb-bells and Ten Minute Body Exercises with this sort of work! Fortunately the brick soba in the bedroom is at almost sauna heat - after only a basket-full of logs during the day – and will retain the warmth in the room for 36 hours with no further logs needed. And the wood from the 2 trunks will probably be all I need over the winter months for the occasional visits. Talk about self-sufficiency!
I am being advised to cut the limbs of the remaining tree – but I quite like the leaves at the attic window and at our verandah! So I will probably keep that until next year (Insallah!). A young neighbour shinned up the ladder to put the foam in the window frame – and also brought down the 2 limbs for me. He is one of several quasi-slaves many of these villages have – someone with no real home but kept in a house for a measly wage. Both are pleasant individuals in their 30s with little education who do all the dirty work – and have absolutely no prospects. It is the guy’s aunt who employs him and he has some rights to what is his parent’s house if only he would pursue them. Tomorrow he will return to finish the window frames – and I am being advised to pay him no more than 10 euros. I could use him to lengthen two of our chimneys – but it isn’t easy to persuade his „owner” to release him – he could get ideas above his station!

Revenons aux moutons – namely the questions which should be the focus of any inquiry about social improvements . On further reflection, I think the questions need considerable adjustment. All the change literature - some of which is summarised at pages 47-50 of the annotated bibliography for change agents on my website - tells us that people have first to be convinced that something is wrong; only then are they ready to consider a particular programme – which has, ideally, to be developed with their positive engagement. My recent posts have taken an egocentric view (looking at the issue from someone who has been convinced from an early age that the system is rotten – a common fault of impatient and over-confident reformers). Succesful change-agents start not from their own perspectives but from that of the larger population who need to go through the following stages -
• Judging the situation unacceptable
• Wanting to make sense of it
• Distrusting the conventional wisdom
• Learning to trust some perceptions and advice
• Getting involved
• Refining their understanding, trust and judgement about appropriate next steps
So it looks as if a Tolstoyan triple whammy of questions is out! I note that Robert Quinn’s very interesting Change the World is not in that list – so I will need to update it.
While I am thinking about the most appropriate questions for this inquiry let me indicate the direction in which the previous questions took me
• I feel that an important question is phrased along the lines of - what programme elements (drawing partly on the famous diagram on my website) might actually help release and sustain people power in a way which will force the corruption of modern elites to make significant and lasting concessions? France has a long tradition of taking to the streets (witness the last few days) – and winning concessions. But patently this is too negative, piecemeal and exclusive (to French citizens). A more global alternative has been the subject of so many endeavours – for example Envisioning Real Utopias which seems to be a very rigorous exploration which includes a look at the Mondragon cooperatives. The book can actually be downloaded from the link I give.
• The second question – where do we find examples that can persuade a wide audience that there is an alternative – actually is part of the first question! It would therefore seem to need rephrasing along the following lines - What processes offer the best prospects for engaging a sigificant number of citizens in a new vision? The Social Forum (Porto Alegre) had a huge impact in its day but seems to have run out of steam - precisely when its vision was most needed! I have just started to read Paul Kingsnorth’s very well written, sympathetic 2004 treatment of the various parts of the anti-global movement
• Only the Greens (and particularly the Germans) have properly recognised and tried to deal with the problem of the corruption of leadership (the iron law of oligarchy) by circulating leadership positions (as do the Swiss). However, I understand that the German Greens have now scrapped this practice.

Monday, October 18, 2010

A Fine Mess

Let me clarify - the pessimism I feel about the performance capacity of governments relates to my experience and understanding of (a) the UK system since 1968 (when I started my councillor role which was to extend for 22 years) and (b) the so-called transition countries of Europe, Caucusus and Central Asia in which I have worked and lived for the past 20 years.
I have a more open mind about the situation of the Scandinavian countries (in one of which I have briefly worked and lived); of Federal Germany and of the consenual Netherlands (although consensual Belgium and Austria have been disasters). But the UK system has become ever more centralised and adversarial in my lifetime - and these two characteristics seem to me to affect the chances of policy success in the country –
• Policies are imposed – rather than negotiated or thought through
• They are often very poorly designed (eg the poll-tax; rail privatisation; the whole Stalinist target system – with all the counterproductivities that involves)
• Ministers have a high turnover rate (Ministers of Finance excepted)
• Implementation is very poor (see agency theory)
• Morale of public servants is low (political hostility; targets; frequency and number of new initiatives; crude management)
• Changes in government lead to cancellation of programmes

Governance arrangements as a whole do not excite much interest in Britain – but issues relating to the operation of the political system (and of what is felt to be the disenfranchisement of the citizen) do. Concerns about the British political system were so great that a highly ironic report on the operation of the British system was published by Stuart Weir and Democratic Audit to coincide with the launch of the campaign. A very good blog put the campaign (and its prospects) in a useful wider context. If you go back to the diagram at the end of key paper 5 on my website, the electoral system (box 4 top left) is actually only one of 10 sub-systems which have a bearing on the operations of public policies. But (as the 2nd of my blog masthead quotes indicates) it is probably of supreme importance. Which is why the political system so rarely gets reformed (apart from local government!)
I vividly remember a book in the late 1970s (Google does not go that far back!) which looked at various policy initiatives to try to identify the preconditions for successful social policy-making (feasibility and support were 2 of them) and which could produce only a couple of succesful policy examples - one of which was the Open University (I would add the Scottish Children’s Hearing approach to juvenile justice which was introduced in 1968 and which appears still to be going strong .
I would dare to posit that there was probably a Golden Age of government capacity in the UK – not only further back in time (when the political elite were not assailed by the media, lobbies and think tanks) but also further down in space. David Marquand’s recent magisterial neglected arguments of Leopald Kohr. I appreciate the arguments of Gerry Hassan and Tom Gallagher about the potentially incestuous nature of political systems in a small country (Hassan talks about the bunker mentality) and Belgium, Iceland and Ireland have hardly surrounded themselves recently with glory – but the issue of decentralisation of power must be one of the options countries look at in our present global crisis.

China is in the news again – with its attitude to the award of the Nobel peace prize to Liu Xiaobo. There are (and have been) so many courageous individuals in that country – and now even some older members of the elite are calling for an end to the restrictions of freedom of expression…. I liked the jokes which are now apparently circulating about the situation.
But apparently even the Prime Minister is censored!

As I’ve been writing this, Romanian radio has been playing some Stockhausen which has similarities to Kyrgyz nasal music!!

Sunday, October 17, 2010

a question of political and government autonomy

Old Viciu (he is 83) was very impressive with his dismantling of the old window frame in my study yesterday – sawing a small initial space to get a purchase for the long iron bar which I keep for levering nails and then dispatching each of the supports with a few well-aimed blows. And he was not at all put out when the new frame he had made in his workshop was a couple of centimetres too short (it was a perfect fit across) – a bit of levering and a couple of quickly-split bits of wood to lift the frame and fill the space at the top quickly did the job. What took longer was the (failed) attempt to fill the exterior of the new frame with foam! After erecting the retractible ladder against the rather high wall and making it safe, we discovered that the 4 cans of foam I had were out of date and useless. Then an abortive purchase of a can from a neighbour a few kilometres away (the foam wouldn’t stop pouring as we tried to drive back with it!) We had to dump it and drive to the village and get a couple of cans. By then visitors and the rain had arrived and we realised the foolhardiness of 60 and 80 year olds operating at such heights and postponed things until Monday when hopefully we can find a younger man!

In the evening I hit a major problem when I started to give some thought to one of the three questions posed in the last post – namely what examples can be given of successful government programmes and reform in the past few decades? My three (adjusted) questions are
• what advice would I give anyone looking to undertake real reform of such kleptocracies as Romania or Azerbaizan?
• How can such people be encouraged - what examples can we offer of government reform programmes actually making a difference?
• How can the effort to ensure good government be sustained – given the strength of financial and commercial systems and the iron law of oligarchy? Tolstoy’s three questions were easier to answer!

The first question is easier for me to deal with since I have given it a lot of thought in the last few years and a future post will summarise what I was trying to say in the various papers on my website. Of course it is easy to give advice – Oscar Wilde put it very nicely - „I always pass on good advice. It’s the only thing to do with it!” Real advice, however, deals not only with the what - but with the how! That means being realistic about preconditions – and also being prepared to recognise and exploit opportunities. Its the difference between technicians and politicians. All very opaque – but you can see what I mean if you look at the last part of the first paper on my website – and I will return in later post to the question. For the moment let me just note in passing that one of Tony Bliar’s advisers has just published a book with the fascinating title – The new Machiavelli and how to wield power in the modern world. Which reminds me of Robert Greene’s excellent 48 Laws of Power which an unkind reviewer now tells me is mostly pinched from a 16th century Spanish Jesuit priest Bathasar Gracian
But revenons aux moutons – which might be rephrased as the autonomy of governments and of the actors who are supposed to manage the machinery of government.

And there are really two sets of questions I now find myself wrestling with.
The question I started with was where we might find examples changes in the machinery of government which might be judged to have made a positive difference to the life of a nation. Those wanting to know what precisely I mean by this phrase are invited to look at the diagram on the last page of key paper 5 on my website .
Politicians find it all too easy to set up, merge, transfer, close down ministries, agencies and local government units. It’s almost like a virility symbol – China did it recently when, after some years of study of best practice, they proceeded to set up mega-departments (at a time when the rest of the world thought they were a bad idea!).

The UK coalition is set on merging/ closing down about 150 quangos. One of them is the Audit Commission which was set up in 1982 by a Conservative Government to keep English local authorities on their toes.

The Scottish Education Minister thinks that 32 municipal Education Departments is too many for a country of 5 million people. This in a country which has had its local government system completely replaced twice in the last 30 years! From 650 units to 65 in 1974/5; then again to 32 in 1997. The New Labour Government proudly published a Modernising Government strategy in 1997 which they sustained for the 13 year of their duration. What did it achieve?
Most academics who explore this question are very cynical – Colin Talbot’s book which I reviewed recently is the latest example. My question is whether it is different in transition countries such as Romania and Azerbaijan? They are at a more primitive stage – and some changes in accountability, judicial, electoral and parliamentary systems can presumably make a difference. Why, for example, should Romania have 2 Chambers?

The second question which I found myself wrestling with last night is the extent to which political and administrative leaders (those with formal positions of power) can actually achieve changes which can reasonably be regarded as significant and lasting - and beneficial for the majority of a country’s population?

I came to political activism almost 50 years ago through reading books with such titles as Conviction (1958), Out of Apathy (1960), Suicide of a Nation (1963), The Stagnant Society(1961) and The Future of Socialism (1956) which, I am delighted to see, has been reissued (with a foreward by Gordon Brown).
Fifty years on – after 26 years of Tory rule and 24 years of Labour rule) – we seem to have the same level of dissatisfactionif of a different sort. I vividly remember how the optimistic mood of the early 1970s about social engineering was transformed in a few years.
The academic literature about government overload perhaps captured the mood best (interestingly I can’t find a link for this concept!) – although the community development work to which I was strongly attached (and its connection to the powerful anarchical writings of people like Ivan Illich) also contained its own despair about what government actions could ever achieve. The influential public choice literature was, frankly, off most people’s radar at the time. But these are the main strands of ideology of UK governments over the past 20 years – with Gordon Brown’s tinkerings from the Finance bunker allowing a vestige of social engineering in the field of social policy. Of course Tony Bliar’s Northern Ireland settlement is a good example of what determined government action can achieve - but what else?
I will leave the question in the air for the moment. In the course of drafting this, I have discovered a marvellous political autobiography of this period
Sadly the window in the photo is not mine - it is of one of many wooden churches here (Surdesti actually). Daniela and I do our best to retain the old features of the house but, for once, I opted for something more simple than the ornate.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Romania's stark realities - and what is to be done?

British insularity is such that, over the past century, there have been only a handful of academics with an interest in Romania. In the first two decades of the 20th century it was Robert Seton-Watson – whose contribution to the very existence of Czechoslovakia (as it then became) overshadowed the role he played in Romania’s development. Twenty years or so ago, Dennis Deletant and his wife were important for their contributions to our understanding of the Romanian language and of its infamous security systems. Since then Tom Gallagher has taken up the baton – although with a more aggressive stance toward his subject matter (which he has also adopted to his more recent focus on Scotland)
On a visit last week to Bucharest’s English bookshop, I noticed that Gallagher produced last year a new book about about Romania and its access to the EU. Amazon can generally offer cheaper versions – but my visit to its website gave me the astonishing price of 57 pounds. There was however a very extensive review by a former British Council Lecturer (Christopher Lawson) in Romania during the Communist era (1976-1978) who returned to Iasi at the end of 2003 and now works as a writer-editor. With his kind permission (15 October) I offer the following excerpt from his review - since it gives such a good overview of the country's recent development.
And what impression of the country might a tourist take away in 2010? Western sales engineers descend from planes and gather for breakfast in Romania's international hotels. Shiny high-rise buildings rise in city centres. Well-fed Romanian businessmen attend backslapping Rotary meetings and travel from the provinces by train to the capital in comfortable sleeping compartments, or in sleek new cars which clog the overcrowded roads. The wares on sale in the supermarkets compare with those they are used to in the West. Fresh fish from the Atlantic and the Mediterranean is delivered daily to the French hypermarket chain Carrefour. Young people clad in the latest fashions patronize chic restaurants and cafes, leaving in glossy cars or on Kawasaki motorbikes. Top names come to give concerts in the capital. The nouveaux riches flock to the stadiums and concert halls. Ambitious students seeking their fortunes opt for business or law, and graduate with a good knowledge of English and the Internet. A ruthless win-lose attitude prevails in business.
Meanwhile tens of thousands of peasants live in grinding poverty, with no electricity or running water, while employees of the State, notably teachers and doctors, struggle from month to month. The same kleptocrats, generally Securitate officers who once informed on their fellow-citizens, inheritors of the Stalinist system which once prevailed, sabotage numerous projects to improve the villages. I live on the university hill in Romania's second city. Nearly every time I visit my rubbish dump, I meet poorer residents picking through plastic bottles and discarded clothes. Corruption holds sway, especially in justice, education, medicine and tenders for road construction.
Whatever a "normal" post-Communist country may be, Romania does not count as one, despite appearances to the contrary. Tom Gallagher tells us why.
His new book analyzes those 20 years, especially the more recent ones. Meticulously researched, written with the pace of a thriller, and in the final analysis endlessly depressing, Romania and the European Union confirms Gallagher's position in the front rank of historians of, and commentators on, post-Communist Romania.
The book, Gallagher's third on Romania, documents how old-guard, predatory kleptocrats have continued to enrich themselves, trousering millions, much of it cash from EU funds, while consistently blocking substantial reforms in key ministries. Meanwhile EU officials at all levels, alternatively complacent, deluded, indecisive or just plain feckless and lacking willpower, have, with a few praiseworthy exceptions, allowed Romania into the world's most successful economic and political grouping without having made these vitally necessary reforms. Brussels was deceived.
So-called European Social Democrat leaders share the blame. Many praised Romanian leaders whose corrupt behaviour shrieked to the skies. In particular, it is clear that the acceptance of the PSD, the former Communists, into the international centre-left family of the Socialist International was a catastrophic error.
The Romanian ex-Communist elite deployed the full panoply of Balkan wiles to outwit the European negotiators. They bestowed honorary doctorates on visiting or resident Eurocrats. Following ancient Phanariot tradition, they even provided bedmates for high-level EU representatives. They prevaricated, protected their own and pretended to implement reforms while preventing them from biting.
From the pages heroes, heroines and villains arise. The villains, all of whom are well-known, outnumber the heroes and heroines. Not a single corrupt politician has been successfully prosecuted or served a full custodial sentence. The EU's wish to have a number of heads on a plate, dripping with blood, has not been granted. Experts say the real progress in the fight against corruption and organized crime is measured not by the number of arrests, but by simple indicators: convictions by a court in a fair trial, the amount of dirty money confiscated, or the number of illegally acquired properties taken away. And such efforts have not yet been seen.
To all of which I can only – but very sadly – say "hear! Hear!” And it is particularly good to see the role of western agencies being properly emphasised. It does indeed take two to tango.
The question, hoever, to which I constantly return is what might a relevant reform strategy look like for kleptocracies such as this? For the past decade, in various papers available on my website (number 1 gathers it all together), I have been bemoaning the failure of Western agencies and programmes of Technical Assistance to recognise that the fashionable mantra about „good governance” their experts were peddling was sheer snake-oil in these conditions and countries. Grindle’s “Good Enough Governance Revisited”was one of the few papers which gave my stance any backing then. For some time I have been consumed by two simple questions a what and a where.
First – what approach should I advise genuine reformers in the machinery of government in countries such as Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Georgia, Kazakhstan or Romania (let alone middle eastern countries such as Jordan) to take? The public sector of course of each of these countries is at a particular stage – and each faces its own unique configuration of constraints and opportunities – so the approach has to start from that unique combination of forces. But what would the generic elements of the approach contain? Varous papers on my website paper contain some elements - not only the one I have already mentioned but also a couple of papers on Azerbaijan. But these were drafted some years ago (for very particular audiences)and do need some considerable revision to provide something more generalisable.
The second question is where do you find the reformers who are likely to have some staying power – both in positions of influence and as reformers? Sadly there does seem to be an „ïron law of oligarchy” (as Robert Michels put it 100 years ago) - which quickly sucks the originality and commitment out of reformers. This then leads onto a third question. I was very struck in a thread of discussion about Tom Gallagher’s latest critique of Scottish national politics by someone’s comment that such criticism is unfair since all governments quickly succumb to global capitalism. This stance is a real challenge – Margaret Thatcher put it very simply – TINA – there is no alternative. So why should we bother voting or engaging in activism of any sort? Why not take Voltaire’s advice – and just cultivate our gardens? To answer that question, people like me have to identify - and properly disseminate - the examples of sustained, positive, social change.
I’ve just started to dip into two books which I hope will help me with this - Will Hutton’s latest book Them and Us – and David Dorlings Injustice. Clearly these authors are very good on critiques and explaining the mechanisms which sustain inequity and injustice. But do they address the third question? Nous y verrons!

Friday, October 15, 2010

In and beyond transition - some blogs

I’ve already remarked (in more of the French sense of noticing!) that, for a blog from the Carpathian mountains, I do not say very much about the life going on here and I have vowed to do something about this. Three reasons make this difficult – first I have not so far found very much on the internet about Romania or neighbouring countries in the English language. Secondly I do live a bit of a hermit’s life both here in the fairly remote mountain village and in Bucharest and rarely therefore pick up much about what is happening in the wider society – although it is difficult not to notice the growing angry demonstrations against the austerity measures which are a feature of central Bucharest. And I am, finally, spending a lot of time with the new books which keep arriving here - so many still unread (I like the reference in Nassim Taleb’s great The Black Swan to Umberto Eco’s antilibrary – „read books are far less valuable than unread ones” ).
So, with these excuses, let me mention some blogs I have recently discovered which do try to cover issues in my part of the world. First a useful (if intermittent) one by someone who seems to live in America but has a deep interest in Romania
Her latest posts are about the judicial system here. Then an excellent blog on central europe as a whole by an Economist journalist, Edward Lucas And a Brit living in Poland has a blog about Polish politics - with some interesting recent blogs about the continuing influence in that country of neo-liberalism (and the damage it has done) and an overview of how the various central european economies have been hit recently. Today’s Spiegel has a worrying piece about the new level which neo-nazism has reached in Budapest.
Ironically – despite the geographical distance and the censorship - I can follow in much more easily events and discussions in China than I can in the (wider) Balkans here! There are so many excellent blogs, sites and, indeed, photojournalism. Every day China Digital Times sends me references and angry chinese blogger is one of the more powerful of literally hundreds blogs in English. I particularly like the blog from a female traveller in the Chinese countryside. But the easy access I have to English documents means inevitably I spend most of my time following the scribblings from UK Think Tanks – and today I came across what looks a very useful analysis of the quango phenomenon

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Cheese, windows, babies and saints

I needed to stock up on the glorious burdurf cheese – and, on my way back from picking up the windows from the glazier at Fundata, dropped in to the shop down the hill from our house which stocks the local stuff. A small group was in fact working in the garden packing the cheese into the woodbark which holds it. And I was proudly shown a small baby which was born 4 month ago to the couple who live opposite the shop – a very rare event in this geriatric village!
It’s another saint day (Parascheva – protector of Moldavia) – and so Viciu can do no work on the windows I brought back to him yesterday complete with their glass panes. I will check that he has at least put the putty on which would anyway need to dry today. Tomorrow the varnish – and Saturday or Monday the fitting?
Checking which saint day it was, I got a very strange entry on the Chursch’s website -
The Righteous Mother Parascheva lived in the first half of the 19th century. Having been raised in a Christian family in the village of Epivat in the region of Thrace, near Constantinople, it is said that at ten years of age, when standing in a church, she heard the call of the Savior: Whoever wishes to come after Me, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow Me (Mark 8:34). She began to deny herself and took the path of solitude from the world, heading first to Constantinople, followed by a monastery in Pontus, and then to the Jordanian desert. Around the age of 25, an angel came to her in a dream and revealed to her the divine call to return to her native place. She returned to Epivat and passed away into eternity unknown by anyone. But God prepared her for great glorification, and in miraculous manner her body did not decompose rather it remained uncorrupt and became greatly sweet-smelling. Her body was soon unburied and placed with honor in the Church of the Holy Apostles in Epivat. Her holy relics have been moved first to Tarnovo, Bulgaria, then to Belgrade, Serbia and thirdly to Constantinople until they reached their final repose in 1641 in Iasi, Romania.
In what sense therefore can she be Protector of Moldavia?
And how could someone born in the 19th century have their relics placed in 1641?
Answers on a postcard please.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

performance management

I’ve written before about my search for the holy grail and it was in that spirit that I was eager to read Colin Talbot’s latest book onTheories of Performance – organisational and service improvement in the public sector which, hot off the press, winged its way to me this week. Although an academic, he does consultancy, writes in a clear and stimulating way about public management, makes no secret of his youthful Marxism (indeed Trotskysm) and has a blogIt was therefore with some impatience that I galloped through the book and now pause to make sense of it. It is indeed an impressive tour de force – which surveys both the very extensive academic literature and also the global government endeavours in this field over the past few decades. As befits an academic, he roots his contribution conceptually before moving on to survey the field – and this is an important contribution in what is all too often a shamefully theoretically-lite field. For the first time I read a reasonably analytical treatment of the various quality measures which have developed in the last decade such as The Common Assessment Framework. His references to the literature are invaluable (I have, for example, now two new acronyms to set against NPM – PSM (public service motivationand new PSL – public service leadership
I am also grateful to him for introduction to the concept of clumsy solutions – which uses culture theory to help develop a better way of dealing with public problems.
On the downside, however, I found the basic focus frustrating – I had hoped (the title notwithstanding) that it would be on the senior manager charged to make things happen. After all, his equally academic colleague Chris Pollit gave us The Essential Public Manager– so it would be nice to have someone with Talbot’s experience, reading and coherence write something for senior managers – and for different cultures. Those trying to design improvement systems in Germany, Romania, China, Estonia, Scotland and France, for example, all confront very different contexts.
And, despite, his introductory references to his consultancy work, the few references he makes are apologetic ("it's not research"). I appreciated his critical comments about the suggestions about gaming responses to the target regime – but was disappointed to find no reference to Gerry Stoker’s important article about the deficiencies of New Labour’s target regime; a paragraph about Michael Barber’s Deliverology book which gives no sense of the dubious assumptions behind his approach; and, finally, really surprised to find no reference to John Seddon’s systems critiques
However, it will (I am sure) quickly become the best book on the subject.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

literary detective

White frost on the grass and the study feels particularly cold after the heat of the marvellous stove in the bedroom. The bricks retain their heat for more than a day. Today I have to get new windows in the study here organised. The originals are still in – and one gets a bit drafty at this time of year. My old neighbour Viciu has cut me the new windows and frame – and I now have to persuade a local to fit the glass and find the appropriate hinges before they are fitted.
The Chinese detective book Death of a Red Heroine by Qiu Xiaolong is a really excellent read – a highly intelligent mix of narrative, of description of life in 1990 Shanghai with the new market system coexisting uneasily with the privileges of the communist elite – and of Chinese literary and cooking insights
The author has been an American academic for the past 15 years or so and this is one a series about Inspector Chen which knocks the Stieg Larsson Millennium series into a cocked hat. An excellent review - with excerpts - here

Monday, October 11, 2010

Village life

A lazy Sundayin the Bucharest flat – demonstrating the dangers of television. The saving grace was another sight of the amazing (Danish) Babette’s Feast with my favourite actress Stephane Audran in the unusual role of a destitute French émigrée in a remote Danish village at the beginning of the 20th century who served an old couple for years, won a small amount on the French Lottery and used it all to cook an incredible meal for the villagers.
I left the flat this morning while it was not still light – and enjoyed the start of a brilliant October day as I drove into the mountains. My reward was 20 books – for once an equal number of novels - and a large number of DVDs waiting for me in 5 Amazon packets. Difficult to know where to begin – but a Chinese detective book won the day (with Geert Mak’s An Island in Time also enticing). It's apparently the story of the author's Dutch village - to which he returned to chart its recent decline. So many Romanian villages like mine are also dying...