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

Thursday, June 30, 2011

project bids, public services in hard times; and the craft of short stories

Technical problems with blogspot prevented a post today. But my longer silence is due to my work on a bid for a project. I hate this stage when one is trying to construct convincing statement about HOW one would carry out the various required activities of a project. I don’t find writing difficult – I’ve had long practice and the results are there to see on the website and blog. But two aspects about writing proposals I find deeply frustrating and indeed alienating. First that one is generally writing in ignorance of the actual context – and actually prevented (by procurement rules) from actually talking with those for who one would be working. This not only breaches basic rules of consultancy – but creates a distance I can’t cope with. I’m a touchy, feely guy (in some senses) and can only operate in a hands-on situation when I’m getting responses. The second reason I find this stage difficult is that you are supposed to restrict text to HOW statements – not the WHAT. And I always want to jump to the content – not least to convince the evaluator that they would get a good deal if they went with my bid. As the content of bids have equal status with the original terms of reference, companies are reluctant to commit themselves to substantial things – and prefer to throw back in different language what the terms of reference are saying. And this is an EU Structural Fund project – whose administrative and financial requirements are so tough (for generally local companies) that it is not difficult to disqualify companies before their methodologies even reach the evaluation stage! What a game! So watch this space.
I’m just taking a short break (hopefully to get the creative juices working). But I have a few useful references to pass on. Amongst all the mythogising of Greece and Greeks that is going on, a rare bit of commonsense. This particular blog has looked at the various statistics to explore whether the Greeks are in fact as lazy as is being asserted (retirement ages, pension, working days etc ) and finds the myths unsubstantiated (although some people might say "fear the Greeks - particularly when tney come bearing statistics"!).
However what is true is that they don’t declare incomes in order to avoid taxation. And, of course, this is not merely true of Greece – I’ve made the same point about Romania - with the incredible time and money people spend on building their own houses - with local labour whose incomes are never declared!

Yesterday the Scottish Government released an independent report they had commissioned from an interesting collection of people last year on the future of public services in the new tough world . What was impressive was that they asked a retired trade unionist to chair it – and did not pack it with their own people (a couple of my left-wing colleagues were on the commission). And the report – despite some unpalatable messages – has been positively received in most quarters. So at least the Scottish tradition lives on – unlike the tribal politics of England.

Time for a stirring Spanish political song from the old guard

And Simon Jenkins has rediscovered the virtues of the classic civil service.

I’m becoming a fan of the short story art form. William Trevor, Carol Shields, Vladimir Nabakov always hold me in thrall. Hanif Kureishi is an impressive novellist whose acquaintance I am only now making – with his Collected Stories. Now back to the grind!

Saturday, June 25, 2011

We're here to serve you

Our worship of progress and the “new” leads us to imagine that “performance management” is a modern discovery – and one that will set things aright in the world. It’s therefore marvellous to read this exasperated quotation from none less than the Duke of Wellington in 1812 -
Whilst marching from Portugal to a position which commands the approach to Madrid and the French Forces, my officers have been diligently complying with your requests, which have been sent by H.M Ship from London to Lisbon and thence by dispatch rider to our headquarters. We have enumerated our saddles, bridles, tents and tent poles, and all manner of sundry items for which His Majesty’s Government holds me accountable. I have dispatched reports on the character, wit, and spleen of every officer. Each item and every farthing has been accounted for with two regrettable exceptions for which I beg your indulgence. Unfortunately the sum of one shilling and ninepence remains unaccounted for in one infantry battalion’s petty cash and there has been a hideous confusion as to the number of jars of raspberry jam issued to one cavalry regiment during a sandstorm in western Spain. This reprehensible carelessness may be related to the pressure of circumstances since we are at war with France, a fact which may come as a bit of a surprise to you gentlemen in Whitehall.
This brings me to my present purpose, which is to request elucidation of my instructions from His Majesty's Government, so that I may better understand why I am dragging an army over these barren plains. I construe that it must be one of two alternative duties, as given below. I shall pursue either one with my best ability, but I cannot do both.
1. To train an army of uniformed British clerks in Spain for the benefit of the accountants and copy-boys in London, or perchance
2. To see to it that the forces of Napoleon are driven out of Spain
I owe the quotation to a brilliant website set up by a senior civil servant (Martin Stanley) which contains the clearest and best analysis I have ever read of British Civil Service Reform.
Most of the stuff written about this subject is by social science academics – who lack the historical perspective and seem to have bought into the rationalistic belief system. This guy first sets the political/sociological context for the breathless British changes of the past 40 years.
It is ironic that many of the problems facing today's politicians stem from the successes of their predecessors. Indeed most of them have their roots in our ever increasing wealth and ever improving health.For a start, UK society is now vastly more wealthy than 50 years ago. A typical post-war household literally had nothing worth stealing:- No car, no TV, no phone, nothing! No wonder it was safe to leave doors open along most British streets. But GDP has risen four-fold since then. Most homes nowadays have a wide range of marketable goods, and huge amounts of money to spend on non-essentials, including on drink and drugs. The crime rate has therefore soared, as drug addicts seek to get their hands on others' wealth, and drunks cause various sorts of mayhem. Our wealth causes other problems:
• We can afford to eat much more, and travel everwhere by car, and so get fat and unhealthy, with consequences for the health service.
• There are now 10 times as many cars on the roads as in the 1950s, with obvious implications for transport and environmental policies.
• Much the same applies to the growth in cheap air travel.

Other problems are caused by the fact that the distribution of the new wealth is uneven. And many of us seek to catch up by borrowing as if there is no tomorrow. Credit card debt, for instance, increased from Ł34m in 1971 to Ł54,000m in 2005.
The other big success is our health, and not least the fact that we are all living so much longer than before. Life expectancy at birth is currently increasing at an astonishing 0.25 years per year. Healthy life expectancy is also increasing - but only at around 0.1 years per year. In 1981, the expected time that a typical man would live in poor health was 6.5 years. By 2001 this had risen to 8.7 years. Just imagine what pressure this is putting on the health and social services ... ... not to mention on pension schemes. The average age of men retiring in 1950 was 67. They had by then typically worked for 53 years and would live for another 11 years. By 2004, the average of men retiring was 64. They had by then typically worked for 48 years and would live for a further 20 years. As a result, the work/retired ratio had halved from about 5 to about 2.4. These are huge (and welcome) changes, but with equally huge - and politically unwelcome - implications for tax, pensions and benefits policies.
It is also noticeable that voters nowadays want to spend more and more money on holidays, clothes, durables, etc. whilst few seriously try to promote the benefits that result from the public provision of services. Voters therefore resent paying taxes, and the Government is under constant pressure to spend less, despite the problems summarised above.
In parallel with all this, society has become more complex and less deferential:
• Voters are much more likely to have been to university, to have travelled abroad, and to complain.
• The family is less important.
• Adult children are much more likely to live some distance from their parents
• 42% of children are now born outside marriage.
• The media are much more varied and much more influential, whilst the public are much more inclined to celebrate celebrity.
• Voters expect the quality of public services to improve and refuse to accept inadequate provision.
• They also turn more readily to litigation.
• The Human Rights Act and the Freedom of Information Act add to these pressures.
• There have been other more subtle, but perhaps more profound, changes.
• The original welfare state was a system of mutual insurance - hence "National Insurance". It has slowly changed into a system of rights and entitlements based on need. This is morally attractive - but it is also open to abuse, which breeds resentment.
• The post-war generation believed in self-help. Much post-school education was through unions or organisations such as the Workers Educational Association. We now expect the state to provide, and 50% of our children go to university.
• Our increasing wealth and improving health - let alone the absence of major conflict - means that we really do have very little to worry about compared with our predecessors. But of course we still worry, and demand that the Government "does something about" all sorts of lesser risks, from dangerous dogs through to passive smoking.
• Another interesting change has been the introduction of choice into health and education policies. This is in part because modern voters want to be able to choose between different approaches to medicine and education. But choice is also a very effective substitute for regulation in that it forces the vested interests in those sectors to take more notice of what their customers actually want. There are, however, some unwelcome consequences arising from the introduction of choice into public services:
• The availability of choice inevitably gives a relative advantage to the sharp elbows of the middle classes. They can, for instance, move into the right catchment areas, and are better at demanding access to the right doctors.
• Choice also requires there to be spare capacity, which has to be paid for. Less popular schools and hospital have to be kept open - often at significant cost - so that they can improve and offer choice when their busy competitors become complacent and less attractive.
• Ultimately, however, persistently unpopular and/or expensive schools and hospitals have to be allowed to close, or else they have no incentive to improve. But such closures always provoke various forms of protest
What sort of people, faced with all this, would aspire to be politicians? No wonder we get "the leaders we deserve" (title of a marvellous book in the 1980s by Alaister Mant). This extended quotation from the website is just setting the scene for the wry descriptions of the numerous initiaives taken by British Governments since 1968 to get a civil service system "fit for purpose". For more read here
Last night saw torrential rain here in Sofia - and today is like a typical dreich day in Scotland. The fig tree has become enormous - and is bending in the wind. Great after the heat of the past few days. I cycled before 09.00 to the great butcher's shop (diagonally from the Art Nouveau Agriculture Ministry building) and up a short drive which supplies pork, chicken and sausages sublimely marinated in honey and spices. There is a buzz about the place - these people know they are providing heavenly products!!!

Thursday, June 23, 2011

implosion and addiction

It’s difficult these days to focus – with the Greek economy imploding and apparently taking the euro and some banks with it. Der Spiegel has an incisive essay today on how the young generation feel betrayed by Europe Since my short time in proximity to the eurocrats (when I worked in Brussels in 1997 for the TAIEX team) I have been horrified by the privileges of the European Class – and ashamed of the leftists such as Neil Kinnock who have profited so much from the system. Riccardo Petrella is one of the very few to emerge from that system with any credit. And the Open Europe website seems one of the few to have the capacity to focus on what matters – and write it as it needs to be said - see, for example, their post on the Greek crisis.
My problem is on the other end of the spectrum of the new generation. Silly boy that I am, I still have many euros in banks "too big to fail”. All money hard and fairly earned from my nomadic consultancy. I had a Russian friend a decade ago who bought gold whenever she could. Very bright! But I bury my head in the sand; refuse to believe we could ever have another Weimar (hyperinflation); keep my money in the banks (which earns no interest); and indulge my addictions of wine and paintings.

Victoria Gallery had one of its quarterly auctions this evening. I had scanned the paintings and saw nothing of interest but – fatally – decided to view the offer at the Sheraton Hotel this afternoon. Fairly quickly several paintings were seducing me – a Moutafov with Rubev colouring in the waves; a large Stoyan Vasilev of Veliko Trnovo and the river - with hues which made the effect totally different from those which have become rather cliched for him. So I returned at 18.00 – just „for the experience”! About 60 people eventually assembled – but there were few bidders – 15% of the lots offered were sold. I resisted the Moutafov ( as did everyone else) – but my hand was out of control for the Vassilev (65;82) which I got for basement price. The question is where will I put it?????
I have now uploaded the final version of my NISPAcee paper which has the new title – The Long Game ;not the logframe – to challenge the rationalistic basis of the EC thinking about institutional change.
And, having momentarily worried about competitors for our new Bulgarian bid taking unfair advantage of my intellectual openness, I have now put the Discussion Paper I left behind here in 2008 back online.

My blog of the week is this long post on the death of the corporation.
And my new painting is here -

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Blind leading the blind?

Regular readers of my blog will be aware that I view specialization as a virus which has contaminated universities and the professional community and condemns us all to a constant reinvention of the wheel. Hard-won insights in one field of endeavour have to be rediscovered in another – often in a different language. I drew attention to this in the closing section of my paper to this year’ s NISPAcee Conference – quoting from the OECD’s Network on Governance’s Anti-corruption Task Team report on Integrity and State Building that
As a result of interviews with senior members of ten donor agencies, it became apparent that those engaged in anti-corruption activities and those involved in the issues of statebuilding and fragile states had little knowledge of each other’s approaches and strategies
.“Fragile states” and “Statebuilding”, for example, are two new phrases which have grown up only in the last few years – and “capacity building” has now become a more high-profile activity. Each has its own literature and experts. Those who have been in the game of organisational change for several decades draw on an eclectic range of disciplines and experience – are we to believe that these new subjects represent a crystallisation of insights and experience??
All I know is that few of those in the intellectual world I have inhabited for the past 20 years – the consultants and writers about institution-building in post-communist countries – seem aware of the development literature and the various critiques which have been developed of aid over the past few decades – and which has helped give the recent stuff about capacity development the edge it has. Those who work in my field seem to be a different breed from those who work in “aid”. I say “seem” since I have seen no study of who gets into this field – with what sort of backgrounds (let alone motivation). Whereas there are several studies of the demand side eg a 2007 report from the European Centre for Development Policy Management - Provision of Technical Assistance Personnel: What can we learn from promising experiences whose remit was to gain a better understanding of the future demand for technical assistance, to relate that to past experience and to recommend how TA personnel can best be mobilised, used and managed in the future to strengthen national capacity.
Those who work in my field seem to be more pragmatic, more confident, more “missionary” in the modernist (rather than post-modernist) approach taken to institution building – and, dare I say it - more “mercenary” in motivation than those who have traditionally taken to “development work”.

These musings were prompted by Owen Barder’s development blog (one of about three blogs about development which is always worth reading (Duncan Green, Simon Maxwell and Aid on the Edge of Chaos are three others).
Not only does Barder have a blog – but, I have discovered, a series of podcasts (Development Drumbeats) in which he talks with various characters about development issues. Such a nice initiative – some of the podcasts come with a paper and some even with a transcription!
Barder’s latest discussion was with Tony Blair. Now Bliar is hardly my favourite person. As UK PM for a decade, he not only carried on but deepened the Thatcher agenda of marketisation – concealing a lot of it in a shallow rhetoric about “modernisation”. He has always talked the good talk – and he is on good form in this discussion when he reveals some of the lessons he has learned from the work he has been doing on Governance in three African States – Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Liberia. Criticism of the supply-driven approach (eg training of civil servants) is the new mantra of the TA industry - and Bliar duly echoes that mantra, suggesting that his approach is different in four respects.
• First that he personally works with the political leaders to ensure that the process of change is demand-driven (interesting that the EC’s Backbone Strategy didn’t mention such an approach);
• secondly the ruthless approach to priorities (focus on a few manageable things), working to deliver prioritised programmes – learning from doing.
• He mentions a third factor - his technical team being resident and coaching – but this for me is not all that different from a lot of TA does.
• The final factor is different - getting „quality” private sector investment (a good Bliar flourish that - it could hardly be „rubbish”!)

Coincidentally it was precisely this point about the need for political demand which I was trying to build earlier in the month to the final version of my NISPAcee paper. And the issue of ruthless prioritising – and learning from doing are close to my heart – as can be seen in the final Discussion paper I left in 2008 to my Bulgarian colleagues (entited "Learning from Experience”. But relying on a Bliar approach would involve cutting back dramatically on interventions. And, by definition, his work is not transparent – is not subject to monitoring or evaluation. The write-ups which will doubtless come will be laudatory – and not, I bet you, governed by the normal canons of analysis!

Note to myself - this entry has meandered a bit – I should return to the theme of the profile of the IB expert.
Note to reader – In January I had a short post about some reports on the use of consultants To that list should be added this interesting paper which gives a typology of external advice

Saturday, June 18, 2011

water, words and.....bankers

Here in the mountains I learn to value water and electricity – which, most other places, I take for granted. And, since the leaks forced me to turn off the water for periods until all was repaired (and toilet replaced), I started to use the traditional jug and bowl on the verandah upstairs. And have discovered the joys of such ablutions after an hour’s scything - with the warm wind on my torso and drying down with a towel which smells so fresh from the mountain air. So this upstairs’ facility will remain - despite the enthronement of a new toilet downstairs!
We’re approaching the time of year when the water can get a bit scarce – some works were afoot last year to deal with this. Nous y verrons. And the electricity can go off for a few minutes (sometimes the entire day) with no warning. The shorter cuts are due to storms or tree branches – the longer ones repair work somewhere. Thursday I paid my annual taxes on the house and 2 acres of land – 50 euros!
And also stocked up with almost 3 kilos of the local Burduf cheese to take to Sofia – when it matures it is better than Parmasan!

The mountain house (I should give it a name!!) is a great place for reading and reflecting – the library keep growing. And these last days, I’ve had some real word merchants to keep me company. My first John Banville book - The Sea - is a sensitive and poetic evocation of times past and of death. I dipped into an Amos Oz Reader who ranks very highly in my ratings; and also into WG Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn (another first for me) which is at one level the record of a journey on foot through coastal East Anglia. Glaswegian James Kelman’s You have to be careful in the Land of the Free gives a sense of the irreverent humour of the marginalized in a rotten society. On a different level, I have also at last started Robert Skidelsky’s Keynes; the return of the master. The author has given his life to the study of Keynes - so if anyone can show the relevance of the master to the present global crisis, he can. And the stand he takes is uncompromising – listing the various people who are blamed (bankers, regulators, governments, credit-rating agencies etc), he states firmly “the present crisis is the fruit of the intellectual failure of the economics profession”.
I noticed recently that a former Icelandic Prime Minister is being prosecuted for the role he played in bringing Iceland to its knees - and Hungarian Spectrum also reports an ex-PM and officials giving evidence to the Hungarian Parliament on the role they played before the crisis hit. Good to see such accountability - although parliamentarians these days are hardly in a position to claim they thought differently!
The painting above caught my eye despite its dreadful condition - just a twisted bit of hardwood, some whote spots and no frame. Valerie offered it to me as part of a lot of 7 such unframed sleeping beauties languishing in a gloomy cellar under his new Gallery - he is able to put a name to them all (few have signatures) and this was a Stamatov. I had heard of him (and knew that his stuff is pricey - 1,000 euros or so) - but I liked it anyway regardless of its provenance. When I saw a few Stamatovs in the Kazanluk gallery, I became surer of its authorship; and Yassen has lovingly restored it, helped me select a suitable frame and given his expert opinion that it is 98% certain that it is a Stamatov.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Telling it as it is

To my shame, I first heard of Eduardo Galeano only two years ago when he presented his Open Veins of Latin America – five centuries of the pillage of a Continent to President Obama – and noted that it attracted great ire from commentators. It was my well-read Romanian friend who had read this South American writer years ago (in Ceaucescu's Romania which had an extensive translation of world literature) who has exposed ruthlessly the devastation the USA has wrought on Latin America. Although I now have the book (and 2 others), it seems I am probably missing his most important - Upside Down: A Primer for the Looking-glass WorldI say this from a reading of a powerful essay written to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the publication of its official English translation. Four sketches deal with different aspects of the current economic crisis, each from a different perspective of analysis, and attempts to make use of the vibrant and creative sylistic devices characterising Galeano's works, particularly Upside Down.
Historians of the future, if there shall be any and if they will be honest, are going to wonder and ponder upon how such intelligent and highly educated “knowledge economies”, capable of the finest mathematical-financial wizardry via the fanciest computer technologies, could bestow upon themselves so much avoidable pain, destroying in the process not solely further scores of planetary life support systems, but also man-made social infrastructures that have generated, depending on the country, genuine welfare for up to three or four generations. These future historians will be at pains to conceive of powerful, well-off, democratically elected representatives who listened to foreign bankers, and not to their own citizens, rushing to implement, whenever they could, multilateral agreements on investment robbing their own cabinets of much of their power.
These future historians will probably fail to empathise with and understand such bizarre people, very much like Voltaire, who could not really explain why and how our forefathers were willing to slaughter one another over the correct interpretation of the Holy Trinity. After all, they had never seen it (or them?) and Jesus himself had never said anything clear, if anything, about it (or them?). Not to mention the centuries that humankind spent warring, raping, disemboweling, burning, maiming, chaining, flogging and excommunicating one another because of errors of interpretation.
Yes, the wisdom arising from the ashes of the current crisis is astoundingly similar to the one that caused the crisis. Are you indebted? Take on another loan. The private banking sector has betrayed you? Restore it with public money and run it as before. People are suffering, jobless, and with their tax money siphoned to the creditors that inflated the bubble? Show them tough love and deprive them of further healthcare, education, culture, wages, pensions, childcare, subsidised water and power. The environment is running amok in the free-market environment? The market will fix it; in the meantime, profit will keep being extracted from increased prices in oil, gas, polluting consumer goods, and cancer treatments due to the ecological collapse of the planet.
When the global crisis first hit three years ago, a lot of us thought that the scales would at last fall from people's eyes; and that the incompetences as well as injustices of neo-liberalism were now exposed. In fact such a powerful counter-narrative has been put in place by the global elites and their media to justify the intensification of the neo-liberal agenda that people are utterly confused. We therefore desperately need the style of narrative (and scope of analysis) which Baruchelli gives us in this essay.

My first scything of the long grass around the house this morning - at 07.30 before the sun became too strong. Such satisfying work! And how privileged I am that any mechanical noises I hear (which would be lawnmowers anywhere else) are power saws dealing with wood! Everyone uses the scythe here - and, slowly, I become more adept with it! The morning was spent finding a toilet to replace the 10-year old one which cracked during the winter. Visiting the various shops which cater for the do-it-yourself construction which goes on here reminded me of how utterly useless are the European statistics which don't pick up these transactions. And also draws the contrast with Bulgaria - where so many villages are almost dead. Why is it that Romanians (despite their apparent disrespect for tradition) are actually keeping their villages alive???? The Brits and Russians have been in the Bulgarian property market for the past decade (no foreigners buy here) but their money has not been able to save the Bulgarian villages.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Where the buck stops

In the 1970s and 80s, those of us struggling to reform the state (both national and local) talked about “generating understanding and commitment” and of the three basic tests for new proposals – Feasibility, legitimacy and support. “Does it work?” “Does it fall within our powers? And “will it be accepted?” The World Bank’s Governance Reforms under real world conditions (to which I have referred several times on the blog) is written around the sorts of questions we consultants in transitions country 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 an interesting theory around 3 words – „acceptance”, „authority” and „ability”. What Andrews means by these 3 terms is sketched out as follows -

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?

Obviously, the world of Technical Assistance tends to assume that it is the latter which is the problem – since the people there who act as experts are strong on training. In the paper I referred to on Monday, Sorin Ionita applies this framework to Romania and suggests that
constraints on improving of policy management are to be found firstly in terms of low acceptance (of the legitimacy of new, objective criteria and transparency); secondly, in terms of low authority (meaning that nobody knows who exactly is in charge of prioritization across sectors, for example) and only thirdly in terms of low technical ability in institutions
The final version of my NISPAcee paper tries to identify all the papers which have assessed the impact of all the efforts to put government processes in transition countries on a more open and effective basis. In particular I was interested to find those which actually looked critically at the various tools used by Technical Assistance eg rule of law; civil service reform; training; impact assessment etc. One of my arguments is that that it is only recently that such a critical assessment has started – eg of civil service reform.
The one common thread in those assessments which have faced honestly the crumbling of reform in the region (Cardona; Ionitsa; Manning;Verheijen) is the need to force the politicians to grow up and stop behaving like petulant schoolboys and girls. Manning and Ionitsa both emphasise the need for transparency and external pressures. Cardona and Verheijen talk of the establishment of structures bringing politicians, officials, academics etc together to develop a consensus. As Ionita puts it succinctly –
If a strong requirement is present – and the first openings must be made at the political level – the supply can be generated fairly rapidly, especially in ex-communist countries, with their well-educated manpower. But if the demand is lacking, then the supply will be irrelevant.
On Sunday, when rain washed away the tennis at Queen's, I enjoyed watching this great spontaneous performance on a similar occasion some years back.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

back in the Carpathians

As I drove across the Balkans yesterday to a workshop in Pleven, the clouds trapped over Sofia slowly lifted. I realised that my blog banner-heading (Carpathian Musings) was no longer quite precise – for the last 2 months they have been Balkan Musings. But, with a brief pause last night in the Bucharest flat (for a bath and my first sight of TV for a couple of months) and breakfast in Ploiesti with Daniela), I am now back in the mountain house and already feeling so relaxed. It’s apparently been pouring here for the past 2 weeks – with very violent winds – but the house is fine (although it’s amazing how much dust comes down from the attic onto my books!). My 80 plus years old neighbours were looking healthy and pleased to see me (as was their small dog and cow who was munching my long grass). I at last remembered to text Gotche Gotchev’s old brother in Sofia to go round and feed the Siamese cat in Sofia while I am away these few days.
I used to think Vodaphone internet was a good deal here – but every time I come back I have to pay back-money (24 euros this time for the 2 months I was absent) in order to get reconnected for the few days I am here (and the reception is rubbish). So please don’t tell me about the economic benefits of Europe! And on 1 July back in Sofia I have to make further payments for the wireless connection there. Will someone tell me why I can’t subscribe to a European internet stick which is valid wherever I go??????

And, while on the subject of Europe, the hotel on the crest of the hill opposite (thanks to SAPARD funds) continues to grow to the disfigurement of the landscape and the financial disadvantage of the more traditional bed and breakfast people like my old neighbours (who need the cash). What waste this is – that some (favoured) investors are favoured to spoil villages while others survive on their own. There is absolutely no need for financial asssistance for this sacrilege. I should link up to the Bucharest editor of the ecological journal who has never retuned to her old house opposite since the first hotel (on the bottom of valley – but with ostriches) first spoiled her view more than a decade ago.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Why Romania politics is so rotten - path dependency

In our relentless celebration of the "new", we undervalue what has been written even a few years ago. Somehow we assume that it is passe - that we have built on it and used it to move to a new peak of understanding (the eternal illusion of progress - "upward and onward"!). The reality is rather amnesia and, at best, reinvention
For example, aasily the most useful paper for those trying to understand lack of governance capacity in many countries I’ve worked in during the past 20 years is one written by Sorin Ionita 5 years ago and was languishing in my library until I discovered it while revising my Varna paper- Poor policy-making and how to improve it in states with weak institutions. His focus is on Romania but the explanations he offers for the poor governance in that country has resonance for many other countries -
• The focus of the political parties in that country on winning and retaining power to the exclusion of any interest in policy – or implementation process
• The failure of political figures to recognise and build on the programmes of previous regimes
• Lack of understanding of the need for „trade-offs” in government; the (technocratic/academic) belief that perfect solutions exist; and that failure to achieve them is due to incompetence or bad intent.
• The belief that policymaking is something being centered mainly in the drafting and passing of legislation. „A policy is good or legitimate when it follows the letter of the law − and vice versa. 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 had by 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”
Ionita adds other „pre-modern” aspects of the civil service – such as unwillingness to share information and experiences across various organisational boundaries. And 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. He also adds a useful historical perspective -
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.”

The new, post ’89 elites, who speak the language of modernity when put in an official setting, can still be discretionary and clannish in private. Indeed, such a disconnection between official, Westernized discourse abroad and actual behavior at home in all things that really matter has a long history in Romania. 19th century boyars sent their sons to French and German universities and adopted Western customs in order to be able to preserve their power of patronage in new circumstances − anticipating the idea of the Sicilian writer di Lampedusa that “everything has to change in order to stay the same”. Social theorists have even explained along these lines why, before Communism, to be an official, a state employee or a lawyer was much more common among the national bourgeoisie than to become an industrialist or merchant: because, as a reflection of pervasive rent-seeking, political entrepreneurship was much more lucrative than economic entrepreneurship.
This also shows why foreign assistance is many times ineffective in these states, and is seldom able to alter the ways of the locals.
This series of explanations for Romania's poor governance ratings is an example of what the academics call "path dependency" - the past constraining the possibilities of the present. My Varna paper spent so much space summarising the various papers that I couldn't actually address the question of what the reformer's strategy might be in such countries. I hope to explore that in a future post.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

That's how the cookies crumble....and control!

I noticed today that my friend in Brussels gets very different results from his google searches. And, coincidentally, I had found the answer a few hours earlier in an article which warned me that -
the top 50 internet sites, from CNN to Yahoo to MSN, install an average of 64 data-laden cookies and personal tracking beacons each. Search for a word like "depression" on Dictionary.com, and the site installs up to 223 tracking cookies and beacons on your computer so that other websites can target you with antidepressants. Open a page listing signs that your spouse may be cheating, and prepare to be haunted with DNA paternity-test ads.
Such is the worrying intro to this excerpt from a new book on internet search engines which continues -
The race to know as much as possible about you, has become the central battle of the era for internet giants like Google, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft. As Chris Palmer of the Electronic Frontier Foundation explained to me: "You're getting a free service, and the cost is information about you. And Google and Facebook translate that pretty directly into money." While Gmail and Facebook may be helpful, free tools, they are also extremely effective and voracious extraction engines into which we pour the most intimate details of our lives. In the view of the "behaviour market" vendors, every "click signal" you create is a commodity, and every move of your mouse can be auctioned off within microseconds to the highest commercial bidder. The internet giants' formula is simple: the more personally relevant their information offerings are, the more ads they can sell, and the more likely you are to buy the products they're offering. And the formula works. Amazon sells billions of dollars in merchandise by predicting what each customer is interested in and putting it in the front of the virtual store. Up to 60% of US film download and DVD-by-mail site Netflix's rentals come from the guesses it can make about each customer's preferences.
You may think you're the captain of your own destiny, but personalisation can lead you down a road to a kind of informational determinism in which what you've clicked on in the past determines what you see next – a web history you're doomed to repeat. You can get stuck in a static, ever- narrowing version of yourself – an endless you-loop.
And there are broader consequences. In Bowling Alone, his book on the decline of civic life in America, Robert Putnam looked at the problem of the major decrease in "social capital" – the bonds of trust and allegiance that encourage people to do each other favours, work together to solve common problems, and collaborate. Putnam identified two kinds of social capital: there's the in-group-oriented "bonding" capital created when you attend a meeting of your college alumni, and then there's "bridging" capital, which is created at an event like a town meeting when people from lots of different backgrounds come together to meet each other. Bridging capital is potent: build more of it, and you're more likely to be able to find that next job or an investor for your small business, because it allows you to tap into lots of different networks for help. Everybody expected the internet to be a huge source of bridging capital. Writing at the height of the dotcom bubble, Tom Friedman declared that the internet would "make us all next-door neighbours". But that's not what's happening: our virtual neighbours look more and more like our real-world neighbours, and our real-world neighbours look more and more like us. We're getting a lot of bonding but very little bridging. And this is important because it's bridging that creates our sense of the "public" – the space where we address the problems that transcend our narrow self-interests.
As a consumer, it's hard to argue with blotting out the irrelevant and unlikable. But what is good for consumers is not necessarily good for citizens. What I seem to like may not be what I actually want, let alone what I need to know to be an informed member of my community or country. "It's a civic virtue to be exposed to things that appear to be outside your interest," technology journalist Clive Thompson told me. Cultural critic Lee Siegel puts it a different way: "Customers are always right, but people aren't."
How to deal with this? The discussion thread had the following ideas -
• There are still other search engines, such as Dogpile, and GoodSearch, which even lets you designate a charity to get about a penny for each search you do. (It adds up if a lot of people choose that charity.)
• Simple answer, just click on everything. They want data, give 'em loads
• Deleting cookies would be a good start? A simple way to do this is to use Firefox, go to Tools / Options and choose the cookies setting 'Keep until I close Firefox'. But this poses priblems for people such as me who want o shop at Amazon and pile books into a basket for subsequent editing…

Saturday, June 11, 2011

the cancer eating us

In Just Words a sceptic’s guide to administrative vocabulary I sounded off about how words can take over our thinking – and offered some definitions. Here’s a great illustration from the Real World Economics blog-
I am tired of economists, policy makers, and others mentioning markets. As in “let the market decide” or “we should let the market heal itself.” Enough. Markets are us. They are not great mysterious forces. They are not abstractions hovering in mid air. They are not supply and demand. They are not amorphous inanimate systems. They are not mechanisms.They are none of these things.
Markets are people. Sometimes lots of people. Sometimes a few people. Without people there are no markets. Sometimes working well. Other times not so well. Sometimes rigged. Sometimes not rigged. Each unique because the people that comprise it are different. Sure we can mimic them. We can model them. We can identify some regular characteristics of transactions that seem to occur whenever people transact. But we cannot get rid of the people in a market.
People matter. They can change the properties we see as regularities if they so choose. They can collude. They can organize. They can interfere with each other. They can exclude others. In other words markets are human made. They reflect people. And what people want to do. Markets do not exist to impress upon people. People impress upon markets. Markets do not dictate what we do or how we do it. We dictate what a market is and how it works. We are the market.
The allure of the abstraction is that it diverts our attention from the people who animate the market. Thus it is convenient for a policy maker to talk about a market correction instead of having to say someone lost money or their job. It sounds less threatening. It is certainly less humane.
And letting “the market heal itself” is simply an obscure and sanitized way of saying that some ore of our fellow citizens are about to lose their jobs.
over the past two years, nearly all the countries suffering from the current economic crisis have been busy rescuing with public money the profit-driven financial institutions that were responsible or co-responsible for the crisis in the first place (Stiglitz, 2010). Often created by central-bank fiat, these public resources had been long denied to, and are now not being utilised to fund, life-protecting and life-enhancing institutions, such as ambulance services, public hospitals, old-age pensions, university research, international aid, or primary schools (Halimi, 2008). Quite the opposite, public investments are being reduced across the board in order to secure the money-measured value of existing assets and keep treasury bonds attractive to institutional investors.
This is an excerpt from Your Money or Your Life - one of several papers by Giorgio Baruchello which have appeared recently in an Icelandic journal and which have introduced me not only to his clearly written critiques of the new financial capitalism which is attacking us in a cancerous way but to his generous summaries of two other big Philosophy names for me – John McMurtry (Canada) and Martha Nussbaum (US). Good and Bad Capitalism was an earlier paper which summarised Nussbaum’s 2010 book on the affect of the neo-liberal cancer on the body university – sweeping away as it has all remnants of humanities studies and requiring everything to be justified by its service to the world of commerce and profit-making.
McMurtry himself is an interesting character – who has an interesting and provocative autobiographical essay on his experience in universities here

Friday, June 10, 2011

The Nordic model

Conventional wisdom in financial centres characterizes the welfare state as wasteful and inefficient, penalizing good hard-working people in order to subsidize those that would rather live on state largesse than work for a living. Most recently, rising levels of government debt have given the bond markets and the rating agencies reason to attack a number of Eurozone countries. All this would seem to support the conclusion that the days of the welfare state are doomed and are themselves guilty of this predicament. The social democratic elected governments of Spain, Greece and Portugal have chosen to follow the US and UK neo-liberal recipe, thus abandoning their raison d´etre.
In this context, the curious anomaly of the Nordics poses a riddle. How can these countries prosper with their high levels of taxation, wages and public expenditures? Why do they have the highest overall employment rates among the OECD countries? Some believe it must have something to do with the Protestant work ethic or cultural, ethnic and religious homogeneity. Others even say luck, or perhaps the fact they are small countries. In our view, none of these answers get at the essence.
We contend that the Nordics are successful because they are not welfare states in the distorted connotation of the term. The Nordics are highly efficient, rational and democratic systems that are run in accordance with the words of Abraham Lincoln: of the people, by the people, for the people. Two questions tell whether a democracy is a real or a fake democracy. First: who really runs the country? Second: who benefits from how it is run?
For more see this Social Europe blog - one of the best for social democratic thoughts in this difficult time.

I missed the announcement of the EC rethink of Technical Assistance – following on The Arab Spring – and have the Open Europe blog to thank for drawing it to my attention. I will somment on it once I have had a proper chance to study it.

I don’t often write about novels I’m reading – but, as I’ve said before here, one of the nice things about living in this part of the world is the serendipity in the English-language books available in the increasing numbers of shops which offer such books (Sofia has about 6 such shops). Presumably they are remaindered – they are certainly no signs of the bestsellers of recent years. Indeed the prominent piles of Wordsworth Classics and Oxford University Press Classic Paperbacks offer the opposite temptation of reading the likes of Dostoevsky; Robert Louis Stevenson (eg his (extensive) travels), O’Henry or Virginia Wolf. And, every now and then, I come across authors new to me whose prose, characters and images shake me to the core. A few days ago I bought, on a hunch, a novel by an American (of Norwegian heritage) I had never heard of – Siri Hustvedt (just happens to be the wife of Paul Auster!). Its title is “What I loved” and I was so drawn to its language and characters that I devoured it in a day. Let an Amazon reviewer give a sense of its power -
What I Loved is an epic novel that covers 30 years of an artist's life, seen through the eyes of his best friend. The story is narrated by Leo Hertzberg, an art critic, as he tries to compile a book on the work of his closest friend Bill Weschler. The two friends and their families are entwined, with keys to each other's houses, their wives are friends, their boys play together. They live in tandem with each other, one family creating Art, the other observing. The book follows them for the majority of their adult lives, as Bill's artistic importance increases; they take lovers, people die, the world changes. 'What I Loved' is partly about Art as a method of representing the world. Tellingly, one of Leo's earlier books was called 'A Brief History of Seeing in Western Painting'. It also talks about memory and the way memory changes events, and about our personal perceptions of things compared to the actuality of them. It is a book of big ideas and Siri Hustvedt weaves them so skillfully into her narrative that they come back to you over the weeks and months after reading it. She never preaches, instead employs deft metaphors which haunt you long afterwards.
She comfortably uses Art as a way of demonstrating the changes in our society, Bill particularly becomes a mirror that is held up to our world; when another artist, Teddy Giles takes a piece of Bill's work and destroys it for his own art there is a very real sense of the new world swallowing the old. Within, as you would expect over such a time scale, there are some moments of extreme tragedy that still upset me if I think about them now, but there are also examples of life affirming warmth.
One of her real skills is an ability to describe visual Art so vividly, and to convey their meaning, not only within the references of the books themes, but within the wider context of our society. This is a vast story filled with characters that you grow to love. Knowingly clever, but not prohibitively so. And is a hugely accomplished piece of Art in its own right.
Personally I was touched with this section "Lucille's complaints were banal - the familiar stuff of joyless intimacies. I've always thought that loves thrives on a certain kind of distance, that it requires an awed separateness to continue. Without that necessary remove, the physical minutiae of the other person grows ugly in its magnification" Wow!

Thursday, June 9, 2011

administrative evil, cultural confusions and complexity science

In the last couple of days I’ve read about the brutal behaviour of the immigration officials processing some senior citizens on a cruiser ship which was docking for the second time up the US coastline. One couple apparently made a remark questioning this duplication – and, as revenge, the officials put the entire gaggle of old people through the administrative hoops for 7 hours – at some no little physical suffering, treating them as if they were terrorist suspects. And then look at thisaggro to a journalist by a policeman in NE Scotland who had been clearly taken his cue from Donald Trump’s minions; regarding anyone interviewing people critical of the commercial activities of the high and mighty as a terrorist - and therefore needing spoeadeagled on the bonnet of a car and having the videa camera wrested from him. What has happened to the Scottish democracy we used to be so proud of?
Officials who dance on our rights like this should be clapped immediately in the stocks – and pelted for a few hours with rotten fruit and vegetables! And again I say, this is the sort of stuff which should be the focus of public admin training!! One of the (many) unread books in my googlelibrary has the striking title Unmasking Administrative Evil and purports to show
how ordinary people, within their normal professional and administrative roles, can engage in acts of evil without being aware that they are doing anything wrong--and that this tendency toward administrative evil is deeply woven into the identity of public affairs as well as other fields and professions in public life.
Duncan Green is Head of Research of Oxfam and writes a great blog Very amusing was the table he gave recently showing not only what brits really mean by their understatements (eg that’s very interesting really means the exact opposite what complete nonsense!) but a third interpretation which is put on the first phrase by those from other countries. Very funny – and insightful!

The development community to which he belongs is doing interesting work on the implications of complexity theory for the professional field of development. The Aid on the Edge blog has put me in touch this week with what look to be 2 very important papers on the subject issued by the UK’s Overseas Development Institute – one this month, the other in 2008.
Simon Maxwell’s development blog celebrates Robert Chambers (whose work I drew on in the conclusion to my Varna paper) and has some reflections on the development field’s thinking.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Money and drugs

Disparate bits and pieces. Start with Bulgarian art and seascapes.
On my way to the Spartak swimming pool in the last few months, I have watched with interest and respect as an impressive derelict old building in South Park has been lovingly restored not – as we first thought – for yuppy residences but for an art gallery. And today all became clear – with about 10 massive scupltures adorning plinths around the building whose protective covering had been removed to reveal spanking glass walls on 2 sides. And plaques at the front door indicate that it is to be a Museum of Contemporary Art – funded by the unholy trio of Iceland, Leichtenstein and Norway! Must get an invitation to the official opening – and plead the cause for older art!!
And I hope to link forces later in the week with the curator of the great Sofia City Gallery – thanks to my friend Yassen who knows her very well and is arranging for us to meet to explore a possible joint project.

Bulgaria has a glossy English bi-monthly - Vagabond – which is always worth reading. A recent issue has a nice article on the aesthetic attractions of the Northern coastline of the Black Sea. The painting above is a Pater Boiadjiev I acquired in January - which currently ranks as the favourite in my Bulgarian collection. It is of this northern coastline
The Hungarian Spectrum blog continues its relentless and commendable exposure of the Orban government’s antics – this time with a vignette of one of its oligarch’s „thinking”

I’ve lashed out several times in recent blogs at the growing trend of commercialisation of public services; and was therefore pleased to see that the anguished LibDem Treasury Ministry in the UK Coalition (Vincent Cable) is promising an investigation into the implications for that model of the most recent farce which has arisen in that country – this time on the scandalous mess which private companies have made of residential homes for the elderly.
The Guardian also had an interview on the same subject with a great writer who now lives in a residential home which is not run for profit and is, in her late 80s, very vociferous about the need to keep the profit motive away from such places.

Think Tanks are perhaps one of the most visible signs of modernity. Initially squeaky clean – but, slowly, exposed as the sophisiticated propoganda machines most of them are. I was delighted to come across a great initiative of Colorado University which has for some time been conducting critical assessments of the Reports which come from educational think-tanks in the US . The reports can be accessed here.

Next, from Real Economics, one of the pithiest critiques of US policy and systems of the past few decades I have ever come across -
Most everything the US has done over the last thirty years turns out to have been an error. The after effects of the Cold War left America with no plan B of how to behave. Its politics were ill equipped to deal with the more modern problems of serious economic competition and commodity constraints on its life style – by which I mean higher priced oil. When faced with a challenge, the response was to huff and puff about American “exceptionalism” and to pout. Worse: American style economic doctrine, so deeply flawed as it was to turn out to be, was foisted on others.
The error, or course, was to revert to happy face politics. That was what Reagan sold the country on back in 1980. The happy face was plastered everywhere in order to avoid confrontation with fundamental issues. The idea, such as it was, being that free market magic would solve any ills. All we had to do was get government out of the way and things would work out.
What actually happened is that we used debt to paper over the fact that real growth was insufficient. We never paid for the wars we engaged in. We never paid to renew our infrastructure. We allowed our factories to decay. We cut taxes, but not costs. We pumped money into fantasy assets in any number of get rich quick schemes – the result being the succession of destructive bubbles we have lived through. Our policy leadership drifted into a zombie like self congratulatory dream world where it genuinely thought it had conquered history. Business cycle history that is. The magic worked we were all told. As recently as 2004 and 2005 top officials were slapping themselves on the back for having solved the problems of infinite growth.
Economics became a Disney like cartoon of itself. It became disconnected from the serious goal of solving problems for the benefit of all. It simply served to justify the aggrandizement of a few. It constructed utopias and imaginary worlds to explore. This was because it gave up on the more messy problems encountered here on earth. Prizes were awarded on the basis of magic and sleight of hand.
When your intellectuals leave the real world to inhabit a parallel universe and convince themselves that’s fine, no one can blame everyday folk for believing in the market magic fairy as well.
Someday someone will write a great satirical commentary on just how stupid all our clever people were. Right now all we can do is turn away in disgust. But how do you tell a whole cohort of highly educated and self satisfied people that they wasted their own and our time? Or that they led us into a dead end that will cost a generation of hard work to recover from?
Those leaders – should we even dignify them with that name any longer? – fell into a trance. They were beguiled by the great illusion that they could construct something solid on the shifting sands of finance. More importantly they totally ignored the corrosive effect of the debt being piled up in our private sector as households desperately sought to maintain a rising standard of living in the face of very mediocre income growth. These were great times if you were highly educated and well connected. Your income soared. Your wealth accumulated. For the rest? Not so much. The middle class festered in an ever increasingly vain effort to replicate the golden years of the immediate post-war era.
The disconnect between productivity and wages has come home to roost. It was severed by corporate incompetence and short sightedness: the pursuit of shareholder value came at the cost of undermining the demand that drives stock prices and real value over the longer term.
Now we learn the hard way.
Private sector debt is still far too high to allow much long term growth. It will have to be reduced. It is our Great Constraint. We did not cure our banking system. We are still infested with badly mismanaged banks lurching about the landscape capable destroying value and sinking our economy at any moment. We held back from punishing poor investment decisions by creditors. We bailed them out. So the debt remains instead of having been written off.
We persist in discussing problems that don’t exist – debt and inflation – rather than ones that do – unemployment.
The irony is that we lectured the Japanese on exactly these topics when they drifted off course decades ago. Take your medicine, we said. Close those banks. Slash you debt. Rebuild from a realistic, and smaller base. Clean up. Face reality. Did we? Are we?
Is there any hope we will?
And our leading Republican candidate for the presidency, Mitt Romney, today announces that we are “inches away from abandoning capitalism”.
It was unfettered capitalism that drove this illusion. It was deregulation that allowed the banks to upend the economy. It was the unleashing of markets that drove bubble manias. It was capitalists, not workers, who gouged shareholders for enormous and undeserved bonuses. It was market driven finance that misallocated capital into real estate and away from factories. It was a belief in market magic that created the illusion we could borrow and not tax to pay our bills. Indeed it was that part of our leadership – that word again – who most profoundly sought to re-engineer society in the grand tradition of the neo-liberal thinkers like Hayek and his misguided or ill-informed followers, who led us furthest astray.
Institutions matter in actual economies. They matter mightily. Like the banks of our great rivers, they bind capitalism into a channel where we can extract value from it without falling prey to its anti-social extremism. We get the work. We get the energy. But we avoid most of the mayhem. When those institutions are kicked away, when the river banks are breached, the system wobbles off course. Strange and very nasty things happen. Ordinary people drown. In particular, democratic society is torn apart. Political cliques dominate over the majority. The agenda narrows to serve a few. Unrest builds. Until …
With our elite now indulging in a self-referential discussion about problems that exist only within its small and exclusive world. With the recovery clearly showing signs of slowing down. With debt burdens forcing household retrenchment.
And with unsafe banking ready to undermine everything. I have to ask
And finally, in the most obvious area where policy analysis fails utterly to penetrate – drug policy - comes a very important critical report from a Global Commission.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

The good German of Nanjing

I have a week or so to update the paper I delivered at the Varna Conference on 20 May – my critique of the sort of advice in institution- building which is dished out by western consultants and the procurement procedures which the EC uses for that. So this morning I was having another look at it - building in some references which I had missed (such as Tony Verheijen’s 2007 World bank paper Administrative Capacity in the New Member States – the limits of innovation?; and trying to get a more coherent ending to the paper.
This year there is no guarantee that the paper will be published – NISPAcee funds are running low. However, last week I receives a letter suggesting that I submit it as a possible contribution to The Journal of US-China Public Administration.
Some posts back, I mentioned an excellent panel discussion of central european developments of the past 20 years Is Europe’s democratic Revolution Over? Reference was made during that discussion to Ralf Dahrendorf’s prescient comment (in an extended public letter he wrote in 1990 and published under the title Reflections on the Revolution in Europe) that it would take one or two years to create new institutions of political democracy in these recently liberated countries, 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. And it will take maybe two generations to create a functioning civil society.
A Czech panellist (who had been an adviser to Vaclav Havel) 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
I find most Chinese novels I get hold very gripping to read. Is this perhaps something to do with the repressions and incredible madnesses (of a Hieronymus Bosch sort) they have experienced in the past 100 years? I’ve just finished Ye Zhaoyan’s Nanjing 1937 – a Love Story which led me to check the precise location of the city – and the evil events of December 1937 when about 250,000 defenceless Chinese were massacred by Japanese soldiers. Thus I learned of The good German of Nanjing - John Rabe who (as Chairman of a hurriedly assembled International Committee for the Nanjing Safety Zone; and as Head of the local Nazi association) saved a similar number by creating a safe zone and facing down marauding Japanese on numerous occasions (by flashing his swastika pass). Last September I wrote about the similar courageous role played by an American (Asa Jennings) in September 1922 when Greek residents of Smyrna were being massacred. Rabe's achievement and heroism went for naught for the Brits whose actions reduced him to dire poverty in the denazification programme in post-war Berlin – but the citizens of Nanjing did not forget him and for the last few years of his life sent money and food to him in Berlin before he died of a heart attack in 1950.
Such people are the real heroes - but they are generally lost to us all. When reviewing Robert Fisk's huge book on the Middle-East conflicts, I made the comment that this should be the stuff of case-studies in public admin teaching - to remind us that we are human beings and that principles should triumph over rationalistic calculations!
The large oil painting on the Nanjing massacre was done a decade ago by Li Zijiang

Friday, June 3, 2011

EC Structural Funds

I’m quiet because I’m busy! Swimming first thing in morning – with refreshing walks through Sofia’s great South park with Vitosha Mountain above always offering a fascinating artistic backcloth, with or without clouds. Wednesday the sky was as spectacular as it gets hereabouts – stormy greys and blues…with thunder rolling around in late afternoon as we scurried home protectively clutching the latest painting acquisition. Our fifth Milcho Kostadinov – but first seascape – which has rich hues of green, blue, grey and crashing white foam. This is it - above.
I’m also thinking about a possible bid for a project in Bulgaria’s Structural Funds (SF) (Administrative Capacity) – whose terms of reference are, naturally, in Bulgarian. But the more I learn of the detail, the less enthusiastic I get. The project I am currently involved in is required to train 2,800 local officials (in aspects of bidding for and managing SF) in a 12 month period. That’s one workshop every day – somewhere in one of Bulgaria’s regions. Understandably, the process is more about ticking boxes than developing the sort feedback, learning and quality needed for sistainability. The new project I’m looking at would require 5,000 officials to be trained in 6 months! That’s almost 4 workshops each day!! Impossible - unless it is all done at a regional level, when it does become manageable. But companies bidding would have to put money upfront – and hope that the authorities would honour the receipts. No wonder so little money actually gets spent!
Yesterday I visited a workshop we were running on Communications and Information – for 20 municipal officials – and chatted with the 2 trainers. I was fascinated to learn that the Gates Foundation is funding work with the local library system here – Bulgaria has 900 of them! And, given the parlous demographic state of many of the villages here, it is not suprising that few have computers or internet connections.
A year ago - some comments about education.