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, December 28, 2014

The elephant in the nationalist room

There were two dominant themes in this year’s blogposts which I have just reviewed - the need to dismantle the political class; and the “independence question”, whether Scotland should break away from England……
One of my strongest reservations about that discussion came from its failure to engage with the question of how exactly Scotland could break what seem these days to be two “iron laws” – namely (a) of capital flight from countries which show any signs of challenging corporate power; and (b) of the self-serving nature of the political and professional class which moves into any vacant positions of power. An August post referred to the first as the “missing question at the heart of the Scottish debate”; and one just 2 weeks before the vote referred to an article which contained the following assertion -

 Nowhere in the mainstream campaign has anyone from Yes or No acknowledged that our financial and fiscal systems are fatally flawed. No plans have been proposed to tackle the creation and destruction of money as interest paying debt, a system that cannot be sustained for much longer before it buries us all under a mountain of credit that’s impossible to service. None of the good things that enthusiasts for independence want to happen are likely to happen or be sustained until we make structural reforms to our dysfunctional systems of democracy and finance. The same goes for the “strength in unity” arguments of those who seek to preserve the union by voting No.

I am not therefore surprised by today’s news that Craig Murray – whose blogposts always enlighten my day – has been rejected as a candidate for the lists of those approved to fight the general election as Scottish Nationalists. Nor that the grounds on which he was rejected relate to his reliability as a “loyal” party supporter. He apparently gave a negative response to a question he was asked during his interview about his willingness, in the case of a coalition, to support a new tax which was highly unpopular in Scotland (and whose rejection is actually still official Nationalist policy). Note also the designation of the man signing the letter of rejection - "corporate governance and compliance manager"!!!!!!!

Murray is a man of conviction – and a thorn in the side of the powerful. The statement he was required to give in support of his candidacy was typically blunt and uncompromising..
The interviewing panel (of 3 parliamentarians) seems to have been very stupid and he has, typically, gone to town in exposing the new breed of career politician which has embedded itself in the party. Anything less than a quick disavowal of the panel decision will badly affect the standing of the Nationalist party. But that will not be easy for a party which took a very clear decision a few years ago to present itself only in a positive light and to stifle dissent……and the public and aggrieved way in which he has reacted will confirm many in the nationalist party in their belief that he lacked the suitability to be a political figure - with all the compromising that involves........ 
The Labour party has been hemorrhaging electoral support and will relish this turn of events – but would be very ill-advised to try to use it to their own advantage since it is exactly how their own higher echelons behaved in 1998 during the interviewing of candidates for the elections to Scotland’s first Parliament when they selected only loyal Blairites…..  

A recent post from Craig gives a link to a strong, balanced counter-response - which has the ring of truth to it.... 

Variations on a theme

This is the time of the year when some of us like to “take stock” – so I have been looking at the 180-odd blogposts of 2014, trying to identify patterns, high-points and…. deficiencies.
There were many more thematic postings than in previous years – this time last year, for example, I began a series of ten posts on Romanian culture which occupied the early weeks of 2014 and became the basis for my first E-book. The blog  then moved on to a series of reflections about political and professional power, drawing particularly on the writings of such diverse individuals as Anthony Jay, Peter Mair, Christopher Lasch and Dennis Healey which, coincidentally but symbolically, presaged the death in March of one of Britain’s most iconic politicians, Tony Benn. The forty subsequent posts on the Scottish referendum debate (collected in an E-book – The Independence Argument) were, in a sense, “variations on a theme”.   

After some musings about the absence of “European writing, I had moved back by June to knaw on my “change the world” bone – which made me think that it is perhaps time now to make a new E-book from the draft Guide for the Perplexed paper with which I have been playing around for more than a decade. This might help properly launch the new Mapping the common ground website which has been lying dormant after I explored its possible name and purpose in several posts in the summer.

Clearly I seem to have reached an impasse with that paper - first drafted in 2001 – and I’m beginning to suspect that one reason is the tension between the “rationality” model - with which I was imbued by my education - and the richness of other prisms which have been attracting me in my effort to make sense of the world. It is not an accident that the sub-title of that new website refers to multiple perspectives!
Chris Pollitt’s small book, “State of the State” (2000), had first brought me up against Mary Douglas’ “Grid-group” theory (reminding me of Amatsai Etzioni’s scintillating dissection of our approach to Social Problems into three basic schools). But it was Mike Hulme’s book – Why We Disagree about Climate Change – understanding controversy, inaction and opportunity - which really opened my eyes in July to the full potential of the sort of post-modernist “discourse analysis” which I had held until then  in such disdain……..

Most radicals take a “mechanical” view of the world (Gareth Morgan’s Images of Organisation is still the best read on the metaphors we use) – they assume, that is, that societies and systems can and should be diagnosed and “fixed”. Political parties have operated on this pre(o)mise for most of the past century. For more than a couple of decades, however, a lot of serious thinkers have been questioning the simplistic nature of social interventions driven by this principle – pointing to the lessons from chaos science and systems theory….. Picking up on this theme, one of July’s posts featured an energetic old activist called Grace Lee Boggs who argued that protests these days need a new model -
I think it’s really important that we get rid of the idea that protest will create change. The idea of protest organizing, as summarized by [community organizer] Saul Alinsky, is that if we put enough pressure on the government, it will do things to help people.
We don’t realize that that kind of organizing worked only when the government was very strong, when the West ruled the world, relatively speaking.

But with globalization and the weakening of the nation-state, that kind of organizing doesn’t work.
We need to do what I call visionary organizing. Recognize that in every crisis, people do not respond like a school of fish. Some people become immobilized. Some people become very angry, some commit suicide, and other people begin to find solutions.
And visionary organizers look at those people, recognize them and encourage them, and they become leaders of the future.

This took me back to one of the seminal books for me - Robert Quinn’s Change the World, produced in 1996 and an excellent antidote for those who are still fixated on the expert model of change imagining it can be achieved by “telling”, “forcing” or by participation. Quinn (a neglected thinker) exposes the last for what it normally is - a form of manipulation – and effectively encourages us, through examples, to have more faith in people.

Normal blog service was resumed after the Scottish referendum result in late September with a long post - Some Notes on a crisis – on a reading list which, with a couple of exceptions, shows the extent to which the mechanistic model still dominates the debate about the crisis.
An apocalyptic note entered the blog in October with a couple of posts – Are we going to Hell? and Have the Kleptomaniacs and Liars really won? the last of which itemised 13 vicious social trends.

The year ended, however, on a fairy-tale note – with the incredible victory of modest Klaus Iohannis in the Romanian Presidential elections.

But one important conclusion from this initial overview of the year’s posts seems to be that I can and should continue with the thematic approach to posts – using this year’s posts on “changing the world” as a basis rather than the essay on guiding the perplexed. But with a strong dash of the post-modern material on “frame analysis” etc a list of which can be found in the post on Stories We Tell.

I haven't been offering as many paintings on my posts - for which my apologies. I will try harder.....
This is one of my favourite Bulgarian aquarellists - Grigor Naidenov - and I have just discovered it in a small cache of stuff bundled with some old calendars of Bulgarian art which I brought down from the crowded Bucharest flat.......

Saturday, December 27, 2014


Good resolutions seem to have gone out of fashion – and end-of-year reflections seem to have been surrendered, vicariously, to journalists who remind us, instead, of the world’s key events and do a round up, for example, of “best books of the year”.
Whatever happened to the “mindfulness” about which we were being exhorted not so long ago – let alone simple “attentiveness”?
Tim Parks - to whom I referred in the last post – asked recently what might be the most practical way he could lead his students to a greater attentiveness…......to help protect themselves from all those underlying messages that can shift one’s attitude without one’s being aware of it? I began to think about the way I read myself, about the activity of reading, what you put into it rather than what was simply on the page.
 Try this experiment, I eventually told them: from now on always read with a pen in your hands, not beside you on the table, but actually in your hand, ready, armed. And always make three or four comments on every page, at least one critical, even aggressive. Put a question mark by everything you find suspect. Underline anything you really appreciate. Feel free to write “splendid,” but also, “I don’t believe a word of it.” And even “bullshit.”
……it was remarkable how many students improved their performance with this simple stratagem. There is something predatory, cruel even, about a pen suspended over a text. Like a hawk over a field, it is on the lookout for something vulnerable. Then it is a pleasure to swoop and skewer the victim with the nib’s sharp point.
The mere fact of holding the hand poised for action changes our attitude to the text. We are no longer passive consumers of a monologue but active participants in a dialogue. Students would report that their reading slowed down when they had a pen in their hand, but at the same time the text became more dense, more interesting, if only because a certain pleasure could now be taken in their own response to the writing when they didn’t feel it was up to scratch, or worthy only of being scratched.
 Shades of the "slow books" concept I have been trying to arouse interest in.....

Thursday, December 25, 2014


My blog occasionally refers to the welcome relief my nomadic life of the past 24 years has given from the “noise” of television and newspapers but has not so far attempted to do justice to the wonderful effect which living a solitary life in a foreign country has. You experience and see things in a different and powerfully new way….   
Tim Park, for example, has from his mid 20s made his living in Italy as a translator and teacher of translation and has written a series of short pieces in the New York Review of Books about how this experience has affected his own writing
If you write a lot yourself obviously you become more curious about how certain effects can be achieved or avoided and with application over the years your sensibility is enhanced. In my case translation has been important. I came to Italy when I was twenty-five.
Living in a second language, I became more aware of how language drives and shapes thought. Translating and teaching translation forced me constantly to take texts to pieces in order to put them back together in my own tongue. I became very conscious of elements of style, if only because I felt the tension between the author’s habits and my own. Translating texts together with students, I have also had the benefit of discovering all the things they saw that I didn’t.
My combination of political and academic roles in the 70s and 80s had made me aware of the need to communicate more clearly – whether in words or text. When I moved in 1990 to work in ex-communist countries, the translation process made me even more more aware, for example, of the jargon we use….of how context shapes and alters the meaning we give to things…of the arbitrariness or “slipperiness” of words as TS Eliot put it -
“Words strain, 
Crack and sometimes break,
under the burden, 
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish, 
Decay with imprecision,
will not stay in place, 
Will not stay still.”
Paul Cairney is a Scottish academic (in my field of policy analysis) whose blog is always worth reading. One of his most recent posts is a useful analysis of his thoughts on presenting a paper in Japan through interpreters which he concludes thus -
In short, if we take the idea of translation seriously, it is not just about a technical process in which words are turned into a direct equivalent in another language and you expect the audience to be informed or do the work to become informed. It is about thinking again about what we think we know, and how much of that knowledge we can share with other people.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Musing Away

Today I celebrate the 1000th post of the blog I started 5 years ago. 

It’s been quite a journey - 1,300 pages of text and pictures covering those topics which took my fancy – the hallmark being the exclusion of the noise of current affairs…..and sparked off by the books and articles I was reading (and sometimes writing).

Initially it was called “Carpathian Musings” by virtue of the dramatic location of the old mountain house south of Brasov which I had acquired in 2000 – a decade into my nomadic wanderings in Central Europe and at the start of what was to become 8 years of nomadic work (on capacity development) in Central Asia.
In 2007 I felt it was time to get back to Central Europe and find out how places like Bulgaria and Romania were dealing with the challenge of transition. The Bulgarian work …..which I described in the 2008 paper Learning from Experience had aroused my interest in websites and E-learning and was the incentive to set up first a website for the various papers I had written – Publicadminreform - and then the blog whose title was broadened in 2010 or so….
Earlier this year, I published two small E-books based on the posts I had done on Romania and Scotland in the past year - Mapping Romania and The Independence Argument.

Now I have just brought out a 200 page tribute to Bulgarian painters - Exploring Bulgaria thro its Art – which is a major expansion of the 2010 booklet “Introducing the Bulgarian Realists – getting to know the Bulgarians through their paintings”. Sixty names have been added as have some 140 pages of the blogposts I have written on the subject in the past few years……  Many of these posts were written as I travelled around Bulgaria in 2011/12 visiting the various municipal galleries in the regions (and tasting the wines!) - so readers will get an unusual sense of the country although it does not pretend to be the sort of analysis you can find in Mapping Romania.

You’ll find a statement of intent at the start of each of the 5 volumes of Balkan and Carpathian Musings available in the E-book section of my new website Mapping the Common Ground.

I have not sought so far any publicity for this website – which is a fairly unusual library of material useful for those who are unhappy with the direction modern civilisation has been taking and who believe in the importance of people coming together and exploring how best to change things for the better……Libraries, after all, are places for quiet, calm reflection…….  

Just loved the 15 “ailments” which Pope Francis has apparently identified in the Vatican bureaucracy. He could be speaking about the leading denizens of any large organisation – most of whom need being brought down to earth…….They include these six -
1 Feeling immortal, immune or indispensable. “A Curia that doesn’t criticise itself, that doesn’t update itself, that doesn’t seek to improve itself, is a sick body.”
7) Being rivals or boastful. “When one’s appearance, the colour of one’s vestments or honorific titles become the primary objective of life.”
9) Committing the “terrorism of gossip”. “It’s the sickness of cowardly people who, not having the courage to speak directly, talk behind people’s backs.”
10) Glorifying one’s bosses. “It’s the sickness of those who court their superiors, hoping for their benevolence. They are victims of careerism and opportunism, they honour people who aren’t God.”
13) Wanting more. “When the apostle tries to fill an existential emptiness in his heart by accumulating material goods, not because he needs them but because he’ll feel more secure.”
15) Seeking worldly profit and showing off. “It’s the sickness of those who insatiably try to multiply their powers and to do so are capable of calumny, defamation and discrediting others, even in newspapers and magazines, naturally to show themselves as being more capable than others.”

Monday, December 22, 2014


As a politician from my late 20s, I quickly learned how soon public expectations turn to dust – although my first speeches “on the stump” (ie in the open air) did warn people that I could make no promises (I would generally have to stop myself from adding “except blood and toil”!).

I found that such an honest approach paid off – and from 1968 I had an undefeated record of 8 public electoral victories and a further string of 8 consecutive successes in the contests which were held immediately after the elections by the ruling Labour party (of which I was part) to decide the key positions.

It was as such a “seasoned” politician (I love the bon viveur sense this epithet gives – as in “add some seasoning”!) that I was initially elated and then deflated by Obama…..
But I was still moved by yesterday’s Presidential inauguration of Klaus Iohannis here in Bucharest – first his speech to the unrepentant parliamentarian sinners with its declaration that their stable needed cleansing….then the motorcade to the Cotroceni Palace we had passed just last week - to accept the baton from ever loquacious Basescu. 
What a contrast Transylvanian Iohannis makes – with his typically slow delivery! But it was this modesty and circumspection which won him his highly unexpected victory last month and which gives many Romanians the first hope they have had for some time…..        

In 25 years, the Romanians have had only one brief five-year respite from the insidious poison which the plutocrats (regardless of political label) have been injecting into their veins. Iliescu – who led the palace revolution this time 25 years ago - may have been personally incorruptible but all his minions quickly took the silver; and University Professor Constantinescu simply proved unequal to the task of reform. By coincidence, the country’s first post-communist Prime Minister Petr Roman was talking volubly on his mobile (in French) in the English Bookshop at midday – but I failed to identify him. Otherwise I would have approached him to remind him that some 24 years ago, he gave me an hour-long interview…….     

Romanian television has these days been playing images of the uprising 25 years ago and one of the links carried a striking 5 point contrast of life 25 years on – as typified by cars, communications, television channels, churches and….. malls. Petrol, for example, was then rationed (I remember the hassle driving in 1992 the 650 kms from the border down to Bucharest) whereas now the cars block the pavements everywhere.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Nudging the politicians out??

The World Bank used to be a name to conjure with. Its keynote annual “World Development” reports blazed an ideological trail in the 90s – particularly its infamous 1997 neo-liberal attack on the State to which Japan actually issued a specially-commissioned riposte.
The Bank’s 2014 World Development Report - entitled “Mind, Society and Behaviour” – is a showcase for the newer type of behavioural economics which the Bank would have us believe has replaced the discredited system of economics. A lot of people – such as those at Real World Economics – would disagree…..
The World Bank (WB) no longer seems to arouse the controversy and anger it once did – presumably because there are now so many more worthy targets such as real bankers and plutocrats. Twenty years ago my bookshelves were stocked with exposes of the ecological, social and economic damage WB lending policies were inflicting on developing countries. Special websites and books with such names as “50 years is enough” were dedicated to the abolition of both the Bank and the International Monetary Fund
The Washington Consensus” was a phrase we angrily splattered our conversations with – denoting the intellectual homogeneity, it not hegemony, the Bank exercised over the economics “discipline”.
Successive WB Presidents toned down the neo-liberal rhetoric and skilfully co-opted a lot of the critics – particularly the NGOs. So things are quieter now – but be under no illusions. Behind the scenes, the Bank’s largesse toward the academic community ensures that economists continue to act as castrated  lapdogs of prevailing power. And over in Brussels, the Economic Commission exercises the same sort of lobotomy surgery of most academics who stray into its territory….

Indeed the recent fashion for governments to “nudge” their citizens to various forms of desired behaviour makes one wonder why we bother with politics any more. They are, after all, just so much unnecessary grit in the machinery….  .whose simplistic interventions really should be challenged with rather more effective systems of challenge than most parliaments can manage these submissive days.

But don't let me put you off from what seems quite a good read - the RSA link  (the second above) is a serious treatment of the report.......
and the Real World Economics collective continues to gives us much-needed and bracing home truths eg this thoughtful piece Challenging the current economics curriculum by the Vice-Chancellor of one of Pakistan’s Institutes of Development Economics

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Bucharest's contrasts

The Sala Radio is one of Bucharest’s best-kept secrets – with great acoustics and the recitals broadcast on the radio. Its Radio Chamber Orchestra kept us on our seats last night with first a Romanian composer (Toduţă)’s charming piece - violin Concerto No.1 for String Orchestra. Then JS Bach : Concerto no. 1 in A minor for Violin and Orchestra, BWV 1041 F – with virtuoso soloist CRISTINA ANGHELESCU; and then a rollicking Mendelssohn : Symphony No. IV in A major, op 90 – Italian. 
The young conductor - Mattei POP - cut a gangly but effective figure on the podium

Pensioners can get a 3 month season ticket for 35 euros – that’s about 1 euro a performance! Little wonder they are such afficandos! And one of Bucharest’s ancient trams (number 24) takes you right there (from Piate Viitoreii). 
About time Bucharest’s dreadful butcher mayor took time off from destroying the past and looked at the spanking new trams Sofia is adding to its fleet……
Romania's best classic station - Radio  Muzical - is playing here now

At the opposite end of experience are the Bucharest shopping malls – I thought the Sofia ones were bad but the gargantuan Cotroceni one just across the Gara de Nord area is a really aggressive slap in the face. Typically, it has no information desk or display and is a therefore a nightmare to navigate. 

We had walked then bussed to see Robert Duval in the film The Judge which gives a nice portrait of small-town America and also has great performances from Robert Downey Jr and Bob Thornton. On the way home, in the heaving bodies and dark, we mistook a number 11 tram for a number 1 and had to retrack at the spaghetti junction around the equally offensive and gargantuan Carrefour. At this station, the tracks run at two levels – and, typically, there were no signs to guide us to the upper track….The journey was therefore completed with a combination of foot, bus and foot….Hats off again to Mayor (butcher) Oprescu! 

The drawing is Daumier's Gargantua!

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Access to National Galleries

I’ve been a bit sniffy in the past about Sofia’s National Gallery of Art – so let me take my hat off to them for their display of digital facilities. I was a bit annoyed on Thursday to be denied access to an exhibition of Nouveau Art’s Nikola Rainov (for reasons of some private party) but was placated by being given the opportunity to use a smart phone to access some 200 watercolours of the past century which have not so far been available to the public – along with useful information about the painters.
This is part of a wider project of gradual digitization of the entire archive of the museum in 2015.

I managed to see the Rainov exhibition the following day – you don’t often see his work. And it was accompanied by a superb small catalogue – sadly almost entirely monolingual.
Running in a neighbouring room, was another delightful small exhibition of urban life here a hundred years ago – with a charming video of an elderly lady displaying various artefacts from the period.

And my ever-ready camera was able to catch this shot of a very sharply-dressed elderly visitor to the gallery…..

Lack of translation is one of two features which used to distinguish the National Gallery from the municipal one across the road – whose catalogues have been bilingual for quite some years. The second feature is pricing – the national Gallery used to charge 5 euros (now 3 – with pensioners half price). The municipal gallery was free – until last year when a nominal charge was introduced (with pensioners free). 

It reminded me of one of my political colleagues in the 1970s Janey Buchan (who became an MEP in the 1979), She was a tireless advocate in the 60s of the rights of ordinary people (before the days of the Consumer Association) and was particularly strong on the importance of free entry to museums and art galleries, Thatcher put pressure on to introduce charges (although the British Museum held out) but entry was made free again in 2001 – with significant subsequent increases in visitors.

And I was glad to see that the Neil Mc Gregor, the renowned Director of the British Museum had declined an invitation to direct New York’s Metropolitan Museum because it charged an entry fee.   

The attitude of Sofia City Gallery is yet another proof of the superiority of municipal to central government

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The cultural history of cities as the best form of writing?

I enjoy writing which focuses on objects – WG Sebald’s use in his novels of old photos; Edmund de Waal’s focus in a family history on amber miniatures; Neil McGregor’s various histories built on various cultural artefacts eg Germany – the memories of a nation – whose entire podacst can be heard here. It’s good also to see some of the objects – on an excellent blogsite

For me, this particular approach offers a real window into how people have lived their lives in the past. My little book on Bulgarian Realist painters (subtitled “How to get to know the Bulgarians through their paintings”) lists 140 painters from the early part of the 20th century and tries, in a few lines, to capture their significance.
This wasn’t easy – I first have to put the artist’s name in Cyrillic script and then copy and paste on Bulgarian google – then google translate what seem to be promising entries. Then there is the problem that these give the barest facts (except long lists of exhibitions and honours which add not a jot to our understanding of the person!) And it goes without saying that most art “criticism” is gobbledygook…

What I need is a sense of the character – how they lived their lives…..the friends they had. I am, for example, very fond of the Gregor Naidenov’s aquarelles of café life in Sofia in the 1930-1950s – but, so far, have been unable to find out anything about the man. And I was impressed with a book on Boris Denev which included lovely black and white photographs of him with friends and in various studios and exhibitions….also a recent book on a classic Bulgarian photographer, Stoyan Sertev which not only reproduced many of the old photographs (including lovely ones of Nicola Tanev) but included a CD of the quartet he led.

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about the 700 page book I had discovered here based on Ruhmen Manov’s personal collections of old Bulgarian photos and cultural artefacts A Fairy Tale about Bulgaria which gives a wonderful sense of the history of the country…….

Earlier in the year my E-book Mapping Romania – notes on an unfinished journey used 16 different ways to try to get a handle on the country - namely travel guides; travelogues – which can be divided into the serious or the (sadly increasing number of) tongue-in-cheek type; histories - which deal with what are considered to be the key events in the shaping of a nation; novels; social and cultural histories (including jokes) – which give insights into how ordinary people lived their lives; memoirs and diaries – dealing with those who were more  distinguished”; blogs; magazines; television, films and plays; photographs; paintings and caricatures; buildings; conversations and encounters; friendships; music; food and wine

It’s not easy to find books which do justice to countries – travel books do their best but are somewhat one dimensional. More serious books suffer from being written from one particular academic discipline - be it history, economics, politics. Anthropology seems to offer more eg this one I unearthed - The anthropology of IrelandAnd this series on the cultural history of cities is quite excellent - which seems to verlap with cities of the imagination (inc Athens, Brussels, Belgrade, Cairo, Dublin, Edinburgh, Istanbul, Lisbon, Madrid, Prague, Seville, Vienna, Zagreb.
Richard Tillingham has a lovely little book - a Traveller's History of Istanbul; and - which is also featured in a great collection "Istanbul; the collected traveler An Inspired Companion Guide" by Barrie Kerper who also offers an instructive blog.... 
Art critic Robert Hughes' Rome is a real example of how a great writer can transmit knowledge and enthusiasm (he also did a book on Barcelona)

So perhaps it’s about time that someone gave Bulgaria/Sofia a cultural treatment. Rumen’s book (which I bought at a discount yesterday – 75 euros) is a useful start – linked to the book on Stoyan Sertev; to Sofia Enigma and Stigma which contains eveocative black and white photos of old, crumbling buildings in Sofia; and  to the marvellous 600 page Sofia’s Mount Athos which is a superb study (complete with photos and GPS coordinates) of the 46 monasteries which cluster around Sofia  - many since the 14th century. And Elisabeth Kostova’s The Historian.

Despite the continuing political silences about the 42 years Bulgaria spent under communism, the 20th century can still be felt in Sofia - only this week I bought a (copy of) a little 1947 litho scene  of the part of Vasil Levsky Street which has the University at the end, complete with one car and a horse and cart – part of a series dictator Georgi Dmitrov apparently commissioned of artists then. That was the same day I came across a lovely 1935 landscape by Boris Denev – banned by the communist regime from paintings after 1944 – which had been lying in a house for several decades. It still has the typical white frame used in the 1940/1950s.

And one of my prize possessions is a 1942 journal on every page of which are several pencilled figures - clearly the work of Ilyia Beshkov, the famous caricaturist. 

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Desperately seeking...Satire

I’ve talked before about the power of satire. Fortuitously, this morning, I found a good example of its use. Contrast today’s report from the OECD about the “wealth gap” and the failure of the “trickle-down” theory of change with this satirical diatribe on the Daily Show  (which I found as a link on the discussion thread)
Until now, I wasn’t a fan of John Oliver – he just didn’t seem to be able to hold a candle to Jon Stewart on the show but what I’ve seen in the clips I’ve viewed so far today has changed my mind. The combination of biting comment with irreverent (and irrelevant) photoshots and sound bites is a powerful mix – as you will see in his treatment of the issue of “net neutrality” which he effectively parses and deconstructs, in Orwellian fashion, as actually “f***in corporate takeover”  

Satire has long been a powerful weapon against the pretensions of power – Voltaire’s Candide and Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels are well-known literary examples. Ralph Steadman and Gerard Scarfe are modern caricaturists in the tradition of Hogarth; and the Liverpool poets (Roger McGough, Adrian Henry) sustained the protestors of the 1960s. British people are not so familiar with the Bert Brecht’s City poems or the savage anti-bourgeois paintings of Georg Grosz in the 1920s and 1930s.

A powerful satirical essay “Democracy, Bernard? It must be stopped!” was penned by the author of the Yes Minister TV series and exposes the emptiness behind the rhetoric about democracy and government. It is available only on my website at -
In 1987 Management Professor Rosabeth Kanter produced “Ten Rules for Stifling Initiative” which I have often used to great effect in Central Asian training sessions.

1999 saw the appearance of The Lugano Report; on preserving capitalism in the twenty-first Century which purported to be a leaked report from shady big business but was in fact written by Susan George.
Management guru Russell Ackoff’s great collection of tongue-in-cheek laws of management – Management F-Laws – how organisations really work ( 2007)  As the blurb put it –“They're truths about organizations that we might wish to deny or ignore - simple and more reliable guides to managers' everyday behaviour than the complex truths proposed by scientists, economists and philosophers”.  An added bonus is that British author, Sally Bibb, was asked to respond in the light of current organizational thinking. Hers is a voice from another generation, another gender and another continent. On every lefthand page is printed Ackoff and Addison's f-Law with their commentary. Opposite, you'll find Sally Bibb's reply. A short version (13 Sins of management). A typical rule is – “The more important the problem a manager asks consultants for help on, the less useful and more costly their solutions are likely to be”.

Robert Greene’s 48 Laws of Power may not be satire but it is a very salutary counter to the thousands of unctuous managment  texts which attribute benign motives to senior management. 

A spoof on the British Constitution produced a few years ago is another good example of the power of satire. A Guardian article just a couple of days ago drew our attention to the apparent decline in Britain of the genre and linked to an older piece in the LRB

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Intellectual autobiographies

We all search for meaning in our lives – which is why I find it puzzling that intellectual biographies and histories seem so rare….. I mentioned, the other day, the recently published Worldly Philosopher – the odyssey of Albert O Hirschmann
Another book of that genre I enjoy dipping into is Comparative European Politics – the story of a Profession – which presents a portrait of a profession, through intellectual (auto)biographies of the older generation of leading scholars in the field such as Hans Daalder, Juan Lintz, Richard Rose, Giovanni Sartori and Vincent Wright. The book gives a wonderful picture of intellectual endeavour in the post-war period showing how particular experiences turned them towards the study of politics when it was still a quiet field.
My uncle – Wilfrid Harrison - was actually one of the first post-war UK Professors of Politics which may partly explain the turn my life took – with the fateful decision in 1962 to switch at University from modern languages to politics and economics!

“The Story of a Profession” describes the scholarly infrastructure for international research which they developed in the post-war period and offers stories of academic careers, of achievements and of doubts, of lessons learned or imparted.

But patient surfing on the internet on the last 24 hours has unearthed quite a treasure trove – starting with a great interview with political anthropology Professor Cris Shore  whose work (on the EC) I had noticed some weeks back and who turns out to be the son of a famous Labour Minister (in the 1960s Wilson Government)
That, in turn, led me to these reflections of leading Public Admin Professor RAW Rhodes – whom I had come across in the 1970s as he was starting his academic career – and to an amazing number of articles and books easily available in which he dissects and challenges the British political tradition. One review puts it as follows
Rhodes’s project is to offer an account of what he and Bevir call the ‘stateless state’. This is an image of the state that focuses on the agents of the state – the civil servants, politicians and special advisors – rather than its institutional structure. The state for Rhodes is effectively the sum of their actions. But they do not have free reign: their agency is situated in various webs of relations and beliefs, which are themselves shaped and influenced by particular longstanding narratives and traditions.
Rhodes identifies three particular narratives which are highly influential: the Westminster narrative, which are the longstanding codes of conduct around political neutrality and service to the minister which govern the behaviour of civil servants;
the managerial narrative, which has become increasingly prominent in the UK since the 1960s and in which the practices of managing, reputedly based on the private sector, according to identifiable targets and with appropriate sanctions shape conduct in the departments;
and the governance narrative, in which coordination is achieved through the internal and external organisation of networks across the state and often into civil society as well.
These narratives are not necessarily complementary and often competing. The image that is produced is one of various agents reproducing the state through their constant negotiation between these received traditions and the problems and dilemmas that confront them, rather than the more familiar image of the state as powerful, hierarchical and ossified institutions wielding structural power
On my surfing I also came across a charming tribute to another comparative political scientist; and also this autobiographical essay by the neglected development economist Andre Gunder Frank  

Friday, December 5, 2014

Why are the reflective consultants hiding?

I referred in the last post to the tens (if not hundreds) of billions of euros spent in recent decades by international bodies on what we might call the “development industry”. That translates into thousands (if not hundreds of…) individuals like myself who transit the world’s air terminals and hotels working on projects designed to build organisational capacity in countries receiving technical assistance.
For almost as long as I remember, I’ve written reflections on my endeavours and published them
In this venture, I seem almost to be unique….Robert Chambers – a much more exalted figure than I could ever claim to be – is someone who, from his institutional base, has been able to combine practical work with theoretical reflections in the manner I aspire to. Albert Hirschmann is perhaps the real doyen of the genre. 

This morning I was delighted to encounter a new blogsite with the wonderful name Aidnography with a post – Where are the consultants hiding?which is the first I’ve seen to deal with this deficiency
Every so often I receive a short email from a senior development consultant – women and men with probably 15, often 20 or more years of paid professional employment inside the ‘aid industry’ – they basically started before it was even called an ‘industry’!  The messages are usually short, sometimes straight from ‘the field’ (i.e. really uncomfortable, dangerous and complex locations) and often along the lines of ‘little do you/that researcher/this journalist really know about organization X or the crisis in region Y’. 
But with very few exceptions, these voices rarely make into the development blogosphere, let alone find their way into virtual, classroom or policy discussions. The proverbial ‘I will write a book about my time in the industry once I have retired’ approach only works for very few and even if they manage to write that book, the distance of a few years between what happened in, say, Rwanda and the publication creates a safer, but often also less relevant story. 
Why are senior consultants ‘hiding’? There are some more obvious reasons why senior consultants are often not very visible in public debates:·         They tend to be very busy: they have carved out their niche and are on the go to the next assignment in ‘their’ country, region or area of expertise
·         They tend to be older and may not have been socialized in the digital culture of sharing, being online and maintaining a digital presence or even a brand
·         They actually have something to lose if public critique leads to fewer assignments for a favourite organization or they are perceived as ‘difficult’ (many freelance senior consultants have quasi-employment status with some of the largest bi- and multilateral organizations)
·         They know development is a job; after decades of work, every profession, job or calling has been met with plenty of reality checks; even if you are not cynical or burned-out it is difficult to have similar discussion regularly or get excited when the latest ‘participatory bottom-up community design project’ turns out to be just like any other project with a budget, log-frame and quarterly reports
·         They do not really like the academic reflection business and prefer to get an assignment ‘done’ rather than reflecting on an industry that may not be responsive to critique anyway (see previous point)
On the other hand, their detailed and nuanced insights would be beneficial in many discussions on why certain organizations do what they are doing, who was resisting an idea and how difficult and political consensus building really is; they could also shed light on many realities in the field, the grey areas, the trade-offs, the secrets of the industry of how to get positive change going and how to avoid bureaucratic pitfalls etc. Or how they maintain marriages, families, well-being and gruesome travel schedules. 
How do we get access to senior consultants and get them to share their wisdom, stories and experiences (if they want to…)? Traditional formats, like inviting them to (academic) conferences and workshops, usually fail or are limited to the context of one event.  The IRIS Humanitarian Affairs Think Tank is an interesting approach that connects researchers and humanitarian practitioners in an academic framework with support from SaveThe Children. And there are probably similar projects that I am not aware of and that you are most welcome to share with me so I can add it to this post.  So what other formats can we think of? Writing retreats that aim at producing a publication through a book sprint rather than going through traditional publishing channels?  Or do we need more traditional, multi-sited research that works along those busy schedules and may include interviews in unusual locations, e.g. airport lounges, R&R hotels or organizational debriefings?
At this point in time, I am thinking out loud really and I am grateful for comments, suggestions and ideas!

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The Missionary Position

Getting to Denmark” seemed an appropriate title for the collection of musings I’m trying to edit about the challenges which technocrats and academics funded by international bodies have wrestled with over the past 2 decades in ex-communist countries – particularly those of us working to try to build the capacity of state bodies there – whether central or local. 
Several billions of euros have been spent on such efforts (not including the hundreds of millions spent in the last decade by Structural Funds in these countries which have employed local rather than international staff)
The musings are a small selection of blogposts I’ve done over the past 5 years - which build on two long papers I produced a few years ago -
- “administrative reform with Chinese and European characters” (2010)  - whose last section  is a summary of the sort of lessons I felt I had learned about public administration reform in Western Europe 
- “The Long Game – not the logframe” (2011) was a caustic paper I presented to the 2011 NISPAcee Conference ( building on an earlier paper to the 2007 Conference) in which I took apart the superficiality of the assumptions EC bureaucrats seemed to be making about the prospects of its Technical Assistance programmes  making any sort of dent in what I called (variously) the kleptocracy  or “impervious regimes” of most ex-communist countries.  

But the adrenalin released by the 50 lengths I try to swim regularly in the Rodina Hotel here made me realise today that “The Missionary Position” is a better title – not only in the sense of potentially getting more hits but of its hitting the target better…… 
After all, what have most of us “Westerners” in ex-communist countries been doing these past 25 years (however little we may have recognised it) – if not “proselytising” (in almost evangelical fashion)  for better systems of what the jargon has (significantly also since 1989) taken to calling better “governance”???

I have always had a problem with this term - which seemed to cover broadly the same issues as the discipline I had known as “public administration” – although I grant you that “governance” has given more emphasis to anti- corruption, coordination, transparency and pluralism.
Volumes have been written about the change of terms – and its significance (one of the best is Whatever Happened to Public Administration? (2004)

In 2007 I did actually use the title “Missionaries, Mercenaries or Witch-Doctors?” for a paper I presented to the Annual NISPAcee Conference (in Slovenia) but, until now, I hadn’t made the connection between my activities since 1990 and the wider process of evangelism – let alone “colonisation”.  Only today did I read an article which used an anthropological approach to interpret the sort of people who go on “missions” to “developing” countries

Most “experts” are trapped in their particular world (geographical and/or intellectual) – be it of “political science”, “sociology”, “economics”, “management”, “public administration”, “europeanisation” or “development”.
Each has its own distinctive networks of socialisation, approval and punishment. Those of us who prowl the edges of these disciplines run the risks all renegades do – of neglect, ridicule, calumny, ostracisation ….except that we were never there in the first place to be ostracised!

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Is Denmark actually worth getting to???

I have been viewing, for the first time, the first part of the 2011 Scandinavian television series The Bridge – which follows a Danish policeman and a Swedish policewoman as they criss-cross the 8 kilometre Oresund Bridge (which links Copenhagen and Malmo) in the search of a killer mastermind.

The townscapes are stunning; but the characters and societies presented positively dystopian – and have you wondering whether Denmark (where I lived for a year - in 1990) is actually worth getting to!!
Coincidentally, today’s Guardian has an interview with the Danish star – Kim Bodnia   
What, the journalist asks, is the appeal of shows such as The Bridge?
"We are caught up in the darkness, the evil and the misery – we just do those best." Even though Bodnia, 48, is one of the most genial interviewees I've encountered, as he sets out this theory he sounds like a cross between Kierkegaard and Ingmar Bergman.But surely you can't be right about that. Isn't Denmark regularly voted the happiest country in Europe?
"It is, but you wouldn't guess that from our film or TV."
 True – Danish film has been not just one of the most engrossing national cinemas, but unremittingly, cherishably bleak. And Bodnia in his early days as an actor was part of this Nordic noir movement: "I was always good at playing evil……..- The Swedes got there first – their dramas were always the darkest and most upsetting, and we used to love them when I was growing up in Denmark. Now us Danes have caught up."
The popularity of recent Danish and Swedish crime films, including the adaptations of Larsson's Millennium trilogy, can possibly be traced back to Ingmar Bergman's 1962 film Winter Light, which dramatised the Swede's existential crisis…………..
The reason the series been so compelling is not so much to do with the whodunit, but rather the relationship between the 2 detectives. Yes there have been odd couples in crime dramas before (Morse and Lewis, Holmes and Watson, Clouseau and Cato, not to mention Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson in HBO's marvellous new series True Detective), but none so fruitful as these two. Norén is a cop with Asperger's (even though that word never appears in the script) and so emotes very little, but solves crimes with devastating deductive skills. She takes the inversion of gender roles one step further than Sarah Lund: sure, she effectively plays the traditional male role (though she's much more rule-bound than Lund) and is equally affectless, but she confers on her male co-worker the traditional female attributes seen in detective dramas.