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, August 30, 2015

Rural life in the early part of the century

One of my great fortunes in life is to have a mountain house which had stood empty for more than a decade when we first clapped eyes on it in summer 2000 and bought on a whim (and for a song). It needed a lot of work – it had no running water, electricity or insulation.
Indeed it was little more than a shell – its lower (stone) level hewn into the hillside having served as a shelter for family cows and the maturing of cheese; the wooden floor above as accommodation – kept warm in the winter by the heat of the animals below – and the attic as storage for the hay.   
It is part of a collection of houses which form one of the scattered villages which cling to the mountain valleys which stretch up from Brasov and Campulung and whose stories deserve to be told.

For the next few years, Daniela (living 200 kilometres south in Bucharest) would hitchhike almost every weekend; find the workmen and materials; lug the materials from nearby villages and manage the work of digging (water and sewage), building (bathroom, kitchen and stoves) and insulation. My excuse was that I was a few thousand kilometres further east and therefore managed to take in only a bit of the insulation; the construction of the subsequent central heating; back terrace; and loft conversion……   During that last bit of work we were delighted to find not only beer bottles from the 1930s but carefully-kept accounts of the sales of the cheeses – a real glimpse into village life….
The house may be legally (and emotionally) mine – but it is Daniela’s creation – down to the furniture, bookshelves, arrangement of the paintings and the Rene McIntosh stained glass-like designs…..

Only since summer 2008 have I been able to spend substantial time here (from May through to October) and get a sense of the sorts of lives people lived here in the twentieth century….centred around the church and its frequent saintdays whose piped incantations echo around the valley…..
I am a city boy but have grown to appreciate the superb air and silences here.

One small section of my library is devoted to books which try to give voice to this (dying) way of life – the titles include -
Road to Alto - an account of peasants, capitalists and the soil in the mountains of southern Portugal; Robin Jenkins (1979)
- House by the Shore – twelve years in the Hebrides; Alison Johnson (1986)
- A Wild Herb Soup – the life of a French countrywoman; Emilie Carles (1991)
 - "A Year's Turning"; Michael Viney (1996) about life in a remote Irish location to which they moved in the late 1970s
-  Celestine – voices from a French village; Gillian Tindall (1996)
- "Mourjou - the life and food of an auvergne village"; Peter Graham (1998);
 - Harry Clifton's poetic "On the Spine of Italy - a year in the Abruzzi" (1999)
War in Val D'Orcia: An Italian War Diary, 1943-1944; Iris Ortigo (2000)
-  Love and War in the Pyrenees; a story of courage, fear and hope 1939-1944 – Rosemary Bailey (2008)
 - Notes from Walnut Tree Farm; Roger Deakin (2008)
 - An Island in Time – the biography of a villagean Island in Time; Geert Mak (2010)

Recently I have been reading -
- The Stronghold – four seasons in the white mountains of Crete; Xan Fielding (1953)
- Thin Paths – journeys in and around an Italian mountain village; Julia Blackburn (2012)

All of such books make for gripping reading – but the last two I have found particularly powerful – perhaps because I am now spending more time with my 89-year old neighbor who was widowed earlier in the year. For many years in the 50s and 60s he delivered the post in the valleys here – on horseback! He must have some tales to tell!

Blackburn's book has touches of WG Sebald - poetic with small unfocused black and white photos...she befriended the old people in her village and gradually got them to talk about their lives....first time I had heard of the feudal system still prevailing there in the early part of the 20th century with the residents calling themselves "mezzadri" (half people) and being at the beck and call of "il padro"....    

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Working Across Cultures - how it expands the mind

I opened a veritable Pandora’s Box of personal memories this week – with the post on memoirs……..
Then remembered a stack of large notebooks I had used in the 1980s to record both initial scribbles and final typed-up papers as I had struggled to make sense of the nature of the organisational venture I was then engaged in - trying to reshape a large bureaucratic system in the West of Scotland. And duly found about 1,500 pages – stashed away behind the Scottish section of my bookcase!!
As I dipped into them, I realized that I now write much better than then – indeed that I think more clearly……And how much of this I owe to my nomadic lifestyle of the past 25 years. 

In central Europe in the 1990s I needed to speak more slowly (generally through interpreters); had the time in the pauses, as the interpretation was being done, to think carefully about both what I should be saying - and how to say it. And, under questioning, I was having to explain more clearly what I thought my concepts actually meant!!
Far from being a nuisance, it helped me see things from other people's point of view. I was having to “relativise” – to be aware that the experiences and images certain words and concepts brought to my mind generally aroused very different images in my interlocuteurs’ minds – and to try to deal with this…..  
I was able to produce a detailed analysis of the 1980s venture only nine years later - thanks to the greater "distance" my nomadic work had helped me develop. A short Urban Studies fellowship in the mid 1990s in my old University (Glasgow) also helped. You can see the result in Organisational Development and Political Amnesia

All relevant to the flood of books which hit me this week – mainly collections of essays – a genre I have loved since my schooldays when Francis Bacon and Charles Lamb were favourites. The literary canon, apparently, distinguishes various forms of essay and “personal essay” is evidently the more precise term for the type I like. The Art of the Personal Essay is a 770-page collection with a superb introduction to the genre by Phillip Lopate who writes…….

The hallmark of the personal essay is its intimacy. The writer seems to be speaking directly into your ear, confiding everything from gossip to wisdom. Through sharing thoughts, memories, desires, complaints, and whimsies, the personal essayist sets up a relationship with the reader, a dialogue -- a friendship, if you will, based on identification, understanding, testiness, and companionship. (xxiii)

The personal essayist must above all be a reliable narrator; we must trust his or her core of sincerity. We must also feel secure that the essayist has done a fair amount of introspective homework already, is grounded in reality, and is trying to give us the maximum understanding and intelligence of which he or she is capable. . . . How the world comes at another person, the irritations, jubilation’s, aches and pains, humorous flashes -- these are the classic building materials of the personal essay. We learn the rhythm by which the essayist receives, digests, and spits out the world, and we learn the shape of his or her privacy. (xxiv-xxv)

The collection makes quite an interesting contrast with the other 700 page anthology which landed with a thud this week - The Lost Origins of the Essay by John D'Agata. Both volumes are international in scope (unlike John Gross’s 704 page classic The Oxford Book of Essays edited some decades ago which looks only at English writers) but D’Agata’s seems to have more focus on longer, Eastern works. Lopate’s gives us the range and writers we expect. Both are large and handsome but the Gray Wolf Press edition of The Lost Origins of the Essay is a real example of sensual work – with great quality paper, typeface and a delicate folding cover. And interesting background piece on that publisher here 
Three of Clive James’s explosive collections also await - Cultural Cohesion: The Essential Essays, 1968-2002; A Point of View; and The Revolt of the Pendulum: Essays 2005-2008. But

And I’m tempted to order George Orwell’s Collected Essays which I have been without for the past 4 decades….. talk about making up for lost time……

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Intimations of Mortality

Those of us who enjoy good health don’t give a moment’s thought to the prospect of growing old and frail. Making a will should be a wake-up call but is all too quickly forgotten. I sometimes wonder if my inability to even start the process of applying for the pension which was rightfully mine some years back is not a sign of psychological resistance to the very notion that I am “getting on in years”!
The face that stares back at me from the mirror has still some resemblance to my old passport photos (the body doesn’t). When my mother made the decision at age 95 to transfer from the independent flat she had in a small and lightly ”supported accommodation” I vividly remember her looking around at her new neighbours – most of whom were considerably younger than her – and remarking (quietly) that there were a lot of old people around!

It is indeed all in the mind…..It’s almost 50 years ago that The Coming of Age by Simone de Beauvoir burst on the world 
In 1967, Beauvoir began a monumental study of the same genre and calibre as “The Second Sex”. La Vieillesse (The Coming of Age, 1970) met with instant critical success. “The Second Sex” had been received with considerable hostility from many groups who did not want to be confronted with an unpleasant critique of their sexist and oppressive attitudes towards women; “The Coming of Age” however, was generally welcomed although it too critiques society’s prejudices towards another oppressed group: the elderly. This masterful work takes the fear of age as a cultural phenomenon and seeks to give voice to a silenced and detested class of human beings.
What she concludes from her investigation into the experience, fear and stigma of old age is that even though the process of aging and the decline into death is an inescapable, existential phenomenon for those human beings who live long enough to experience it, there is no justification for our loathing older members of society – nor should the “aged” merely resign themselves to waiting for death or for younger members of society to treat them as the invisible class.
Rather, Beauvoir argues…. that old age must still be a time of creative and meaningful projects and relationships with others. This means that above all else, old age must not be a time of boredom, but a time of continuous political and social action. This requires a change of orientation among the aged themselves and within society as a whole which must transform its idea that a person is only valuable insofar as they are profitable. Instead, both individuals and society must recognize that a person’s value lies in his or her humanity - which is unaffected by age.

Thanks to campaigning efforts of bodies such as Age Concern (in the UK) and the efforts of prominent older people such as retired trade union leader Jack Jones and Joan Bakewell, I noticed signs about a decade or so ago of such positive developments….but the media and entertainment industry (which still tends to set the tone) is still remarkably “ageist. On Golden Pond was unusual for 1981 (with Henry Fonda and Katherine Hepburn as the elderly couple) but was a one-off - presumably the studios calculated they needed more upbeat messages.
More recently we have had the French film “All Together” with Jane Fonda and Geraldine Chaplin and, in early 2013,  another (more harrowing) French film. In the same year a Japanese politician was caught telling the elderly to hurry up and die but British think-tanks offered some reasoned discussions about housing options for the elderly in the UK and good material on the whole issue of images and perceptions of old age.

And the writer Penelope Lively had a more celebratory piece - 
So this is old age. If you are not yet in it, you may be shuddering. If you are, you will perhaps disagree, in which case I can only say: this is how it is for me. And if it sounds – to anyone – a pretty pallid sort of place, I can refute that. It is not. Certain desires and drives have gone. But what remains is response.
I am as alive to the world as I have ever been – alive to everything I see and hear and feel. I revel in the spring sunshine, and the cream and purple hellebore in the garden; I listen to a radio discussion about the ethics of selective abortion, and chip in at points; the sound of a beloved voice on the phone brings a surge of pleasure.
 I think there is a sea-change, in old age – a metamorphosis of the sensibilities. With those old consuming vigours now muted, something else comes into its own – an almost luxurious appreciation of the world that you are still in.
Spring was never so vibrant; autumn never so richly gold. People are of abiding interest – observed in the street, overheard on a bus. The small pleasures have bloomed into points of relish in the day – food, opening the newspaper (new minted, just for me), a shower, the comfort of bed. It is almost like some kind of end-game salute to the intensity of childhood experience, when the world was new.
It is an old accustomed world now, but invested with fresh significance; I've seen all this before, done all this, but am somehow able to find new and sharpened pleasure.

The following year, Jenni Diski had a much nastier take on old age in a piece called “However I smell”

Atul Gawande – author of the book I wrote about yesterday – may be a surgeon and Professor but is not your normal medic. In this interesting interview earlier this year in Guernica magazine he explains how he came to be able to give voice to his own uncertainties and to celebrate by example the importance of “listening” – something which medical training has apparently come round to only recently……  (this critical section of the interview is toward the end)  
The biggest thing I found was that when these clinicians were at their best, they were recognizing that people had priorities besides merely living longer. The most important and reliable way that we can understand what people’s priorities are, besides just living longer, is to simply ask. And we don’t ask. 
Guernica: How did your research on end-of-life care change how you behaved as a doctor? 
Atul Gawande: As a doctor, I felt really incompetent when trying to understand how to talk to patients and their loved ones about an illness that we were not going to be able to make better. We might be able to stave off certain components of it, or maybe we couldn’t even do that. And I felt unprepared when it came to having those difficult conversations and helping patients make those decisions.
I found that these end-of-life care experts were making me feel much more competent. They were giving me the words that I could use, and I began to use those words. I’d simply say to a patient, “I’m worried about how things are going.” I’d ask questions like, “Tell me what you understand about your health and your prognosis.” “Tell me what your goals are, if time is short.” “Tell me what your fears and worries are for the future.” “Tell me what the outcomes are that you would find unacceptable.”

This little newsletter also carries a useful overview on the subject

The photograph is, coincidentally, one of those from Australia's recent national photographic awards  

Monday, August 24, 2015

Facing up to our Mortality

About once a year a book has me on the edge of the seat and really challenged - Being Mortal – illness, medicine and what matters in the end seems to be this year’s book. It’s written by a rather special doctor of Indian origin who has been working in US hospitals and also writing for The New Yorker …. Atul Gawande
Initially it presents a rather harrowing description of what the onset of age does to our body – and how modern medicine responds….with more and more sophisticated (and expensive) treatment – increasingly in hospital. The deservedly acclaimed film  “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” may be about patients in a “mental home” but the treatment which audiences saw exactly 40 years ago is all too evident in all institutions these days…..

In my parents’ generation people tended to die a few years after retirement but a mix of factors (eg the decline of manufacturing industry and medical advances) has added at least 10 years to “life expectation” in Europe and North America.
That led to political panics a decade or so ago about the fiscal burden of pensions (assuaged to an extent by the breaking of social promises and contracts) and the constant climb in health costs then led to campaigns to get us living more healthily. But the public continue to expect the best medical treatment and - when that fails - institutional care of “the elderly” who tend these days to be living on their own hundreds of miles/kilometres away from sons and daughters….       

Gawande paints an ugly picture of the suddenness with which people in their 70s can fall from autonomy to institutional dependence and regimentation and rightly accuses us all of failing to prepare for this.
I am as guilty as the next although a little voice has been encouraging me this past couple of years to “copy and save” articles and papers about ageing - on which I will draw for my next post

The heroes in Gawande’s story are some mavericks who couldn’t accept the regimentation; had a passionately-held vision of an alternative system which allowed people to assert the independence they had come to expect in their own homes; and had the guts, skills and perseverance to build examples of such alternatives whose results were not only cheaper but led to a better quality of life…..By 2010 the number of residents of such small complexes which spread across America was approaching the number in nursing homes. But then, Gawande tells us 
a distressing thing happened – the concept of assisted living became so popular that developers began slapping the name on just about anything. The idea mutated from a radical alternative to nursing homes into a menagerie of watered-down versions with fewer services….concerns about safety increasingly limited what people could have in their apartments and defined ever more stringent conditions which would trigger discharge to a nursing home. The language of medicine, with its priorities of safety and survival was taking over again” (p101)

And the boards running such places wanted the profits which come from a larger scale than the original concept  
I was reminded me of the “sheltered accommodation” my mother chose to live in between the ages of 85 and 95 – cooking and shopping for herself. I checked and there it was – a complex of only seven flats – part of a charity which has more than 100 such places in the UK…So all is not lost!!!

But the importance of “autonomy” – whether in company structures or the way we live our lives……- is still hidden from most of us.......

Saturday, August 22, 2015

The Art of the Memoir

Politicians have given narcissism a bad name - the story-line of too many of their autobiographies being "Look what I achieved - despite all the bastards out to get me". And yet there are superb exceptions such as Dennis Healey’s “Time of my Life” beautifully-written and wry study of politics when it mattered – with a dash of culture thrown in from time to time. En passant he mentions that Leonard Woolf’s 5-volume “Memoirs” were an inspiration - when I eventually got round to reading them I had to agree they were one of the best in the English language. By contrast Tony Benn’s 50 year series of “Diaries” are little more than a series of notes…..

Other examples of authors who led fascinating lives and whose account of them generally avoids the emptiness of modern political scribbles are -
 Arthur Koestler's 4 volumes - "an unrivalled study" as the blurb on the back of the third volume ("The Invisible Writing") puts it "of twentieth century man and his dilemmas"
- JK Galbraith’s “A Life in Our Times; Memoirs” offer an unsurpassable repast of memories and intellectual musings
The various volumes of Simone de Beauvoir’s autobiography convey a powerful sense of an exciting new Europe taking shape in the post-war rubble.
Writer Luise Rinser’s “Saturn auf der Sonne” (2nd part of her autobiography) does the same for Germany
graphic artistTisa von Schulenberg’s harrowing little book “Ich Kann Nicht Anders” covers her life before the war….
I also thoroughly enjoyed historian Fritz Stern’s “Five Germanies I have known
And, recently, novelist Gunther Grass’s so poetic “Peeling the Onion
Poet Dannie Abse’s “Goodbye Twentieth Century” is a gentle memoir
Diane Athill’s various Memoirs are as good as they get
Des Wilson, the great campaigner, I knew briefly in the late 70s and he was good enough to send me his rumbustious “Memoirs of a Minor Public Figure
Clive James’ output is almost unclassifiable – memoirs, essays, notes – give a real insight into a great mind, reader and writer…
- .Gregor von Rezzori is one of the most neglected of writers from lands which have been variously part of Austro-Hungary, CzechoSlovakia, Hungary, Romania and now Ukraine. Over thirty years he wrote marvellous prose about his early years in the town of Czernowitz when it lay in the northern redoubts of Romania. It is difficult to classify them – novels or memoirs? Memoirs of an Anti-Semite (1979) and Snows of Yesteryear (1989) generally appear as the former but to my mind can be read as “creative memoirs”.
Amitai Etzioni and Richard Rose are two prolific academics whose foray into Memoir ( entitled respectively“My Brother’s Keeper” and (very jazzily?) Learning about Politics in Time and Space(!!) give a great sense of their intellectual development. And, like Fritz Stern, they straddle different countries…….

What exactly, I wonder, do we get from these attempts of creative people to make sense of their lives? What insights into human behavior? What lessons for us? There must be a Phd thesis in there somewhere??? (here are a couple of recent efforts to survey the field)

The painting is one of three I bought in May at an exhibition in the Military Circle gallery from a master of book graphics - Alex Ivanov

Friday, August 21, 2015

Waste and Needs - where is the Imagination?

The young need hope to survive – but so many of Europe’s young people live in a hopeless situation – well-educated but fighting for jobs. The Greek situation is particularly horrific – with more than half of youngsters in their 20s unemployed – but things are almost that bad in countries such as Italy, Portugal and Spain. In Europe as a whole, there are 5 million youngsters (ie 16-24) jobless – an average of 1 in 4. This is a useful little paper on the subject.
In 2013 the EU established a 6 billion fund (for a 6 year period) to deal with the problem – less than a third of what the ILO had suggested in 2012 was actually needed. And a year later Angela Merkel had to admit that little progress was being made in the implementation of the Youth Employment Initiative.

Youth unemployment rates are slightly better in Bulgaria (one third) and Romania (one quarter) but the young people I know here are either working on short-term projects with EU funding; self-employed; working with friends and family; or (at best) climbing the greasy pole of academia…..

European money in these two countries is mind-boggling in its scale - but its impact difficult to see. It is notoriously difficult to access – even in northern Europe where they tend to play by the book. In southern countries, the behavior of civil servants, municipal officials and their various political and business patrons makes life even more difficult for those with pet projects. Hardly surprisingly, therefore, that we have seen various scandals in the management of the huge funds which the EU has seen fit to transfer to these countries in the last few years. This has led to “absorption” rates of less than 20% (in 2012 Romanian managed 11% but Bulgaria 34%!!) - although Balkan Insight tells us that Romania’s rate was 30% in 2013. 

That’s 1 billion euros actually paid out in one year – mainly for motorways….although the total value of the contracts signed off that year was a mind-boggling 17 billion euros

The only projects I see in my part of the Carpathians are actually tiny - but counter-productive – grants to guesthouses which take the money from the mouth of the older village residents who have tried to supplement their meagre existence with “Cazare” (bed and breakfasts)…..

What I don’t see is any attempt at creative harnessing of the money to the multiple social needs in rural areas – decrepit social and physical infrastructure could be brought into the 21st century with the help of the trained skills of young people.
But that would require not only new forms of social enterprise – but a more Germanic approach to skill development, encouraging not just the fashionable IT skills (and academic learning) but also the more practical skills required in rural areas……

I googled “social enterprise in Romania” and was encouraged to find several reasonably recent reports. The academic ones hardly worth wasting time on but this 2014 country report made for interesting reading

This past couple of weeks, my village authorities have been busy upgrading the little road which runs below my garden – it doesn’t go anywhere, just connects about 10 houses only 3 of which use cars (mine being one) so fairly pointless. But the “Bucharest Live” blog gives us a lovely insight into such roads in another part of Transylvania

I wish someone would do a real study of the mentalities (and networks!) of the people who have the fate of such places in their hands…….

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Challenging TINA and the "Comfort Zone"

This blog has a policy of not commenting on current affairs but, given what I have written about political systems, it would be strange indeed if I didn't look at the leadership contest which currently has the British public on the edge of their seats......   
The British Labour Party lost lost May’s General Election (particularly badly in Scotland where a wipe-out left it with a sole seat) and was immediately plunged into yet another leadership contest (its last was in 2010). Three of the candidates are “look-alikes” of the sort which have led most European social democratic parties to recent defeat….
The fourth candidate is a contrarian MP (of 32 years' parliamentary experience) - Jeremy Corbyn - who only entered the contest because it was his turn to be the left’s “sacrificial lamb”. Astonishingly he has taken the contest and indeed the country by storm – giving voice to a frustration felt not only within the Labour Party but in Europe as a whole with what has passed for politics in the past couple of decades. 

Here is a column about his reception this weekend in Scotland and here a more predictable paean from The New Statesman – the standard bearer of the British soft left.

Jeremy Corbyn has been under most people’s radar for most of the time – Michael Foot, Tony Benn, Arthur Scargill, George Galloway, Michael Meacher, Ken Livingstone, Dianne Abbott and Derek Hatton were the leftist figures the British media (and right-wing people) loved to hate and demonise….. so it’s been a brilliant tactic for this guy to outsmart the pack and pop up from nowhere……They just can’t get a handle on him…..and he exudes such calm....shows that our concepts of leadership need revision (again)........

Given what I’ve been writing about the failure of the left in the past decade, it’s fairly obvious I would now salute Corbyn’s victory – even granted the reaction it would cause in the British and global power systems. My little book The Global Crisis – Telling it as it is tries to map the key elements in the collapse of the political and economic systems we used to know as the "mixed economy" and "liberal democracy"
We are sick to the back teeth with “New Labour's” endless focus grouping and “triangulations”…..we just want to get back to good old principle and the honourable negotiating which is part of the give and take of any sensible politics. 

But three-time election winner Tony Bliar popped up last week to tell people like me that we needed to move out of or "comfort zone" . What he means is that the decisions of thousands of bond-holders trump electoral power - and derisively so; and that the scale of sell-offs of public assets to the "private sector" is impossible to reverse...

And this is something I just don't see the left dealing with.....Jeremy Corbyn has set out a good agenda - not least taking rail back into public ownership. But people don't have to go back 30 years to the Mitterand experience to be reminded of of the power of global capital. It was in front of our eyes just a few weeks ago in the immediate aftermath of the July Greek referendum - and the ignominious acceptance by the Greek government of the punishing policies to stay in the euro.....

I would respect Jeremy even more if, in addition to his programme, he had the courage to deal with this publicly and say something about how to deal with such an obvious scenario. In the absence of this, the accusation about comfort zones rings true......on the other side of the coin those who know their history understand that, every generation or so, the conventional wisdom does tend to be turned on its head - or has noone read Taleb's The Black Swan....?????  

One of the purposes of my book (and website - Mapping the Common Ground) is to try to identify ways of extracting ourselves from what one writer called The Global Minotaur. With the exception of one school of thinking, virtually all writers spend their time, space and energy on description and analysis - and have nothing serious to say about "solutions". 

In that sense they confirm the fatalism of Margaret Thatcher's famous TINA assertion - "there is no alternative!........
I said there was one exception to this fatalism - it is those who base their thinking on the "end of growth" premise...........

update - George Monbiot presents here a good analysis of why Corbyn is having such an impact - the discussion thread is also worthwhile - and this Guardian podcast contains an excellent discussion of the Corbyn phenomenon – although my non-British readers may have difficulties with the (speed of the) regional accents. Positive reaction also from an unlikely source to his economic pitch.

update; Corbyn was elected with a huge majority - although that did not stop many senior of his parliamentary colleagues from quickly declaring war on his policy of getting rid of the Trident nuclear weapon system. Here is a rare voice of british journalistic common sense on the matter

Friday, August 14, 2015

Fast Reading - Ten Tricks

I’ve reached the last chapter of Easterly’s The Tyranny of Experts and have great sympathy with a review which starts -
I wanted to love "The Tyranny Of Experts", the new book by William Easterly. I’ve admired his work for years. I love the provocative title, and how could you not fall for the subtitle, “Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor”?
And the fundamental thesis of the book is such an important one: Authoritarian, technocratic, one-size-fits-all development is bad, and the individual rights of the ostensible beneficiaries of development should be paramount. People know what’s best for them, and even proven and effective development interventions will fail to have lasting effects in the context of oppressive governments.
 The best stuff bubbles up from below, when markets and technology are allowed to amplify the ideas of people who are given voices and choices.
The problem is that however pressing and true this message may be, there have been many cogent critiques of witless top-down policy, and there isn’t a lot that’s particularly fresh or contemporary in "The Tyranny Of Experts".

The bibliography I referred to in my last post had listed about 20 books I read 20 years ago most of which had strong critiques of the devastating effect which World Bank mega-dam projects had in displacing millions of people and destroying the environment. 
Why do we need another critique which doesn’t even refer to those earlier studies and books??????

Easterly’s book promises to rediscover a missing intellectual debate between people such as Hayek and Myrdal but, I noticed, missed so many other names which might have been brought in…..
It got me thinking,,,,and the fingers surfing……..
In that sense a good read……..
Some people ask how I’m able not only to get through so many (non-fiction) books but also to remember things about them. 

I will now reveal – exclusively for you – my ten tricks of fast reading and comprehension

They are very simply expressed -

- Read a lot (from an early age!)
- Read widely (outside your discipline)
- Read quickly (skim)
- If the author doesn’t write in clear and simple language, move on to another book asap. Life’s too short……Bad writing is a good indicator of a confused mind

For each book
- Mark extensively (with a pencil) – with question-marks, ticks, underlines, comments and expletives
- Read the reviews (surf)
- Identify questions from these to ensure you’re reading critically
- Write brief notes to remind you of the main themes and arguments
- Identify the main schools of thought about the subject
- Check the bibliography at the end – to see what obvious names are missing

 Let the review continue - 
The book opens strongly enough, with the story of Ohio farmers thrown off their land at gunpoint as the result of a project financed and promoted by the World Bank. The details are awful: kids trapped in fires set by soldiers, cows felled by machine guns, harvests doused with gasoline.
It’s upsetting, but it’s also implausible, and when Easterly reveals that it’s really an account of an incident that took place in Uganda in 2010, the effect is jolting. I thought to myself: Man, we are in for a ride. 
Next thing I know, we’re in the middle of an imaginary debate between two Nobel economists: Friedrich Hayek and Gunnar Myrdal. In Easterly’s telling, Hayek and Myrdal represent the advocates of bottom-up and top-down development, respectively, and an exploration of their diametrically opposed approaches is a central part of the book.  Hayek’s view, as Easterly paraphrases it, is that “individual rights were both an end in themselves and a means by which free individuals in a free society solved many of their own problems.”
Myrdal, by contrast, comes across as a pointy-headed jerk who believes in the wisdom of centralized authorities. Sometimes it may be necessary to impose, say, better agricultural policies from on high—even if (and here Easterly is quoting Myrdal directly) “it require[s] the killing of many half-starved cows.”
Whether Easterly’s rendition of these guys’ views is accurate, I’ll leave for others to decide. I’m more concerned with what’s happening in international development in 2014. I’d hoped that Easterly would proceed to deliver a full-on critique of the current state of affairs, replete with juicy material about nitwit technocrats and some great gossip about the stupidity of Big Aid organizations. Instead, I found myself mired in discussions of Sun Yat-sen, Adam Smith, and the technology of 15th-century Italy. Eventually, I got so desperate to read about something immediately relevant that I started fishing around in the index to see if I’d missed something. I hadn’t. Here’s an example: The blurb copy on the book jacket singles out the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation as a bad actor. The book’s concluding chapter refers to that foundation’s “disrespect for poor people.” In between, there’s very little to support that position.
I looked up every single reference to the Gates Foundation: The first mention is on page 123, where Easterly tells us that the foundation had the temerity to praise the (admittedly nasty) Mengistu government in Ethiopia for its efforts to reduce child mortality. That’s it! Pages 153, 156, 158, 165, and 197 simply offer brief variations on that same theme.
We could all gain from a thoughtful critique of Big Philanthropy and Big Aid. But there’s little in the way of specific criticism of current development efforts here: There’s the unfortunate complicity of aid donors in the depredations of the Ethiopian government, there’s a single unconscionable World Bank project in Uganda, and that’s all—two examples in the whole book. Where are these experts who are tyrannizing the poor now?

Now that’s what I call a real review!!! No pussy-footing about – straight for the jugular…unfortunately too many “reviewers” are camp-followers who daren’t tell it as it is since they are hoping for good reviews of the nonsense they are trying to perpetrate on us!!!

Thursday, August 13, 2015

The Tribalism of the intellect

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

The Different Faces of Power

I have been reading a provocative book about “development” which came out recently and whose very title gives a flavour of its thesis - The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor (the link gives the full text!).
From its many reviews, it has already created quite a furore in the extensive community which has been earning its (considerable) living from advising poorer countries for the past 50-60 years.
I found myself engaged in a bit of a confessional when I tried to put down my initial thoughts about the book’s thesis. This post explains why - the next post will try to summarise the book’s content and the arguments it has produced.

“Development consultancy” is a term used for people funded by international agencies who fly into countries which have been designated as “underdeveloped” and write reports and implement programmes designed to increase their social and economic wellbeing….(that of the hosts that is (!) Sadly the reality has generally proved disappointing and had, by the 80s attracted a considerable backlash led by the likes of PD Bauer.

The collapse of communism in 1989 gave development (and other sorts of) economists the kiss-of-life…..not least in central and Eastern Europe where I found myself occasionally rubbing shoulders with some of them. By then I had morphed from a specialist in “urban and community development” (with both academic and political roles) in the West of Scotland (1970-1990) to a role as a technical consultant in “institutional development” – working on programmes in central Europe (and central Asia) designed to develop the capacity of state bodies to serve the interests of citizens in democratic societies…….if the reader will forgive me for the jargon……I offered some thoughts about this experience in a recent post (more fully developed in one of my E-books Crafting Effective Public Management)
Some 20 years ago I penned a small autobiographical book entitled “Puzzling Development” marking that change of role – a book whose cover carried the famous 1871 painting “The Geographer” by Henri de Braekeleer and whose subtitle was “Odyssey of a Modern Candide” – a theme which has run though quite a few of my scribbles since the 70s. 

The introduction promises to cover issues relating to bureaucratic, urban and policy change; public involvement; privatisation; and technical assistance and covered experience of four countries

In 1977 I had produced my first little book – “The Search for Democracy” whose cover showed community activists poring over a map and, I noticed yesterday for the first time in 25 or so years, a puzzled little boy cut out from the main group and standing alone at the side…….my alter ego and hero no less - Hans Christian Anderson’s creation who dared utter the magic words “but the Emperor has no clothes!!). Its sub-title had been “a guide to and polemic about Scottish local government” and it tried to answer 43 questions which people I worked with would ask me

Was it significant that the cover of my later and most rigorous book - In Transit – notes on good governance (1999) – written as a calling card for the younger generation I was by then working with in ex-communist countries - showed simply a rock on an Atlantic beach with the geological strata starkly revealed by the ocean’s pounding…..???? Had I even then become fatalistic about human endeavour???

But “revenons aux moutons” as the French say…..the author of The Tyranny of Experts is an American guy called William Easterly who published an earlier book in 2006 with the equally provocative title - The White Man’s Burden – why the west’s efforts to aid the rest of the world have done so much ill and so little good.
Easterly, clearly, is a sceptic – but scepticism is a feature I value – have a look at my Sceptic’s Glossary if you don’t believe me. It’s actually called “Just Words - a glossary and bibliography for the fight against the pretensions and perversities of power” 
Sceptics challenge what JK Galbraith wonderfully called “the conventional wisdom” and, providing they actually embody the spirit of sceptical inquiry, are a necessary and critical element in any intellectual journey….I add the qualification simply because quite a few contrarians do have an agenda (generally a libertarian one). 

We have an ambivalent attitude to “experts” – even medical ones – conceding that engineers and surgeons deserve our respect but rightly questioning the “expertise” of many experts in the field of social sciences….particularly those employed by powerful international bureaucracies which certainly have agendas of their own…..
But it is the development economists that Easterly has it in for……who seduce the powerful with talk of the wealth and progress which will come if only they follow their advice….

I found the opening section of the book very worthwhile because –
- it gives a rare insight into the start of the discipline of development economics; some of its key figures and arguments; and its “divorce” from mainstream economics
- it questions the focus on the nation, reminding us that the infrastructure of economics is based (questionably for many of us) on the “rationality” of the individual consumer and (small) company
- it reminds us of how important to the development of capitalism was the challenge to power of the spirit of liberty

As it happens, my University course developed an interest for me in the space between the nation and the individual company – and how its operations might be improved ie regional, urban and, latterly, community development.
And one of the people whose writings made a big impression on me (some ten years later) was Ivan Illich whose challenge to the power of health and educational professionals was a breath of fresh air for me and profoundly influenced  the community power element of Strathclyde Region’s Social Strategy for the Eighties which I helped shape.

Illich was, of course, your quintessential anarchist – distrusting the sort of well-intentioned power held by those of us who managed a social strategy which went on to shape the strategies of the system of the Scottish governments which have held power in the past 15 years……But governments have to select priorities for both their attention and funding. With some hesitation we did designate what we called in the late 1970s “areas of priority treatment” - initially 45 of them whose inhabitants’ lives we tried to assist with the help of community structures led by community activists assisted by development workers….
I doubt whether we got the balance right between community, professional and political power – and subsequent events demonstrated how easily economic power caps everything……But at least we tried

The question for readers of Easterly’s book is how well he deals with those different faces of power……….

The cartoon is by a brilliant Romanian - Bogdan Petry - whose exhibition we saw this week in the Campulung gallery. His savage work is on a par with the great Ralph Steadman......