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

Monday, April 24, 2017

Denial, Distraction and Despair

What the corporate media considers important are, for this blog, mere farts……hot air and smelly……
The last post was the blog’s first reference to the political events which have been gripping the European and British press for the past week – the French Presidential Election and the recently-announced British General Election. For “groupies”….fantastic opportunitities to rave….but, for the more sober amongst us, events “full of sound and fury but signifying…nothing
Postman was ahead of his time in suggesting that politics was becoming a mere spectacle – those, after all, were the days when people such as Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were forging their neoliberal vision and dramatically changing the institutional landscape.
Nobody could suggest then that politics and political power were of no significance….
But globalisation and privatization have changed all of that…..Macron and May don't even have the stupidity to behave like Canute but happily allow the tide to swamp them…..  

The last line of the previous post mentioned a little book – Journey to Earthland – which puts the sound and fury in proper perspective. It is one of these rare books which impresses from the start – with a powerful, extended metaphor of the train-wreck of a journey the world is on - with the various passenger reactions of “denial, distraction and despair”.
The author is founder (some 20 years ago) of a small institute which “conducts studies and simulations to illuminate global challenges and possibilities. It summarized its insights in a 2002 essay Great Transition; the promise and lure of the times ahead which set a broad historical, conceptual, and strategic framework for contemplating the global future”. 
Its wider aims can be read here – and some of those associated with it profiled here. One strand of its thinking can be read in this pamphlet -The Homebrew Industrial Revolution (2010); a very short video seen here; as well as this presentation.

The author is Paul Raskin and he sets out 3 fundamental scenarios (each with 2 varieties) -
- Conventional worlds ("market forces"; and "policy tinkering")
- Barbarization ("Fortress World"; and "Breakdown and dystopia")
- Great transformations ("Eco-communalism"; and "New paradigm")

Readers will know that I am not, these days, easily impressed by books on these subjects…..but this one impacts on all sorts of levels – the tautness of its language; the clarity of the various schemas it presents; the imaginative use it makes of sketches of the future and "retrospective stories"; and its brevity – just 110 pages. 
The one criticism I have is the usual one - that it lacks a “further reading” section with a clear structure which pays attention to the various “schools of thinking”; and, ideally, a short explanation of the reason for each book's selection…As it stands the booklet refers almost exclusively to the Institute's own writers. Some other assessments can be read here 

Update; review of book here - from the great Irish Feasta people.
Those interested in pursuing the theme could usefully dip into Organising for the post-growth economy

The painting is my only example of Tony Todoroff's work.....from his Cyprus collection

Sunday, April 23, 2017

The Left on its Knees

I’m grateful to the library of the European Council of Ministers for the monthly selection they send me of relevant papers from the more prestigious of the European Think Tanks. Thanks to their efforts, I was able to download a booklet from the Fabian Society called Future Left – can the left respond to a changing society? (160pp).
Its opening section gives an excellent account of how the British left have responded to the changing conditions of the post-war period - and nicely complements the post I did last month about intellectual responses as a whole. 
It follows that with a thoughtful section about the different strands in the debate about the future of work which we have been having for the past 30 years. Migration, housing and the future of public services are some of the other subjects which receive good treatment.
Readers will know that a General Election is now underway in the UK – which, for the first time in living memory, the Labour party has absolutely no chance of winning. It will go down to the biggest defeat in its hundred-year history – just as the French Socialists today will suffer its most ignominious defeat….And this despite the Labour party (in England at any rate) enjoying its largest growth of membership for about 20 years…..
I am no fan of the present leader of the British party – but the way thecorporate media have treated him has been a powerful confirmation that the media no longer performs the role democratic theory (if not the public) requires of it. Of course, Labour MPs have been their own (and the party’s) worst enemy – by the manner in which so many of the shadow cabinet manoeuvred a mass resignation just weeks after Corbyn’s election - creating a real rift with the wider membership of the party.
The scene is now set for some real blood-letting after the June election….. In 2015 the Labour party was left with just one MP in Scotland (having previously had 50). I expect a few more than that to survive in England……

Another British Think Tank (Demos) has just produced a book Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself which looks at the forces which have rocked the UK, France, Germany, Poland, Spain and Sweden in the last 20 years - and brought the left to its knees……The book contains extensive case studies of each of these countries…

By way of total contrast - here's a fascinating blog which offers great links - this one, for example, on the joys from good writing.....
And I also liked this summary of a book about future scenarios we face - Journey to Earthland

the sketch is an Ilyia Petrov - who lived through this period inc the Spanish Civil War

Friday, April 21, 2017

Power - the elephant in the room

My field of endeavour over the past half century has been “development” – but not of the international sort. I started with “community development”, moved through different types of urban and regional development to a type of organizational development; then left Britain’s shores and found myself dealing more with what is now called “institutional development” and, latterly, “capacity development”……
I have to report that the development world is…..full of funding bodies, Think Tanks and prolific writers – and that you have to crawl through a lot of shit to find any pearls of wisdom.

Robert Chambers (as the link shows) is one of the few guys worth listening to on the subject. For 40 plus years he has worked with rural people in the world’s poorest areas and shamed the “powers that be” to let ordinary people speak and take their own initiatives.  
 What follows is a table from his great book - Ideas for Development (2005) which captures what professionals in the field feel they have learned in those 40-odd years (and, no, I do not think it is too cynical to think that perhaps the one they have learned is a bigger vocabulary!!)
Four approaches to development
1. Benevolent
2. Participatory
3. Rights-based
4. Obligation-based
Core concept
Doing good
Rights of “have-nots”
Obligations of “haves”
Dominant mode

Relationships of donors to recipients
Stakeholders seen as
Guides, teachers
Upward to aid agency
Upward with some downward
Bureaucratic conformity
More acceptance of diversity
Negotiated, evolutionary
Organizational drivers
Pressure to disburse
Balance between disbursement and results
Pressure for results
Expectations of responsible use of discretion

One of Chambers’ early books was titled, memorably, “Putting the Last First”. As you would expect from such a title, his approach is highly critical of external technical experts and of the way even “participatory” efforts are dominated by them.
The unease some of us have been increasingly feeling about administrative reform in transition countries is well explained in that table. The practice of technical assistance in reshaping state structures in transition countries is stuck at the first stage (eg the pressure to disburse in the EC Structural Funds programmes!!) – although the rhetoric of “local ownership” of the past decade or so has moved the thinking to the second column.

Mention of vocabulary prompts me to put a plug in for my Just Words - a glossary and bibliography for the fight against the pretensions and perversities of power. Also well worth looking at is -

Thursday, April 20, 2017

It's All About...Values

For almost 30 years I have been living in central european countries (actually seven of the years were in central Asia) and working on projects designed to adjust their administrative and political cultures to European (indeed ”global”) norms of transparency and accountability.
A battery of techniques (variations of ”stick”, carrot and moral rhetoric) has been used over this period - by a legion of missionaries and mercenaries from organisations such as the World Bank, OECD, the EC and private consultancies - to pursue this task.

I drew on my own experience to present in 2011 a detailed analysis - The Long Game – not the log-frame – with the title trying to summarise the main thrust of the paper’s argument that too much emphasis was laid on rationalistic techniques which didn’t fit the local context - and which were expected to deliver overambitious results in ridiculously short time-periods.
The paper coined the phrase ”impervious regimes” to suggest not only that the elites of these countries treated their citizens with utter disdain but that this was hard-wired into their DNA – ie that the underlying social values made it difficult for the elites to behave in any other way....

There was a further strand to the argument I have been conducting for more than a decade – namely that the management techniques imported into these countries by the missionaries and mercenaries (who have morphed into local experts) have given the ”power elite” a new weapon in the armoury used to keep citizens in servility....
I might indeed have added that the EC’s Structural Funds have also given a powerful additional boost to the corruption which had for so long been systemic in most of the countries....  

But I realised yesterday that this ”values” and ”path dependency” argument is far too static....after all, so much of my writing of the past 20 years has been about the moral corruption of our very own ”Western elites”  (see the latest version of Dispatches to the Next Generation) .....
This week I came across an important book by the famous Francis Fukuyama - which he had written in 1999 but which had passed me by - The Great Disruption – human nature and the reconstitution of social order and which is a critique of the loosening of our social fabric (and declining social trust) which he argued has been going on since 1965.
At first glance, it bears some similarities to Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism which does, however, bear the curious sub-title “American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations”.

Both books are important correctives to the all-too-familiar refrain from “the West” that “the East” has some catching up to do….More importantly they touch on a theme central to this blog’s very existence – the tension between what I might call “the moral universe” and “technocracy”. Remember one of the quotations which grace this blog (if you scroll far enough down the right-hand boxes) – 
"We've spent half a century arguing over management methods. If there are solutions to our confusions over government, they lie in democratic not management processes" JR Saul (1992) 

The final section of The Long Game – not the log-frame was a rare attempt to place the unease we feel about management techniques in that wider moral universe......but this post has been long enough.....

Tomorrow I will try to pick up the argument where I seem to have left it all of six years ago........

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Avoiding Best Practice

The last few posts (on cultural values) have led me back to the draft of a little book I abandoned two years ago – Crafting Effective Public Management - a collection of personal reflections about the craft I have followed now for almost 50 years.
As it stands, the document represents the musings I penned as I tried to understand the lessons from the very distinctive work which has occupied me for most of the last half of this period – namely reforming institutions of local and central state administration in ex-communist countries in these regions....
The opening section of the book (Part 1) was written in the late 1990s as I was trying to explain to a Central European audience the nature and significance of the changes in organising the business of government which started in britain in the 1970s and soon became global in scope. Separated geographically by then for almost a decade from that world, I could perhaps aspire to a measure of distance if not objectivity….

“Managing Change” may have been at the height of fashion then back home but the projects funded in the “newly-liberated countries” by Europe (and America) were not in the business of “catalysing” change but rather “imposing” it….”This is the way it's going to be”!! I vividly remembering the ticking off I got from the German company which employed me when, as Director of an Energy Centre in Prague, I offered some ideas for how the centre’s work might better fit the Czecho-Slovak context (it was 1992). Their response was classic - “We do not pay you to think – we pay you to obey”……I kid you not!! German friends tell me that there are traces in that formulation of the old Prussian influence!
It became obvious to me that these centres (funded by the European Commission) which purported to be helping countries of the ex-soviet bloc adjust to new ways of energy conservation were in fact little more than fronts for the selling of western technology…

“Best practice” was the phrase which the British private sector consultants were bringing with them to projects and was one to which I was starting to object. It was in Tashkent in 2000 that I first drafted material to make a point about the relative novelty of the government procedures in Europe which passed for “best practice” (whether in matters of hiring or procurement) and the number of exceptions one could find not just in southern European countries but even in the heart of Europe…..
As writers such as Ha-Joon Chang have documented in the development field, a lot of kidology was clearly going on!

Old draft material is like a good cheese or wine – it needs time to mature. And, rereading my material on ”crafting effective PM” made me realise that, despite my own determination since the beginning of my work here always to start from the local context and to find ”local champions”, I felt it needed more detail on how exactly to avoid the trap of "the best practice" formulae which are embedded in most EC guidelines...  
I have never been a fan of the World Bank but its Governance Reforms under real world conditions (2006) is one of the best reads - one paper in particular (by Matthew Andrews which starts part 2 of that book) weaves a very good approach around 3 words – “acceptance”, “authority” and “ability”. 
I enthused about the paper in a 2010 post and notice that he (and a couple of colleagues) have another book out - Building State Capability  - on the same theme of the need for a practical, ”learning approach” The book can be downloaded in its entirety from the publisher here.....
It’s got too much jargon for my taste; rather overdoes the analyses of individual (African and Asian) countries; and disfigures every line of every page with this annoying academic habit which groups names in brackets to prove that the author has read everything - but its basic argument is very important and can be read in this earlier paper by Andrews and Moorcock about something called ”Capability Traps”. 

capability traps can be avoided and overcome by fostering different types of interventions…..which - 
(i) aim to solve particular problems in local contexts,
(ii) through the creation of an ‘authorizing environment’ for decisionmaking that allows ‘positive deviation’ and experimentation,
(iii) involving active, ongoing and experiential learning and the iterative feedback of lessons into new solutions, doing so by
(iv) engaging broad sets of agents to ensure that reforms are viable, legitimate and relevant—i.e., politically supportable and practically implementable.

We propose this kind of intervention as an alternative approach to enhancing state capability, one we call Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA). We emphasize that PDIA is not so much ‘new’ thinking as an attempt at a pragmatic and operational synthesis of related

The authors are part of an increasing number of people who want, like me, to “do development differently” – a few years back it was called…. political analysis……. From Political Economy to Political Analysis (2014) is an excellent overview of the thinking process

The basic ideas can be expressed a bit more simply -
- Fixing on an issue widely seen as problematic
- Getting people to admit that it can’t be solved by the usual top-down approach
- Getting wide ”buy-in” to this
- Bringing people together from all sectors which are touched by the issue
- Starting from an analysis of where we find ourselves  (reminds me of a philosophical colleague known for his phrase “We are where we are”!)
- Avoiding polarisation
- Working patiently to seek a feasible and acceptable solution

Fairly simple steps - which, however, conflict with prevailing political cultures – and not just in Central Europe!!

Monday, April 17, 2017

Why Role Conflict is Good for You

I was born and raised in a West of Scotland shipbuilding town, the son of a Presbyterian Minister (or “son of the manse” as we were known) and received my education in a state school which still then possessed the positive features of Scotland’s Democratic Tradition……now, sadly, much traduced. It would have been easier for my parents to send me to the secondary school just a few blocks from our house but, as this was in a mansion (owned by the Church of Scotland) in the exclusive “West End”, the school was fee-paying and my parents – although no radicals – just never contemplated taking a step which would have created a barrier with my father’s congregation who were stalwarts of the town’s lower middle classes with their more modest houses and apartments in the centre and east of the town.

Thus began my familiarization with the nuances of the class system – and with the experience of straddling boundaries which was to become such a feature of my life. Whether the boundaries are those of class, party, professional group intellectual discipline or nation, they are well protected if not fortified…..
And trying to straddle such borders makes everyone uncomfortable and lonely as I was to discover when I became an active member of the Labour party in my final years at school - at the same time as I was playing rugby for a highly Conservative club.

When I became a young councillor in 1968, I found myself similarly torn – as I tried to describe in the post a few days ago about political roles. I developed loyalties to the local community activists but found myself in conflict with my (older) political colleagues and officials. And I felt this particularly strongly when I was elevated to the ranks of magistrate and required to deal with the miscreants who confronted us as lay judges every Monday morning – up from the prison cells where they had spent the weekend for drunkenness and wife-beating……..
The collusion between the police and my legal adviser was clear but my role was to adjudicate “beyond reasonable doubt” and the weak police testimonials often gave me reason to doubt….I dare say I was too lenient and I certainly got such a reputation – meaning that I was rarely disturbed to sign search warrants!

And, on being elevated a few years later to one of the leading positions in a giant new Region, I soon had to establish relations with - and adjudicate between the budgetary and policy bids of - senior professionals heading specialized Departments with massive budgets and manpower.     
Yet I was to learn that, if you are able to sustain the discomfort, being exposed to conflicting loyalties can reap great dividends in insight – if not moral strength. That extended to the boundaries between academic disciplines – I started at my College as an economist but moved to political sociology. And the inter-disciplinary nature of my writings was not to my colleagues’ liking…

When, in the 1980s, I was able to develop European networks and then, in the 1990s, to work in a dozen countries of central Euro[e and Central Asia, I became aware of my (North) western European heritage - and to question things I had previously taken for granted…..
Changing my role from academic to politician…then consultant – and then straddling the West-East divide gave me incredibly rich experience which I wouldn’t have missed for the world…

Sunday, April 16, 2017

A Hundred Years of Solitude....alienation.... and "transition"?

I’ve been in sensitive territory with my last three posts which covered the fields of “formal” and “informal” structures - and of the values which sustain the latter…
I suggested that Romanian (managerial) culture makes cooperative endeavour of any sort difficult - there is simply too much distrust (let alone macho leadership and partiality). 
The Head of the European Delegation to Romania (Karen Fogg 1993-98) used to give every visiting consultant a summary of Robert Putnam’s Making Democracy Work – civic traditions in Italy (1993) which suggested that the "amoral familism” of southern Italian Regions (well caught in Banfield’s The Moral Basis of a Backward Society (1958) effectively placed them 300 years behind the northern regions. That’s “path dependency” at its most powerful,,,

Romania had some 200 years under the Ottoman and the Phanariot thumbs - but then had 50 years of autonomy during which it developed all the indications of modernity (if plunging latterly into  Fascism).
The subsequent experience of Romanian communism, however, created a society in which, paradoxically, deep distrust became the norm – with villagers forcibly moved to urban areas to drive industrialisation; the medical profession enrolled to check that women were not using contraceptives or abortion; and Securitate spies numbering one in every three citizens.

The institutions of the Romanian state collapsed at Xmas 1989 and were subsequently held together simply by the informal pre-existing networks – not least those of the old Communist party and of the Securitate. Tom Gallagher has documented the process in “Theft of a Nation”.
Sorin Ionitsa’s booklet on Poor Policy Making in Weak States (2006) captures brilliantly the profound continuing influence of the different layers of cultural values on present-day political and administrative behavior in Romania; and uses recent literature to identify the weaknesses of the rationalistic approaches used by the EC.

But the foreign consultants working on the capacity building (which was carried out for 15 years with EC funding) understood little of these informal networks and the values on which they were based – they worked rather with toolkits of rational planning and, latterly, Guidebooks on Anti-Corruption……and ignored the hint Karen Fogg seemed to be giving them.
The development literature is full of warnings about the pitfalls of a rationalistic approach – but in those days any hapless foreigner who mentioned African (or even Asian) experience got a very bad reaction.
In a paper I delivered in 2011 to the Annual NISPAcee Conference - The Long Game – not the log-frame – I invented the phrase “impervious regimes” to cover the mixture of autocracies, kleptocracies and incipient democracies with which I have become all too familiar in the last 27 years. I also tried to explain what I thought was wrong with the toolkits and Guides with which reformers operated; and offered some ideas for a different, more incremental and “learning” approach.

I’m glad to say that just such a new approach began to surface a few years ago – known variously as “doing development differently”, or the iterative or political analysis…….it was presaged almost 10 years ago by the World Bank’s Governance Reforms under real world conditions written around the sorts of questions we consultants deal with on a daily basis - one paper in particular (by Matthew Andrews which starts part 2 of the book) weaves a very good theory around 3 words – "acceptance", "authority" and "ability". I enthused about the approach in a 2010 post

But there is a strange apartheid in consultancy and scholastic circles between those engaged in “development”, on the one hand, and those in “organisational reform” in the developed world, on the other…..The newer EU member states are now assumed to be fully-fledged systems (apart from a bit of tinkering still needed in their judicial systems – oh…. and Hungary and Poland have gone back on some fundamental elements of liberal democracy…..!). But they are all remain sovereign states – subject only to their own laws plus those enshrined in EC Directives….

EC Structural Funds grant billions of euros to the new member states which are managed by each country’s local consultants who use the “best practice” tools - which anyone with any familiarity with “path dependency” or “cultural” or even anthropological theory would be able to tell them are totally inappropriate to local conditions..…
But the local consultants are working to a highly rationalistic managerial framework imposed on them by the European Commission; and are, for the most part, young and trained to western thought. 
They know that the brief projects on which they work have little sustainability but – heh – look at the hundreds of millions of euros which will continue to roll in as far as the eye can see…..!!!

Someone in central Europe needs to be brave enough to shout out that ”the Emperor has no clothes!!” To challenge the apartheid in scholastic circles….and to draw to attention to the continued relevance of Ionitsa’s 10- year old booklet and Governance Reforms under real world conditions  

Afterthought; The title is deliberately provocative! I appreciate that the reference to "transition" in the title implies progress to a "better" system; and that the core "liberal democracy" system is now under question.....one could indeed argue that, from now on, it is the older member states who need to make the transition to simpler and more resilient societies!!   

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Are Nations really masters of their fates?

I’ve just been doing an interview for a website about my experience of Romania. I found myself giving this rather severe response to one of the questions – 
Section 14 of my E-book Mapping Romania contains two excerpts from key books – the first from an article by a compatriot of mine (like me, with a Romanian partner) who moved recently from Bucharest to France.
It describes some typical scenes – which are also the focus of Mike Ormsby’s short stories about the country in “Never Mind the Balkans – here’s Romania” (You can read a couple of them here in “Bucharest Tales”). The second, longer excerpt is from a fat book called “When Cultures Clash” which includes good sections on both Bulgaria and Romania…  Section 7 has some further snapshots…… 
The overriding impression which remains with me is of a people who are unable to trust – and cannot therefore even begin to cooperate with - one another in matters of business or civic life….. This fascinating cultural map (which uses 2 different measures of values) puts Romania half way down the left part of the diagram.......The map is explained here…..

This raises fundamental questions about how free we are to shake off cultural values….Authors such as de Hofstede; Ronald Inglehart; FransTrompenaars; and Richard Lewis (in When Cultures Clash tell us how such values affect our everyday behaviour. One Romanian academic, for example, tried, a few years back, to apply the important de Hofstede cultural concepts to Romanian organisations).  
And there is a body of literature called “path dependency” which indicates that such behaviour deeply affects a country's institutions and is rooted in long-distant events and quirks of history. But few authors, it seems, are brave enough to look at conscious efforts to reform such institutional behaviour..

Germany, for example, used to be well-known for its “Sonderweg” ie the distinctive historical and cultural path it had trodden – superbly critiqued by Fritz Stern…..But, somehow, it seems in the last 70 years to have shaken that cultural tradition off...How exactly did that happen? I vividly remember reading Ralf Dahrendorf's sociological analyses of the issue in the 1970s

An obvious reason for the lack of trust in country such as Romania is that it experienced 50 years of totalitarian rule from 1945- but, as Sorin Ionitsa has explained, the Ottoman and Greek Phanariot influences of 1700-1870 seem to have left stronger behavioural influences! 
When I was in Poland very briefly in the early 90s I was struck immediately with the paranoiac level of distrust which separated the various groups (which sadly continues to poison that country’s political development) I don't know to what to attribute that....

The obvious question which follows is what those in authority in those new EU Member States – eg in the universities – have been doing to try to encourage more cooperation eg in the cross-border field? When I was on a Fellowship in the States in the late 80s I had come across a fascinating structure called City Leadership which brought leaders from all sectors of city life (inc Unions, NGOs, churches, culture etc) together once a month to forge bonds of understanding. There is a global version of this here – although I can’t speak of its success.

A booklet on Poor Policy Making in Weak States produced by Sorin Ionitsa in 2006 - is one of the best attempts I’ve seen to face up to the issue.  But, somehow, our current elites are too smug and complacent to bother with such basic questions.......It seems easier to use meaningless technocratic rhetoric than admit to bafflement.
I would like to see elites express more realism, modesty…indeed humility about what is possible…..