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

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Why Those seeking systemic change have had little traction….so far

I’ve been looking back at the posts which have this year discussed various efforts to improve “the human lot” and trying to draw the threads together……
One of the recurring themes of this blog is the “insularity” of those who theorise about social conditions ie their failure to realise that they are (generally) writing from one particular intellectual “silo” and aiming their missive at those within the same silo….
It’s taken me some time to realise that I’m guilty of the same sin….Let me explain…..

When I started this blog almost ten years ago, its initial focus was what we might call the “conditions of social injustice” in the West of Scotland in the 1970s which had persuaded some of us to elaborate a unique urban social strategy whose legacy is still evident today….

The blog then fairly quickly moved to try to explore the sort of reform strategy which might be appropriate for government agencies “in transit” from a system of total state control (under communism) to one with a strange mixture of “Wild-West”/Mafia capitalism and of loose democratic contestability…
At the same time, I was following the “development literature” in which the historical context (or path dependency) had been - not communism but – imperialism…The past decade – as a recent post summarised – has seen multiple challenges to the development model which had held sway in the post-war period…..with a much more political model of change penetrating even to the World Bank citadels of power

And, in recent years, the blog’s focus has shifted yet again – this time scouring the critical literature (which has grown massively in the past decade) about the “global economic crisis” and trying to identify some common ground in the various explanations on offer for the meltdown and their implications for the future of the prevailing economic model. Critical voices have increasingly been heard of that model – although alternatives are still in short supply

In each case, theories of change were needed and were duly produced – with varying degrees of coherence. The best of this literature is probably the World Bank material on government reform; and that from the 3 bodies listed in the “global justice” section – particularly the material from Smart CSOs with its three levels of forces of power – “culture”, “regimes” and “niches”
As always, a table will make the point more graphically than text –

How different “theories of change” have dealt with some key issues

The issue?
Key analysts

Urban Social injustice

How marginalised groups and areas could improve their political influence

Saul Alinsky
Peter Marris

Urban ghettoes were rediscovered in the 1980s and various methods used by governments to empower their residents….no real answer has been found to the problem of labelling and stigma….

National governance (communist legacy)

How to make state bodies effective and accountable to  citizens

Nick Manning
Tony Verheijen

Fast privatisation (not least of media empires) has created new patrimonial regimes impervious to citizen control. European Structural Funds have deepened the corruption.

National governance (imperialist legacy)

reducing patrimonial power

Robert Chambers
Duncan Green
Matt Andrews
Tom Carrothers

Global aid and consultancy is a massive multi-billion industry which seems impossible to reform. Fashionable nostra come and go – with the local regimes firmly in control….

Managing the Capitalist Crisis

Ecological collapse, peak oil, low profitability, corporate theft, globalisation

The "usual suspects – Chomsky, Harvey, Klein, Monbiot, Varoufakis

The blog has noted several times the reluctance of writers to develop common ground in their various analyses – let alone develop a proper annotated bibliography about the crisis…..

“Global justice”

The search for a more sustainable and acceptable alternative economic model
The ecological crisis has more resonance for change than talk about capitalism – so the most effective bodies which have captured global attention tend to focus initially on that – but increasingly broaden out to talk of alternative economic models

It’s interesting, of course, that newspaper headlines rarely refer to these fundamental issues – with the single exception of extreme weather conditions….

Perhaps this post is beginning to show the influence of the material I’ve been reading in the past week or so about thinking in terms of systems…..?? It’s suggesting that those of us angry with the way the world is being run need to –
-       Show more sensitivity to how issues are being defined in campaigns we’re not involved in
-       Spend more time making common cause with others
-       Clarifying our “theory of change”
-       Challenging the leaders of campaigns about such things…

Recommended Further Reading

Saturday, July 14, 2018

The US as a "rogue nation"

Trump the man does not interest me – I blogged about him only just before his victory and on his inauguration speech…agreeing with those who felt that the best way to deal with a narcissist was to ignore it.
I do, however, understand those who have argued that his "shock" ideology represents an existential threat to the post-war order - trouble is that most of those articulating that position are smug members of an Establishment which, in every country, sustains an economic system that is simply unsustainable….

I do still have some friends (actually one) who argue that his petulant smashing of the other babies’ bricks will produce a better system….While some interpretations of systems theory might offer some support to that, the damage Trump’s America is doing to institutional trust is unmeasurable….
The mogul is this weekend sleeping on the Firth of Clyde which I still, after some 30 years' absence, call home. He seems proud that his mother was a Scot – forced, at age 18, to cross the Atlantic for a better life. Ironic that his mother and wives were all immigrants….

The Guardian has just published an editorial which superbly reflects feelings in the country after a week which has seen the resignation of the 2 key Cabinet Ministers responsible for Brexit. Basically it says that –
-       The British PM was warned very strongly by probably the majority of British opinion that her invitation in Jan 2017 to Trump to make an official visit to the UK would be a disaster
-       The actual outcome has been even worse for her and her Government than she might have feared in her worst nightmares
-       Trump’s behaviour in the past week in Europe now shows that only can the UK no longer expect any reasonable deal from the US but that, even more seriously,
-       The USA has now declared itself a “rogue nation”
-       US official policy is now to destroy the EU and destabilise NATO (of which, please note, I am no great supporter)
-       US policy is now one of encouragement of nationalist forces wanting regime change in EU countries
The British government did its absolute best – given that the streets of the cities were full of protesters – to lay on a glittering welcome for Mr Trump this week. Blenheim, Sandhurst, Chequers, Windsor – you don’t get much more in the way of British establishment red carpet than that. But this reckoned without the Trump character and, more sinisterly, the Trump political project.
The president undermined Mrs May before he even left America. He bullied and lied at the Nato summit in Brussels. He then gave an explosive and deliberately destabilising interview to Rupert Murdoch’s Sun on the very day of his arrival in Britain.This guaranteed that Friday’s press conference at Chequers would be purgatorial for Mrs May and maybe even a little chastening for the president and his team. And so it proved, in spite of what had clearly been the private reading of the diplomatic equivalent of the Riot Act to Mr Trump.
But it was not just the rudeness that mattered – though rudeness does matter, a lot, both in personal and in public things. It was the political impact and consequence. That unmistakable consequence is that Mr Trump’s America can no longer be regarded with certainty as a reliable ally for European nations committed to the defence of liberal democracy. That is an epochal change for Britain and for Europe. Everything about this disastrous and embarrassing presidential visit could have been avoided with more thought and more political sense.
But Mrs May and her advisers rushed to Washington in January 2017 to offer a state visit to a president who had barely entered the White House, whose measure as an ally they had not yet properly taken, but who already had it in his character and his power to transform the event from a relatively harmless occasion into a deeply wounding one.
 It was a shameful and stupid misjudgment.
The hostile public reaction was immediate and without precedent.
Everything that has happened this week confirms that the Trump visit should not have taken place.Mrs May should have grasped from the very start that Mr Trump was not an ally when it came to her Brexit strategy. Mr Trump wants to break up international organisations like Nato and the EU.
He embraced Brexit on that basis. He saw it as the start of a swing back towards nativist, illiberal, often racist nationalist politics, of which his own election was a further example. He made no secret of his wish to promote other nativist movements on the right. Other European leaders understood this danger, notably Angela Merkel.
Mrs May failed to do so. Mrs May rightly wanted a close post-Brexit relationship with the EU, a stance that led in time to the Chequers showdown with her Brexiteer ministers a week ago. But she failed to see that Mr Trump’s US has a stronger commitment to the weakening of the EU than it does to a Britain that wants the EU to prosper.Out of that failure came the Sun interview. In the interview, Mr Trump expressed hatred for the EU, support for hard Brexit, unwillingness to strike a trade deal with the UK, contempt for Mrs May, support for Boris Johnson, hostility to immigration, and offered his barely coded belief that the UK – and Europe – is “losing your culture”.
The interview, its content, its timing, and the fact that it was given to Mr Murdoch’s flagship anti-EU tabloid, was a deliberate hostile act. For Mrs May, fighting to control her party on the dominant issue facing Britain, it was simply a stab in the back. But it wasn’t fundamentally personal.
It was a declaration of hostility to Britain and Europe and the values they stand for.A president who supported the Atlantic alliance, the stability of Europe and liberal democratic values – in short, every other US president of the postwar era – would never have done such a thing. Such a president would have tried to help, would have seen the EU-UK problem as one that needed solving, and would have used his influence to get America’s European allies to find a shared way forward after Brexit. Such a president would have been doing the right thing. But Mr Trump is not such a president. He is not our ally. He is hostile to our interests and values. He may even, if this goes on, become a material threat.
This week he deliberately inflamed the politics of Europe and of Britain. Yes, Mrs May brought it on herself, but it was hard not to feel for her as a person over the last day and half. She now needs to learn the lesson, and to lead Britain, Brexit or no Brexit, into a constructive and effective relationship with our more dependable allies, who share our values, in Europe.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

I have a little list….

About ten years ago, a Frenchman published a book with the great title How to Talk about Books you haven’t Read… and proceeded to do so….
I suppose I supply the same service to my readers - as the two recent little E-books How did admin reform get to be so sexy? and Dispatches to the next generation – the short version each had at their core annotated (and hyperlinked) reading lists. And such lists have indeed begun to figure as a regular item in the posts.
The previous post expressed some frustration – since I couldn’t quite pin the idea down which had been bothering me the entire week…it was something to do with the world having escaped “our” control, But it was also something to do with the mental models we used to make sense of the world….

So here is the list of books which landed up on my desk – with, inevitably, a few highly opinionated comments….
These titles, it should be emphasised, do not claim to represent anything except the vagaries of my purchases and interests. Half of them just happen to be in my library - but another nine are E- books (you can therefore all access) which reflect important stages in the very slow understanding which has overtaken us in the past half century that we have allowed a perverse linear/mechanistic model of society to occupy our minds…….
The date of the first book is 1967……. That’s 50 years ago….a long time for an idea to gestate and develop….The last book arrived only a few weeks ago and didn’t seem to be part of this conversation – but as I started it, I realised it was all about….mental models!

The Books which landed up on my desk
Titles from 1967
Clarity Factor
full book?
The Costs of Economic Growth; EJ Mishan (1967)
The first time an economist warns of this

The Limits to Growth; Club of Rome (1972)

The book which made the warning global

“Small is Beautiful” (1973) was seen as partisan, if not extreme. James Robertson’s book put the case in more balanced terms
Amazingly prescient book -
Made the concepts of systems and of “the learning organisation” fashionable

The Development Dictionary – a guide to knowledge as power; ed W Sachs  (1992)
A powerful challenge to “the western view”
The sub-title says it all - strategies and tools for building a learning organisation

The Web of Life Fritjof Capra 1996
A well-intentioned presentation of systems thinking – but tough going

Deep Change; Robert Quinn 1996
Quinn’s first draft of what became the superb “Change the World”

An early classic in the attempt to present a new world of complexity

One of many focusing on dialogue…

Change the World; Robert Quinn (2000)
I simply don’t understand why this book is so seldom mentioned….perhaps because it makes a moral case?

A fascinating book which focuses on the complexity of the contemporary world – with a powerful narrative

Towards Holistic Governance – the new reform agenda; Perri 6, Leat, Seltzer and Stoker (2002)
Cooperation in government is an important topic but is dealt with in an over-confident and technical manner by these academics

Very comprehensive but – at 378 pages – not immediately user-friendly….
Critical Mass; Philip Ball (2004)

A popular attempt to look at systems issues which probably tries to cover too many areas

A delightful idea and easy read

A conversation between 4 friends which reflects their uncertainties. Just a bit too self-indulgent and self-referential

The Dictionary of Alternatives – utopianism and organisation; ed M Parker, V Fournier and P Reedy (2007)
A nice idea – which I have still to read

Thinking in Systems – a primer; Donella Meadows (2008)
The early pages are a delight to read – this is the woman who lead the team which produced “Limits to Growth”
Exploring the Science of Complexity; Ben Ramalingam et al (ODI 2008)
Almost incoherent – but see “Aid on the edge of Chaos” below
Apparently a very important read but, with more than 500 pages, too big a challenge for me….

Most authors would avoid a title like this - but Kahane’s south African experience makes this a great story  

The Dance on the Feet of Chance; Hooman Attar (2010)
A bit too technical – but honest

Mastery; Robert Greene (2012)
An important topic, nicely presented by a craftsman of his trade

Aid on the Edge of Chaos; Ben Ramalingam (2013)
A very comprehensive treatment of the various strands but ultimately (at 450 pages) indigestible

At first glance, wonderfully clear

How Change Happens Duncan Green (2016)

With its focus on the marginalised of the world, this may not immediately attract but it’s one the best discussions of change…
Can We Know Better?; Robert Chambers (2017)
What could be final reflections from the development scholar who wrote “Whose Reality Counts? putting the Last First”…
Didn’t seem part of this discussion – but the clarity of her exposition of how certain ideas first came to be developed blows you away!!