what you get here

This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections 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, October 31, 2018

Why we need to be suspicious of the idea of “political culture”

We like to think that we are “masters of our fate” and it irks us when foreigners, for example, make us realise that our behaviour is often the result of specific cultural factors which can be questioned.
The last post has made me return to a question which has haunted me since I started to work in Europe more than 30 years ago…….”to what extent can we actually change national characteristics” – let alone state institutions ???

NB – this may look a long post (and it has certainly taken a full day to compose) but it actually divides fairly easily into three separate sections – which I felt still needed to be part of a single post

1. An ignored 1990 warning
Ralf Dahrendorf was a famous German sociologist/UK statesman who wrote in 1990 an extended public letter first published under the title “Reflections on the Revolution in Europe” and then expanded as Reflections on the Revolution of our Time. In it he made the comment that it would take one or two years to create new institutions of political democracy in the recently liberated countries of central Europe; maybe five to 10 years to reform the economy and make a market economy; and 15 to 20 years to create the rule of law. But it would take maybe two generations to create a functioning civil society there.
A former adviser to Vaslev Havel, Jiri Pehe, referred 7 years ago to that prediction and suggested that  
“what we see now is that we have completed the first two stages, the transformation of the institutions, of the framework of political democracy on the institutional level, there is a functioning market economy, which of course has certain problems, but when you take a look at the third area, the rule of the law, there is still a long way to go, and civil society is still weak and in many ways not very efficient.”

He then went on to make the useful distinction between “democracy understood as institutions and democracy understood as culture”  
“It’s been much easier to create a democratic regime, a democratic system as a set of institutions and procedures and mechanism, than to create democracy as a kind of culture – that is, an environment in which people are actually democrats”.

2. Where did talk about “political cultures” first start?
The idea of “political culture” is – as the academics have taken to put it – a “contested field”…Not that this has stopped wild assertions being made about national characteristics. Indeed it has spawned one of the most enjoyable of book genres - who, for example, can resist We, Europeans – with its amusing vignettes of our various mutual neighbours? And, although the Xenophobe series does rather take this to extremes, some of this stuff can actually be quite insightful – for example, this good expose of the phrases Brits use – with columns distinguishing what our European partners generally understand by various common phrases from what Brits really mean by them 

And, since we all first noticed globalisation in the 1980s, another new field has been spawned – that of “comparative management” whose foremost writers have been Geert Hofstede, Ronnie Lessem and Frans Trompenaars ….Richard D Lewis’s When Cultures Collide – leading across Cultures  (1996) is perhaps the most readable treatment.
There used indeed to be an area called “path dependency” which argued that our behaviour was much more influenced by historical cultural patterns than we imagined. It focused initially on technical examples such as the layout of the typewriter - but found new life after the fall of communism. Indeed it gave rise to a sub-field of political science called “transitology” (which I try to explain in chapter 2 of my 1999 book In Transit – notes on good governance
Political culture versus rational choice – the example of the Czech-Slovak transition is one of the better examples of the genre and The political culture of unified Germany (written by a German academic) puts the field in the wider context of “political culture”

Culture Matters – how values shape human progress; ed Lawrence Harrison and SP Huntington is not an easy book to find these days. It came out in 2000 but attracted the entirely appropriate comment that a more appropriate title would have been Western Culture Matters  
And that indeed is the problem - that commentary about other cultures is imbued with notions not only of “the other” but with those of superiority and inferiority….

This raises the obvious question of what sort of person might be best placed to do an insightful (if not objective) analysis of a political culture. The answer, I would suggest, comes from using 2 axes – one to denote the “status” one (insider/outsider); the other to denote something like “the generalist/specialist” spectrum.
Robert Kaplan would be an example of a generalist outsider in Romania’s case – Mungiu-Pippidi an example of a specialist insider, although perhaps not the best example in view of her Berlin location and international profile…The historian Lucian Boia might be a better example…..

3. How 2 American political scientists tarred the Italian Image
Edward Banfield’s study in the early 1950s of a small town in southern Italy whose inhabitants displayed loyalty only to the members of their nuclear family and who had absolutely no sense of social responsibility for wider circles. The book (published in 1955) was called “The Moral Basis of a Backward Society” 

Banfield concluded that the town's plight was rooted in the distrust, envy and suspicion displayed by its inhabitants' relations with each other. Fellow citizens would refuse to help one another, except where one's own personal material gain was at stake. Many attempted to hinder their neighbours from attaining success, believing that others' good fortune would inevitably harm their own interests. "Montegrano"'s citizens viewed their village life as little more than a battleground. Consequently, there prevailed social isolation and poverty—and an inability to work together to solve common social problems, or even to pool common resources and talents to build infrastructure or common economic concerns.

"Montegrano"'s inhabitants were not unique nor inherently more impious than other people. But for quite a few reasons: historical and cultural, they did not have what he termed "social capital"—the habits, norms, attitudes and networks that motivate folk to work for the common good.
This stress on the nuclear family over the interest of the citizenry, he called the ethos of ‘amoral familism’. This he argued was probably created by the combination of certain land-tenure conditions, a high mortality rate, and the absence of other community building institutions.

Fast forward sixty years to an article in “City Compass Guide Romania” in which an expat (and, full disclosure) friend of mine wrote….

If you are fortunate enough to drive in Bucharest you will witness what is probably the clearest evidence of mass individualism in global human society. Romanian people, of all shapes, sizes, social and educational backgrounds and income brackets will do things in their cars that display a total disregard for sanity and other drivers.
Manoeuvres such as parking in the middle of the street, u-turning on highways without any warning and weaving between lanes in heavy traffic at 150 kilometres per hour are commonplace and point to an extreme lack of concern for the safety or even the simple existence of others.
The next time you are waiting to get on a plane at Henri Coandă airport, take a little time to observe how queuing in an orderly and effective manner is clearly regarded as an af­front to the sovereignty of the Romanian individual. Enjoy the spectacle of the pushing, shoving and general intimida­tion that follows the arrival of the airport staff to supervise boarding. Even while watching an international rugby test match you will only occasionally see the same intense level of barely controlled aggression.

Outside of their core social networks Romanians closely follow the rule stating that it is every man, woman and child for themselves. ……There is an opinion poll, published in early 2012, show­ing that around 90 percent of the Romanian population regards almost all of their compatriots as utterly untrust­worthy and incompetent. At the same time 90 percent, possibly the same 90 percent, see themselves as being abso­lutely beyond reproach. This is clearly an extreme response no matter how you view it and provides evidence of an ex­traordinary and troubling imbalance within the generality of Romania’s social relationships.
There is a well-known prayer in Romania, which roughly goes: “Dear God, if my goat is so ill that it will die, please make sure that my neighbour’s goat dies too.”

So what does this commonality suggest? The EU’s first Ambassador here was Karen Fogg who gave every consultant who came here in the early 1990s (like me) a summary of what can be seen as the follow-up to Banfield’s book – Robert Putnam’s Making Democracy Work – civic traditions in Italy (1993) which suggested that the laggardly nature of southern Italian Regions was due entirely to this “amoral familism”.  Putnam made an even greater play of missing “social capital” – indeed spawned an incredible technocratic literature on the concept and ideas on how it could be “engineered” to deal with the new alienation of modern capitalism..

Romanian communism, of course, had almost 50 years to inculcate more cooperative attitudes and behaviour – but the forced nature of “collective farms”; the forced migration of villagers to urban areas to drive industrialisation; and the scale of Securitate spying created a society where, paradoxically, even fewer could trusted anyone.      
From 1990 the market became God; Reagan and Thatcher had glorified greed; the state was “bad"; and television – which had been limited by Ceausescu to 2 hours a day - the great “good”……As the commercial stations and journals spread, the values of instant gratification became dominant (one of the points Dorel Sandor makes)……

To be continued…..

Monday, October 29, 2018

a powerful Interview in Revista 22

Dorel Sandor is a name to conjure with in Romania….
I first met him some 25 years ago when he had just started his career as an independent policy consultant which morphed into that of a respected political commentator….
Less visible these days on television perhaps than a decade or so ago, Sandor has just given an interview in Revista 22 which some Romanians may feel is selling their country short. As, however, I've posted only once this year about Romania and his analysis will strike chords with many of my readers who are from other European countries as well as the US, Ukraine and Russia......I’m going to try to summarise the main points of the interview – but blame Google Translate for the inevitable mistakes which will occur…….

First, however, let’s set the context for the 98% of my readers who are not Romanian…..
The end of next year will see the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Ceausescu regime but few Romanians have any reason to celebrate. Four million of their best and brightest have, for example, emigrated – and most of its industries, agriculture and woodlands sold to foreigners.
Romania joined the EU in 2007 and, for a time, it seemed, was making progress in judicial reform where it is still (like Bulgaria) subject to the constraints of an annual monitoring system. The sentencing of a Prime Minister to jail-time led to what appeared to be open season being declared on senior politicians and businessmen (corruption was so systemic that it was difficult to distinguish the two).

Accusations about partiality were brushed aside initially but evidence slowly began to accumulate first of suspiciously high conviction rates and, more seriously, collusion between prosecutors and the (still extensive) security services…..Traian Basescu the maverick liberal President (from 2004-2014) had appointed in 2006 a young woman Laura Kovosi as Prosecutor General who found herself and the service under increasing fire from various high-profile scandals from 2016. In December of that year, the Social Democratic party came to power and tried to use the scandals to muzzle the Prosecution service and indeed to change the criminal law. Extensive street protests have marked the regime ever since….  

The Sandor Interview
starts by emphasising how wrong it is to talk of a Romanian "revolution" in 1989/90 – it was just a reshuffling of positions - and creation of opportunities for a Mafia-type takeover of financial assets.. 
The great secret of post-communism is that those who fed, sustained and exploited it did not want it to have democracy, market economy, free press, civil society, but to put money on the factories, plants, resources. And here begins the metastasis of Romania for the past 30 years. At present, parliament is a collection of nonentites, people fleeing immunity with no idea of what is happening in Romania”.

Indeed, he suggests that there are no more than a dozen decent individuals in Parliament – and 2 worthwhile trade union leaders. He is highly critical of NGOs and the media…..”empty shells”….

He is particularly scathing of the passive consumerist culture which now has a grip on the country 
“Nowadays, the plague that destroys 30-40 year-olds and children is mobile phone, laptop and Facebook. Now, when the baby comes out of the mother's belly, she puts the phone in her mouth and sees what is delivered to her screen, so she does not have any personal experience and she's eating information from commercial companies. Communism and capitalism have been replaced by vulgar consumerism And the phone, the laptop, the computer, Facebook and the TV are sources of substitution for the collective personal identity and the world we live in.
On the street, I see mothers with a baby in their arms talking on two phones. Or children for a few years who sit and look at the computer screen. 80% of people are prisoners of the screen. It's a plague. This is one of the main factors that peacefully breaks down, soft liberation, collective and individual thinking…….. The human species is in a very serious anthropological deadlock. It is in the global trend. We, being a poorer, more primitive country, are lagging behind in this pathology. So it's an incredible collective plague”.

And has clearly given up on politics 
“The stark reality is now that we do not have political parties any more. The Romanian political environment is in fact an ensemble of ordinary gangs that try to survive the process and jail and eventually save their wealth in the country or abroad. That's all! Romania has no rulers. It has mobsters in buildings with signs that say "The Ministry of Fish that Blooms".

Hungary and Poland are currently the focus of serious European concern simply because Brussels has given up on Romania 
“In Poland and Hungary things are working. They have preserved their internal authority, they want to lead them, according to market standards, and they are naughty. But these are two countries that function and want to function in their traditional, authoritarian way, with pride. And to them is nationalism, but it is a nationalism that has consistency.
While there is no such thing in us. However, there are relevant things that happen there in the economy, in investments. And they violate the rules for personal and personal interest, but not in the way we do. It is a gap between the level at which we have fallen below elementary standards and them.
One of the reasons why the EU is not too concerned about us is that it is that they reckon that you can only reform a driver with a car that works. We are a two-wheeled wagon and two horses, a chaotic space, broken into pieces. What's to reform? So it's a big difference.”

Is Romania therefore “finished” – as Sandor claims? 
If anyone can deal with this question, it is Alina Mungiu-Pippidi - a prolific and high profile Romanian academic/social activist (with a base for the past few years in the Hertie School of Government in Berlin) who has been trying to understand Romanian political culture and the wider issue of corruption for the past 2 decades. In 2006 she contributed a chapter on “Fatalistic political cultures” to a book on Democracy and Political Culture in East Europe. In this she argued (a) that it was too easy for people (not least the political elite themselves!) to use the writings of Samuel Huntington to write Balkan countries off; and (b) that we really did need to look more closely at what various surveys (such as The World Values Survey) showed before jumping to conclusions….In 2007 she gave us even more insights into the Romanian culture in Hijacked modernisation - Romanian political culture in the 20th century 

But what can people do when a system is so broken? Talk of the "democratic will" seems meaningless....Few people understand how the Italian system has been able to survive - but at least it had the liquid resources to keep its people happy.....The stark truth is that, after 30 years, Romanians live in a state of anomie and with none of the social trust or solidarity which allows some European countries to survive - however insidiously neo-liberalism is destroying even these...... 

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Revisiting a neglected management classic

Just before this blog went silent in early August, I had written an important post distinguishing 5 very different “theories of change” ....wondering why so few mutual links had been made by the practitioners of the 5 "schools". I now realise I may have missed the most important school of all – that of “managing change”
Whenever the issue of change comes up, I rarely miss the chance to plug a book which was published in 2000 - Change the World by a management theorist Robert Quinn.
It stood out from the huge mass of books about managing change I had been reading in the late 1990s for its explanation of why so many change efforts fail – offering a typology (and critique) of four different strategies – “telling”, “selling”, “participating” and “transforming” – and daring to pose the challenging question of how individuals such as Gandhi, Luther King, Jesus Christ came to inspire millions…..
Virtually all books on managing change until then were (and most remain) what I would call “mechanistic” – offering apparently neutral tools of the sort consultants claiming objectivity can use. Quinn dares to introduce a moral tone – which both management writers and practitioners find a bit embarrassing. Their very legitimacy, after all, rests on the claims they make to scientific authority…..
This is perhaps why most of his writing passes under our radar. The same fate overtook Robert Greenleaf whose books on “stewardship” are so valuable……

A European audience does recoil a bit when they see the sub-title of Quinn’s Change the World, “how ordinary people can accomplish extraordinary results” – even if such hyping is a well-known US habit….His book then proceeds to offer 8 injunctions for those who aspire to be change-agents, some of which may offer challenges to the translator – the summary I offer in the middle column is from my memory of a book which is almost 20 years old. Since then, our view of the world has been hugely upset – not least by the social movements since then; by the 2008 global financial crisis; and by more recent books such as Reinventing Organisations by Frederic Laloux - my final column offers some preliminary and terse comments on how the injunctions have withstood the test of time ….

Quinn’s 8 Injunctions for changing the world (2000 )
Quinn Injunction

What one reader thinks he means
Fit with mainstream and newer literature
“Envisage the Productive Community”

Imagine how the system would work if we treated one another generously - Don’t be satisfied with second-best
Laloux has a lot to say about this
“First Look Within”

Set your own standards of excellence – don’t go with the mob
The self is very much back in fashion
“Embrace the Hypocritical Self”

Be aware of your own double standards
Still worthwhile
“Transcend Fear”

We always feel a pressure to conform and fear the consequences of appearing different
“embody a Vision of the Common Good”

Don’t be afraid to demonstrate behavior consistent with what your ethical sense tells you
Laloux and the whole solidarity ethic much stronger these days
Disturb the system

20 years on, we probably have too much of this now!
Events can never be controlled – so let go
Chaos theory also back in fashion
“Entice Through Moral Power”

As above
See Laloux

“Change the World” is actually one of a trilogy Quinn has written – the first being “Deep change” – and the final one “Building the Bridge as you Walk on it – a guide for leading change” (2004) an outline of whose basic argument can be found here

Although I often reference Quinn, this is the first time I have written at length about him and notice a tinge of defensiveness as I reflect on his message……which perhaps sometimes smacks of “motherhood and apple pie”. He writes here about how the responses he received from his first book were the inspiration for the third - 
They defied what is written in almost all textbooks on management and leadership… common understanding and practice….. suggesting that every one of us has the capacity to transform our organizations into more positive, productive communities. Yet it is a painful answer that almost no one wants to hear. That is why it is not in the books on management and leadership. Painful answers have no market. The man states: “I know it all happened because I confronted my own insecurity, selfishness, and lack of courage.”

In the early 1990s I would look for copies of Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of really effective People which had been translated into the language of the country I was working in – partly to ensure that we had a common frame of reference but mainly because of its encouragement of what I considered to be useful ethical practices….. 

  Robert Quinn is still writing - not least on a blog the positive organization - although I suspect he has fallen prey to what happens to most gurus……they end up as egocentrics on egotrips……
I wold hope to update the July table in a future post.....

More reading on social and organisational change
Supporting small steps – a rough guide for developmental professionals (Manning; OECD 2015)
A Governance Practitioner’s Notebook – alternative ideas and approaches (Whaites et al OECD 2015)
People, Politics and Change - building communications strategy for governance reform (World Bank 2011)
Governance Reform under Real-World Conditions – citizens, stakeholders and Voice (World Bank 2008)
Change Here! Managing change to improve local services (Audit Commission 2001)