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!

Monday, December 26, 2011

Reverse technology transfer

Brits of my generation are proud of the BBC and its reputation. The political and economic hits, however, it has taken from successive recent governments means that if now lags behind the quality programmes I can access here from French and German stations. TV5 is our default programme - with the MEZZO music programme not far behind. With some anticipation, we have been waiting for Jérusalem, la ville des deux paix to start - "un Voyage magique et hors du temps, des musiques soufies aux lamentations hébraïques". It has now got underway – under the direction of Jordi Savall with Armenian, Israaeli, Palestine and Morrocan players on such instruments as the kamancha, oud, schofar, santur, morisca and qanun. You can see and hear an excerpt here. I find such sharing of music from different religious cultures much more appropriate for this time of the year than the Christian stuff we are exposed to.

One of our leading development experts has posed an interesting question on his blog - what can development thinking and experience contribute to the solution of Europe’s present crises?
Reading about Greece or Italy or Spain or Ireland today reminds me strongly of reading about and working in African countries in the mid-1980s - similarly crippled by debt crises, and similarly subject to external monitoring and interference. Rigorous monetarist discipline not only stopped growth in its tracks, but also undermined human welfare and, in many cases, destroyed the social contract. Progressive economists in the 1980s coalesced around the idea of Adjustment With a Human Face - accepting the need for macro-economic stabilisation and structural reform, but also insisting on the need to protect the welfare of the poorest and the provision of basic social services. Arguably, the re-evaluation of structural adjustment underpinned both UNDP's work on human development, launched in the Human Development Report of 1990, and the World Bank's re-discovery of poverty, in the World Development Report of 1990. In turn, these contributed to poverty-focused debt relief initiatives in the 1990s, and to the adoption of the Millennium Development Goals.
I don't work on domestic European policy, but it does seem to me that there are some lessons here, at least some general principles. Structural adjustment is a necessary process but has a high human cost. Poor people need to be supported as consumers, but also as producers. A high level of participation is required, to underpin ownership and legitimacy. The international community has to cohere around high-level human development goals. And financing is key, including if appropriate in the form of debt relief. There is, it goes without saying, a great deal of international analysis of how to manage the fall-out from the 2008 financial crisis, making similar points. I've written about this elsewhere, originally for the Commonwealth Secretariat.
On financing, I can't resist making a point which is not exactly taken from development studies, but which draws on my very limited reading in the area of currency unions and fiscal transfers - namely that they don't often work unless there are substantial transfers between regions or jurisdictions, to manage asymmetric shocks, but also to redistribute between rich and poor regions. The German constitution, for example, guarantees equal standards of service provision between the various Lander - and allocates tax revenue accordingly. The euro-zone has no such ambition, or rule.
The OECD also has an interesting paper on fiscal equalisation, reviewing the experience of countries as varied as Australia, Canada and Germany. On average, these countries assign 2% of GNP to transfers, to manage asymmetric shocks and redistribute from rich to poor.
The GDP of the euro area is currently about 9 trn euros, so 2% would amount to about 180 bn euros. By contrast, current stuctural funds amount to about 30bn euros, some of which goes to the poorest regions in the poorest countries, but some of which goes to poor regions in richer countries. Further, structural funds support production, not consumption. Thus, the gap between what is needed and available is at least 150 bn euros per year.
Does it not follow that attempts to save the euro need to focus not just on the need for fiscal discipline and structural reform (= structural adjustment), but also on the essential role of large-scale transfers? An extra 150bn euros a year is not trivial in the context of an EU budget of some 140 bn euro, but that is only because the EU budget is so small in relation to EU GDP (capped at 1%) and to Government spending. Tax-payers in richer euro countries, please take note
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This is an interesting point - but the new member states have difficulty enough absorbing the Structural Funds they have been allocated - and the existence and scale of these funds (relative to those, for example, of the mainline Bulgarian and Romanian budgets) has arguably made an important contribution to the systemic corruption which is endemic in these countries' political and administrative elites. And the basic question is a useful reminder of the need for more European humility......

Finally, an interesting new website for me - the Bureau for Investigative Journalism which tries to resurrect that tradition from within a teaching institute.

Fossils and patting sticks

I spent two Xmases working in Baku, Azerbaijan – and very much appreciated the absence of the shopping fever and pressures which characterise these days in the West. Even His Holiness the Pope is apparently lamenting in his Christmas homilythat Christmas has become an increasingly commercial celebration.
But Sofia must be one of the best places to be to avoid the crassness of Xmas. True, the walking St (Vitosha) has overhead decorations – but they are modest and hardly noticed.
Otherwise (if you avoid the malls which have opened only in the past few years) things are almost normal.

And some imagination is used to offer special attractions eg a large fossil market was open last week in the Museum of Natural History which offered marvellous shapes, sizes and textures at very cheap prices - eg this very aesthetic sea hedghog fossil which doubles as a paper weight.

Saturday we wanted to buy a "sooroovachka" – a stick decorated with embroidery, dried fruit, coins etc which kids in this part of the world use for patting family, friends and visitors (in Romania its'called "sorkova") whilst saying a wish for health, wealth and happiness to the one patted.
Bulgarians and Romanians give the child money at the end of the patting which they believe is their way of buying success for the coming year. The women’s market – the collection of open air stalls between Bvds Hristo Botev and Elizabeth – was the place to find it. Most of the products are local fruit and vegetables – with the spice stalls being my favourites. Such an incredible variety of spices and medicinal teas!
I realise that I haven’t posted any video links of Bulgaria yet on the site – here’s a good one to start with.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

the charm, yet again, of Sofia!

After 4 years of familiarity with Sofia (almost 3 years in residence) it is typical that I stumbled yesterday on a well-established (and prestigious) gallery focussing on Bulgaria’s old masters - hidden away in a charming and old part of Sofia between Prague Bvd and Bvds Makedonia/Totleben. It’s the Tzennotsi Gallery and has the richest collection (in more senses than one) of all the galleries I have visited here.
The picture above is a Russi Genchev which the gallery would not deign to keep. This Boris Denev which adorns its spacious display walls is a more appropriate exemple of its exhibits.

And, like, the current exhibition at the City Gallery, there were so many painters of whom I hadn’t heard. Some of the paintings seem to have been there for several years (eg some Vladimir Dmitrov’s at 20,000 euros in the 2009 Antiques Price Guide) – which makes one wonder about their business model. Clearly they cater for bigger spenders than me! Probably an institutional market ie the banks! Talking of which, one of the nice features of many hotels here in Bulgaria is their display of (in many cases local) paintings.

In the same street as the Gallery (Buzludja) we also found an enticing little Weinstube (Vestibule Wine Ambassador) which turns out also to be a producer and seller of "bourgeois" furniture. Definitely worth a visit – both in winter for its cosy, traditional interior and in the summer for its garden area at the back. Also in the same street a patisserie with a great range of its own products - including a large apple and walnut cake round for 5 euros!

And we also had an interesting encounter in Tsar Samuel with the sinister Masons. One of the many tiny shops in the area between Hristov Botev and Vitosha with the products of imaginatively-crafted dresses, shawls etc enticed us in and to the purchase of an embroidered cardigan. We were so pleased we readily accepted several small calendar cards which marketed its 50-or so year-old artisan – only to discover when I accessed the website that it had very strong masonic connections. I was so horrified I contemplated returning the cardigan – since, in Scotland, the Masons are a highly divisive force – in the 1970s with a strong and corrupt presence in the police forces. And I remember my (highly tolerant) father – a Scottish Presbyterean Minister – railing against their influence amongst his “Elders”. But, in this part of the world where there was so much repression, perhaps they played a different role? They were certainly outlawed by the fascist forces here in the early 1940s and its members persecuted under the communists. Sadly the intrinsic secrecy of the organisation makes that difficult to check out properly . Their apologists are full of good-sounding rhetoric about freedom and democracy but I cannot take seriously anyone who associates with their silly tribal initiation rituals with trousers at half-mast and quasi-religious artefacts.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Fear the Greeks

Many of us wondered how on earth Greece managed to gain entry to the EU - let alone the euro. And many of us missed a blistering report issued by the OECD in August which blasted the Greek bureaucracy. Going by the rather bland title Greece: Review of the Central Administration, the 127-page report can be quickly summed up: The government apparatus in Athens is virtually unable to implement reform."It is not clear how existing and new entities of (the government) will work together in order to secure the leadership needed for reform, including the necessary strategic vision, accountability, strategic planning, policy coherence and collective commitment, and communication," reads the damning report to which my attention was drawn only today by the marvellous Der Spiegel when it reported on the initial phase of the work of the European technocrats headed by a German who descended recently on the capital.
"For the first time, we wanted to show -- systematically and with proof -- what isn't working at the administration level and what is preventing Greece from making progress on structural reforms," Caroline Varley, OECD senior policy analyst and co-author of the report, told the German daily Die Welt. "So far, Greece's central governmental apparatus has neither the capacity nor the ability to undertake large reforms."
The report was commissioned by the Greek Ministry of Administrative Reform and E-Governance and provides a detailed examination of the state of central administration in the government. It focuses on efficiency and effectiveness as Athens struggles to introduce necessary reforms. It found that communication among the country's 14 ministries was appallingly paltry. Furthermore, the huge number of departments within ministries -- many of them consisting solely of a department head and others with just one or two subordinates -- results in widespread inefficiency and lack of oversight.
"Administrative work is fragmented and compartmentalized within ministries," the report writes. "Ministries are not able to prioritize ... and are handicapped by coordination problems. In cases where coordination does happen, it is ad hoc, based on personal initiative and knowledge, and not supported by structures." Were such coordination even to take place, the report indicates that administrators do not have access to the necessary data, nor does such data exist in many cases. "The administration does not have the habit of keeping records or the ability to extract information from data (where available), nor generally of managing organizational knowledge," the report found. The problems found in Greece's central administration, says the OECD, are the result of decades of clientelism and the sheer volume of the laws and regulations that govern competencies within the ministries. The report found 17,000 such laws, decrees and edicts.
How, then, should Greece solve the problem? The OECD proposes a "big bang approach" -- meaning a massive administrative restructuring. And, co-author Varley says, it needs to happen quickly. "Greece has only a small window of time to change and reform itself," she told Die Welt. "And it is getting smaller."
A year ago, I was lamenting the lack of social democratic vision.

C'est la Vie - et La Mort

In the summer I predicted that a bid with which I was involved for a Structural Fund project would be judged as failing to meet the admin requirements – since this is the easiest way for evaluation panels to get rid of unwanted competition in the EC’s procurement system. A few weeks ago I had that prediction confirmed – but with a bonus. None of the 8 or so companies which bid for the project satisfied the onerous and bureaucratic administrative requirements! Little wonder that new member countries find it so difficult to spend the money which has been allocated to them!
Also in the summer I was told, at the start of the tendering process (!), who would emerge as the winner of a significant 4 year EC project in a large country with oil (and temperature extremes). And hey presto – that French company has duly emerged the victor. With at least two of its 3 key experts having no real experience in the required field but the Team Leader having spent time there and having all the tight contacts (let alone nationality) to grease the necessary parts of the machinery. I had decided at the start that the project (and capital) were not for me – and turned down several approaches. We were all wasting our time. The process was a foregone conclusion.

As I watch the images (on French television) from Vaclav Havel's funeral in Prague, it is fitting to give yet another quotation - this time from a 2002 address in which he was musing on his time in power -
And I’ve discovered an astonishing thing: although it might be expected that this wealth of experience would have given me more and more self-assurance, confidence, and polish, the exact opposite is true. In that time, I have become a good deal less sure of myself, a good deal more humble. You may not believe this, but every day I suffer more and more from stage fright; every day, I am more afraid that I won’t be up to the job, or that I’ll make a hash of it. It’s harder and harder for me to write my speeches, and when I do write them, I am more fearful than ever that I will hopelessly repeat myself, over and over again. More and more often, I am afraid that I will fall woefully short of expectations, that I will somehow reveal my own lack of qualifications for the job, that despite my good faith I will make ever greater mistakes, that I will cease to be trustworthy and therefore lose the right to do what I do.
And while other presidents, younger than me in terms of their time in office, delight in every opportunity to meet each other, or with other important people, to appear on television or deliver a speech, all of this simply makes me more fearful. At times, the very thing I should be welcoming as a great opportunity I deliberately try to avoid in the almost irrational fear that I will, in one way or another, squander the opportunity and perhaps even harm a good cause. In short, I seem more and more dubious, even to myself. And the more enemies I have, the more I side with them in my own mind, and so I become my own worst enemy
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Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Repressed Art


A decade or so ago, I was on a 3 year project in Uzbekistan and saw a temporary exhibition of stunning paintings in one of Tashkent’s few public galleries. I was not then in collection mode but was sufficiently impressed to photograph some of them – sadly without noting the names of the painters. Yesterday I was googling “socialist realism” and stumbled across an amazing story of artistic gems hidden in the (western) Karakalpak region of Uzbekistan. One man, Igor Savitsky, saved a treasure trove of Russian and Uzbek art by “hiding” it in a museum in Nukus near the infamous Aral Sea -
A tireless collector of paintings that the Soviet government wanted destroyed, Savitsky traveled thousands of miles in the post-war period scheming, plotting, pleading, doing whatever it took to get his hands on the art he so passionately wanted to preserve.
A frustrated artist, Savitsky was working as an archaeologist when he became fascinated by the indigenous cultures of Western Uzbekistan. He began to collect jewelry, coins, handmade clothing, and other items in danger of being lost as the Soviets sought to devalue distinctively ethnic artifacts. Savitsky even succeeded in convincing government officials to provide funding for a museum in Nukus, far from Moscow’s prying eyes. But then Savitsky discovered his true calling. Pretending to buy state-approved art, he daringly rescued thousands of works by artists banned during the Stalin era for speaking out against authority, for being gay, or for simply refusing to paint in the style they were told. Risking torture, imprisonment, and death, this small group remained true to their artistic vision. Savitsky even managed to cajole the cash to pay for the art from the same authorities who had banned it.
Savitsky’s greatest discovery was an unknown school of artists who settled in Uzbekistan after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. There they encountered an Islamic culture as exotic to them as Tahiti was for Gauguin, and they developed a startlingly original style that fused European modernism with centuries-old Eastern traditions.

It all came to wider light apparently in 1998 when the New York Times published this article.
And all of this was celebrated in a special film earlier this year. Desert of Forbidden Art uses this story of Savitsky and the artists by juxtaposing images from the collection with rare Soviet archival film and stills. Ben Kingsley, Sally Field, and Ed Asner voice the diaries and letters of Savitsky and the artists and bring to life a dramatic journey of sacrifice for the sake of creative freedom.

But late last year Uzbek officials abruptly gave the Nukus Museum 48 hours to evacuate one of its two exhibition buildings, so staff members ended up stacking hundreds of fragile canvases and paper works on the floor of the other space. The building has since stood empty, its fate unknown, and more than 2,000 works are no longer on view at the museum. The museum’s director, Marinika M. Babanazarova, who has fiercely guarded the collection for 27 years since Savitsky’s death in 1984, was not permitted to travel to the United States for a trip that was to include a screening of the documentary at the National Gallery of Art in Washington.
And over the last year Ms. Babanazarova’s staff members have undergone 15 government audits, in which they have repeatedly been asked to explain their travels overseas and the nature of their contacts with foreigners, she said.
The irony is that the art Savitsky saved — beginning with traditional Uzbek folk art and textiles and blossoming to comprise art by ethnic Russian avant-garde artists — was at the time under fire for not being Soviet enough. Now it seems, 20 years after Uzbekistan won its independence — it is being targeted by the new regime for not being Uzbek enough.

Issues; there are several lessons from this story which, hopefully, I will pursue in future posts. First and foremost - what an exceptional, courageous individual can achieve. This is an issue which has cropped up several times in this blog eg an American who did heroic things during the Smyrna massacres of 1923; a Greek and a Turk who had in the preceding decade or so tried to stem the tide of ethnic hatred; Havel; the good German of Nanjing in the early 1940s.
And, second, the way artists have had to adjust to repressive regimes. I realised only recently just how much the Bulgarian art I admire, for eaxmple, must have been affected by that. A few migrated; many opted for design work in the cinema and theatre; a few courageous ones like Boris Denev refused to compromise and were banned from painting.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Gloom and doom


I don’t often refer to the deaths of public figures in this blog. But some critical comments about Vaclav Havel in this discussion thread – did inspire me to make my own contribution - "Of course there are, for those with a radical turn of mind, blemishes on Havel’s record – such as his support for the Iraq war and for NATO. But why do we expect perfection from those who are suddenly elevated to such positions of leadership – particularly when that position was so bereft of real powers? Looked at any way, the man was a tower of moral strength and courage – as can be seen by the uncompromising way he addressed the Czech politicians in 1997. In November 1997, the Czech government, led by Prime Minister Václav Klaus, was forced to resign in the wake of allegations that, among other things, the Civic Democratic Party, led by Klaus, had access to a slush fund held in an unauthorized Swiss bank account. In the period between those resignations and the appointment of an interim government, President Havel, who had recently been released from hospital and was recuperating from pneumonia, delivered what is, in effect, a state of the union speech to the Parliament and Senate of the Czech Republic -
It seems to me that our main fault was vanity. We behaved like arrogant students at the top of their class or spoiled only children who feel superior to others and think they have the right to tell others what to do. …We were hypnotized by our own macroeconomic indicators, heedless of the fact that sooner or later these indicators would also reveal what lay beyond the horizon of the economic or technocratic world view: that there are factors whose weight or significance no accountant can calculate, but which nevertheless create the only thinkable environment for any economic development—I mean the rules of the game, the rule of law, the moral order from which every system of governance derives and without which it cannot function, a climate of social concord.
The declared ideal of success and profit was defiled because we permitted a state of affairs in which the most immoral became the most successful and the greatest profits were made by thieves who stole with impunity. Under the cloak of an unqualified liberalism, which regarded any kind of economic controls or regulations as left-wing aberrations….. morality, decency, humility before the order of nature, solidarity, concern for future generations, respect for the law, the culture of interpersonal relationships—all these and many similar things were trivialised as "superstructure," as icing on the cake, until at last we realised that there was nothing left to put the icing on: the forces of economic production themselves had been undermined. They were undermined because—with apologies to the atheists among you—they were not cultivated in the strict spirit of the divine commandments. Drunk with power and success, and spellbound by what a wonderful career move a political party was, many began—in an environment that made light of the law—to turn a blind eye to one thing and another, until at last they were confronted with scandals that brought into question one of our greatest reason for pride—the privatisation process
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You can read the entire address at pages 39-47 of a paper on my website. And another (earlier) powerful address he made in 1995 about more global issues to an American audience) can be found here.
At a time when our politicians are so puny, I find it difficult to understand why there are so many people incapable of recognising courage and honesty when it is staring them in the face - particularly on the person's death? We are, indeed, pathetic and ungenerous individuals.
This extended article is a good introduction to Havel's life and work.
John Keane’s Vaclav Havel – a political tragedy in six acts (2000) was one attempt to put the man in historical context (by a prominent british political scientist) - although at least one highly critical review felt the large and well-documented book was rather light in its intellectual (particularly Czech) foundations. For example, there is apparently no mention of the great Thomas Masaryk, in 1919 the first Czechoslovak President, in Keane's book. The review is so savage that its rejoinder from the author is only appropriate. The renowned sociologist Ernest Gellner - who spent the last five years of his life teaching at the Central European University in Prague - supplied, as possibly his last paper, the comparison of the 2 intellectual Presidents and their times.

At the end of November I confessed to some “ennui” – the pall had gone off reading and blogging. Particularly relating to my professional interests. Was it the lack of wine? I have been pretty disciplined in the past month in resisting the blandishments of the tasty Bulgarian whites. But that has been more than compensated for by the tastiness of the vegetarian dishes I have been creating – eg this morning a very succulent grated beetroot, apple and carrot dish – seasoned with small dabs of olive oil, apple vinegar and salt. Probably it is just the combination of end-of-year blues and the general sense of gloom which pervades much of the (European) world. An article today on this has a quote from the political philospher John Gray which captures things very well-
We've moved from the delusional optimism of the 1990s to a sense of intractable difficulties: resource scarcity and enormous debts; the erosion of bourgeois life; the inability of politicians to solve big problems; the realisation that the economic problems of the 70s weren't really solved; the realisation that the window for doing something about climate change – the next five years – will be entirely occupied with trying to restart economic growth.
Meanwhile, for westerners who instinctively look to other countries or big political ideas for inspiration, the possibilities seem to be withering. The US appears economically declining and politically dysfunctional. The EU is damaged and possibly disintegrating. The social democracy of Europe's postwar golden decades seems unable to modernise itself.

postscript
In early 2012 a review appeared in Osteuropa and, in English, on Eurozine which is perhaps the best assessment of Havel's life

Saturday, December 17, 2011

It's politics, stupid


My mother lived to the grand old age of 101 – and was still pottering around her small flat in the supported accomodation in which she lived for almost a decade in her 90s, doing her own shopping and cooking meals for me on my visits from far-flung places. She had some difficulty understanding what it was I was doing in the countries of central europe and central asia which had, for so much of her lifetime, behind "The Iron Curtain". And it was not easy to explain – she was, after all, of that generation which actually produced things; the more effete characters who provided services in those days such as teachers, acountants, bankers, doctors had status precisely because they were in such a small minority. Since then the number of what Robert Reich called in the 90s "symbolic analysts” who do little more than manipulate words and figures has grown to scandalous proportions. Little wonder that we are all so confused!
But I have just come across a new paper which gives a clear overview of the difficulties people doing my sort of work in transition countries over the past 2 decades face; and which also captures the critique I have been conducting of it in varoius papers. It’s written by Tom Carrothers for the Carnegie Foundation and is entitled Aiding governance in developing countries – progress despite uncertainties. He has eight injunctions –
• recognise that governance deficiencies are primarily political
• give attention to the demand for governance, not just the supply
• go local
• strive for best fit – rather than best practice
• take informal institutions into account
• mainstream governance (ie don't just run it as an add-on)
• don’t ignore the international dimensions
• reform thyself

Its references pointed me to a useful summary which DfiD did recently of the findings from 10 years of funded research on governance and fragile states 2001-2010 - The Politics of poverty - elites, citizens and states
A year ago, I was working on a sceptic's glossary of administrative and political terms which really deserves wider currency

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Sofia City Gallery scores again!


The Sofia City Art Gallery has put together another excellent exhibition – this time to honour the memory of the Bulgarian Association of New Artists which was active from 1931 to after 1944. Founded in Sofia, its objective was to unite artists with similar aesthetic viewpoints who espoused new trends in art in keeping with movements in western Europe in the 1920s and 1930s. Although its first members worked primarily in a realistic manner, around 1936—when membership had grown to 55—other Bulgarian artists who had studied and worked in Paris, Munich and Vienna joined its ranks. Artists such as Alexandar Zhendov, BENCHO OBRESHKOV, Boris Eliseev, Vera Nedkova, David Perets, Eliezer Alshekh, IVAN NENOV, Kiril Petrov and KIRIL TSONEV contributed more modernist approaches, rejecting academic art, folkloric elements and especially the ideas of Social Realism put into practice by the founders of the Society. An internet review said its members created works with a „sophisticated approach to style, a purity of form and a stable internal structure”. But this sort of jargon doesn’t tell me anything – and I have to say that, much as I appreciate this insight into the historical developments of Bulgarian painting and the imaginative way the City Gallery has dealt with it (with blow-ups of the agonised press receptions of the time addorning the gallery’s pillars), this is not a genre which particularly appeals to me. But I was deeply impressed with the graphics of Vesselin Staikov and the work of Ivan Penkov and Bronka Gyurova. After 1944 the New Artists’ Society was absorbed by the Union of Bulgarian Artists . Many of those who had been members of the Society were declared ‘bourgeois artists’ by the Communist regime and were no longer able to take part in exhibitions; several, including Alshekh, Elisev and Perets, emigrated.
The frequency of these special exhibitions at the City Gallery (which always borrow works from the country’s regional galleries) contrasts so favourably with the lack of imagination shown by the National Gallery just across the road which never changes its permanent exhibition and rarely puts on worthwhile specials (I do remember a great tanev exhibition they mounted a year or so ago. The National Gallery charges about 5 euros – and the City Gallery is free. Therein lies a lessons about the better service generally offered by local government!
The graphic is one of Vesselin Staikov's at the exhibition. In addition to engravings with themes from nature, old towns and mountain villages, Staikov produced a cycle of engravings on the modern city: Sofia with its modern architecture, the clearing of rubble after the air-raids and the construction of new houses and buildings. The artist is also fond of doing ancient, strangely shaped trees. Labour themes occupy an important place in Staikov’s work. He shows love and understanding for the worker, the peasant. Some engravings reflect the romanticism of Bulgarian scenery and architecture, others – the primitive force and ruggedness of the village landscape. .

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Britain and Europe


A year ago, my blog rose to a challenge to name the 50 books to keep in one’s library if forced to reduce it to 50 books My basic criteria were (a) the light thrown on the European dilemmas of the last century and (b) the quality of the language and the book as a whole. There’s nothing I would really want to change in the entry. I did, however, leave 6 vacant places – and should now consider if any of the books I have read in 2011 might be added to the list.
And the 10th December post of last year celebrated, on my dad’s birth day, some of the values of his generation which are, today, sorely missed.

The British veto at last week’s EU summit is shocking both for what it represents - the protection of financial sector interests by a political cabinet whose members are funded by these financial parasites; and for the marginalisation it augurs for the country. The Guardian has a useful overview which makes the point that this is the culmination of both daft recent political decisions (such as the Conservative withdrawal a couple of years ago from the European People’s Party, the umbrella group in the European Parliament for the parties which dominate so many European governments these days) and the incomprehending and hostile attitude of so many of the old British political class to Europeans. A friend sent me recently Thomas Kremer’s 2005 book The Missing Heart of Europe which explains much of this mutual incomprehension -
The engineers of the EU are deaf to the rising clamour of national identities as they are blind to the profound continent’s diversity of economic and political cultures. within the continent. Therein lies the breathtaking arrogance of their profession. The fatal assumption all along has been that member states are similar, and that national national diversity does not matter and can be over-ridden by negotiations in a closed political circle. within the confines of a narrow bureaucratic and political circle. But it is precisely this diversity that determines just how far, how fast and how deep European European integration can be.is possible.
Europe’s faultline does not lie in the middle of the English Channel. Across the continent it separates those countries with an eccentric heritage, where power emanates from the grass roots and authority is vested in the individual, from those with a concentric tradition, where power is centralised and the corporate state predominates. The confrontation between France and Britain is not about €3bn ($3.7bn), or integration, or the visceral dislike of two leaders or about reigniting historical rivalries. It is more profound than that.
What makes Britain eccentric is the organic development of its parliamentary democracy; its trade-based maritime expansion; a rich, flexible , multi-rooted and near grammar-less language; a pragmatic approach to life and philosophy; the common law; an anti-authoritarian spirit; an all-pervasive and irreverent humour; an unwritten , rolling constitution; reliance on individual initiative; commercial enterprise and an attitude of easygoing carelessness.
What makes France concentric is almost the exact opposite. It moved from a successful absolutist rule to an uneasy democracy by episodic revolutions; it achieved its pre-eminence through a land mass expansion; the grammar of its language is sophisticated with a vocabulary jealously guarded by an august academic body; its philosophy is steeped in great ideals with logic preferred to common sense; its monarchies, empires and republics are distinguished by a rich tapestry of often rewritten constitutions; it draws heavily on formal, written procedures inherent in Roman law rather than live evidence and courtroom drama; its people defernaturally, if with some resentment, to the authority of the state; a n economic reliance on state-supported enterprises and a fine-honed bureaucracy that governs life through manifold regulations that its citizens have learnt to circumvent.
In critical respects the Nordic countries, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic and along with Britain are eccentric while Germany, Spain and together with France form the concentric core of the continent
.
During the 80s I had a lot of experience of working with European colleagues – in at the founding of the French-led Organisation for Traditional Industrial Regions (RETI), for example, and a member of Dutch and Italian led- networks which produced reports on the experience of urban participation and innovation in Europe. I was also one of the British representatives on the Council of Europe’s Standing Conference of Local and Regional Authorities for some 4 years. Even with my French and German languages, I would get pretty impatient with the posturing and rhetoric of my continental colleagues! But this was one of the things we contributed to Europe - puncturing the hot air of the overpaid Eurocrats and federalists. Critical as I am of the New Labour Governments, its Ministers made a positive contribution to European developments and earned respect. But the upper class twits who now form the Conservative political class have barely altered their attitude to foreigners in 100 years - and are sadly supported by many nationalistic working class English whose tribal emotions have been touched by the immigration of the past 4 decades. Cameron and his team have been steadily alienating European leaders with their comments and behaviour - and this was probably the personal pay-off.
Having said all that, however, some of the reactions to Cameron's veto are probably a bit extreme. And this article - 10 myths about Cameron's EU Veto - is an important challenge to the Guardian newspaper line. But probably the most continuously insightful blog on the UK position in all these negotiations is the Bagehot one in The Economist journal. However, the best single comment is probably this blogger with diplomatic experience.

Most of my working experience in the past 20 years has been with Dutch or German-led consortia. I got on well with the former - although the German bureaucracy did get to me! However, my worst (sourest and most pedantic)boss was an English woman lawyer who headed the TAIEX office in the 90s which arranged trips for technocrats in EU and aspiring countries in the pursuit of theie future compliance with EU regulations. That office also gave me a real insight into the operation of European civil servants - who devoted their enrgies to in-fighting(the real work was done by those on short-term contracts); and left the office early - secure in the knowledge that they couldn't be sacked.

Britain has been in steady decline all my adult life. The 60s were the years of diagnosis; the 70s of experimentation – with 1979 as a landmark when even the Labour government lost its faith in Keynesianism. The next 3 decades of Thatcherism and Bliarism seemed to many at the time to be giving Britain a new lease of life – but is belatedly being recognised as a disastrous abandonment of its basic industries and encouragement of unsustainable private debt. With the North Sea oil running out and no further benefits to be accrued by the state from privatisations, the future is bleak for the country. It is appropriate to ask how Japan coped with the melt-down it faced almost 20 years ago – and what lessons that experience contains for the UK.
Richard Koo has for some time been trying to get us to look at what that Japanese experience can tell us about the current addiction to deflation and austerityhere; here and here.
Also a video

Sofia was looking like this a few days ago. Its another new acquisition - an Ivan Petrov from the 1960s

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Rethinking local services


For someone who dedicated 22 years of his life to local government - in senior political positions in local government and running, in parallel in academia, a Local Government Unit which ran workshops and published papers about issues about local government management, I write very little now about the subject. True, there are some papers on my website - about the lessons I drew from social inclusion work which took up a lot of my time and commitment between 1970 and 1990 ; about the experience of European local government in transferring functions; and a Roadmap which
I enjoyed writing in 2003-05 for those running the Kyrgyzstan system
.

I have, however, watched with despair as the british system has become even more centralised in the past 2 decades – the Scottish less than the English. They seem impervious to the lessons that lie on their (European) doorstep – that decentralised systems are healthier and more able to deal with issues. The British political parties are full of the rhetoric of people power – but when in power continue to centralise. An astonishing 70% of local government spending in the UK is controlled by central government - compared with 19% in Germany and 32% in France.
I therefore stopped watching developments on that front some time ago – but seem, as a result, to have missed an interesting initiative which took place in the Brown years – something called Total place. This encouraged municipalities and local state bodies to come together; identify how much was being spent on particular problems eg drug treatment; and to rethink the services with a smaller budget. 13 pilots were selected and helped by some universities. The results seemed to be promising and give a new legitimacy and role for local government – as is seen in this final report; and handbook . The focus on clients – rather than departments – is radical and clearly could be taken seriously only because of economic and budgetary crisis. Part of its thinking can be traced back to the zero-budgeting ideas of the 1960s and 1970s and indeed I came across a comment from an interesting guy, Des McConaghy, I had contact with in those days -
it is intolerably frustrating – almost 40 years later and at 80 years of age! – seeing so many “total approach” initiatives come and go – decade after decade; each inevitably failing for much the same reasons as each new generation “starts from square one”. The landscape is strewn with their wreckage. So it’s now up to the Cabinet Office to really get to grips with the actual policy implications of localism. They must see that while this does indeed mean massively devolving all that can be safely left to the localities it also means a better grip on Whitehall’s own strategic role – plus the management and political validation of that vital constituency dimension!
However, the Handbook is a very rare celebration of systems thinking - it is very well-presented and shows how the concept and its operation draws on different strands of thinking (eg group-grid theory which I referred to recently; styles of learning; dialogue etc). It is very rare for an official document to refer to such theoretical grounding. My only beef is that there are few hard examples of the results in the Handbook. For that you have to go to the individual Final Report eg from Birmingham.
My internet search, however, suggests that the Total Place initiative seems, despite (because of?)its hype, to have disappeared without a trace with the arrival of the Coalition Government - being replaced by another pilot (this time in 2 places only) called Community Budgets. The "Prospectus" (typical business language) about the concept fails to mention the "total place" work even once. Instead, the phrase "whole-place" is used. Why do politicians need to behave so childishly?
Just what local government can offer particularly in this part of the world is nicely shown in this Local Government and Public Services book
The painting is a new acquisition - from last night's auction, It's by Grigor Naidenov who was born in Sofia in 1895 and focussed on urban life and scenes
Breaking news; The UK Deputy PM announced at the weekend that the English cities would get the chance to be free of a lot of central regulations - if, that is, he succeeded in his ongoing battle with the civil servants.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Bankers as communist nomenklatura?


In a nutshell, the governments that saved the banks and financial markets from a meltdown by borrowing huge amounts of monies are now being attacked for having too much debt by the institutions they saved.
This is just one of several arresting passages in a stimulating Open Democracy article I’ve just received and which argues that the banks have, over the past decade, broken the basic rules of lending - which normally allow only 6 pounds to be created from a single pound deposit and which ensure that 13% of every deposit is kept as a bank deposit. In its place, he argues, has been created a Ponzi scheme. The article continues -
The bankers and financiers do not own banks and financial institutions. They are owned by pension funds, saving policies and endowment policy holders, and even by governments and taxpayers. Effectively, the tax-paying middle class who saves and invests owns the financial industry which is in turn under the management of the bankers and financiers, the nomenklatura of the 21st century. And, like in the Soviet style communism system, these financial apparatchiks are not accountable to anybody but only interested in short term gains and squeezing as much as possible from anyone who has any money and cannot escape: by and large middle class taxpayers
In the 10 years leading to the collapse of 2008, the financial system abandoned the fiat currency and fractional reserve banking. This was the system wereby the money, as the store of value, was underwritten by individual countries and multiplied in a controlled way. Instead, the financiers and bankers started practicing a depleting reserve banking technique: a mechanism that replaces the currency, i.e. fiat money and legal tenders in the banks' reserves (in terms of their ratio) by papers generated by the banks themselves.
The author, Greg Pytel, has an interesting looking blog which rates second in UK blogs about corporate finance and submitted in early 2009 a damning paper to a House of Commons committee with the great title The Largest Heist in History

A Chief Executive of a Bank was one of apparently only a few who took issue with the argument and their exchange can be seen here.
Need to ask someone like Paul Mason what he makes of the argument.

The picture shows a rare painting by Alexander Bozhinov which is being auctioned soon here in Sofia. He was a one of Bulgaria's great caricaturists (whose house I lived next door to recently) but this is actually a painting he did on wood in Berlin in 1927

Saturday, December 3, 2011

vegetables, books, grids and groups

The vegetable shop on the corner is the busiest shop I have ever known – although it does seem to be the older generation which uses it. Well-stocked and –frequented vegetable shops are a great feature of Sofia.
It would be interesting to know whether this healthy diet is reflected in Bulgarian health statistics…although any undoubted benefits will be swamped by the effects of smoking!
Certainly when I lived here for 18 months in 2007/2009, it made a significant (positive) difference to my cholesterol level.
So the verandah here is groaning with leeks, pears, beetroot, brocoli, gigantic parsnip, celery etc
I’m not sure if my love of reading and buying books technically qualifies me as a "bibliophile” since the dictionary defines that as "someone who loves or collects books especially as examples of fine or unusual printing or biding”. But I have always admired typface and regret that few publishers give information about the typeface used – or indeed seem to recognise that such an aesthetic consideration might actually help sell their products. I was therefore delighted to read this article which indicates that beautiful book covers are making a comeback. I also discovered that there is a website which celebrates the aesthetics of reading with the delightful name of bookporn.

Talking of books, when I looked recently at my ecological footprint, I forgot to factor in my use of Amazon books. A recent article paints a rather chilling picture of what it’s alike to work in one of their warehouses.

"Aha!" (or eureka) moments are an important but neglected part of life – when complexity and confusion momentarily clear and a strong ray of sunshine reveals a "truth”. I vividly remember that when I first read, in the 1970s, the section of Etzioni’s Social Problems which set out the stories which lay behind and sustained the individualistic, hierarchic and egalitarian perceptions and responses to social problems. The same happened in 1999 when I discovered Chris Hood's The Art of the State – rhetoric, culture and public management. This book uses Mary Douglas’grid-group theory to reduce the whole literature on admin reform to four basic schools. “Grid” denotes the degree to which our lives are circumscribed by rules – “group” indicates the extent to which we are governed by group choice. This gives a matrix of -
• Hierarchist (high on both)
• individualist (low on both)
• Egalitarian (high on group; low on grid)
• Fatalist (high on grid; low on group)

More interestingly, he then shows their typical policy responses, weaknesses and strengths. Sadly, neither the Etzioni nor Hood book is available on google – although this article by Hood demonstrates the use which can be made of the typology. The link I've given ábove for Mary Douglas is actually a very interesting piece in which she reflects on the origins of her theory - and how it developed. It's rare that one gets such an insight into a concept's origins and development from the author. Too often and too quickly concepts become reified.

I had another "aha!" moment when I found recently The case for clumsiness which, again, sets out the various stories which sustain the different positions people take us on various key policy issues – such as the environment. There is a good interview with the author here and a short summary here

Friday, December 2, 2011

Rediscovery of political economy

I have referred several times to the radical rethinking of the economics discipline and also of psychology and regretted that there was little sign of such reassessment of basic principles in the schools of management – let alone in those of public management which continue to regurgitate so many of the hoary myths of management from the surreal world of management writing.
In fact, I now realise, some people – in and around The World Bank of all places – have been engaged in some basic reappraisals of relevant literature for administrative reform efforts and producing some very readable documents. They are those associated with the World Bank’s recent Governance Reforms under real world conditions written around the central questions for my work as a consultant -
1. How do we build broad coalitions of influentials in favour of change? What do we do about powerful vested interests?
2. How do we help reformers transform indifferent, or even hostile, public opinion into support for reform objectives?
3. How do we instigate citizen demand for good governance and accountability to sustain governance reform?

I realise I keep repeating these questions (and the reference) but the questions are so rarely asked in practice let alone pursued seriously in transition countries - and the book is quite excellent. This morning, the WB drew my attention to three useful bits of training material to back up that work.
Interestingly, the displines they draw on are political economy and communications. Both are dear to my heart – the first being the neglected Scottish intellectual tradition which was (just) still alive in my university days - although this useful paper from the Asian development Bank on the subject credits the first use of the term to a 17th century Frenchman. This paper from the ODI gives examples of its use to ensure that development interventions are on a firm basis.

A new website offers an advance copy of an article on an overdue subject – corporate psychopaths and their role in the global crisis.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Pursuing ones passions

For some time, I’ve been fascinated that my most popular post by far is the one from a year ago entitled "adversarial and consensual systems” which has been viewed almost 600 times without any prompting on my part – 130 of these in the last month.
The post actually gives an account of what I would call the "catholicism" of my approach to life (I don’t understand how this word can also have this meaning of "breadth”) - and the number of times this led me into bipartisan activity which never went down well with my immediate political colleagues.

It’s actually highly ironic that, at age 26, I was elevated by my political colleagues to the post of Secretary of the Labour group on the municipality since my commitment (in both practice and writing) to community development challenged the whole edifice of political parties. Two years later I also took the post of Chairman of the recently established Social Work authority – which allowed me to pursue an agenda of what we now call inclusiveness at both a neighbourhood and town level. I suppose they gave me my head since the energy and openness I showed reflected well on a party which had become somewhat moribund.
I used the experience to found a Local Government Unit in the nearby College where I lectured; wrote papers; and organised workshops about the new promise of corporate management and community development. Quite a recipe! And it positioned me well when a large and powerful Region was created in 1974 covering half of Scotland.
By then, my work had made me an interesting and familiar figure to the councillors who made up the controlling Labour group on the new Region – and I was again selected to act as the Secretary, one of 4 leadership positions. Elections to that position were held every two years – and I managed to hold the post until my resignation 16 or so years later. Again I was given my head on matters of social inclusion (we called it multiple deprivation then) and brought a whole new set of community- and policy-based structures into existence – as well as starting the support for social enterprise (community business as we called it).
Those were the days in which national government largely left us alone in local government – and we were left to blaze trails. Local government since then has become very boring in the UK with municipalities press-ganged to serve the latest central government wheeze.

But the power base of the empires of Education, Roads etc was never threatened by all this activity. And I was too much the loner – working with allies in officialdom, community groups etc, writing papers for national journals rather than spending the necessary time in the smoke-filled rooms with indifferent or hostile colleagues who chaired these sorts of committess and were in cahoots with their Directors. A paper on my website summarises the 16-year experience of developing and managing these policies – and the lessons I found myself drawing in the early 1990s (thanks to a fellowship the Glasgow-based Urban Studies magazing gave me in 1996)

And then, one day in late October 1990, I found myself on the North Sea on a ferry to Copenhagen, beginning a completely new life as a technocratic adviser in central europe – supposed to be helping them build up government systems. It would be nice to say that the commitments and insights of my earlier life have informed my new life of the past 20 years – but this has rarely been the case. Although the early work in central europe was with local government systems, I steadily moved to national government issues – particularly relating to the establishment of a more meritocratic civil service. All the time I was learning as mch as advising – particularly about how other European countries operated (fortunately I had developed good European networks in the 1980s). My great success was in Azerbaijan of all places – in setting up a Civil Service Agency which is still going strong.
But the last 6 years have focussed on training systems and programmes. I don’t pretend to be an expert on this subject – but my background has given me the confidence to challenge some of the sloppy thinking I encounter in this field. Recent blogposts have tried to summarise these thoughts – and I am now trying to integrate these with a paper I wrote in 2008. The results I hope to put on the website soon.

So I have been a very lucky man – free (and paid) to pursue my passions. It’s one of the reasons I feel unable to offer advice to young people. Apart from the fact that these are much more difficult times, I just happened to be in (or manoeuvre myself into) the right place at the right time.

This blog has been a useful focus in the past 2 years for my thoughts and reading. But I have probably reached the point when I need to be more disciplined. One of the blogs I admire posts only every Wednesday – and this is perhaps a format I should be thinking of.