Tuesday, July 26, 2011

It was just another Manic Monday

I doubt anyone truly likes Mondays. After a relaxing weekend - what's to enjoy about waking up at 6:00 A.M., all to stuff a bagel down your throat, throw on some wrinkled clothes and get in the car and rush to work? Mondays - I could do without them.

Do I sound all too bitter? Maybe I am. But first, give me a chance to explain myself. I never minded Mondays. Honestly, not until yesterday when it finally happened...

Yesterday morning carried on without any complaints. I ate breakfast, put on decent clothes, and hopped into my car with a full tank of gas. But, as I cruised down the highway -with only two exits to go, I might add - I couldn't help (a.k.a. didn't have a choice) but to notice the dancing lights behind me. Yes, I finally got my first speeding ticket. I suppose I didn't make a good enough case because the paperwork is waiting for me back home.

Sure, I suppose it's my fault for speeding (or at least getting caught), but I really didn't need that. Money is tight for everyone, and I am no exception. I spent the majority of yesterday disappointed with myself and thought about all of the people who are struggling to make ends meet and would love more money. For me, the State of Virginia will get their money this time; but what if one day I can't make ends meet? And, even though I know I will be fine today, all I could do yesterday was whine and think to myself "Where's my bailout money; and what is Washington, D.C. (my home away from home) really doing to help me in my time of need?"

I know I sound like a Free Market Purist, although I am not trying to sound like one at all. But, in times of desperation, don't we all wonder where or to whom the government's money is going and why we can't, as individuals, get freebies from the government so we will be okay in times of need? It may sound selfish, but money is the necessary-evil that keeps us alive and thriving.

Many wonder where our money is going and how we can obtain aid - especially in times of need. I suppose that we must first find out about aid assistance and then maybe Kumarian Press authors such as Steve Berkman can provide us with some blunt truths and insight into where our money is going. For example, in Berkman's book The World Bank and the Gods of Lending, he shows the mismanagement of aid assistance for programs that were meant to improve industries including healthcare and education as well as improve the status of the poor, but aren't. Berkman also exposes several fraud projects and declares that The World Bank's money is going to programs and thieves that are not deserving.

I don't know, but when I have one of those days when I feel like it couldn't get any worse, I tend to think about those that are struggling to make ends meet and think about what we can do to help those in need, and therefore help eachother. By reading up on finance and the aid industry, I think we can all learn how the aid industry works, where our money is going, and what we can do to help alleviate poverty and control theft. Maybe then we won't have to worry so much about economical issues and focus on more pleasant things.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

A Friend’s Dinner with David Harvey and Reflections on Intellectuals, Progressive Publishing and Kumarian Press

At the post office the other day, I met a neighbor who works with the progressive nonprofit Solidago Foundation. She was all excited because she had just come back from New York City where she had dinner with David Harvey. In my opinion, David Harvey should be a household name, but in case his is a new name to you, Harvey is distinguished professor of anthropology at the CUNY Graduate Center.

His numerous books, heavily influenced by Marx and characterized by dialectical engagement with issues of social, political and economic injustice, are required reading for many graduate students in the social sciences. His online course on Volume One of Marx’s Capital is the best guide that I know to unraveling the complexities of this gargantuan and wonderful book.

Back to my friend: She hoped that she could encourage David to help spread the word about progressive organizations such as Solidago. Her comments got me to thinking about whom to enlist in progressive causes and the position of intellectuals (in the Gramscian sense of a distinctive class of individuals: clergy, philosophers, professors and teachers, etc. that engage in intellectual activity as a specific social, political and economic function) in these causes. I have heard David Harvey speak in both formal academic settings where his language (or “discourse,” rather) and argumentation is complex and “informal” gatherings where he communicates the same ideas with an awareness and sympathy to a “non-specialist” audience without condescension or dilution of his arguments and ideas. And he is a wonderful teacher: do watch his video on Marx!

But his books, marvelous and penetrating as they are, can be difficult, reinforcing the Marxian conviction found in Volume One of Capital that there “are no royal roads to science, and only those who do not dread the fatiguing climb of its steep paths have a chance of gaining its luminous summits.” This is not to denigrate the value or importance of Harvey’s work, but I doubt if many beyond the institutional venues where intellectual activity is commodified and exchanged would have the time and energy to read, say, Harvey’s The Limits of Capital, let alone in conjunction with Marx’s Capital itself!

In these times of economic, environmental and all manner of turmoil and conflict that indeed pose a threat to the very survival of the human race, the role of the intellectual and the role of Kumarian Press as a site for the transformation of intellectual labor into a commodity that both sustains and questions the structures, systems and practices that characterize our era is both paradoxical and critically important. Paradoxical in the sense that Kumarian Press is after all a capitalist business venture that has to be competitive and has to reap continued growth in terms of sales and profits in order to survive and important in the sense that Kumarian, in spite of its imbrications in the contradictions (and perpetuation, albeit slightly) of capitalism, seeks to provide viable alternatives that run counter to the interests and power of dominant groups in society.

One of my favorite passages in a David Harvey book comes early in his Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference.

While attending an academic conference on globalization with its tense and frequently hard to follow arguments afflicted by the radical and no doubt chic skepticism of poststructuralism, deconstruction, postmodernism and so on, he sat in on a conference of evangelical Christians that was taking place at his hotel. Harvey was struck by the enthusiasm of the crowd as they listened to the preachers and it was clear that what was happening at the evangelical conference was an “orchestration of emotions and passions rather than of intellect.” But it was an orchestration that was explicitly scored with expressions by the evangelical of foundational beliefs. Harvey wondered what would happen if he returned to the academic conference and spoke of foundational beliefs. He would probably be put out to pasture or seen as a dinosaur. While I believe, as does Harvey, that one should scrutinize all manner of foundational beliefs (including those of the secular Left), his experience with the evangelicals led him to a rather disturbing conclusion: “…when a political group armed with strong and unambiguous foundational beliefs confronts a group of doubting Thomases whose only foundational belief is skepticism towards all foundational beliefs, then it is rather easy to predict who will win.”

The tensions and imperatives of capitalist commerce, the necessity for global social, political and economic change, and encounters with the powerful armed with foundational beliefs: all these are familiar components of work at Kumarian. The bulk of my career at Kumarian has been during the bleak years of the second Bush administration. Talk about foundational beliefs and power! And as the evermore seemingly dysfunctional and rough beast that is the US government slouches towards Bethlehem (and possible default), I ask myself the same questions that I do every day: what is the role of Kumarian Press, what the role of its authors is and how to be “progressive” during periods of intolerance and myopia. I’ll conclude with another of my favorite David Harvey reflections, this one from The Limits of Capital as he gives me a valuable answer to my questions and hope. He writes about the need to project theory “into the fires of political practice” so that “new strategies for the sane reconstruction of society can emerge.” This statement I have emblazoned on my wall as it encapsulates for me the very essence and purpose of Kumarian Press and forms the framework for my editorial strategies. We need sanity now more than ever and Kumarian Press needs authors who can write for wide audiences with a diversity of experiences and knowledge so that the fires of political practice will burn brightly and guide us to, if not a promised land, at least one in which empathy, justice and equity and environmental preservation are primary concerns.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Charles Buxton Announces New Civil Society Book

The Struggle for Civil Society in Central Asia:
April-June 2011… April 7th was “black and red” day as Bishkek’s evening paper put it: one year after Kyrgyzstan’s bloody uprising, during which the President’s forces shot over 80 protestors dead on the main square…That event happened as I was putting the finishing touches to my book for Kumarian “The struggle for civil society in Central Asia”. As Kumarian’s editors “got their teeth” into the book, an even worse loss of life took place, in June 2010 – over 400 people dead after inter-ethnic clashes in Kyrgyzstan’s southern capital Osh and neighbouring Jalalabad.

I have been living in this region for almost ten years, working in civil society development. The ex-Soviet countries that seemed so similar are now moving apart so fast. Kyrgyzstan having had two revolutions (2005 and 2010) while in Turkmenistan there are few independent NGOs at all, and in Kazakhstan President Nazarbaev has just won a new term with – apparently – 95% of the vote in a turnout of over 80%!

Some brief thoughts for Kumarian readers:
Indeed, civil society development is a “struggle”. Often we don’t see clearly where the CS struggle ends and the political struggle begins.
Over the last year, as the political struggle in Kyrgyzstan took more and more of people’s energies, CSO had the important role of trying to ensure some basic rules (legality, non-violent behaviour, not sacrificing everything for the sake of power) still obtained.
It is CS’s fate seemingly to be used by other actors. Unfortunately, our region has seen it used for neo-liberal gains, then sidelined by the foreign donors as their government focus on the search for oil or political stability. We see civil society used by national government (setting up their own “GONGOs”) and by political radicals. But the more it is used, the more important, it seems, is the struggle to keep open a space for debate and collective action by citizens.

Watching the news from the Middle East… Having seen violence close at hand in Central Asia, I can’t say I feel euphoric about the demonstrations. Like here, the motor for them is ordinary people’s pent up economic and social demands. It is not clear what the new regimes will or can do, especially as far as democracy is concerned. When big changes come, the little changes (our project work, more participative ways of doing things, attention to minority – or majority - groups of all kinds) seem to take a hit. All we can say is there are more difficult times ahead.

Last week I was in Osh starting a programme training local NGOs and government staff in analytical and research skills. The idea is to help develop new policy and practice around the idea of diversity – to increase government accountability to citizens and reduce the risk of violence. I hope my own analysis in the Kumarian book will be of use in the region – both to international development practitioners, and to local NGO activists.

Charles Buxton, Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, 23.6.2011

About the Author:
Charles Buxton is an INTRAC Capacity Building Specialist based in Central Asia. The Struggle for Civil Society in Central Asia was published in May 2011 and is now available in paperback.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Jenny Pearson's Creative Capacity Development - Now Available in Paperback

Ground control to Major Tom
Creative Capacity Development – reaching out across the space between multiple perspectives on capacity development

Several times in recent years I have found myself sitting in a room with some high powered people – bureaucrats, academics, technical experts, donor policy makers and the like – gathered together to discuss capacity development. At the first of these events I started by wondering what on earth I was doing there – I felt I was out of my depth and wouldn’t be able to contribute anything of value. Within an hour I had changed my mind and knew that what I had to contribute to the discussion was a much needed ‘voice of practice’. As I sat and listened to some eminent people saying some very interesting things, the title riff of the David Bowie number ‘Ground control to Major Tom’ kept popping into my head, and it just wouldn’t go away. From my perspective as a long term capacity development practitioner in a developing, post-conflict country it seemed to me that some of the ideas and opinions being expressed were just out there in the stratosphere. ‘Ground control to Major Tom’ is now my private mantra for all such meetings – it helps me stay grounded when the conversation is going off in directions I don’t understand, and it also helps me frame my contributions.

My book, Creative Capacity Development: Learning to adapt in development practice – launched June 2011, is the story of me and the organisation I founded trying to understand and integrate learning and change into our work as essential components of achieving sustainable capacity development. It explores the challenge of overcoming the profound blocks to capacity development that arise in complex cultural and post-conflict societies. It shows clearly that sustainable change only comes when you leave behind doing business as usual and embrace creative approaches that help people overcome their fears and move forward. My hope is that this book will make a contribution to building the bridges that are so badly needed to connect all the different groups concerned with capacity development – from practice on the ground to the upper echelons of political policy making, and all the levels in between, especially the in-country missions of international organisations, donors and INGOs.

I’m the first to admit that I don’t get it about the political and economic considerations and other mechanisms that drive aid and development policies, whether at global, home country or local office level. I realise that lack of understanding may reduce my capacity to be effective in facilitating positive change. However, on the other hand, I don’t very often hear any of the bureaucrats or experts I meet admit that they don’t get it about the realities of capacity development practice. The good news is that many are now recognising that the problem isn’t so much about knowing what good practice for capacity development should look like – the theory and some good examples are well documented - the problem is about knowing how to operationalise what is known. The bad news is that even in this changing understanding the voice of practice is rarely heard and even less valued in most of the debates about aid effectiveness, country ownership, and so on. Those who have something to say about the realities of actually doing capacity development don’t get a lot of air time in the complex agenda that seems mostly concerned with political considerations, accountability and measurable results. Despite the fact that we all (allegedly) have the same end goal in sight, there isn’t a lot of space for those who want to argue to doing things differently at the level of operations. Within the aid and development sectors there are multiple realities, world views and ways of doing business that are very far apart and this is reflected in the language we use, what we value and how we go about our business.

So who needs to learn to talk whose language? Who needs to understand whose perspective? Who needs to change their ways of working? The answer, of course, is that we need to learn how to understand each other in order to find a middle way that will increase the level and pace of change for the better. I learn about the issues and imperatives driving aid from going to meetings, reading position papers, research documents and so on. I hope that if some of the people working at other levels of the sector read my book, they will start to learn more about the challenges and realities on the ground and that will help us all move one small step closer to a shared understanding. Only when we all have appreciation and respect for each others perspectives and take them into account when framing our approaches to capacity development will we jointly be able to make a real difference.

Jenny Pearson has lived and worked in Cambodia since 1995. She has qualifications in social work and management and worked in the public sector in England before coming to Cambodia. She arrived in Cambodia as a volunteer and went on to found and direct VBNK, Cambodia's leading capacity building institution. She has played a leading role in developing the capacity of the not-for-profit sector in Cambodia, introducing creative approaches to capacity development and serving on the boards of several prominent development organisations.

In 2007 she was a visiting fellow at the Institute of Development Studies in the UK. Since her retirement from VBNK in 2008, Jenny spends her time consulting and writing about capacity development, drawing on her years of experience to contribute the voice of practice to the international discourse on capacity development. She holds dual British and Cambodian citizenship and lives in a village outside Phnom Penh with her adopted Cambodian family.