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Friday, 5 August 2011


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 'A BIG COMPLIMENT goes to the fire fighters that did their utmost to limit the damage caused by deranged people'

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All this week I've been engrossed in reading one of the books sent to Brin Croft from Canada by Robin Petersen - books by Sir Henry Maine that had been bought and owned by his biographer the late George Feaver. I have never given any of his work such concentrated attention, having always, like many, struggled to grasp what he is getting at. Now after that tutorial on that Sunday in May with Minoti I felt able to venture into Maine's six lectures on Village Communities delivered at Oxford in - I presume - Michaelmas 1870 or perhaps 1869.

If I thought I'd be reading a paean for the village community or the three field system we learned about at school, even drawing little pictures in our exercise books, I'd already be disappointed. I'm intrigued by connections between the idea of communally managed land - whatever that actually means. Maine is not an easy read though his prose 140 years later is superb. What makes him such hard work, for me, is that far from being committed to simplification, of which he would hold there has been far too much, obscuring the capacity of English speaking western observers to grasp what is actually occurring among the village communities of India at the height of the Raj, Maine's concern is to explore and expose their complexity. Rather than simplifying those features of village community that might bolster my simple - even sentimental - enthusiasm for participatory democracy, my great great grandfather is telling me over the decades, to try - first - to be more scholarly. I'm reminded that the communality of the village so often yearned for in a disenchanted fragmented individualised world can also harbour the sentiments and impulses of the lynching party, and to quote Maine, exercising the behaviours of the slave owner - Maine's Village Communities, lecture 5, p.66:
The status of the slave is always deplorable; the status of the predial (field or farm) slave is often worse than that of the personal or household slave; but the lowest depth of miserable subjection is reached when the person enthralled to the land is at the mercy of peasants, whether they exercise their powers singly or in communities.
Communally managed field system
It's quite a jump from there to a phrase in Leila Aboulela's short story Missing Out '...and freedom hung around him, stale and heavy.' Maine strives to articulate the layered framework of formal law, introduced into parts of India under British dominion, and the more ancient traces of governance; self-government based on tradition; the rule of custom being displaced by English Law, in part because of its enthusiastic use by Indian villagers keen to claim individual proprietorship and ownership - a novel idea - of land that had traditionally been communal. This was a trend that struck me as being an Indian version (though Maine would have gently rebuked me for over-simplifying interpretations that remain a matter for debate and further research) of enclosure - when common land was taken into private ownership across England. In these lectures Maine is neither for nor against - or not obviously so. His purpose is to explain what had so far never been explained. Of course his work has, and had, political implications because it bears on the government of property, rights over land and the conditions of its ownership, and from mine and Minoti's and many others' points of view, especially Elinor Ostrom's, bears on an urgent present interest in the social arrangement regulating the preservation, maintenance, and consumption of common-pool resources, the governance of the commons, mitigating the tragedy of the commons.
As I said to Lin, "Who actually owns the truck, the transit van and all the tools in the garage that are the technical and material resources of the Central Handsworth Practical Care Project?"
A constitution exists which says they are the responsibility of a committee appropriately elected, conducting its affairs with appropriate procedures and offices. Sample - para 7 in the project's dusty constitution. To avoid confusion para 1 in the same document says that St.Peters and Heathfield Project is the short name of Central Handsworth Practical Care Project :
The general committee: Subject and as hereinafter mentioned the policy and general management of the affairs of the St.Peters and Heathfield Project shall be directed by a general committee (hereinafter called ‘The Committee’ which shall meet not less than ten times a year. The committee shall consist of: (a) the honorary officers elected under clause 8 hereof, (b) specify other members or groups of members here. Also include the number of members which the committee may co-opt. If any. NB if your organisation receives grant aid from Birmingham City Council you may be required to accept two representatives. You should ensure that your general committee membership is described in such a way that you are able to accept such representation as full voting members, (c) If casual vacancies occur among the honorary officers of the St.Peters and Heathfield Project the committee shall have the power to fill these by a majority vote. Any person appointed to fill a casual vacancy shall hold office until the next annual general meeting of the St.Peters and Heathfield Project and shall be eligible for election at that meeting, (d) the proceedings of the committee shall not be invalidated by any failure to elect or any defect in the election appointment nomination, co-option or qualification of any member, (e) the committee may appoint such special or standing committee as it deems necessary and shall determine their terms of reference powers duration and composition. All acts and proceedings of such special or standing committees shall be reported back to the committee as possible
But if 'The Committee' hardly existed let alone meeting 'not less than ten times a year', and was not properly elected - as 'proper' may be defined under 'item 8' or indeed in the working of most British voluntary organisations...
8. Honorary officers: (a) only members of St.Peters and Heathfield Project whether individual or representative shall be eligible to serve as honorary officers or members of the committee, (b) at the Annual general meeting hereinafter mentioned the St.Peters and Heathfield Project shall elect chair, vice-chair, treasurer and secretary and such other honorary officers as the St.Peters and Heathfield Project shall from time to time decide, (c) The chair and the honorary officers shall be ex-officio of the St.Peters and Heathfield Project and the committee and of any other committee, (d) if casual vacancies occur among the honorary officers the committee have the power to fill these from amongst its members. Any person appointed to fill such a casual vacancy shall hold office until the conclusion of the AGM of the St.Peters and Heathfield Project and shall be eligible for election at that meeting.

While I'm in the Highlands Lin and I have been communicating by phone and email about the future of the Central Handsworth Practical Care Project. She keeps me informed about local meetings - especially the combined meeting of the Voluntary Advisory Group and the remains of the project's committee held in the John Bosco Room on 2 August, last Tuesday, and all subsequent communications with Mike, Denise and others involved. It's at times like these I regret the loss of the privacy of a diary as compared to a blog. I recall Richard Pine wondering how he could write about his village without mentioning that not everyone's perfect and some are a lot worse. In the case of the project in Handsworth our current concern to make the project more transparent seems to entail diplomacy, discussion and decisions that depend for their best effect on an element of private conversation. The overall task is to draw a line under a ramshackle organisation insolvent for months, clear its debts and start a new organisation that will be efficient, effective, transparent and able to carry out tasks for which it was created - providing a wide variety of skilled and unskilled services to vulnerable people who would, because of their circumstances be unable to access the market for such services. To work outside the market means the project must obtain money through grants - other people's money available through grants based on taxation and philanthropy. The responsibility to explain to those who willingly and, in the case of tax, usually unwillingly, is a prime duty. We've found it astonishing what small attention has been given to maintaining the information procedures (boring but essential paperwork) that can ensure the project's in a position to demonstrate what work it has been doing for individuals, or on behalf of larger organisations like Midland Heart and Birmingham City Council working to similar ends. Over recent months the Voluntary Advisory Group has been collecting information, establishing links with BVSC who used to pay the project employee's wages and deal with HMRC, direct links with HMRC, meeting with representatives of the City Council, with local social housing providers and networking with people whose trust is useful, in some cases essential, to the future of what we can claim to be a properly organised service - with accounts, minutes, regular management meetings and oversight, a treasurer, secretary and chair.
"What?" I can hear someone exclaim "You didn't have these?"
Watch my head. Is it going up and down or left and right?
50% of the challenge has been to establish our legitimacy, as people new to the project, to act on its behalf, after that invitation to help earlier this year.  Assembling the remains of the old committee that was formally intended to manage the project to obtain this permission and approval has entailed many letters, phone calls, house to house visits and the task of assembling them quorate and with official apologies for absence in one place to debate, discuss and make proposals that can voted upon and minuted. Several of the people supposed to be officially on the project's old committee were unaware they were liable in law for its debts, whether or not they resign or distance themselves even further than they had already from their responsibilities for the project. This is, in part, the result of the way they were recruited in the first place, being given, according to them, no idea of what being a member of the project's management committee would involve by way of tasks and responsibilities.
I'm nothing if not excited by the work and growing commitment all this has involved and, more than anything, proud to have had a hand in assembling the local people we now have on the voluntary advisory group. They're qualified by experience and knowledge to manage and lead the new project that will emerge from the shambles of the old.  But there's still so much to be done in the immediate present requiring work and perseverance.
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In Greece, as many disperse for holidays, and the remains of the indignants' tent city is cleared from Syntagma, we read of the process of implementing the changes in Greece that are a condition of the second IMF-EU bail-out - eradicating patronage, cronyism and modernising local and central government.
"August and September should be exemplary in terms of swiftness...We are caught in an worldwide vortex and we have to utilise the opportunities created by us for us. We should be reliable as regards our obligations towards our lenders and meet our commitments," says the Republic's Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos.
Ευάγγελος Βενιζέλος
"Do you think sometimes" I said to Lin the other day, ruefully, "that we, in our relations with the Handsworth Practical Care Project are rather like the EU-IMF troika bearing down on beloved Greece? We can offer ways of turning this project round, ensuring it earns grants, is able to pay tax, wages and vehicle and equipment maintenance and even expand - but only if all involved subscribe to working practices that will ensure transparency." "Yes but there's a slight difference in scale isn't there?" Every day we sense rather than know that the times are becoming more precarious. People I'd expect to know will explain for a bit but stop short and shrug - confident judgement turning to conjecture, then embarrassed doubt.
"Clearly a major malfunction" - operational hubris
Some raise their eyes to the ominous skies. Do they reveal vestigial awe at finding fate's no longer their toy, leaking apprehension at the release of forces beyond their experience?

Are they regressing - grown men nursing infant hopes of placation. sophisticates becoming simple folk, crossing themselves to avert vengeful spirits?

Global Voices announces a Final Report on Technologies for Transparency - Greek version Τεχνολογία για τη Διαφάνεια: Τελική έκθεση.
This report contains the key findings from having reviewed more than 100 projects and having interviewed dozens of practitioners in Central and Eastern Europe, East Asia, Latin America, the Middle East and North Africa, South Asia, Southeast Asia, the former Soviet Union, and Sub-Saharan Africa who use new technologies as a means to increase transparency and accountability...
- Bringing projects and interventions to scale.
- Bringing citizens closer to the policy making process through new and improved channels of participation as well as citizen monitoring of government.
- Identifying policy priorities and service delivery challenges through ‘data mashing‘ and other visualisation and data manipulation techniques of both government and private datasets.
- Improving the efficiency of civil society organisations working in the transparency and accountability space through adoption of best practice technology platforms.
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For the last of the father daughter walks I've enjoyed over the last few days, Amy drove me to the Moray Firth to stroll the shore beneath Fort St George above Ardesier.  Guy had driven through the night from Birmingham with their two dogs - Cookie and Malo - arriving in the early hours as we all slept.  While he slept late in the log cabin by Brin croft we walked with them as well as our Oscar and mum's Lulu. "We're in the same pack now" I said "once they waited and watched us from the woods, pondering our uses."
Malo, Amy, Cookie, Lulu and Oscar by the Moray Firth
Far out, nearer the Black Isle shore, Amy glimpsed the back of a bottle nosed dolphin. Further east I could make out tiny specks across the firth - people who'd come down to the beach at Chanonry Point by the lighthouse at Fort Rose to watch them passing.
Close to us, a young common seal heaved itself swiftly out of the water and lay at the tide line refusing to be chased back into the sea by the inquisitive dogs, snapping at one that leaned to venture a tentative sniff at its wet cousin. Struck by its lack of shyness, we wondered if the seal had been fleeing a dolphin; even been injured by one, though it seemed plump and healthy enough.

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Grandmother and great grandmother

Enjoying family at Brin Croft and community at the Highland Field Sports Fair - there's my mum, Susie my niece and her daughter Sydney, Sandra my niece-in-law, Dave my nephew-in-law, with Raiff my grand nephew, Katie from Bhutan, Guy, my son-in-law, Anthony, my nephew, with his second son, Dillon, Amy, my daughter, Bay. my sister and two terriers, Lulu and Oscar -  three generations together at a table outside the committee tent at Moy.
Mother, grandmother and great grandmother picnicking with family and friends

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