Thursday, 18 October 2012

David Nash in conversation with Barry Phipps

Last night at Kew Gardens auditorium,  the acclaimed UK sculptor David Nash was interviewed by Cambridge-based Barry Phipps, a curator specialising in multi-disciplinary exhibitions.

Nash began his talk by citing the two bodies of literature which had had the greatest impact on his life and art;  these were the works of Henry Miller and the Tao Te Ching.  He decided shortly after his art degree that the most important goal in his life was to be a “free person.”  That mattered even more to him than being an artist.  He explained that to fulfil this purpose, he realised that it would be necessary to live with “low overheads.”  He therefore moved to a remote part of north Wales, eventually buying an empty Methodist church for use as a studio.  And he’s been there ever since.  In keeping with this low-cost lifestyle, he began using materials that he could forage or scavenge and finally settled on discarded or fallen trees.  And boy, does this man know his trees.  He knows about the different species, their ecosystems and how they grow as well as how they age, die and decompose.  It was really fascinating to hear all this, not from a botanist, but from an artist.

He sprinkled his talk with notions echoing what I’ve read about in eastern philosophy.  For example, he said that he’s never applied or asked for his work to be exhibited; rather, he’s always waited to be invited (very tao, that).  One of his most famous works, for example, was an enormous wooden boulder which he’d intended to push down a waterfall in order to photograph its splash, after which he’d intended to display it with his collection.  After a mishap in the pushing and falling of the ‘boulder’ he allowed it to make its way downstream, getting lodged here and there along its way over the course of many years.  At one point, he said that rather than trying to retrieve the art from the river as originally planned, he asked the boulder what it wanted to do; this resulted in Nash "letting the boulder go".  He thinks that the boulder has now gone out to sea and there haven’t been any sightings of it in a long time.

Other eastern references included feng shui, our human part of gaia earth, the Gertian approach to morality and what he called “the physicality of energy.”  Nash didn’t expand on any of these ideas, but I could certainly sense that his thinking and work were largely informed by an eastern monistic worldview.  He said that he brought his spirituality to wood and this was evidenced in the amount of time, energy and effort he invested in its transformation.  Nash explained that artifacts, even if they appear mundane, can become infused with potency and impregnated with meaning by the associations we give them. He gave the example of someone giving him a branch, then telling him it’s an olive branch – suddenly more meaning – then telling him him it’s from Galilee – even more significant.

He contrasted his work with that of Caro – the artist who pioneered the idea of assembling a sculpture by using metal objects he 'found along the way', so to speak. I sense that Nash see himself to be much closer to nature and his work more imbued with a sense of flow – he called some of his work ‘coming’ (e.g. live trees he’s planted in certain formations) and others ‘going’ – pieces that which would eventually decay completely and return to the earth.  However, he did admit to having a bit of a ‘Bob Dylan’ moment, when he decided to cast some of his sculptures in bronze for preservation purposes; this would enable them to be more than photographic legacies and allow them to withstand the elements in natural settings.

I don’t agree that ultimate reality is revealed to us in the Tao de Ching, nor that true spirituality is to be found in panentheism, as David Nash does.  But I do, however, appreciate his work more now than I did before the lecture.  This is because I believe that one can understand a work of art better if one knows something about the artist who made it and also that one can understand the artist better by knowing something about the development of their worldview, their beliefs and where they put their functional trust.  I think art appreciation is less about ‘liking’ a work of art and rather more about understanding where it’s come from and what it represents.

Worshippers Part 5: Visit to Buddhist Vihara

In mid-September I paid a visit to the Buddhist Vihara in Turnham Green, west London.  I took the 391 bus from Kew down Chiswick High Street on a temperate autumn evening.  The leafy suburban setting is a rather  stark contrast to the eastern feel of the temple within.  After shoes removed I took my place in a hall dotted with meditation cushions.  Several women arrived with bouquets of flowers which they placed around the large statues of the Buddha at the front of the room.

There were six bhikkhu (monks) in paprika-coloured robes, three on either side of the enormous gold figure.  I sat among around fifteen worshippers cross-legged on the cushions  and after everyone was settled, we were instructed to begin meditating.  This was much more comfortable than it might sound; also, the room was rather warm and the weekend was in its final hours, so it was very restful.  I didn’t want to meditate, and so said some prayers and reflected on what I thought I knew about eastern philosophy.  Not sure if I actually nodded off, but after around 40 minutes, I think a bell was rung and the head priest began his sermon.

I’m sorry to say that it’s somewhat difficult to recall all that he’d said as I was sort of in a daze; but I do remember his talking about karma, metta bhavana or loving-kindness, the unshaken mind, equanimity, staying awake and compassion.  He also - more than once - wished us all good luck in the week to come,  something I found an odd thing to say, given the previous words about karma. 

After the service, a tray of drinks was brought round to each congregant – not for us to partake, but rather for us to bless them.  These were then placed on the altar next to the flowers. There was a host of free literature available in the lobby, which I look forward to reading at some point – especially because they’re written by Buddhist devotees rather than an interpretation by a western perspective.  I’m hoping to return sometime soon to the Vihara to attend a ‘Theravada Buddhism for Beginners’ class to learn more about the tenets of their faith and ask some questions.  

Of all the places of worship I’ve been to thus far in my project, the Vihara has been by far the most exotic.  It’s not difficult to see Buddhism’s appeal – who of us doesn’t long for more love and compassion in our lives and a gentle, spa-like service.  It’s really difficult to find a downside, so to speak.  That is, of course, unless we're not actually living in a veil of illusion and Buddhism isn’t the true path to ultimate reality.

Saturday, 13 October 2012

Can Foreign Aid Promote Democracy?

As part of foreign aid and development strategies, the donor community is coming to place an increasing emphasis on strengthening democracy, as many have come to accept Amartya Sen’s assertion that countries don’t become “fit for democracy” but rather become “fit through democracy.”  Critical analysis of this development area, however, has been limited and until relatively recently there has been a distinct failure to integrate support for democracy with other development activities at both strategic and practical levels.  This blog discusses three areas of current thought on aid and democracy: research from the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA), a study of aid in war-afflicted states and the new development paradigm of the ‘golden thread.’

The new Aid Agenda: current thinking and research

The International IDEA is an intergovernmental organisation which gathers knowledge and data, publishes reports and analysis and advocates for policy change in order to strengthen democratic dimensions of development cooperation.  I recommend their website for research papers, data and blogs.  IDEA believes that understanding how donor commitments can affect democratic development needs to be improved, noting that a key problem for democracy-building in development cooperation has been that key political actors have often remained on the margins of development discussion and practice.  The result has often been a vicious cycle in which the legitimacy and effectiveness of democratic actors - political parties and parliaments - is further undermined.  To address this international development architecture problem, the importance of national processes has been made more explicit in two agendas: the Paris Declaration onAid Effectiveness and the Accra Agenda for Action.  IDEA believes that the challenge is to translate these into practical aid strategies that are more supportive of democratic processes.[2]

IDEA tracks research projects carried out in the area of development cooperation and democratic processes.  It has reported on one of the few research projects which focused on the link between aid and democracy; this was undertaken by the Madrid-based think tank the Fundacion par alas Relaciones Internacionales y el Dialogo Exterior (FRIDE) and involved case studies from Mali, Vietnam, Nicaragua and Peru.[3]  The study found that the first step in strengthening democratic decision-making is to recognise that the concept of “effective development states” does not always mean the same thing as “democratic states”.  Democratisation involves the redistribution of power in the interests of citizens, while building state capacity may require concentration of state power and improved state autonomy.  In practice democratic systems are often too weak to handle new aid architecture; the concentration of power - over politics, finances and security – can be very difficult to work with.  Powerful executive branches of government in countries such as Uganda, Rwanda as well as Senegal and Tanzania remain a concern despite long-term aid efforts.[4]

In practice, being in government means access to large resources – sometimes even access to all the available resources. Some of these resources are used to retain political control.  Bribery, coercion and threats for the purposes of securing political loyalty are all a concern.  Parliamentarians and parties – and even NGOs and the media – live in and from the same political and financial environment as the executive.  The capacity and motivation of oversight bodies such as parliamentarians to stay independent and hold the executive to account [can be] minimal.  The political opposition puts in an appearance around election-time, but often has no resources to play their democratic role in between elections, and basically disappears until the next poll.[5]

A country’s media may be free on paper but is all too often challenged on the ground by continuous legal charges and security threats.  The private sector either depends on government for retaining its investments, is intertwined with politics, or both.  Owners of major companies and politicians are often the same people, and for good practical reasons.  Social and grassroots movements are non-existent or very weak due to prevailing capacity and resource constraints.  Democratic checks-and-balances are weak and often under threat.[6]

Aid does play a role in the political-power dynamics of a country, and in the absence of careful calibration of its impact on a range of domestic actors and structures it can easily serve to undermine democratisation processes – albeit unintentionally.  Today aid resources are increasingly channelled directly through government for development purposes, with minimal engagement and oversight by national political actors. In certain authoritarian states, the risk is that donors are involuntarily strengthening the powers that be rather than the redistribution of power and more robust democratic processes as a consequence. [7]

There are no easy answers in this situation.  Aid is usually needed the most precisely in conditions where it is the most difficult to provide it effectively.  Donors should not take – or more accurately, take over – responsibility for the political situation in a given country.  But aid does operate within and thus play into particular political environments and its prospective impact on power dynamics and politics need to be better understood.[8]

On a positive note, the study found that aid programmes in areas such as health and education can strengthen state functions and, together with service delivery, can have an indirect democracy-supporting effect.  Donors have begun to realise the importance of good governance for development and have therefore increased resources for building more effective state institutions as well as the voice of civil society.[9]  Overall, however, aid is often treated as being apolitical - a view based on western assumptions about the functioning of the state.  However, there is an emerging realisation and debate over how real politics influence development outcomes and efforts are being made to address these concerns by donor agencies such as the UK’s DfID, the Swedish International development Cooperation Agency and the Netherlands’ development-cooperation programme. 

LSE Research into aid and States in Conflict

The LSE’s James Putzel and Jonathan Di John have recently published a report into the impacts of Western aid programmes in countries which are either encountering increasing violent problems or are attempting to reconstruct their states in the wake of war.  What characterises notions about this assistance is confusion.  The report has 46 findings of relevance for policy in seven thematic chapters.  Among the 46 findings of relevance for policy, the report discusses the following seven themes as presented in the LSE's press release:

1  Donor attempts to promote democratic or market reforms can lead to violence. 
Research found that sometimes toleration of corruption, unproductive rents and less than democratic governments has actually been the price of peace. “Good governance” reforms promoted by aid agencies need to take into account existing elite bargains or they may have unintended negative outcomes on democratic and developmental possibilities.

2  Military Interventions Often Have Made Democracy Less Rather than More Likely.
In findings relevant to the current situation in Libya and Syria, a large quantitative study of military interventions in the developing world over the past sixty years found that whatever their intentions they tended to make democracy and development more difficult to achieve in the long run.

3  Failures to Prioritise Security in State‐building Threaten to Undermine Aid Efforts.
Comparative studies in Sub‐Saharan Africa demonstrated that where the state’s own security forces are weak or where the state cannot maintain power without unleashing violence against its own population, as is currently the case in the DRC, external efforts need to put the construction of accountable security forces ahead of other aid programmes.

4  Cities have become major sites of violent conflict and state‐building after war and deserve much greater attention from international aid organisations.
The concentration of high‐value economic activity in the cities of fragile states makes them central to state‐building. Urban violence often written off as criminal activity is usually highly political, while both elites and social movements capable of securing progressive reforms are most likely to emerge in cities.

5  Understanding the organisational mechanisms and incentive structures of armed rebel groups is essential to finding a route to peace.
Research in Afghanistan and Colombia demonstrates why a knowledge and appreciation of the different motivational incentives and patterns of organisation among armed groups will be central to current efforts to strike peace agreements. The report summarises extensive research on Afghanistan and Colombia that points to the need to engage constructively with organisations like the Taliban and the FARC if peace is to become a reality.

6  Donor aid programmes in fragile states have not focused enough on promoting economic production.
Comparative country and city studies demonstrate the need for donors to back efforts among developing country officials to elaborate production strategies that can foster accelerated economic growth. Greater resources need to be directed to programmes to formalise and regulate informal economic activities, both to scale up growth and eliminate the possibility of using these sectors as sites of finance for violent challenges to legitimate states.

7  Western donors need to support the creation of taxation capacity in developing country states.
The report provides plenty of evidence supporting recent moves by OECD donors, including the UK, to put resources into the creation of taxation capacity in the states receiving development assistance. Taxation is a key indicator for measuring state performance and taxation can be deployed to promote investment in sectors with developmental potential. Increasing a state’s authority and capacity to raise revenue is crucial to financing all its other activities and the only route to lessen aid dependency in the long‐run.[10]

The Golden Thread and Complexity

A third recent take on development comes from Owen Barder who describes what is known as ‘the golden thread’ of development in political and economic systems characterised by complexity.  He defines this as the notion that long-term development through aid is only effective if there also exists a golden thread of stable government, lack of corruption, human rights, the rule of law and transparent information.  This idea is something David Cameron and other politicians have been promoting.  It’s believed that these conditions, along with openness, accountability, free media, free and fair elections, trade, flexibility and civil society will provide the basis for better economic development and outcomes.

The golden thread is to be contrasted with the Washington Consensus' economic liberalism of the 1980s which offered a set of prescriptions intended to stabilise the macroeconomy, promote open trade & investment and remove obstacles that hindered firms from becoming more efficient; achieving these, it was thought, was the most effective way to promote economic growth.  In contrast, the new development paradigm will allow the economic and social system to improve itself more rapidly and more fairly, based on the notion of ‘country ownership’ – that sustainable change comes from within developing countries, rather than through policies imposed from outside.

How systems change is consistent with the idea that development is the emergence of self-organising complexity which brings about vast improvements in human well-being.  In complex systems successful transition happens more rapidly and more successfully when economic and social systems are able to adapt and evolve, and when that evolution is driven by an evolutionary fitness function which reflects society’s values and priorities.  The ‘enablers’ of development described by Mr. Cameron, Mr. Blair and Mr. Obama are all very plausible candidates for the kinds of system properties which might accelerate the emergence of self-organised complexity.[11]

But Mr. Barder also makes stresses three important shortcomings of the golden thread which he says will be fatal if they are not addressed:

1  The golden thread talks more about free markets, jobs and growth than it does about other ways to encourage social and economic change such as reducing inequality, tackling the power of vested elites, providing social protection and safety nets or ensuring a strong voice of civil society. 

2  The golden thread does not say anything about the need to make changes to the global system as well as within developing countries.  Economic systems are interdependent – they cross borders; global systems and institutions and the policies and behaviour of rich countries have an important influence on the evolution of economic and social systems in developing countries, and the principles of the golden thread apply just as much at global level as they do at the level of the nation state.

3  The golden thread has more to say about desirable dynamics in society than it does about how to bring them about.  “We have had more failures than successes trying to bring about institutional and political reform in other countries. There is a danger of going straight back to failed efforts to transplant institutions from one situation to another."[12]

It’s by using the lens of complex adaptive systems  to view economic, social and political change which will cause donors to become more modest about our ability to change those systems directly. A la Thaler and Sustein, outsiders would do better to think about whether they can nudge systems towards having the right kinds of dynamic properties, including greater capacity for experimentation, feedback and learning so that systems can evolve more democratic and robust institutions on their own, rather than attempting to design and engineer change. “That humility seems to be largely missing form the golden thread narrative, which seems to be presented as a universal blueprint for success.” [13]

In another blog I’ll talk about aid in the form of remittances, a huge source of financial assistance to developing countries.

See also:

Alesina, Alberto and David Dollar, "Who Gives Foreign Aid to Whom and Why?," Journal of Economic Growth, March 2000. 

Barder, Owen, “ All that Glisters: The Golden Thread and Complexity, Complexity, Economic 
Development,” Center for Global Development, August 2012 

Horner, Lisa and Greg Power, Global Partners & Associates, “The Democratic Dimension of Aid,” Literature Review for International IDEA, March 2009.

Knack, Steven, “ Does Foreign Aid Promote Democracy? International Studies Quarterly, 29 Jan 2004. 

Lee Myers, Steven, “ To Back Democracy, US Prepares to Cut $1bnfrom Egypt’s Debt,The New York Times, 3 Sep 2012.

Moyo, Dambisa, “On democracy, Aid and More,” July 2009, also her book, Dead Aid.

Myhrvold-Hanssen, Thomas L. “Democracy, New Media, and Famine Prevention: Amartya Sen and The Bihar Famine of 1966-67,” June 2003.

Resnick, Danielle, “Foreign Aid in Africa: Tracing Channels of Influence on Democratic Transitions and Consolidation,” ReCom, UNU-WIDER, Feb 2012.

Rubin, Olivier, “The Merits of Democracy in Famine Protection – Fact or Fallacy?” University of Copenhagen, 2009.

Smith, David, “Africa: fresh voices, new perspectives,the Guardian, 1 Oct 2012.

[1] Lisa Horner and Greg Power, “The Democratic Dimension of Aid,” Global Partners & Associates, for IDEA, March 2009.
[3] See Stefan Meyer & Nils-Sjard Schulz, Ownership with Adjectives, FRIDE, 2008.
[4] “Democracy and aid: the missing links.”
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.
[9] See Intl IDEA/Centre for Developing Societies, “Democracy and Development in aGlobalised World,” 2009.
[10] James Putzel and Jonathan Di John, “Meeting the Challenges of Crisis States,” LSE, October 2012.
[11] Owen Barder, “All That Glisters: The Golden Thread and Complexity,” Center for Global Development, 26 Aug 2012.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Ibid.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Worshippers Part 4: Visit to Richmond Synagogue

In early September I sent an email to the secretary of Richmond Synagogue requesting permission to attend one of their services.   In response, I was asked a number of questions – where I lived, with whom and for how long as well the reason for my request – for security reasons.   Shortly after sending my answers, the secretary invited me to that Saturday’s Shabbat.   I was told to dress modestly but that a hat wasn’t mandatory.  I was welcomed at the gate, escorted into the synagogue, introduced to Rabbi Cotton and shown to my seat with one of the women leaders.  She helped me follow readings in the Torah and service book (which I believe is called the machzor).  There were around six men and four women in attendance early on in the service.

As Christians, we obviously already know a great deal about Judaism from the Old Testament.  Nevertheless, a Jewish service is something very different from ours: the language, the traditional vestments and the layout of the temple.  It felt as though I was not just in the church of another faith, but in a totally different culture.  Around half-way through the service, the rabbi and elders went to the tabernacle, collected the enormous Torah scrolls and brought them round to the lectern which was located in the centre of the room surrounded by a wooden balustrade.

For next hour or so there was a recitation of scripture – a sort of chanting that was something between singing and speaking.  As the priest read, an elder chimed in on occasion; I was told that the young priest was actually being corrected for his pronunciation, as reciting the vowel-less Hebrew is apparently quite difficult.

During the reading of the Torah, several more women joined our section of the congregation; some accompanying small children and most wearing hats.  They were clearly all friends and settled into the proceedings quickly.  I did notice, to my slight surprise, that during what I assumed to be the holiest part of the ceremony, the ladies were having a bit of a natter.  Not about scripture or exegesis, but it sounded a little bit like gossip.  I found this wonderfully human and unexpected.  And they weren’t shushed or told off.

There is so much that we Christians share with our Jewish cousins, and I found much to admire about their religious devotion, commitment to family & tradition, as well as their cultural courage and fortitude.  I love the bar mitzvah/bat mitzvah milestone – we don’t have anything really like this in either in the Christian faith or British culture.  When a Jewish teenager becomes an adult, it’s much more than a symbolic exercise; it’s the teen telling the world that they are now responsible for their thoughts, feelings and behaviour.  Before that point, it’s the family that's held accountable for the actions and attitudes of the young person.  The Gospel Coalition's Jeremy Pierre put this idea well in a recent blog:

Our early relational experiences - particularly with those entrusted with our care - are incredibly shaping.  That's not a bad thing.  In fact, it's part of God's design for human development.  Through fathers and mothers, children receive a framework for understanding the world and everything in it, from important things like morality to relatively trivial things like clothing styles.  Why else would God be so adamant that parents teach their children the knowledge of him in the context of the everyday activities of life (Deut 6:7, 11:19)?  And alongside the words they speak, parents model the character of God in their affection for, generosity to, and patience with their children (Psalm 103:13).

Adulthood in Judaism is more than financial, work and academic obligations; it’s taking responsibility for the way one lives one’s life.

After the sermon, there was a time for communal prayer which included those for the Israeli Defence Forces and the Royal Family.  I thought it particularly ironic that I was visiting just after the photos of Prince Harry in Las Vegas were posted on the internet.  It’s one thing to have the tabloids and public sniggering; quite another to know that thousands of your countrymen and women are actually praying for your well-being. 

There’s so much more I’d like to understand about the Jewish faith, like British Jewish views about Jesus, the various Christian denominations and the situation in the Middle East.  I’d like to know more about the Shekinah and its importance in the word and faith of Jewish believers.  I’d also like to do further research into the history of the Kabbalah movement, what its great appeal is to people who aren’t heirs to the Jewish faith by birth and whether there are any meditative or contemplative practices associated with Jewish spirituality.  I’d welcome any thoughts or experiences from readers on these subjects.

Monday, 1 October 2012

Worshippers Part 3: Visit to First Church of Christ, Scientist, Richmond-upon-Thames

In early September I visited the Christian Science church in Richmond for one of its Sunday services.  Initial impressions were firstly, what an incredible architectural structure & location - classical and very close to the centre of town; secondly, it was warm and welcoming – I was escorted to a place in the pews; and thirdly, how few people made up the congregation – I counted about 25.

The interior of FCCS Richmond is quite beautiful: simple, elegant white walls with two enormous paned windows, two columns of pews and two lecterns & a potted plant on an altar-like raised platform.  And that was it: no statues, no paintings, no stained glass, no decorative adornments of any kind.  And no crosses.  However there were two large inscriptions on each of the walls under the windows, one a verse from Christian scripture and one a quote from the religion’s founder, Mary Baker Eddy.

The service included some hymns, notices, a solo, and the Lesson-Sermon, including passages from what they call the Golden Text (the Christian Bible).  The Lesson-Sermon was a series of recitations from scripture and the Christian Science’s ‘holy’ book, Science and Health.  These readings were given by a man and woman who stood behind each of two lecterns.  The woman read a passage from the NIV, then the man would read Mary Baker Eddy’s corresponding interpretation. 

What seemed to be happening was that the second reader, the man reading passages from Science and Health, was taking the Christian verses of scripture and rewording or reworking them to fit into the Christian Science doctrine.  It was like a point, counter-point presentation.  It called to mind Deepak Chopra’s The Third Jesus and A Course in Miracles, both of which use Christian language, passages and stories from scripture, but reinterpret them from a monistic perspective, as if to say, "you may think that the Bible says this, but what it really means is this other thing.”  Which also made me think of the veritable library of books I’ve acquired over the course of the past decade which I’d thought were about Christianity.  I'd collected these books after my short New Age/self-help reading stint.  But over time, I’ve found that I’ve had to move a great many of what I thought were Christian books to the New Age shelf.  I don’t read many ‘Christian’ books anymore.  

My impression of Science and Health is that it's remarkably similar to A Course in Miracles; the following are some verses from the sermon: “Man is spiritual and perfect. The eternal truth is that there is no separation between man and God.  Man is the expression of God’s being, eternal with God.  Man reflects infinity and the true nature of God.  Mortality is an illusion. The body reflects what governs it: either truth or error.  Every function of the body is governed by the divine mind.  All that exists is divine mind. Man suffers because he believes in sickness which can be overcome by becoming conscious. The correct view of man is that he is pure and holy.”  I’d say pretty much everything I heard was in contradiction to Christian scripture.  Their Scientific Statement of Being provides a good summary of the Christian Science doctrine:

There is no life, truth, intelligence, nor substance in matter.  All is infinite Mind and its infinite manifestation, for God is All-in-all.  Spirit is immortal Truth; matter is mortal error.  Spirit is the real and eternal; matter is the unreal and temporal.  Spirit is God, and man is His image and likeness.  Therefore man is not material; he is spiritual.[1]

After the service a very nice woman come up to me and introduced herself.  I told her about my project and asked her whether Christian Science had any meditation, mysticism, contemplative prayer or any sort of altered state of consciousness associated with its spiritual practices.  She resolutely said that these weren’t connected to the Christian Science faith in any way.  This I find very interesting and a little surprising.  So far, the first religion I’ve encountered with no mystical side.

[1] Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, p.468:9.