Friday 28 May 2010

Ministerial Transport

Only in Africa. I was waiting for my taxi to take me to the conference centre this morning when a big pick-up appeared. "Come-on let's go!" said the guy driving. "I'll take you to eLearning Africa". I was confused until he explained that he had spotted my pass and that's where he was headed. He was the Zambian Deputy Minister for Education and had given his driver the day off. We have a good chat. He told me all about a legal dispute he was in with Caterpillar Zambia and I told him about African Digital Diaries.


Kassim summed it up with a muttered "Marekani" and a sigh. We had enocuntered a bunch of Americans -- staff at the Embassy. Its Central Tossers Department I would guess.

Let me explain.

One of Lusaka's more surprising facilities is a very good Lebanese restaurant -- The Cedars-- which is very close to our hotel. The food is deliciously authentic, plentiful and the place has a great atmosphere overseen by its vernerable Lebanese patron. We all ate there on Wednesday night and liked it so much I took K back there last night. Mistake. Thursday night is the Central Tossers Department weekly quiz night. We were overwhelmed by Embassy Nerds of the the worst kind.

I will try not to go on but here's top list of annoyances:
1. Massive amplificiation of inane quiz master ("Hey I'm a really crazy guy!") and dreadful MOR US rock music that appeared requirement for nerds to have a good time. No consideration for others trying to enjoy a Lusaka evening, but hey they were the Embassy Nerds.
2. 99% white (only one mildly hispanic staff member). Is that reflecting today's USA? Where are they based again?
3. Complete lack of interest in their surroundings -- US music, US quiz questions, pathetic US attempts at humour. Travel broadens the mind unless you are an Embassy Nerd.
4. Personnel quality. Perhaps it's a feature of the homogenous crowd with all its inbreeding, but they seemed a dull lot. I thought getting a job at an embassy was a glittering prize reserved for the very finest.

Secretary of State Clinton you must be really proud.

Tuesday 25 May 2010

Return to Lusaka

It must be 15 years since I was last here. Lusakans seem to have taken to fast food and shopping malls big time. These and a few other trappings of prosperity are the most obvious changes. The people look wealthier which in African terms means bigger and healthier as well as better mobiles, more cars and smarter clothes.

Most of all I am struck again how pleasant and courteous everyone is -- even offcialdom. In my own typically vacant way I have had two brushes with the powers of law and order. Firstly whilst out on a walk to stretch my legs after the 10 hour flight I inadvertently strayed into the barracks of the Presidential Guard, directly opposite His Excellency's palace. I was looking for a quiet spot away from the main road to make a call. A very smart Military Policement found me and asked if he coudl help me. He was so polite and offered to find me a quiet spot out of the restricted zone for me to make my call. Helpfully he explained that I might be suspected of being a terrorist giving instructions to my associates so it was better that I moved. Given the MP's AK47 and a large number of others in the immediate vicinity who was I to argue. He took me to the other quiet place and asked it there was anything else he coudl do to help.

Later on back at the airport to meet Kassim I was alarmed because the Dar flight had emptied and still no sign of him. Eventually an immigration offcial approached me and asked if I would come back airside. There I found K amid a gaggle of officers. He had been detained because he had no money, they felt (quite justifiably) that he had a rather sketchy story about being there and for reasons entirely of his own he was pretending not to speak very much English. The chief officer allowed me to explain, asked a couple of questions, said he believed me and stamped K's single A4 sheet temporary passport. He then said that it was not a good idea to overstay, because in that type of circumstance the Immigration Service might not be so willing to compromise. All in about 5 minutes with smiles, goodbyes and many welcomes to Zambia.

With both incidents I imagine what would happen if a Zambian had make equivalent errors on a visit to the UK.

It is a clear, sunny autumn here. Too cold at night for K but rather balmy by my standards. Lusaka remains the LA of Africa in terms of its sprawl and reliance on the motor car but the air is fresh and there are enough places within walking distance to keep us amused.  

Sunday 23 May 2010

Flying Tonight

Just sitting at Heathrow looking out at an absolutely scorching runway -- maybe it's hotter now than it will be in Africa tomorrow morning.

Have reacehd the point where all the preparations for the launch of African Digital Diaries have been taken as far as they can, we just have to do it now.

Friday 21 May 2010

Lusaka Football

The football session is getting some publicity.The ELA News Service has issued this. A bit worrying as I don't remember doing an interview. Even more worrying they think I am an expert!

British Airways

Dear Old BA...I get a call from them to say that my return flight from Zambia will be delayed by the strike. Delayed from May 29th to June 10th. They do however offer to "Try and find me another flight back from the Africa region". I explain that the "Africa region" is rather large and popping from Lusaka to Mogadishu or Accra isn't just a case of getting on a bus or in a taxi. A lot of phone calls and frantic internet sessions later and I am taking a detour via South Africa.

Saturday 15 May 2010

Busy week in Lusaka

I have also been asked to present at another session in Lusaka, this time about football as a stimulus to learning. The conference organisers are keen to capitalise on the buzz around the World Cup being in Africa. I will tell my Zanzibar stories again but need a bit more!

More Publicity for African Digital Diaries

The UN article about mobile learning has been picked up by the All Africa news service, you can see it here.

Lusaka Countdown

Well with just about 10 days to go it looks like African Digital Diaries at ELA is actually going to happen. We have confirmed the line-up for our session now.

Bishop Dr Tilewa Johnson will be joining us from Gambia

Thembinkosi Nyathi will be making a road trip from Zimbabwe to Lusaka to take part.


And we will be joined by Zambian distance learning student extraordinaire, Billy Sichone.

Each has a great story to tell. The aim of the session is to launch our African Digital Diaries project. Its ongoing success may depend a lot on the reception, ideas and offers we get there. Fingers are seriously crossed.

Naughty Maasai

I am not going to be seeing this young warrior friend for a while. Maasai Commander, as he is known, has been arrested by Tanzanian police on suspicion of having robbed his employer in Zanzibar of quite a large sum of money. Having been caught the chances of conviction are pretty high, especially as he was nabbed on the run. I don't imagine the next few years in prison are going to be very pleasant for him.

My Maasai "brother" Juma is very angry with him for letting the tribe down. He says village justice from the elders back home on the mainland will be even harsher than the offcial sort.

Thursday 13 May 2010

Morning Star

I enjoyed the comrades' headline today "Posh Chaps Take Power in Commons" -- refreshing after the Nick and Dave love-in yesterday which left me queasy. This story even took precedence over news that North Korea is winning the race to crack nuclear fusion.

Tuesday 11 May 2010

National Government

I haven't heard it mentioned yet but coudl a National Government be the fourth option...

We are at a moment when we have a number of issues that need handling above the fray of point scoring party politics. A long term approach and some degree of consensus are needed for:
  • Dealing with the deficit
  • The electoral system
  • Pensions and long term care fro the ageing population
  • Afghanistan
I don't know if there are any rules about when a National Government can be formed-- is there perhaps a catastrophe scale? Clearly we are not engaged in a full scale war with Hitler breathing down our necks. There are also many in Labour who shudder at the mention of Ramsay MacDonald's 1931-35 National Government. But these are surprising times...

Monday 10 May 2010

A little story...

This came from a colleague in the museum sector. This is a micro example of what people have to deal with when they try to do things.

"Once upon a time there was an independent museum situated in the heart of the Peak District with lots of things to see and do including woodland walks and a sculpture trail as well as the museum’s collections and exhibitions. The museum’s Education Manager wanted to develop its provision for families who made up 80% of its visitors. She signed up as a supporter of Kids in museums, ensured that families were at the heart of the museums HLF bid and looked for simple and cheap solutions (because the museum had no spare cash) to help a family visit go smoothly. She bought some kiddy steps for the toilets, because she could remember how much easier they made a visit to the toilet with three small children who wanted to wash their own hands. As soon as the steps were placed in the toilets she was brought to task as to what they were for, why we had to have them and how we were going to stop them being used for ‘other things’. She was somewhat surprised to be told that they were ‘access equipment’ and came under the working at height regulations. As such each would require a unique number and be entered into the access register which was inspected by the local council every year. They would also have to be chained to the wall to prevent them being moved for other purposes.

Another man came to see her and said that he wanted to see the paperwork that showed why they were good practice/a good idea and the risk assessment for their use. The baffled Education Manager asked colleagues from other museums if they had come across any problems and they hadn’t. She asked colleagues t6hat she used to work with at RoSPA (the Royal society for the Prevention of Accidents) and when they had stopped laughing they suggested that if there was a risk assessment that could be produced if necessary they didn’t see a problem. She asked the HSE who confirmed that anything which isn’t fixed that aids anyone to reach anything by allowing them to step up comes under the working at heights regulations (and that is anything higher than the floor).

So, in order to safely introduce kiddy steps to the toilets she will have to write a risk assessment and, because our Health and Safety Committee say it is the most important document, a Safe Systems of Work Manual describing the procedures for the safe usage of said equipment. She could only assume that a copy had to be available in each toilet for the toddlers to read before ascending to the dizzy heights of the sink.

However, if the step is fixed and immovable there is no problem, this magically makes it completely safe and impossible to fall from. A lower sink is also fine – which she knew, but was trying to look at the cheaper simpler option without refurbishing all the toilets at the museum.

The Education Manager, disillusioned and very sad, crawled back into her cave."

No comment.

Saturday 8 May 2010

Barking Sane

I will no longer associate Barking with "mad". The people of that consituency gave us a fresh blast of good sense in their voting this week. They showed the BNP it is not wanted and not part of the British way. Indeed it was a double humiliation for the Hate Party -- Nick Griffin helped Labour to a huge majority in the Westminster vote and on Barking and Dagenham Council the BNP lost all its twelve council seats.

I think we should introduce the phrase "Barking Sane" as our vote of thanks.

Best moment of the night was watching the buffoon Griffin bleating that his defeat was the electorate's fault for turning out to vote in such high numbers. No Nick that's democracy -- showing your true colours or just being thick? Perhaps if your party didn't spend the campaign infighting, candidates didn't brawl in the street, you didn't have one faction or another shutting down the party website or accusations from one of your own candidates about the Neo-Nazi links of party kameraden and perhaps, most of all, if you kept your mouth shut you might have got a few more votes. Not many though.

There will be tears before bedtime...

Friday 7 May 2010

We are not alone

Britain is not alone with an out of control state. Andrew Sullivan posts this very disturbing video of a US drug raid. The police -- dressed like Imperial Stormtroopers -- break into a guy's house, shoot his dogs and handcuff him. All in front of his wife and 7 year-old kid. They find a tiny amount of cannabis -- not enough to justify an arrest so instead charge him and his wife with endangering the child.

Domesday 2.0

Well that's all sorted then. Not. But we do, at least, have a big issue to discuss -- electoral reform.Unfortunately it is not the right one. Not right now anyway. Don't get me wrong I am broadly in favour of some sort of PR system. Not evangelically like the Lib Dems and -- now conveniently -- Labour. Even with its faults though PR it is still the least worst system. The real trouble for me is that it is a process issue, it is about how we choose governments not what governments actually do. I just can't get as excited about process as I can about policy and policy implementation. Probably my fault.

Anyway back to the big issue. The one we are still not discussing -- how we manage public finances -- the one all the three parties tried to skirt. It is more than a fiscal question, as I mentioned before this week, we need to be asking much more basic questions about what the state sector is for. A generation ago we could probably have answered this, even if we argued about which areas of activity should be in or out of the public sphere. Broadly speaking we had administrators, service practitioners like teachers, nurses or toilet attendants and those employed in the nationalised industries in our then "mixed" economy.

We still have teachers and nurses of course. But we have privatised or closed the mines, railways, car factories, in fact virtually all of the public side of the old mixed economy. You have to look very hard to find someone minding a public lavatory these days and the computer revolution is supposed to have automated much of the administration. Why then is the public sector still roughly the same size? It has clearly changed its role but it has undergone this change well out of view of the people at large. Did anyone ask us if we wanted to exchange park keepers for press officers, bus conductors for innovation managers, miners for leadership excellence champions? Anyone from outside who deals with the public sector will be able to regale you with tales of ridiculous non-jobs and then a millefeuille of managers administering them.  Anyone inside the public sector will tell you -- if they are being honest -- of waste and inefficiency, they will describe managerialism gone mad. Neither insiders nor outsiders can really define what so much of this is for, other than self-perpetuation. Looking back nationalised miners didn't dig the cheapest coal, British Leyland workers didn't make the world's best cars but at least they were doing something, they even created some wealth.

I am not being party political. Labour and Conservative have been equally guilty of encouraging or allowing this to happen.  It is nothing new. Bureaucracies have been creating work for themselves since human civilisation began. But our situation is new. Now we have to make cuts so we might as well make the right ones and yet we still haven't stopped to think properly what we are spending our £600 billion plus on every year. Spending reviews just do not cut it. They are run by insiders. Efficiency savings tend to create more waste and further layers of administration. The enormous state apparatus of measurement and targeting distorts every service it touches. So what do we do?

I propose a new Domesday exercise. A millennium after William of Normandy produced his grand and detailed report of the land he had conquered, I think we need a similar exercise.This time conducted on the public sector. A full, transparent and independent Domesday 2.0 survey of our public realm. A proper picture. Then we can start making our decisions about what we need, what we want and what we can get rid of.

UN Media Global

The African Digital Diaries session for ELA in Lusaka is getting more notice. Media Global -- a UN sponsored international news service -- features it here in a piece about how mobile phones are being used to support learning.

Thursday 6 May 2010

Election Day

Hardly a rush at the polls when I voted at 0800 this morning, I was the only voter in the Polling Station or anywhere close to it.

Reassuring to know that the Maasai from Zanzibar are again urging a Plaid vote...

Wednesday 5 May 2010

On the Road to Lusaka

I have written a short article here for the eLearning Africa news service. I talked to a few ordinary African practitioners who make great efforts to get to professional conferences. For me it was refreshing and rather humbling -- so many conferences are seen as freebies, opportunities for sightseeing and shopping, but here were people keen to learn, share and develop. 

You can see the conference programme for our session here and the main eLearning Africa website is here .

Pull em Up

Lest there be any doubt that there is endemic wastefulness in the public sector look at this example today...Crown Prosecutors in Bedford drop their attempt to obtain an ASBO requiring an 18 year-old to pull his trousers up so that his pants no longer show. The CPS tells us that the ban was "no longer necessary or proportionate to protect the public from further acts of anti-social behaviour".

Who the hell decided it was ever "necessary" or "proportionate"? I wonder how much this has actually cost with the time of the Police and CPS  "professionals" and then all the layers of management this decision will have been filtered through as it was made and then unmade. Then of course there will have been the time wasted by the defence solicitor which we can be fairly sure was paid for by Legal Aid. Not to mention all the press officers employed to come up with daft quotes like the above and attempt (and fail ) to spin away the stupidity of it all.

We have all that waste to pay for before we even start to question why the way this kid decides to wear his trousers is any of the CPS's business in the first place. There seem to have been plenty of genuine offences for which he could be punished so why make up stupid ones?

For me it is a small snapshot of the evidence -- should more be needed -- that spending reviews and efficiency savings go nowhere near where we need to be in controlling the hole in our national finances. But it's not just the fiscal issue, large as it is, we should be asking much deeper questions about what public servants are actually there to do. We are not. And we have run a whole election where we could have been. We have had a once in a generation chance to talk about the state of The State and we have been denied it or perhaps denied it ourselves.

As a footnote I am of course well aware of the great generational divide about the showing of underwear in public. I don't understand it but then I am old -- my worry is how they keep their trousers from falling all the way down, I thought that was what the buttocks were for but they can't if your trousers are below them. Perhaps young people have some special extra muscles. Anyway I would rather see colourful underwear than the more "traditional" builder's bum.