Balkans summer of 2007

During the summer of 2007 I spent seven weeks travelling in the nine Balkan countries to meet with and learn from the best social enterprises and social businesses and celebrate their achievements.  I set out on this excursion for many reasons, but primary among them was the fact that Catalyst, our company, is focused solely on helping social businesses to succeed, and we were celebrating our 10th anniversary.  Also, and perhaps even more importantly, I was celebrating my 50th birthday this year and wanted some special way to mark these milestones.  Visiting this war-torn region, and focusing on the best coming out of it, seemed the right way for Catalyst and me to celebrate.

My attraction to the region began four years ago when I first visited Sarajevo.  I did not however make any local contacts, so my trip began without any “locals” to visit.  On the advice of a very good friend I drafted a two-page note, which described what I was doing, what I hope to get out of the trip and what I hope to give back to the region.  I then sent out and received several hundred e-mails.  The result was over 100 meetings, a wonderful summer, a fantastic education and an experience that will last a lifetime.  My Catalyst colleagues and I sometimes muse that this business of “engaged tourism” is a potentially interesting one in and of itself.  And since this trip, we have had offers from many parties looking to be “catalysts in” (the name we gave to these journeys—for more information see in other regions.

The political, economic and social context of the Balkans is a particularly challenging one.  Without going into a lengthy historical analysis, this adds a degree of complexity western entrepreneurs can only imagine.  It is only in Bulgaria and Romania, which have been rebuilding since 1989 and have just entered the EU, where the governments are relatively stable and lack a sort of “wild-west” feel.  Elsewhere, in the countries most affected by the aftermath of the bloody 1990s war, there exists a “kleptocracy” of sorts, unsurprising in light of the widespread trauma.  This will take years to fix.  Corruption is widespread and influences much of economic activity.  Furthermore, in several countries, borders imposed by Western powers do not command broad popular support and create an eerie tenuousness.  The uncertainty over Kosovo in the aftermath of the recent election is perhaps the best known example.  Much less appreciated, but much more worrying in terms of long-term regional impact is Bosnia-Herzegovina, a patchwork of quasi-autonomous regions and the result of an unhappy and unsatisfying compromise still without a final resolution.  Yet there is no guarantee that such a resolution will be peaceful.

On a more mundane level, transport links between countries and within countries are appalling.  Getting around this mountainous region is extremely difficult, as is getting in and out.  Regular flights to and from the major capitals are not frequent and relatively recent.  Finally, the international aid picture is highly problematic.  The Balkans has been highly dependent on international aid, creating a dependency culture.  My non-expert judgment, from the brief encounters I have had with various agencies, is that only some of this aid has been put to good use.  In many cases it has been subject to political agendas or the same governmental “influences” which plague the rest of the economy.  Furthermore, aid flows are drying up now that the crisis has passed.  It is not clear that a sustainable economy is ready to take up the slack.

There exist some large domestic businesses which owe their allegiance to certain politicians.  They provide jobs, but their sustainability is unclear as they remain immune from normal market forces.  International firms have arrived, taking advantage of cheap, skilful labour and this has made a difference.  Many also practice some form of corporate social responsibility, and this has been a positive force in the domestic economies.

Social businesses and social enterprises have sprung up and in many cases have prospered.  I found quite a few in the organic food sector.  This is unsurprising, as the Mediterranean climate and large tracts of arable land make this a highly suitable industry.   Organic farming has been practiced here for centuries because, as the locals point note, “we could not even afford the chemicals if we wanted them.”

SMS, based near Split, Croatia, is a very good example of such an organization.  Although they are only now completing the process of organic certification to qualify for certain Western markets, they have been involved in organic food production since 1989, when they were founded by Srdjan Mladinic.  The company combines attractive packaging with high-quality food products and has developed increasingly loyal following in Western markets and has just established a relationship with one of Croatia’s largest food companies, Podravka.  (All the companies mentioned can be found via

Across the region, in Sofia, Bulgaria, operates Gorichka.  Begun by a serial social entrepreneur, Lubomir Nokov, this is an organic marketing company, finding markets for Bulgaria’s many small organic food producers.  This is a relatively new company with enormous potential.  This is in no small part due to the fact that the principals have already built a commercially successful tennis club, with strong green credentials, and a high street fashion outlet.

Eco-tourism is also enjoying considerable growth in the region.  These companies offer sustainable tourist experiences largely to “green” Westerners.  The two best examples of these I came across were in Bosnia and Montenegro.  Operating out of Sarajevo, Tim Clancy and Thierry Joubert run Greenvisions.  This is an ecotourism company, which also provides summer camp opportunities for both local and foreign youth, is an advocacy group in the region for sustainable tourism and is in the process of developing appropriate and green tourist accommodation for Western visitors.  They are an extraordinary energetic company—and have embarked upon a project to create a pan-regional affiliation of ecotourism firms, who will create what they hope will become a new pilgrimage route—the “Via Dinarica”.  Montenegro Adventures, run by Slavica Vukcevic, was actually spawned by a development agency called CHF International.  They are successfully developing Montenegrin sustainable tourism and are working in partnership with Greenvisions to create the Via Dinarica.

I could mention more social enterprises—run by extraordinary individuals operating in very difficult circumstances.  They do exist and are thriving in the region.  They also may offer particularly useful solutions to the problems of the Balkans.  First and foremost, their social mission provides them with the purpose that keeps them going, helps offset the low wages they inevitably pay and is the “glue” that holds them together despite the most difficult circumstances.  Secondly, by being outspoken on social and ethical issues and practicing what they preach, such businesses are widely respected for not being part of a corrupt economic system—this greatly assists their visibility. Thirdly, they operate at a size which enables him to be very flexible and responsive to changing market circumstances and needs.  In addition to flexibility, being small means they tend to operate “below the radar” of government officials and thus remain relatively clear of the sort of influences which could subvert their purposes.  As time goes on, of course, and if they become very large and successful, their ability to continue to operate freely will come into question, although hopefully, political circumstances will have greatly changed by then.

Social businesses and social enterprises also benefit from what Nejira Nalic, of micro-finance firm Mi-Bospo describes as the “thoroughly liberating nature of commercial activity.”.  Having been largely dependent, as a small but rapidly growing firm in Tuzla, Bosnia, she despaired at all the “handouts” on which she relied to keep the business going.  As the organization grew and became increasingly professional in nature, and profitable, Nejira began to engage with large international funders, not as a recipient of aid, but as an equal partner in a commercial transaction.  Put simply, they could buy her profitable loan book or not.  If the price was right, she would sell and if not she would look for another purchaser.  To Nejira, this new feeling of economic empowerment has been immensely motivating, both for her and for her staff.

By far and away the most impressive, and most effective of the social businesses I encountered was the radio station and now media enterprise B-92, operating from Belgrade, Serbia.  A small, and relatively unknown commercial radio station found itself becoming the “conscience of the nation” during the Milosevic era.  Unwilling to “fly under the radar” of the government, Veran Matic and his colleagues flew directly into oncoming traffic, with nearly catastrophic results.  They received death threats, their equipment was destroyed several times, and yet they persevered and continue to broadcast throughout the war.  I did not meet anybody in the region who was not familiar with them, and nearly everyone noted that during the war, they provided hope and the truth to Serbians, and ultimately assisted in bringing down the government.  Today they have become a successful media business, but have not lost their edge, focusing on issues such as domestic violence, the need to give blood, and the importance of racial and ethnic tolerance.  They both highlight these issues, and act as a catalyst in fund raising efforts to support related causes.

So when observers wonder, what social enterprises or social businesses can actually achieve, I urge them to consider companies like B-92.

First Published in Alliance Magazine in November 2007.

Were the Gods telling me something? Or, “All’s well that ends well”

I had been planning this trip for months—shocking myself with a degree of organisation I rarely exhibit.  Near the end it nearly all came unstuck—now I am on the train to Zagreb.  Here is what happened:

  • My mother-in-law became ill just before I was to leave and then died at the end of June. We made a quick trip to New York for the memorial.
  • A week or so later my closest uncle passed away after a long illness. This time I did not go to New York, guilt notwithstanding.
  • Two days before I left, when I called Direct Line to put my car insurance policy into force, they told me that they do not cover four of the countries I will travel to. When I explained that weeks ago I had called and listed each verbally—I did so twice, to be sure—all they said was, “I am terribly sorry but we cannot (I just love that term ‘cannot’, as if such a thing were beyond the realm of philosophical or practical possibility) insure cars in those countries”.  When I explained that I had planned an entire trip on that basis—and spent hundreds of pounds getting my car into shape, they offered further apologies.
  • A frantic search for other insurers came to nothing. My son came up with an ingenious idea—“why not travel by car to Croatia (which is covered) and then rent?”
  • I phoned American Express, my travel agent, to organise a car. A helpful woman swung into action.  One by one she informed me that no rental car company would allow me to travel through the Balkans.
  • I explained my problem and she said, “Well, American Express Insurance is terrific. I used them myself and they were excellent for travel, cover the dodgiest countries—they are brilliant.”
  • Uplifted by her assurances I phone them—not a chance.
  • As panic set in my colleague and I ring round. Surely someone must rent cars or drive cars in this region.  How can they rebuild their economies without this most basic economic ‘engine’?
  • Thirty minutes later my colleague calls elated. “It’s all sorted, Rod, you will be a consultant to XXX and they are fully covered across the region—you will come in under their policy”.
  • I confirm this with their CAO and shout with joy. He puts me in touch with their broker who lists the many benefits of this fantastic policy.  “And what about my car?”  “Oh, we do not handle car insurance”.
  • My heart sinking, I realise I cannot drive there—and I do not want to fly. The train is the only answer.  I call Amex again.  “All the trains are booked—you have left this really late, you know!  I suggest you phone the train company directly.”
  • I call the company. “You have left this really late, you know!”  I know.  “Let me see………..we only have a few seats left………and they are in………..First Class.”  I never would have chosen First Class for this trip……..but………well, they are the only seats.  “I will take them”.
  • Now I sit on a train, the sky is crystal clear as I twist and turn through the Austrian Alps. I have six seats to myself, and am feeling embarrassingly good.  Yesterday I met two fantastic people—more on that in another blog post.
  • This was indeed all for the best—my family is also pleased I will not be driving. The train is safer, greener and less stressful.

But before I sign off feeling obnoxiously smug and self-satisfied, a few reflections:

  1. We in the UK take a lot for granted. What if I could not travel from London to Wales or even Cornwall in a rented car?  Or my insurance policy would be void as I crossed the borders?
  2. When I meet the successful Balkan social entrepreneurs, will I be able to bear in mind the obstacles they have faced? Those I encountered in setting up Catalyst pale into insignificance.
  3. I am very sad to lose two close relatives—I will miss them both, and I leave for this journey with a heavier heart. But can I even begin to compare this with the suffering of many of those I will meet who lost parents, siblings, children, friends and neighbours in a decade of anxiety, armed conflict, bombing and worse?


People’s True Motivations

This has nothing really to do with Social Business directly—but then again, perhaps it does. It has to do with motivations—the real reason people actually do things, as opposed to what they say, or what others say about them. And it is also a fantastic story involving two people I met on this trip—Randall Joyce and Gordana Igric, of whom I have spoken in another post. The question I put to you, the reader is, “why did these two people do what they did?”

Gordana was a news reporter covering tragedies committed in Bosnia during the 1990s. She had, through investigation, uncovered some terrible things which were taking place in the town of Foca, Bosnia—murder, rape, sexual imprisonment, etc. For her work she had her life threatened and was told never to return or she would be killed. In this town, the police were unlikely to offer much by way of protection, to anyone but the criminal gangs, that is.

Randall Joyce was a cameraman (now producer) with CBS, and he was dispatched to find ‘Tuta’, a sort of a local bigwig, with quite an unsavoury and violent reputation. The “story” Randall needed to get was of Tuta and anything which linked him to the crimes allegedly committed. Randall, an American, needed a local to “go in” with him—as you can imagine, most ran in the other direction! Eventually he found a driver and a guide, who of course, was Gordana, despite the death threat. Why did she go? “War crimes were committed—it was important to get this information”, she said.

Fitted with a hidden lens in his glasses, hooked up to a battery in his belt, Gordana and Randall went in search of Tuta. Now you can imagine how willing townspeople are to point out the local criminal kingpin! But eventually, (and I will leave out many remarkable aspects of this story—this is a blog, not a novel, folks), they find Tuta, who, like all underworld bosses, is living in a flat with his….mother! In this meeting, Tuta (who is of course surrounded by neckless, well-armed body guards) admits to pretty much everything and offers to actually sell his story in detail for $5,000. He says he will first have to check with his bosses (who are the same folks who have declared that they will kill Gordana if she returns—and remarkably she and Randall use their actual names!). Eventually they agree to meet the next day. Randall and Gordana move towards the door and begin to heave a great sigh of relief—they have got the story they came for “on camera”!!

Unfortunately a car pulls up outside and they are told to “get in”. This is hospitality “they cannot refuse” and at this point, both are convinced they will be killed as the drive into a secluded part of town begins. All this time the car’s battery is getting hotter and hotter—searing Randall’s back, yet somehow they hold themselves together. They get taken to a room and are brought in…… be offered some videotapes of the atrocities (at a price), and again note their need to check with their bosses. Miraculously they are then taken back to their driver and released—freedom, they have made it!

But that night, they begin to consider the idea of going back! They have the story, have gotten out with their lives, yet they think of going back!! To Gordana, this is particularly important—they will secure evidence, useful to bring people to justice after this mess is over, and she feels very strongly about this. Randall, who not in a million years imagines he should even consider going back eventually, much to his own shock and amazement, agrees. “Look, she came for me to Foca to get the story—how could I abandon her?” He felt he owed her this, and saw the importance of the evidence they would potentially secure. I imagine, they both thought this was to be their last night on earth.

The next day they set out with their driver and were taken to an abandoned restaurant on an island in the middle of a river to meet with the guards—straight out of a “B” movie. I guess they have the sort of conversation people have just before they are to be killed. Yet nothing happens! The bad guys never show up. They drive back, CBS makes the programme—the good guys win!

So why did these two do it? Well, Gordana’s reasons appear quite clear, perhaps. But what about Randall? Did he risk their lives to get a scoop? To capture a war criminal? To thank a brave woman who “took him in” at great personal risk? You guess. But I should tell you one last thing—Gordana and Randall are now husband and wife, living together in the Frushka Gora hills outside Belgrade. As Randall admits, “ah yes, and then there was the human factor”—he had fallen for Gordana! I told you this was a “B” movie.

So when we come upon bravery of an extraordinary kind, like this, or even the story of Veran Matic, or so many others I have met on this trip, or when we happen upon any act for which we seek to understand the deep inner motives, I always think it is best to avoid simple “obvious” answers. We undertake important actions in our lives for various reasons—and they are frequently “overdetermined”, as my wife often tells me. Sometimes our reasons are not even transparent to us—we may motivated by dark, unconscious, unknown forces, sometimes by demons from our past, or sometimes our carnal instincts, or even all of the above. So it is with social entrepreneurs—so it is with journalist heroes and heroines.

The Conscience of the Nation was Born in the Lap of a Saint

I have met many great social entrepreneurs on this journey, and will meet many more. Some will achieve greatness, others will make their own difference on a less grand, but no less important scale. Yet very few will have the impact of Veran Matic, the inspiration behind B92, the organisation which is the single most famous and important social business in the entire region. There is no single person I tried harder to meet than Veran–and finally, thanks to Dragana Nikolic Solomon, had the pleasure of meeting him with his interpreter, Vlada Brasanac, on 20 July 2007. What a story!!

I will not bore you with a lengthy history of B92. Interested readers can purchase Matthew Collin’s gripping book, “This is Serbia Calling” and get the full picture of B92, its background and its impact. During the 1990s and all the “troubles” under Milosevic, B92 became nothing short of the conscience of the nation. It was simply a radio station, initially a not-so-popular one; what it became was, in the words of one person I later met, “the single most important thing to me in my whole early life, period”. B92 took on the Government and provided the only independent voice at a time when all other outlets were under strict control. This was not easy. Employees, especially the Directors, were subject to regular personal threats, the station was shut down several times, equipment stolen and destroyed–and they continued to broadcast, and fearlessly remained independent. Critically they did not become the voice of the opposition–and gave a regular opportunity for the Government and other illiberal forces to state their views, as well, on the air. They were unique only in that they gave listeners the full picture–of the war and its atrocities which the Government was perpetrating in their name.

Today, B92 is a successful and diversified media company. It does TV, radio, publishing, produces movies, etc. It is a serious commercial enterprise, broadcasting programmes with a huge following, such as ”Big Brother” (although their version does have a twist) but at the same time, will follow up with a documentary about the tragedy at Vukovar. It is backed by commercial media investors as well as “soft” money, and partly staff-owned.

Yet refusing to rest on its laurels, it now has strayed further into the social side of the business. A year or two ago it tried to raise money on the air for a “safe house” for women who were the victims of domestic violence. It raised so much money, it built three! More recently, it mounted a campaign for mobile blood units, urging people to help replenish Serbia’s depleted summer stocks (Veran himself gives regularly). Its next project will be a Holocaust-based exhibit that will focus on Serbia’s role in the extermination process. In all three cases, B92 highlights an issue most Serbians would prefer to ignore–they raise money and awareness about these topics–and then they make practical suggestions for moving forward. For example, the Holocaust exhibit will primarily be about tolerance in a general sense, and not be limited to the WWII atrocities, a quality not only lacking in Sebia but all over the world!

So the question is, what makes a guy risk life and limb to do all this. Veran offered a wide range of intellectual arguments, the UN Declaration on the Freedom of Speech, etc. I feel a personal anecdote is much more telling. When he was about 7 or 8, his deeply religious and beloved grandfather was losing his eyesight. To help him, young Veran used to sit in his lap and read to his grandfather from the bible. In addition to reading they chatted about the ethical and moral issues contained therein. I am not sure if Veran is religious–I failed to ask him (a mistake no decent journalist would make!), what I am willing to bet on is that there, in the lap of this great man, is where Veran’s ethical compass and moral courage were formed. But for this, there is no telling how things might have ended.

I can think of nothing else to say, but I tell you this. I am going to pay more attention to what I say when my grandchildren sit in my lap as my own sight fades-perhaps the fate of a nation will depend on it?

Balkan Social Business

This summer, as many of our readers know, I am traveling through the Balkans as part of a survey of Social Business in the region.  I am learning from models I observe here and also, where possible, sharing what I know from the UK.  Some of my posting into the Balkans Blog are irrelevant, but one posting seems to have relevance and I have transferred it over, in edited form.  It focuses on how people react when I ask them about Social Business in this region.

After I try to explain to people what I am doing here in Southeastern Europe this summer, there is usually a long pause on the telephone and then something which sounds more or less like, There are no Social Businesses here!”  We continue speaking for a few minutes, normally out of politeness on their part, and then there is nearly always a sentence which sounds something like, “I know one person you could perhaps speak with”.  What follows is then a description of a social business of intriguing dimensions and character.

My friend Jane, who lived for a few years in Sarajevo, had such a conversation with me.  This eventually led to an introduction to BHCrafts, a business founded by women who saw their husbands, sons, fathers and brothers killed in the war.  They took their fate in their hands and started producing handmade clothing and decorative items for export.  These products are made from natural and chemically untreated wool and cotton, in a process which obeys strict ecological standards.

Or Lubomir, who I met through Florence, Mark and a host of others along the chain, who has introduced me to Bio Bulgaria Ltd., who are developing and marketing high quality organic food in Bulgaria.  I could go on to list many others–and will certainly do so in time.  But I will spare readers on this occasion!

Let me offer instead three reflections in conclusion to this anecdote.  First, the people I have met and spoken to from this region are extraordinarily modest.  Second, many of us fail to see the wide-ranging changes taking place in the economy all around us.  I think the UK Social Business scene is far more wide-spread than we know or appreciate.  Third, we have much to learn from entrepreneurs in this region who have, in far more difficult circumstances than us in the UK (or elsewhere in the OECD), succeeded.  Many of them have assembled some superb, interesting and successful businesses.  I am really looking forward to learning from them over this summer.

The Good, The Great and The Ugly

Apologies to all of you who have noticed a large time gap since my last posting—touched that some of you have even noticed!  Internet troubles and too much to do (and many other poor excuses).  This post is something I have wanted to write for some time—it concerns the people who have played such a key part in helping me in assembling this trip.  However, I will depart from my accepted practice at the end of this post, and provide a brief anecdote which touches on the “ugly” as well.

Most people have been really helpful, providing advice, getting me into contact with other people or in agreeing to meet with me, even when horrendously inconvenient.  I am ever so grateful.  These people are the “Good”; many of us fit into that category, I believe.

Some of those I have encountered have been nothing short of extraordinary.  I feel I have to mention them individually below, in alphabetical order (and I apologise to those I have inadvertently left out):  Tony Borden, Mark Bossanyi, Gordana Igric, Lana Narancic, Dimitrina Petrovna, Ian Patrick, and Dragana Nikolic Solomon.  Dragana is typical of this group and, obviously, possesses a very cool name (and a personality to more than match!!)  Not only did she have some great advice but she assembled nearly an entire schedule, joined me on two evenings, introduced me to her husband, took me to synagogue (at my request), accompanied me to some meetings and could not have gone out of her way more on my account.  The others mentioned have also gone to extraordinary lengths on my behalf.  Unsurprisingly I think of them as the “Great”.

What makes people go to these lengths?  I assure you, I believe absolutely none of them thought they had anything to gain.  At this stage, I have tried at least to be a pleasant and not too bothersome burden (not always successfully).  But they could not have done more.  Why people go to these lengths for people they have not met or hardly know, I cannot say.  What I do believe is that it is on the efforts of outstanding people such as these that positive progress in the world takes place.  Those based in the region will be the foundation on which progress and renewal takes place.

I feel compelled to share two more tales.  One woman living in the UK, let’s call her X (after a series of emails and phone calls where I laid out the visit and its purpose) wrote in an email, “As you are aware I am a lawyer and a businesswoman and my time is valuable. I would be interested in helping you and would need to know what in this for me before I can devote any time towards this”.  Another American “helping” in the region, let’s call him Y said, “look, for something like this, where there is nothing in it for me, it just doesn’t make sense for me to spend my time on it”.  The exact quote was actually worse, but I did not record it perfectly—I wish I had.  I guess these two represent the “Ugly”, or at least the “Not so Great”.  Progress in the world rarely occurs thanks to their efforts.

In Croatia, a Pair of CSR Experts

Thanks to a wonderful woman in London called Lana Narancic, I was able to arrange some very useful meetings in Zagreb.  Lana works for the International Business Leaders Forum (IBLF) in London, and they play a significant role fostering the development of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) in Croatia.  CSR is certainly an aspect of the increasing extent to which business is becoming more “social” and in this regard I was fortunate to meet with representatives of two heavyweights in the field, from Zagrebacka Banka (ZABA) and Coca Cola.

Sandra Cvetko from ZABA, Croatia’s largest bank, braved serious obstacles to meet me.  First she has a severe fall from her bicycle at the weekend and there was no air conditioning despite 38 degree weather!  Nevertheless, we spoke for considerable time about social business and CSR.   ZABA, by virtue of its size and importance in the domestic economy (with 4500 staff and a substantial market share in the banking sector) plays an extraordinarily important role.  Last year along the bank gave nearly £1 million in donations and sponsorships.  In both these, its actions often catalyse others, especially in the arts and sustainable development, where it has made a clear decision to focus.

In addition to the points above, Sandra’s department plays a key role in the broader activities of the bank, four of which, in particular, have a key social dimension.  On the banking and capital markets side, the bank puts extra emphasis on areas which have a social or civil dimension, and avoids others, such as weapon manufacturing.  With respect to customers, they help ensure fair treatment in the products offered.  In HR, they play an enormous and far-reaching role and also, obviously, in corporate communications.  By being outspoken about these issues, ZABA raises awareness and encourages others.

Where I found Sandra especially helpful was in her summary of the Social Business market in Croatia.  She had an intimate awareness of the players and very candid insights into how social they were and why.  Sandra spoke at length about EKO Mavrovic, one of the most important social businesses in the whole region.  Started by a boxer…… (that was just as a tease—more on them another time).  ZABA provides a wide range of support to EKO, both as lender and customer, at the very least, and is thus developing a model for how this sort of partnership can work.  I thank Sandra for her bravery, insights and cheerful demeanour (and I know it hurt each time she smiled!)

Majda Tafra-Vlahodic is the head of CSR for Coca Cola.  With a background quite far afield from business, Marta would seem the least likely person to wind up in business, much less so at a huge American firm like Coca Cola.  However, in a way, that background makes her especially well-suited for her position.  Like she says, “I have changed them, and they have changed me—we have both come towards each other”.  Under her auspices, Coca Cola has been a real trend setter.  It became the first firms Croatia to publish a full and honest social report, and in fact, was the first unit within Coca Cola globally to do so.  The leadership offered by the Croatian operation and Coca Cola Hellenic, of which it is a part, continues.

The Old Man, The Good People of Serbia and Selection Bias

The train is pulling out of Zagreb en route to Belgrade.  It will pass through marvellous sounding places like Slavonski Brod along the way.  Seated next to me are two older men.  As I sit, huffing and puffing from shlepping three heavy suitcases in 36 degree heat the older one asks me, “Greek?”  Since childhood people have been asking me this.  I don’t think I look Greek, but I guess I must otherwise people wouldn’t ask.  I say I have come from England (the full story being far too complicated)—he gestures that he cannot speak any.  We try a half-conversation in German.  He explains that he is Serbian and from Belgrade.  He then commences a lengthy apology—for nearly everything; the condition of the train (which seems fine to me, despite now being in 2nd class!) the surroundings, everything.  He then assures me that Belgrade has really wonderful people—really!  I did not challenge this, needed no such assurances and have met wonderful people so far and surely will in Belgrade as well—so what is going on?

I have no idea but will speculate.  During the conflict in the 1990s, Serbia, in most of the media I read, was cast in a negative light.  Perhaps, as I told him this was my first trip ever to Serbia and Belgrade, he felt he needed to try to “adjust” my view in advance.  This unnecessary promise will, I am sure, work out and the people I meet in Serbia will provide a very similar variety to those I met in Zagreb, or meet every day in London.  In fact, if they are as nice as those I have met in Zagreb they will be much nicer than a random sample from London!  But then I check myself, “is my sample in Zagreb, Belgrade or elsewhere on this journey likely to be random?  They are social entrepreneurs, NGOistas, human rights activists, independent journalists—hardly random.  By their very nature, are they are likely to be some of the most open-minded and public-spirited one meets anywhere?  Is thus my sample not random, but subject to heavy selection bias and therefore not representative of Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian or other people?  Should I not assemble a more “mixed” group of interviewees, so I can tell a more “balanced story?”  Well no, yes, yes and no!

Or to put it differently, I know my sample is biased and I do not care.  I am bored of national stereotypes and characterisations.  From my experience, no country has a monopoly on good people, or on assholes—all nations are a mixture.  I sometimes feel countries are attempting to “corner the market” in jerks, but this is impossible.  Competition is too stiff and barriers to entry are far too low.  But don’t I have a responsibility, as I reflect on what I see, to offer a balanced perspective, not only highlighting the good?  Again no!

Assholes universally receive a disproportionate share of attention and column inches.  If one analysed this over the course of the last 20 years in this region, I have no doubts that corrupt politicians and tyrants received far greater coverage than those many people trying somehow to do good.  I cannot be sure, but this is my hunch, at least based upon my understanding of media in the countries I know best.

So unashamedly I am producing a biased account.  I am searching for, as I made clear right up front, the best part of human endeavour.  Even if I meet people who do not seem so great to me, or just plain piss me off, I will try to find and report on what of the “good”, as philosophers describe it, I think I see.  This blog will be one-sided, subjective and personal and thus perhaps portray a falsely positive picture.  To a degree, I would submit that I am merely going a minute way towards correcting a pervasive negative bias.  People seeking “balance” are free to look elsewhere.


My First Meeting—and Several Lessons (Including Geography)

Today was my first meeting with someone from the Balkans—or not really, as it turned out.  I met Marta Cerovecki.  She is not a social entrepreneur, but certainly could be a very successful one.  Put simply, she is the daughter of the ex-boyfriend of the neighbour (living in Oxford) of a student I met while teaching a class at Oxford on social enterprise—got it?  Or let me make it a bit easier, she was the ex-girlfriend of the student’s brother.  Not there yet, how about the stand-in for the neighbour (originally from Croatia) who could not meet me.  All these things are true and I will leave it to the master-puzzler amongst you to solve this unintended, riddle-like introduction.

Marta (pictured below) taught me many things.  I learned that Croatia is most definitely not in the Balkans (unless you want it to be).  I was aware from another email that by lumping these 9 countries together I could cause offence—but by then the damage was done, and to reverse things could have caused more.  I try now to use the term South-eastern Europe, but it lacks zing.  Marta did confess she uses the term when it suits her (“Oh, I’m just from the Balkans, you know”).  I do that too.  Whenever I make remarks that in ignorance cause offence, I blame it on my being a myopic American.

Thanks to Marta I have also learned how to use this blasted camera.  It took me two hours to change the date on the photo, but I feel a visual image will help this blog along, so I needed this lesson anyway.  As we go on I hope to add live interviews and video-clips.  Please bear with me—I am technically challenged.

Most importantly, Marta taught me a lesson about national pride.  This is not ugly nationalism, but pride in the best sense.  Marta is an exceptionally talented individual with an enormous amount going for her and a broad range of skills and interests.  She came to live in Oxford for six years, had great prospects, but came back to Croatia last November to be part of the rebuilding.  She loves Zagreb, feels at the centre of things in this bustling capital city and is proud of Croatia’s beaches and its 1800 islands (a figure supplied by Marta).  Marta now has a job with US based Grey Advertising—in fact she was working on a project over the weekend and only her “Balkan” (or Croatian) hospitality compelled her to meet me for coffee (sorry, Grey!).  If the social entrepreneurs I meet are like her (and we spoke of some of those we both knew of like SMS and EKO Mavrovic) this will be a very exciting trip!

So what is this “Catalyst in” thing?

I could pretend to know where all this is going, but I don’t—or even how it started, or why.  I can’t take any credit for how we got here, which was largely, as are most things in life, a series of unconnected accidents, which the order-seeking part of ourselves will then assiduously try to make sense of after-the-fact.  I cannot even take credit for the name, which belongs to Naresh Ramchandani, the Co-founder, with Andy Hobsbawm, of The Green Thing.

We were chatting over lunch one day, and I told him about my upcoming trip to the Balkans.  Naresh said, “this needs a name–how about Catalyst in the Balkans?”  It took me until later that evening to realize this was a double entendre (I am rather slow).  Catalyst, the business, is hosting a trip by me to the Balkans this summer to highlight the best in the region and learn about social enterprise, but as Naresh also saw, it’s about trying to act as a catalyst in the region, to the greatest extent possible.

This adventure, now transformed into an event with a name, moved on to become an institution, when my colleague, Jessica Shortall, announced that she to would be doing a “Catalyst in” trip to Thailand.  Her journey was instigated by PDA, a leading an incredibly innovative social enterprise in Thailand.

A few weeks later, a friend of mine called Angus sent me a wonderful report he had written on innovations in micro-finance in Sri Lanka.  A summary of this report will be published on our website and Angus will become the “catalyst in Sri Lanka.”.  A later chat with my friend Jane revealed her enthusiasm to become a catalyst in another region.  This region is marked by poverty, disease, HIV/AIDS and massive income disparities—it is called East London, and I hope that in time Jane, who works with HIV-AIDS sufferers, and is already a catalyst in East London will become a “Catalyst in” East London.

So you see, this is how institutions are actually born, as opposed to what we later manufacture as the “inspiring” true story.  An idea with no clear purpose is connected to another, creating a trend which then collides with happenstance and ego (?) and takes on a purpose.  To the extent the “Catalyst in” series has a purpose we understand, it is to highlight and study the best and most interesting social businesses and social enterprises from around the world.  In the process, we learn from individuals whose experiences, ideas, tastes, loves, hates and entire world view are more dramatically different from our own than we can possibly fathom.  In the process, one cannot help but learn about oneself, which must be one of life’s great aspirations.  I think that as we progress, those who join us on these journeys, online via our blogs, or physically by accompanying us on these trips as three or four people will do with me in the Balkans this summer we satisfy some deep-seeded needs–to see, to feel, to learn, to experience, to share, and in some cases to try to help.  Welcome to the “Catalyst in” series.