Tag Archives: Catalyst in the Balkans

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?


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.

Balkan Log Begun

The last few weeks I’ve been toying with the idea of keeping some sort of diary about preparations for my trip to the Balkans and my feelings and impressions as I prepare for the trip.  In fact, somebody urged me to do this a few weeks ago, and, although I thought it was a good idea, I didn’t actually take any action.  I kept feeling as if I’d missed so much time for which I hadn’t been capturing these thoughts that it made no sense to start.  This reminds me of long time ago, when I wanted to save matchbooks from different hotels, given how many hotels I had already been to, only to talk myself out of it because I had already been to so many hotels for which I hadn’t had matchbooks.  Nevertheless, I also knew that the longer I put this off, because of the matchbooks I hadn’t saved, the less inclined I would be to ever start the collection.

Here I sit, or stand (I am dictating this) in the loft of my house on the 28th of April 2007 at 6:46 p.m.–and I have resolved to begin this blog today because there’s still so much I could capture.  I had an interesting thing that happened to me on Friday when I had a conversation on the telephone with someone from USAID.  I had been introduced to by a friend, after sending them my update on the Balkan trip.

I should’ve known right from the start that the USAID worker was a particular type of American.  He seemed to begin every e-mail with a similar phrase like, “greetings from warm Warsaw”, or “hello from sunny Ljubljana”.  After the third or fourth e-mail like this I should have been somewhat suspicious.  I was finally able to arrange a telephone conversation for yesterday in the morning.  I mentioned briefly, what I was up to, and there followed a long pause on the phone.  “Look Rod, let me be direct with you,” he said, “what precisely is the purpose of the trip?” or words to that effect.  I then reassured him that I was trying to be helpful, that I was open to learning something.  I would try to do whatever I could for the region and for companies and people in the region.  “My main purpose”, I tried to assure him, “was to learn, to help them and in the words of Paddy Ashdown to have a bit of an adventure.”  He paused and then said something like, “Look Rod, and forgive me for being so frank, but I’m not gonna waste my time or the time of people down there on what is basically a bit of a fact-finding mission.”  He then went on at great length to tell me how difficult it was to work with “the people down there” how challenging it was to get anything done, how useless they were in following up or taking action and how he therefore could not possibly take the time on something that quote was not going to lead to “something concrete”.  He then carried on for a few more minutes to tell me how busy he was, how small his team was, how much he is trying to get done and how much they have done.  I found this curious for somebody who told me how busy he was.  He then gave me a few names from a couple of research institutes, and I thanked him for his time.

The simple truth is that somebody like this particular USAID worker is just a bit of an asshole, and that in life one has no choice but to come across, self-important “know-it-alls” like this.  I shudder to think what it’s like for people who have to work with him.  On the one hand, they need the skills, resources, expertise and contacts that guys like this can muster.  On the other hand, dealing with him and his condescending ways must be an unbearable burden for the people of the region– especially after all they’ve been through.

Nevertheless, it is a useful case when illustrating one of the great problems I’ve had since I can see this trip at the end of 2006 or beginning of 2007.  That is, it is very difficult to pitch things correctly.  It’s hard to describe something that is a bit of a self-indulgence, also a fact-finding mission of sorts, as well as a genuinely well-intentioned (at least believe so) effort to help the people in a battered region and to highlight some of the positive endeavours which they themselves are undertaking. Perhaps it will come across as somewhat condescending?  Nevertheless it seems well-nigh impossible to get it right.  Sometimes you get the impression that people genuinely want you to lie about the nature of the trip—to create an expectation which I will then inevitably disappoint–as if I represent a huge investment fund was something like that.  Sometimes people want to assure themselves (and they never really fully assured) that this obnoxious Northern capitalist is just trying to make a big pile of money—as they all are.  But sometimes, just sometimes, it’s clear that somebody really gets what you’re trying to do–wonderful people like Jeremy Condor and the people he is introduced me to; Alma Masic or Valentin Mitev and others.  When you are introduced to come across people like this it makes the preparations I have undertaken really exciting.  And yes, it reassures me that the best of the human spirit still exists.  Even in, and in particular in a region that has had more than its fair share of difficulty.

I have to leave soon as I reviewed this first draft it looks like this is going to take some effort.  On the other hand, I also think it looks like it might be worth the effort.  What is clear is that this is turning out to be a marvellous experience.  What is also clear is that it’s an enormous amount of work.  But perhaps that’s as it should be?