Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Snow and research methods

The snow is gone in Minnesota, at least in our garden.

No recent visits to Uzbekistan to report, and, alas, the Georgia trip planned for the summer I cancelled for want of time and money. (Luckily, there is the Dutch Queen's day to look forward to -April 30th) But we are still in touch with the people in Bonn and Urgench, and, yesterday the last of the Uzbek papers was sent out. At least, the last one of the main pile. Once things are fully accepted, I will share more details, in an attempt at shameless self- promotion.

We wrote on land consolidation, on the shifting roles of knowledge in rural governance, on transformation of organizations in the agro- support system, on the different forms of capital deployed in the ongoing rural transition and on patterns of policy integration.

While working on these papers in the last few months, I realized how much more there is to learn, about past and present in Uzbekistan. Much of the work I was/am involved in, has to do with an ongoing and uncertain restructuring of the rural economy, in a situation under many pressures, economic, environmental, political. Some changes are fast, others slow, some are systematically and consistently implemented, others not, some are emanating from the political center, others not, and all parties involved are cautious and ambiguous.

As to the point of learning, so in fact research method, I felt there are conundrums. No obstacles that are insurmountable, disabling research totally. But still. (ZEF people published a good book where many of them are analyzed: Wall & Mollinga, Fieldwork in difficult environments, LIT, 2008) Just a few observations.

Yes, I should have worked harder on my Russian. And I should have studied more on Uzbekistan itself before going there. But then, my relative ignorance was also helpful, probably made me less suspicious.

Going back, spending more time, talking to more people would be useful. Usually, once embedded in certain circles, it is easier to get better access to more and more people. But then, the opposite is also true. I noticed that too much time spent with a certain type of people made colleagues, superiors and other people wary. Doors opened, but at a certain point they closed again. More time did not translate in more trust and more connections.

Documents could have deepened the analysis. But then, many of those, from Soviet times and later are part of a system where the actual role of documents cannot be read or inferred from the documents themselves, whether one is dealing with policies, laws, scientific publications or maps. Finding a document might take so much time that other aspects of the research suffer, and looking too hard might make people suspicious, might squander precious and scarce social capital.

Without the support of the project and the people in Urgench, my work would have been impossible, without their accumulated experience and without their support and connections. Yet, spending more time there could also be a strain on them, and with the type of investigations I am interested in, they might also incur a 'debt' with many people in their network, just by asking them to talk to me or to find people to talk to me. Interviews are favors, sometimes perceived as risky.

Slower and deeper acquaintance with one community would have been helpful, more time in the village. Indeed, but talking to so many other actors in other places, necessary for the research, would look funny there.

On a positive note: talking to retired people proved very fruitful overall. Also, talking to people who were in similar roles in the Soviet era, brought insight. Looking back, I think risk was everywhere, the risk to be entirely wrong, but research method in environments like Khorezm entails spreading and sharing of risk. And a continuous reflection on such risk management.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Land tenure (a short reflection)

Do people need to own land in order to be motivated to work it? Or to find more efficient or profitable ways to do so? Million dollar questions. I am currently working on several papers based on the Uzbek experience, and these questions come back over and over again.

Many economists, especally in the American tradition, assume or 'prove' that ownership, expressed and codified in strong, almost absolute property rights, is the only way forward, the only path to economic development. Many of those assume that simply changing formal property arrangements will push an economy forward.

Many anthropologists direct the attention to the disturbance of endogenous, often highly complex arrangements for sharing the land, its resources, its products, when formal property regimes are imposed. Economies can collapse, in stead of develop, and the rule of law can be wiped out, in stead of reinforced. They would also point out, together with a number of geographers and political scientists, that the move from one property system to another one can be exceedingly difficult and extremely hard to keep transparent and fair.

The transaction costs, in other words, can be very high and unpredictable, and the transition itself can make it harder to re- establish a semblance of a market afterwards. They would also argue that the new rules of the game, and the implicit rules to make gains at the outset of the game, are known to only a small elite, either western, or controlling the transition. Knowledge is an asset then, distributed unevenly, knowledge on rules and taking positions, but also knowledge on the exact pathway of transition, on the situation at any given moment. And power is an asset, the power to establish and define a new regime, and certainly the power to enforce the new rules in the old environment. By elites imposing property reforms, the rhetoric of development, of scientific improvement and of progress, are usually combined.

What to do then? And what to think? First of all, I think it is useful to look at property rights as a specific bundle of use rights and a specific bundle of limits to that use. This is also true in the States. Also, even in the States, cooperative property and collective property are possible, and spatial planning is possible. Thus, the serf in the Russian empire (See map), and the kolkhoz worker in the USSR had officially no property, and sometimes worked under conditions we could call 'oppression', but certainly not all the time. Through a web of other rules and shared understandings, they had an input, and could not be forced to do whatever elite members wanted them to do. Everyone familiar with older Rusian literature, will recognize that.

Secondly, formal property rights only mean something if they have implications. Much research on post- Soviet land privatization has revealed that the participation of most locals in decision- making on land use is less substantial now, while new local and regional elites amassed power. Owning a piece of former kolkhoz means nothing at all, if local governments, in league with only superficially 'private' farners, make it impossible to use it, to extract profit.

Thirdly, one can observe that uncertainty has a double face. Uncertainty can inspire risk- taking, innovation, and high profits for smart entrepreneurs, but there are always limits. If uncertainty is too high, risks too unpredictable, and if it does not look like the profits can be enjoyed or reinvested at will, then the incentives are not there. In that sense, the American economists seem right; property rights can clarify the rules of the game, can smoothen transactions (e.g. of land), and can protect against sudden intrusion of different rule- sets or expectations. On the other hand, if those rules are mostly paper rules, they will make the game of land use and profit extraction only more complex and thus opaque.

What does this say about Uzbekistan? We would argue that privatization as such is not necessarily a solution there. Rather, unpredictability seems to be the problem. If land can be taken away, if profits can disappear from bank accounts, if water can materialize or not, the incentives to work hard, to innovate and to invest are indeed slight. Rather than privatization, simplification of the rules seems in order, as well as a consistent effort to reduce the distance between the paper rules and what is really expected and possible. Even an informal codification, of rules to apply the rules, would help.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Tashkent (from Bonn)

I spent three weeks at ZEF now, in Bonn, and, I have to say, both city and institute are quite inspiring environments. In Bonn, I was impressed with the architecture, the cultural life, but even more so the layout of the city, with green areas and snippets of agricultural land penetrating deep into the urban fabric, and with medieval villages incorporated without completely losing their identity. At ZEF, I was impressed with the rich texture of approaches and methods, their selective blending, and certainly by the intensity of debates, even after ten years of Khorezm research.

That helped me in thinking through the Uzbek experience. Not that I have final answers, but at least some storylines are crystallizing -again in discussion with colleagues at the institute. The role of knowledge in evolving land use governance, shifts in the organizational environment of the agricultural system -largely responsible for land governance- and a study of policy integration in the planning system are in the pipeline. In all these stories, questions regarding the actual role of Tashkent, of the center of power, return. Once again, no simple answers.

It looks like post-Soviet Uzbekistan is more centralized in the production of knowledge than in the application of power. The cliche image of an authoritarian pyramid, with everything revolving around the leader, does not appear suitable. Just as in Soviet times, there is flexibility, there are players at different places and levels. With regard to knowledge, it looks like Tashkent is becoming ever more important. Tashkent universities and institutes seem to have adapted better to changing scientific ideologies, they received more attention from the state, and the Tashkent network benefits more from international organizations, to a certain extent even from international competition (several foreign universities have franchises there) Moreover, the de- institutionalization of knowledge in the countryside seems much more extreme -old roles associated with a certain expertise have disappeared, or became disconnected from the expectation of expertise.

As to city design, there is, like in Bonn, a lot of green space, most of it Soviet-era park space. Some of those parks are draped around a web of litte natural streams that made the area attractive in the first place. The Uzbek government made a great effort to ´streamline´the city, to clarify and reinforce the Soviet neo- baroque structure of parks, boulevards and vista´s connecting public buildings (See the map) Parts of the old town, originally marked by a dense maze of little streets, have been integrated into that structure. This strategy, however rigorous, does encourage development, and also in this regard, Tashkent is the place where it happens. Whatever the flows of resources look like, they end up in Tashkent, more than in the past.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Tashkent (from Belgium)

Yes, it has been a while. I spent two weeks in Tashkent, trying to improve the framing of the Khorezm research by means of extra interviews. Time well spent, I believe. Rarely access to internet there, so few blogging opportunities. Monday night, I arrived in Belgium, tomorrow to Bonn, to ZEF, for two more months Uzbek research. More stories later.

But now, something about Tashkent. A different world it is, a slight shock after some months in Khorezm. No trace of doubt that this is where it happens; this is the center of power. A sustained building boom, continuous improvements in infrastructure, attention to urban design, mushrooming businesses, a cosmopolitan population, an influx of migrants from the provinces. And prices more common in European capitals.

Tashkent is a Russian creation, much more than other sizeable cities in Uzbekistan. A few buildings predate the Russian arrival -a 16th century medrese, religious school, being the most notable example- but most "old" buildings are pre- communist, in neoclassical or eclectic styles, sometimes close to Art Nouveau. The 1865 map above gives an indication of the starting point. Communist development, boosted by (forced) immgration of Russian, Greek, Armenian, Italian architects, produced a neatly ordered city of over three million. Post- independence planning usually follows the communist pattern, with a gradual enclosure and replacement however of the remaining traditional neighborhoods, the mahalla´s. Some of them will probably remain, since some major players prefer to live in the best of those neighborhoods, still marked by low single family homes, with green courtyards.

Despite the severing of connections with the dissolution of the USSR, Tashkent is still recognizable as the intended capital of Soviet Central Asia. That is, as the capital of something larger than the present country. (Just as Vienna still betrays its past as the center of something bigger) Also in research facilities, this is visible: the major institutes responsible for the Soviet development of Central Asia, for irrigation design, rural development, city planning, agricultural engineering are still there, be it in a considerably shrunken state. The institutional apparatus that guided Soviet development in its heydays, can not reasonably be sustained. Even in the later years of the USSR, after most reclaimable land was reclaimed and most usable water used, it was clear that not every institute was still necessary.

Nor was it affordable. The Soviets could not afford Central Asia anymore. One reason was the oversized research and development apparatus, a second one the inefficient agricultural economy that apparatus groomed. Both Soviets and the post- Soviet government tried to get rid of the system, with its overuse of water, land, its oversized workforce and its problematic adapation. Once more, experts in Tashkent, sometimes the same experts, in the shrunken institutions, have to rethink the use of land and water. The Uzbek government does realize the urgency, and foreign donors got the message as well.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Flexibility and design

Soviet architecture is always and everywhere the same. So it seems. In fact, cities like Kiev, Riga and Tbilisi (picture) have Soviet- era neighborhoods that are well- designed, pleasant, green, modernist but not monotonous. In other places, cookie- cutter developments scatter high- risers over gloomy landscapes.

Soviet republics were fighting over resources, all the time. Kiev usually got more than Tashkent. Sometimes, disparities were incorporated in the building codes and norms (SNIP), so the standards fo Siberian apartment were very different from one in the Baltics. Some places were allowed to buildr a more, but got relatively few resources, and the other way around. In some places, resources were used more efficiently than elsewhere.

Then there is the issue of monotony. Some cities, regions, republics, were not especially eager to deviate from the norms, or to improve the norms. As long as the development machine kept running, with some spoils here and there, things were ok. While other areas asserted their individuality, and wanted to adapt the standards to local conditions and tastes, to increase the importance of design. In this game, regions were not always pitted against each other or the center; rather, state organizations faced each other. Large construction firms, kombinats, were pushing for uniformity, easier for them. Some academics were stressing the importance of norms for ‘correct’ building. But other academics, planners, architects, in the regions and in Moscow, asserted that flexibility was important and not necessarily more expensive.

One of the architects we spoke, had a career spanning Kiev, Moscow, Tashkent, and Urgench, and told stories about lively discussions in the 70’s on this topic. He was arguing for flexibility, and found allies and foes in all places. In newspapers and architectural magazines, the discussion raged on. In practice, what recreated the more boring development patterns was not so much pressure from political actors, as habits and routines in a chain of organizations, and with users. Standards became important because they were easy. Sleek architects used scientific arguments to be creative: no, we cannot follow the standards, because of the local climate, the geology, the seismic situation. Science, a force behind standardization, was also a tool to force flexibility.

(My days in Urgench are coming to an end. Wednesday, to Tashkent. I heard they have coffee places.)

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Fish in the desert

Today, I was in Ashirmat, my favorite village on the Turkmen border. Interesting interviews, but also a good, hearty lunch: fried carp with onions, vinegar and bread -eerily close to fish 'n chips.

My friend Erik- Jan, resident fisheries engineer in Norway, already indicated that we're probably dealing with grass carp, introduced to clean up the irrigation canals. And indeed, that is what the Uzbek colleagues confirmed, and what I found in an FAO study: introduced in 1958 for weed control, taking over most native species in the freshwater bodies (in Korezm, 36 species still hanging in there). People here acquired a taste for fish, and the collapse of Aral Sea fisheries meant more pressure on inland waters.

That's why currently every little swamp, each insignificant irrigation canal, minute pond or drainage lake (if not too salty) is used for fishing, for carp, and sometimes catfish -an omnivorous predator of the abundant carp. Even rice fields are used for fishing. I saw people pushing tiny boats through swamps with barely a stretch of open water, kids hauling up nets from ditches, and every now and then a man on a bridge, proudly showing a trophy carp.

For many villages in Khorezm, the lakes and wetlands, especially natural ones, are symbolic places; fishing there is an almost ritualized activity, more important than an extra acre of farmland. In the heyday of Soviet land reclamation, this local attachment was probably as effective a protection as their functionality as drainage reservoir.

And the grass carp? He was a bit too successful, cleaned up the weeds, but apparently didn't appreciate ranunculus species (like buttercups) so one group of weeds replaced another one. Luckily, the locals do appreciate the grass carp.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Local knowledge

Talk about local knowledge mostly implies that local perspectives are somehow dismissed or ignored or simply not observed by decision- makers. High modernist states are assumed to be among the worst here, and the worst of the worst has to be the hyper- planned Soviet Union. That is the standard story, at least. The fact that the U.S.S.R. does not exist anymore, is seen as the proof of the pudding, and also makes sure that very few will come to its defense.

After spending some time in Uzbekistan, and reflecting on my experiences in a few other places, I tend to believe that over- planning was not the problem, and that local knowledge was everywhere. One of the difficulties, I think, was the enormous gap between formal and informal, the difference between the official self- descriptions and the actual functioning of the Soviet state.

That meant that in some places, and for some issues bottom- up initiatives were existing but not acknowledged, while in other cases, the opposite was true, and pseudo- local knowledge figured in fake participation. Kolkhoz workers could convince their chair of a better land use, and he could get it done. Local party leaders could jump directly to Moscow to plea their case. Local actors did their own thing, based on their insights, without even telling. Sometimes, this was simply a way to make the system work, sometimes a way for local players to enrich themselves.

Showing how things really worked was difficult because officially, all Soviet citizens were the same, wanted the same, and the State knew the needs of the collective. Showing how things worked would reveal the limits of central planning, it would reveal local differences and knowledges, and cliques thriving on black markets. But, it would also show where in fact more planning would be useful, where more coordination between interests (once acknowledged) could bring the common good closer.

(The house is empty now. In the summer, I had to wait in line for hours to take a shower, now I have three bathrooms for myself. One has hot water, so the choice is easy)