Tuesday, September 27, 2005


View from Aleppo citadel (with curator)

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Sunday, September 25, 2005


Site - yet another issue

The west end of the Old International Fairground site has an old open-air theatre, something of a national treasure as Fairouz performed there several times, and the Nobles Palace restaurant.  We need to negotiate whether these stay, or move, or are replaced, or go before we can pin down an exact site for the discovery centre. Now it transpires that our partners the Governorate have been pushing forward (or rather, now appear keen not to cancel as it might involve them in paying compemsation tothe contractor) with the development of a sports complex (for themselves) in the south-west corner as well. we have just got the plans sent over, and the footprint of this complex obviously does cut into the area we had provisionally marked out for the centre several months ago, but curously nothing has been said about it until now. As a result we have had to propose moving the centre towards the middle of the site by about 25 metres, and away from its alignment with the park's entry gate.


On the road - just


Friday, September 23, 2005


The bigger picture

I've just spent some of the week sitting listening to people talking about bits of Syria's next Five-Year Plan, which is currently in preparation. If our project is going to inspire young people, then we have to understand where (or whether) it fits into the greater scheme of things, like education or social reform. The experience has been both inspiring and depressing simultaneously.

I read first the executive summary of a report by the UNDP and Prime Minister’s Office on Education and Human Development in Syria. This is a painfully honest assessment, which just lists one current problem or failure after another. The scale and urgency of the task facing the country is enormous. The document is strong on symptoms and rhetorical questions, but short on diagnosis of underlying causes and recommended treatment, which does not help with the problem-solving. It also does not mention some matters I would have expected, such as team working, communication skills, best practice or benchmarking. It does strike me, however, that any transformation in this area must focus completely around one big idea and use it as the catalyst and momentum for the rest, rather than fight a thousand different fires equally and simultaneously. That is, however, not how it looks to be happening. 100 people (I gather all teachers, who are among the last people I would select to rework a curriculum) have been detailed off to do the reshaping. I fear it will be committee stuff, lowest common denominator, incremental, low-risk, unexciting, more about the profession and the administration than unlocking the potential inside this country's young people.

I later went with Deputy Dina (small in size but big in character) to hear from the authors about the chapter in the Plan on Childhood and Youth. After listening for some time while we were told how we should run the project, and in particular how we should involve sociologists with it, it transpired that the Chapter - er- didn't exist. The Plan is due out before the end of the year (it's late September now) and this chapter doesn't exist? 40% of Syria's population is 14 or under and this chapter doesn't exist?

The uplifting thing about this and other conversations is that I feel that our project - inspirational, fun, collaborative, clear about its purpose - can really stand out amongst all this. I feel too that once it's properly up and running it can act as a catalyst not just for children but for teachers, administrators and politicians as well. We have had great feedback from children and parent to the summer programme which has now ended (we have postponed the Aleppo stage, about which more later perhaps once I've calmed down), so we know there is demand for this sort of activity, and the children really respond to it. I'll post separately on the teenage debates we have run, which have centred on waste and the environment, but the teenagers themselves have raised issues of homelessness, the role and position of women, health, violence, pollution, water and smoking. It has been difficult sometimes to get the debates going - some parts of Syria seem more quiet than others - but we now have some fantastic insights into what young people care about and want to see change. Lots of them have said how good it is to have their views listened to, to have the chance to have a serious discussion. For the next phase we're going to capture this on video.

That aside, I feel that Syria's need for a substantial and rapid leap forward rather than a slow shuffle is going to be hard to achieve. The instinct to try and invent things from scratch here rather than looking for excellence elsewhere and adapting it, the lack of a management culture or context of competition that makes change a matter of daily survival, the risk-averse and insular administration, all work against the possibility real transformation. There are people here with vision, but whether they can carry the day I don't know.

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The Studio Theatre Group performing the touring activities has recently been a major management problem, and matters have now come to a head. The group has consistently argued that it should be paid a group rate, irrespective of whether the full complement of actors is provided or not. They claim that their professionalism would allow them to make up any deficiency in numbers. We have consistently argued that while we can make occasional leeway for illness or force majeure, our definition of the group is the seven people who comprise it. The programme as designed requires two people for each activity (=6) plus one to do the opening and closing performance. Any less inevitably compromises the quality of one or more parts of the programme, and we should not be asked to pay the full rate for what is in effect a less than full provision. We have therefore required and received a signed undertaking from the group that they will provide no fewer than six members for each performance. As well as this, the group has made a number of excessive demands for allowances, transport and hotels which we have refused to meet. We have stipulated a fair and reasonable daily allowance for all out-of-Damascus venues, which the actors feel is far too low.

Before the Homs week, they threatened to pull out if their accommodation (Grand Hotel), transport (rented microbus at their disposal for the week) and food (SYP500 per person per three meals a day) demands were not met. At that point, Dina and Zuhair called their bluff and the group accepted the daily rate set by the project. At Homs and at Hama, however, there were numerous occasions on which members of the group did not appear, were late, or left in the middle of an activity and did not return. With the exception of one or two members, the group appeared unmotivated and unworried at dropping standards. As a result of the number of days on which the group was short-handed, it was decided to deduct $200 from the payment for the Homs week.

On 21 September the spokesman of the group visited the project office and met with Dina. He refused to accept the $200 deduction, and was adamant that the full rate should be paid. He complained about having to deal with children younger than 5 years old who often attended events. He complained that there were 40 children in one group at Hama. He would not undertake to provide seven or even six actors for Aleppo. [We know that two of the group are currently working on an assignment in Egypt, so will not be available.] He made a number of statements which we know to be untrue or ludicrous – for example he claimed that actors sometimes had to leave sessions because they were thirsty. Throughout the conversation he was rude and aggressive.

Sound though the original decision was to use this group, since Yarmouk they have proved a constant and time-wasting management headache. They have presented the project team with a constant stream of demands, to supplement their extremely generous fee. When we gave them an allowance for out-of-Damascus work they asked if we could organise accommodation and food for them instead. When we did that, they were dissatisfied with the hotel and restaurant provided. This has added to the complication of organising each venue. It is clear their interest in the project is entirely financial. They have made no effort to integrate with other members of the crew at venues, and feel that general assistance in the smooth running of a show is no part of their responsibility. They have complained about small spaces, heat, noise of parents talking, low numbers attending, high numbers attending. They behave as contractors rather than as part of the team. If only five actors are available for Aleppo it makes the programme unacceptably sub-standard from the start. Should any one of the five fall ill, the programme simply could not be performed. Taken together with the dismissive attitude, the poor level of professionalism shown at Homs and Hama, the constant complaints and lack of commitment, it does not seem worth incurring the cost and risk of the Aleppo week. It would be still less acceptable to pay the full rate to the group for less than full numbers, as they continue to expect.

I have therefore cancelled the Aleppo programme, and the theatre group has been so informed. This decision has not been taken lightly or without regret.We will reschedule a visit to Aleppo in the early part of the next programme.


Wednesday, September 21, 2005


Competition - of a kind

One of the more surprising things to come to light recently is that another relevant museum project has been on the boil (actually a very low heat at best) for some years: a new Science & Technology Museum, aimed at children. We met this week with its Steering Committee at the Ministry of Communications and Technology, who rather unnervingly started by hoping that we could provide them with advisory and financial support. The Committee is a large one. We were told that the Ministry of Technology and Communications has allocated $20m to this project, and were confident that more would come from Germany. A paper summarising the context and content of the museum was presented. This presents a comprehensive catch-all list of possible subject areas and objects for inclusion. It does not cover the outcomes, audience, interpretation, style or values of the institution. Is it populist or scholarly, for instance? Nor does it examine the implications of the proposed content – live animals, as one example, require specific conditions and care. Old steam railway engines require a lot of floor space, and once in place are difficult to move. There did not appear to be anyone with direct management responsibility for taking the project forward, nor any broad understanding amongst the Committee of the specialised process on which they were embarking. We agreed to meet again.

In a subsequent meeting with Dr Alfred Kraft of DTZ, the German development organisation, he explained his fear that the Technology Museum project might be losing direction, and that its expectations of financial support from Germany were double what was likely. He felt that the two projects were too close in concept to avoid competition for funding, and the possibility of bringing them into one project should be examined. The same comment had been made by the Steering Committee who felt that our project should be subsumed into theirs. Dr Kraft felt that any amalgamation should work the other way. I have resisted his suggestion that I manage two projects.

I said in both meetings that we must work together to articulate what is distinctive about each project, what areas might exist for overlap and collaboration, and the specific value each will contribute. If the Berlin Science Museum is committed to provide some form of pro-bono support (and from the conversations so far I suspect this may be more what people here hope than what Berlin has in fact promised) I recommend that they should rapidly take on a role in helping to form a local management team to do the necessary concept and content development for the Science & Technology Museum. Without this step, the project will struggle to go forward, let alone deliver anything of worth.

Thursday, September 15, 2005


Putting down markers

File note from last December:

It is risky to state on the basis of little personal experience and much anecdote, but quality of local supply looks likely to be a major area of risk for the Project. Project management is little understood. Total Quality Management principles and attitudes appear non-existent. Method statements are unknown. ISO standards are rare. A cheery willingness to redo work until it is right is unacceptable for our purposes; the work has to be right first time. The major impact of this will be at the capital build stage of the Project, but to a lesser extent it will affect our work from the earliest stages. Schedule and cost control will be more exacting and consume more resource. Closer attention will need to be given to work in progress, and more elaborate contingencies will need to be developed against possible slippage or non-performance.


Wednesday, September 14, 2005



One of the things that always strikes me when I come back to the apartment in Damascus is its furniture. It's awful. I decided early on that I'd live with it because otherwise I would have to find somewhere to store it, and I would probably not want to take any replacements back to the UK with me, but... The bedroom furniture is particularly bad. I wouldn't mind so much if it were simple, plain, square stuff, but it's all horrible curves, and multiple colours, plastic mother-of-pearl handles, gold trimmings and inset mirrors. I wouldn't mind so much if it were well-made, but every hinge and lock is wonky, so doors won't close or stay closed. I wouldn't mind so much if it were in scale with the room, but it's all too big and bulgy. It all looks like reject props from the set of "Dallas".


Monday, September 12, 2005


Back again

Back from a holiday period with the family and catching up with progress. We (the project rather than the family) are in the middle of an activity programme - an early pilot and testing process - which is visiting cultural centres all over Syria. There was a media event at Homs while I was in London, organised at short notice, which seems to have gone very well. Lots of positive coverage in newspapers and magazines. First day at Hama (yesterday) was less successful with only 25 children in the morning and 45 in the evening. We are planning for around 100 each session. This morning nearly 200 turned up!

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