Friday, February 26, 2010



I had a very enjoyable breakfast today with three of the team which came together to create the Discovery Centre - Anne-Marie, Jan and Tom - which was a chance to revisit some old and pleasurable memories. It's good to have people say what a unique project this has been, and how special the experience of working together has been, and it's flattering to have some of that attributed to my leadership. Something else which was good to hear was that "lobster" has entered the working vocabulary. Lobster has a particular meaning in the context of the design of the discovery centre. Quite early on, when I was describing the experience that I felt visitors should get, I said that it should include something completely unexpected and quirky that made them do a double-take in disbelief, and question what they'd just seen. Something, I said, like a lobster walking upside down on a ceiling. And after that, whenever I felt the thinking was getting too conventional, I would put in a demand for the "lobster factor". And so now it's become a sort of generic shorthand, with the exhibition designers as well. It's a small legacy, but...


Monday, February 15, 2010



I am setting down some thoughts about what I believe we have been creating in Massar, as part of the project’s record, as a form of touchstone while life, Syria and the project move onward, and also as a background to explain more about why Massar is as it is, and a counterbalance to some prevailing perceptions.  When the whole Massar team are told by the Trust CEO they are doing things wrong, that they are seen as a spoilt project, that Massar is a “problem”, it seems timely to put forward an alternative perspective, not least about the viewpoint of the Trust itself.  Massar is different, certainly, but with reason. Whether that reason can or should remain current is a question for others to conclude.  If it remains valid, the message in this paper is that it has to be appreciated, fought for and protected; if taken for granted it will dissipate and vanish, and Massar will become just another thoroughly conventional, worthy NGO.

Massar has been described on several occasions by its patron as “a small revolution”.  This was not criticism but praise; a small revolution was what Syria needed, and what Massar was intended both to be and to create.  Massar is about shaking the tree, making a difference, breaking a cycle.  At the same time it is a project with an intellectual framework and sense of values behind what it does; it is not seeking simply to break old patterns of thinking but to shift them towards something active, positive and self-directed.  Massar is aiming to build from within, not impose from outside.  Any small revolution would still be founded on principles and a sense of what was good.  In a similar way to those parents and teachers who often initially see the Green Team as providing aimless “fun” – not serious learning – and only later appreciate the purpose and the structure of what is going on in the activities, so Massar has an underlying learning and development structure even when on the surface it may look frivolous and random.  That structure is laid out in its original project initiation documents (citizenship/ diffusion of responsibility) and the early Me++ content concepts.

One fundamental premise of Massar is that it is obsessive about its beneficiaries. At a very early (2005) presentation in Lattakia of Massar’s touring programme to its Steering Committee, I made short introductory speech in which I welcomed all the VIPs visiting (The First Lady, three senior Ministers, the Head of UNDP and the Governor of Lattakia) and said that for Massar the real VIPs present were the ones attending the workshops: the children, our beneficiaries.  Trite though it was, that was and remains a completely sincere statement of Massar’s position: nothing matters more to us than engaging and inspiring our beneficiaries.

Later, in a similar way, we refused to hack about a touring event in Kafer Souseh to suit the demands of a visiting dignitary’s head of protocol (made on the basis that she could not possibly be expected to walk up some stairs); the event was for the benefit of the children, the changes would completely disrupt their experience, and the guest would please take the programme as it was.  In spite of much pressure, Massar held its ground, and of course the event went perfectly smoothly.  Part of Massar’s strength (part of its small revolution) is that it has principles, sticks to them, and the interests of our beneficiaries are chief among these.

This matters because if the children do not see Massar as being completely on their side, or if Massar is seen as part of the establishment, then both our rationale and chances of success disappear or are compromised. That does not mean we take children completely on their own terms; as said above we operate in a framework of what is right. But it does mean that young people trust Massar to trust them and see the best in them; to see them in terms of potential not as risk.  This places Massar between Home and School as the third place in young people’s lives, where guidance and rules exist but young people feel able to explore, create and share in a space that is “theirs”.  As a Massar volunteer said, “we have the potential to be bad, but Massar allows us to discover our potential to be good”.

At the same time as enabling young people to explore, Massar must have the trust and confidence of parents and communities that their young people are safe, and that being with Massar is not pushing them outside a cultural comfort zone or storing up future trouble with the establishment.  Where these boundaries lie is often unclear and not even consistent within communities, and for Massar any and every event or programme is subject to fine tuning and adjustment as the particular characteristics of one location or group and another are taken into account. Arguably this is a criticism of the project’s development (it should be building pockets of replicable practice).  Equally arguably, Massar is in a process of constant evolution and change and will be for some years yet, there is little benefit in building one-size-fits-all solutions, and in the context of generational change four years is a tiny period. 

One element of the way Massar (at least at senior level) thinks of itself is that if Massar were successful, there would be no further need for us.  If, as we are, Massar is about empowering young people to shape their lives then Massar is in the business of making itself redundant. Another is that we don’t mind other organisations being in our territory, even those blatantly copying what we do.  For Massar, the more the merrier – IF it all has the effect of inspiring and engaging young people.

A third is the empowerment of Massar people at all levels of the organisation, founded on respect and decent treatment for all, giving them the chance to grow and feel part of the whole.  We encourage risk-taking, accept the possibility of failure, welcome the chance to learn from it. People are able to fail, learn and do better. It's tough for some to appreciate, tougher to practise, and I can say that we haven’t always done well at it, but it remains fundamentally the Massar way.  One thing that must be acknowledged by all is that the Massar team routinely goes above and beyond any reasonable expectation in order to deliver its activities, and does so cheerfully and wholeheartedly because it believes in the value of what it does.

Massar is not about an organisation, not about a building, not about The First Lady, not about personal prestige.  It is about building an attitude, making things happen, creating social value. Massar is exploring new territory; there is little precedent for what we do anywhere let alone in Syria. So our working model is inherently experimental, learning, changing and responsive.  We are not repeating or replicating a well-established template – no two days of Massar business are alike.

All of this, arguably no less today than when Massar was founded, is essentially counter-cultural in Syria, running against the grain of how things “should” be.  I believe that this almost perverse desire to not fit into moulds is essential to Massar’s DNA, and at the same time one of the most difficult characteristics to maintain as part of the organisation’s culture.  The easiest, and the most damaging, default path for Massar is to slip back into conformity in a society where pressures to conform are overwhelming; to observe hierarchy because it suits the hierarchical attitudes all around it, to make itself the centre of its attention rather than its beneficiaries.

Massar’s founder once also said that she hoped the Trust could embody the best of Massar.  That was never likely to happen; the drivers for the Trust, its sense of priorities and its very philosophy were wholly different from those behind Massar. From early discussions where a suggestion that “humility” should be a core characteristic of the Trust was met by the management consultants’ response that on the contrary what was needed was “a lot more arrogance”, it has been clear that the philosophy of Massar and the emerging Trust were significantly different, indeed at odds.  From its inception the Trust has thought and behaved as an establishment organisation. 

If Massar is “about” its beneficiaries, what is the Trust “about”?  The answer, at least for the last three years is that the Trust has been about itself.  All that has mattered to the Trust has been that the levers and cogs of the (increasingly complex) Trust machine are put in place.  Whether they are connected to any real-world outcomes or benefits, or even to each other, whether they make the Projects more efficient or effective, has simply not been a consideration.  What has mattered is that an organisation is formed, with all the attendant departments, structures, systems, policies and processes that an organisation “must” have.  The development of all these have been derived from the past experience of those in charge of its various pieces – nothing has been built for purpose, or with a view to how it helps fulfil the vision of an empowered society, or with an eye to innovation.  Certainly nothing has started from an “if in doubt, leave it out” or “less is more” premise.
The Trust’s vision, of an organisation delivering public good in the form of an empowered society would logically have given primacy to those elements – the Projects – which most directly fulfilled that vision.  A core determinant of Trust’s effectiveness would have been whether the Projects were better able to deliver their activities (in terms of effectiveness or efficiency) as part of the Trust than as stand-alone entities. A critical measure of “Service” Divisions would have been the extent to which they added value to Projects.  Instead all have developed around local optima, and the questionable assumption that the Trust should best be one homogeneous uniform entity, where one size fits all.  A clear value-added proposition for the Trust, externally or internally, has never been developed.

The result has been that Massar has spent more and more of its energy in servicing the needs of the Trust, however last-minute, time-consuming, irrelevant or prejudicial.  Massar has helped, contributed and supported the Trust in many ways.  What Massar has certainly resisted has been putting the interests of providing for its beneficiaries second to providing for the Trust.  More significantly Massar has also fought against having its set of values, its culture, subsumed into those of the Trust, and so now is seen as "a problem", or "spoilt". That it should be regarded as such, for such a reason, and by such insignificant thinkers and under-achievers, is to me the far greater problem, for Massar, for the Trust and for the young people of Syria.


Sunday, February 14, 2010


Massar retrospective 2

Two common strands run through the canon of work on the subject of citizenship. First, the term citizenship is frequently conflated with direct engagement in a prevailing political process. A common citizenship “challenge”, for example in the US or UK, is seen as making politics relevant to young people and encouraging them to participate in the democratic process of electing representatives. A ”citizen” is deemed primarily to be one who properly carries out their part of the contract between a state and its people. Second, in a world of shifting populations, citizenship is increasingly intertwined with notions of nationality and legitimacy of residence in a country. This concept of citizenship touches on circumstance of birth, ethnicity, passport, and often a capacity to fit with (or indeed pass an examination in) some official doctrine of national identity.

The definition of active citizenship for Massar has centred on a different concept: that of fostering a sense of individual responsibility for achieving common good. Massar’s definition is more aligned with the current notion of “global citizens” – people who are aware that our communal global state (irrespective of national borders) results from an interconnected multitude of tiny individual choices and actions, and who are motivated to take action as individuals to make that communal state better. For Massar the outcome of citizenship is a healthy society (whether local, national or global) rather than nationhood.



Massar retrospective 1

Massar dates back to late 2002, and the wish by Syria’s First Lady, Her Excellency Asma Al Assad, to create a children’s museum in the country. However, during the process of defining in greater detail the purpose of such a museum in late 2004, it became clear that a much deeper and more powerful agenda for young people in Syria lay behind the First Lady’s proposal. This agenda reflected a central role for young people in building Syria’s future as a nation, the need in the country for a strong civil society as an essential complement to government and the private sector, and a strong commitment to create opportunities for young people from all walks of life.

Syria was a country in transition, and was looking to make change sustainable by building from within, respecting and retaining its distinctive cultural strengths, while investing in its long-term assets – its future generations and their whole approach to life’s new opportunities and challenges. Syria’s young people represented enormous untapped potential, not just as an economic resource but as standard-bearers for a new expression of self-directed, thoughtful and participative citizenship that could inspire and empower individuals and communities across the country.

Building active citizenship as a prevailing state of mind, in which young people would feel innately predisposed and able to seek out ways to contribute positively to their community and the wider world, while at the same time developing and fulfilling their own potential as individuals, thus became an early broad statement of purpose for Massar. Still with a children’s museum in its plan, the project’s vision and scope expanded significantly to embrace this wider social purpose.

In late 2004 there was no directly comparable project model elsewhere in the world from which Massar could draw at least basic empirical information for the design of its programmes. The emerging Massar strategy outlined a wide-ranging, national but non-governmental initiative, offering non-formal learning opportunities to young people between the ages of 5 and 21 (initially the upper age was 15, later extended). From these opportunities they could explore and develop their own potential, for their own individual fulfilment and success, and for the good of others. As a non-governmental organisation, Massar had no remit to intervene in the formal education system or any other aspect of government provision; its programmes would be independent but complementary. A long-term view would be taken of outcomes; some results might be seen immediately, but the embedding of changed attitudes and behaviour was expected to take years if not generations. In a Massar project initiation document from February 2005 its broad aim was captured as follows: ’At the heart of this project is the concept of building “active citizenship”, in which children’s growing understanding and appreciation of themselves and the world around them leads to greater direct individual responsibility and involvement. This responsibility and involvement might manifest itself in environmental or social activity, volunteering and pro bono public work, the forming of interest groups and knowledge communities, wider public debate on important issues, or in a broad range of creative outcomes. As a whole, it should stimulate new generations to be aware of issues, challenges and opportunities, to be concerned to tackle them, and to look for actions they can take by themselves or with others.’ A number of specific characteristics were included in the original design of Massar’s programmes, as follows:

  1. Understanding – Massar’s programmes would be strongly subject-based, encouraging young people to develop the skills for accessing and filtering information, analysis, critical enquiry, and building perspective from a base of relevant factual knowledge. Particular subjects and topics would be at the core of most Massar programmes and environments, and a variety of learning styles would be catered for in their presentation. This would place an emphasis on reading skills, media literacy, and field or on-line research.
  2. Choices and implications – Massar’s programmes would encourage young people to go beyond factual knowledge to seek out underlying issues and causes, to appreciate the implications of human action (or inaction), and to examine the choices that situations offer. With a small number of non-contentious exceptions, Massar would not promote any social agenda; the aim would be to encourage young people to reach their own conclusions.
  3. Responsibility – all Massar’s content and programmes would also aim create a direct connection between the appreciation of a situation and the recognition by participants of their personal connection with it and responsibility towards it.
  4. Engagement – Massar would work with young people to stimulate in them some form of direct response or action. Massar would not prefer any particular type of response; it might be creative, expressed in art or photography, or a collaborative group project, in the virtual or real world. Young people might help others or develop themselves, perhaps by choosing to study a subject further. What would matter was that young people had chosen to take some action.
  5. Empathy – at the highest level Massar would seek to build into its activities and experiences an awareness of and feeling for the situation of others, in Syria and the rest of the world.

The Massar discovery centre being built in Damascus has thus a very different intended character from a conventional children’s museum or science centre. It will take visitors on a hands-on critical thinking journey through six main topic areas called: Beginnings, Life, Our World, Ideas, Achievements, and You Can Do It. Beginnings shows how each individual is an active part of a larger whole, whether family, community, country or world. Life examines the complex connections within the living world, and mankind’s impact on it. Our World deals with the physical and inanimate world, and the risks in taking it for granted. Ideas looks at how we learn and form impressions, how our minds can sometimes be tricked, and how we create ideas, concepts and plans. Achievements looks widely at what constitutes an achievement, at lessons from the past, and at the law of unforeseen consequences. You Can Do It invites visitors to take on some aspect of active citizenship. Both the journey as a whole and the interactive treatment of each topic embody the sequential learning steps, with a resource library at the journey’s end providing the means for visitors immediately to start putting Engagement into practice. Though providing a great deal of subject knowledge as the basis for understanding and empathy, all the centre’s exhibits and activities pose questions, make connections, challenge preconceptions and raise issues, inviting young people and families to think, choose and act, not just in the centre itself but outside in the real world.

Massar’s regional centres – smaller spaces distributed across Syria providing exhibitions, activity programmes and resources, usually focussed on a subject theme – have a similar emphasis on encouraging young people to explore their world critically and develop their own potential. These centres can also play a direct role in the life of the local community, and they offer young people the platform on which they can develop pro-social awareness and habits, and the tools to put helping behaviour into practice. The centres encourage repeat visits, and build strong sense of ownership and responsibility for “their” centre among young users. The first regional centre opened in 2007 in Lattakia, and two more are currently in preparation, in Homs and Aleppo.

Massar’s touring activities have been running nationally since 2005, and though these are relatively brief one-off “permission” encounters, they are very catalytic. For younger age groups, a stage show about learning through our senses is followed by story-telling (stimulating the imagination) and an “archaeological dig” (practising touch, sight and analysis). For teenagers, the sessions are managed as a debate about identity, rights, and issues that the children themselves want to discuss. Working in teams, the teenagers produce a newspaper front page and a video clip about the subjects they choose. These debates have covered topics such as immigration, housing, violence, health and work. For many of the teenagers involved this is the first time they have engaged in a serious discussion and felt their views are being paid attention to. The programme’s animators and facilitators – known as the Green Team – have themselves have become positive role models for the children who attend the touring activities.

The Massar web portal is designed to encourage user-generated content and user moderation of the portal community’s behaviour. It is an on-line platform offering open-source web tools, a wiki-style knowledge base, discussion forums, display space for created work and a blogosphere. It provides “safe” space inasmuch as links to potentially harmful external websites are restricted, but what the portal’s users can do within the site is deliberately left as much as possible up to them. While Massar supervises and moderates to a degree, it is made clear to users that they all share the responsibility for protecting the site from abuse.

Relating both to the on-line and real worlds, E-Volunteers launched in 2007 and its young participants achieved, among other things, the creation of what has now become Syria’s national computer database of blood donors. Volunteer projects have also included organising charity events and teaching IT skills to the blind and the old. Collaborative Learning links Syrian students with counterparts round the world to work together on a topic, which is brought together in the form of a study website. E-Debate is being developed jointly with the Open Society Institute. Here young people are given training in formal debating techniques and brought together with others from around the world to exchange perspectives and argue points of view.

Much has changed since 2004 but as far as I know Massar remains unique as a national, non-governmental citizenship initiative.


Saturday, February 13, 2010



I've got/had various pieces of luggage by Tumi over the years. At present I have a very battered leather overnight bag out here with me, and at home there is a canvas (sorry, ballistic nylon) holdall in a wardrobe which gets brought out from time to time. I once had a very nice Tumi garment bag as well, which lasted a couple of trips to North America and then got stolen from my office in the V&A! I like their stuff, and some of the current range look to have addressed some of the small detail niggles I've had (like padlocks flopping about exposed rather than having somewhere to be tucked away neatly). They also have some really nice looking ranges at the moment, in particular Townhouse and LXT. Tumi seem to me to be a bit like Range Rover - products up for the toughest adventures but stylish with it. Tumi are, or should be, people who take performance seriously, and who aim to appeal to the serious traveller who wants the best kit for the job. Or at least travellers who want to be seen as serious. So I find Tumi's website rather disappointing in its lack of the basic information that serious travellers would be looking for: such as, most seriously, weight. Given that nowadays airlines are putting such a premium on weight, it seems crazy that Tumi don't state how much each suitcase weighs, not even their lightweight range! In fact the whole presentation of Tumi on the website seems curiously flat and uninteresting, as if they were laying out their range for wholesale buyers rather than real customers. There's no sense of emotional attachment, no story, no joy; it's just dry product. Pity to see such a brand opportunity go to waste.

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Tuesday, February 02, 2010



I'm lost in the beauty of a piece of music I'm listening to at the moment - Siwan by Jon Balke. This is a suite of (mainly) songs inspired by looking back at the great flowering across cultures, religions, arts and sciences in pre-1500 Andalucia and wondering what such an interplay would sound like today. The result blends Arabic and Spanish in a contemporary but timeless style, with chords that catch at the soul. Simply breathtaking. The final piece, Toda Sciencia Transcendiendo, is so simple, building from verse to verse with gradual elaboration, the title phrase repeating with ever-changing emphasis, and a haunting lift at the end of each verse. Extraordinary, uplifting stuff.



Tony Blair - Chilcott

I watched most of Tony Blair's evidence to the Chilcott enquiry on the internet. Within the terms of reference the panel did a fair, polite, but ultimately inadequate job, and left many questions unanswered, so the suspicions will remain that this will all end in a whitewash.

One of those questions is how Iraq, rather than other "axis of evil" countries, was selected by Blair. For example, North Korea has shown itself to be both madder, more malignant, worse to its own people, and WMD (nuclear) capable than Iraq was or was ever likely to be. So how was the particular threat of Iraq determined to be the highest priority? Saddam was not in bed with religious fundamentalists, in fact they were a significant risk to him, so links to Al Qaeda ("AQ" as TB kept calling them) were simply not there. Saddam had no connection with 9/11 at all; on the basis of which country actually had the most direct connection Saudi Arabia would have been high on the hit-list. One can accept that post-9/11 the UK's assessment of terrorist risk changed, but that might have produced a worldwide list of say six suspect countries. So what made Iraq specifically go to the top of that list, to be such an immediate priority that the task in Afghanistan could not be properly completed before this was taken on? Was there some form of strategic defence review post 9/11, or was it just Blair's opinion? The panel did not seem to get to grips with this, which leaves open the view that 1) the US had already determined that Iraq should be taken out, for reasons of oil but with the excuse that Saddam was a baddie (see Cheney's paper from pre 9/11), 2) Blair had already undertaken to Bush that the UK would support the US "whatever", so we were also by default committed to topple Saddam, and 3) that the urgency was imposed by a gung-ho US president with connections to the oil business wanting a successful conventional hi-tech war to boost his poll ratings, and with loopy advisers planning world domination. And the UK just went along, TB grinning and loving the plaudits, making up reasons as we went. Tragic.

Second, TB claimed that it was all going fine until Iran started meddling in things, and that noone could have foreseen this. What??? The hostility of neighbouring countries to the proposed invasion was completely apparent well before March 2003. Syria's president bluntly told TB in late 2002 that it would all end in tears. This is a region where loyalties, hostilities and rivalries are rarely defined by national borders; the regional politics are complex and far-reaching. To suppose that the invasion of Iraq by western powers was a matter that would remain to be dealt with just within the borders of Iraq is just simple-minded. So my guess is that somebody somewhere did some scenario planning on exactly the topic of how Iraq's neighbours might react. If they were not asked to plan for Iran, it's a huge and unforgiveable lapse in judgement. If they missed Iran out of the scenario planning, it's complete incompetence. If they did plan and their findings were ignored, it's criminal. So, which was it? The panel did not explore this point, and TB was allowed to get away with his claim that Iran was an unfortunate rogue variable.

There's still so much more to be uncovered.


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