Monday, 9 March 2009

Letter from Tirana

Yes, that is Tirana, as in the Capital of Albania. EUCLID - the European Third Sector Leaders Network set up by ACEVO - is running a conference on leadership development for the heads of the incipient Albanian civil society. It opens tomorrow with an introduction by HM's Ambassador.

A strange country! It must have been very weird when run by mad Enver Hoxha. On the way from the airport we drive past numerous of the 700,000 bunkers he had built. Some are now painted in jolly colours! Still, it occurred to me that must have been one hell of a job creation exercise. Might not catch on in rural England, but perhaps a pilot in Lambeth as unemployment rises?

And it was here in Albania that they perfected pyramid investment schemes. As the guide book amusingly puts it, "the banks offered a rate of return that people with any experience of Western capitalism would have known was unsustainable."

When the pyramid banks collapsed in 1996 they rioted, burning the banks and state offices! We are so much more civilised. Why we give our errant bankers nice pensions and big bonuses so they don't get cold in the winter.

I'm in a hotel on what must once have been a pleasantly wooded mountainside overlooking Tirana. But developers are rapidly chopping down the trees to replace them with jerry-built and depressingly ugly buildings; most of them without planning permission and funded through the proceeds of organised crime.

It is clear that in the emerging democracies of the Balkans, a strong civil society is needed to ensure a democracy that actually means something to communities.

Civil society needs strong leaders. It is a mistake to think that in developing the institutions of the third sector you can only spend money on projects and neglect the capacity of the organisation itself: that means spending money to develop leadership. Now that will be a challenge here, as one tries to distinguish the saints from the sinners; this is not exactly a country dedicated to promoting the common good and the ethical use of public money.

But I left the UK with great news. Futurebuilders has won the contract to run the Department of Health's £100m Social Enterprise Investment Fund. There was strong competition for this contract. We teamed up with Partnerships UK and with the Innovation Exchange in support. It proved the winning ticket.

It's fantastic news and a great fillip for our CEO, Jonathan Lewis, and his team. He and his colleagues put in mega effort to get this right. And it's tremendous to have such a vote of confidence in the way we are now running Futurebuilders. Our engaged investor model, with quick access to capital and minimum bureaucracy is working.

It means that the base we have to invest in promoting social enterprise and third sector service delivery is strengthened - now a £330m capital fund. As we build our sector to play a leading role in promoting economic recovery it's essential to have a strong social investor. Rock on!

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