David Kennedy, ‘A World of Struggle’

Kennedy StruggleDo you consider yourself an ‘expert’? And do you think experts have a role to play in development – and in broader society – after all the criticism they have come in for in recent times (especially the Brexit vote)? A World of Struggle is a widely praised study of expertise with a provocative argument: that experts have influence not just because they advise governments but because they shape the way everyone thinks.

When I worked for DFID in Tanzania between 2012 and 2015, I often found people referring to me as an ‘anti-corruption expert’. It was a label I felt pretty uncomfortable with. It wasn’t only that I worried I didn’t know enough about corruption; I was also uncomfortable about the role of development experts in general. I felt development agencies put too much emphasis on technical expertise in, say, education, health or governance, which we ‘experts’ were expected to pick up and transfer from Vietnam to Nigeria to Pakistan without very much understanding of local politics, languages or culture.

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Pankaj Mishra, ‘Age of Anger’

Age of Anger picPankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger is a fascinating insight into the intellectual roots of our troubled times. It’s especially interesting on the psychological effects of rapid economic development. Mishra argues, controversially, that the anger we are seeing on the streets of developed and developing countries at the moment is linked closely to the economic and social changes brought about by capitalism – in other words to the successes of the development project over the past 30 years.

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Boubacar Boris Diop, ‘Kaveena’

Kaveena pic.pngBoubacar Boris Diop is “one of the giants of Francophone African Literature” but sadly not so well known to English-speaking audiences. His most recent novel, Kaveena, was published in French back in 2006 but only came out in English last year. The book is an intense read, about dark deeds in the corridors of power in a fictitious African country – but it’s also a timely meditation on ‘truth’ in an era of lies and ‘fake news’ in both rich and poor countries.

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Yuval Noah Harari, ‘Sapiens’

sapiensYuval Noah Harari’s fascinating Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind is the latest big book on the thinking person’s bookshelf, garnering praise from Barack Obama, Bill Gates and Jared Diamond among others – but as far as I know it hasn’t made many waves in ‘development’ circles yet. It should do. This is an astonishing, provocative, worldview-changing book. Read it and give it to all your friends for Christmas.

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Teju Cole, ‘Known and Strange Things’

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Teju Cole, best known in development circles for his trenchant critique of what he called ‘The White Saviour Industrial Complex’, is also a sophisticated novelist and art critic. This insightful collection of essays demonstrates Cole’s formidable knowledge and the wide range of his interests and passions. But it also points to ways in which ‘culture’ seems to be simultaneously bridging one societal divide whilst creating another one.

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John DiIulio, ‘Bring Back the Bureaucrats’

img_0244Bring Back the Bureaucrats is a small book (it’ll fit in a jacket pocket) with a big message. John DiIulio argues powerfully and persuasively that the main problem with US Government is not that it’s overbloated but that it’s understaffed. DiIulio takes aim at the false economy of preventing the federal government from hiring more bureaucrats, whilst it delivers its huge and increasingly complex programmes through a vast array of contractors, sub-contractors, and non-profit organisations, as well as state and local governments. It’s a thought provoking argument which has significant implications for the development business, as we too deliver more aid through a range of proxies from multilaterals to NGOs to private companies.  Continue reading “John DiIulio, ‘Bring Back the Bureaucrats’”

John Gray, ‘The Soul of the Marionette’

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John Gray is a powerful critic of ideas of ‘progress’ and ‘development’, probably most famous for his Straw Dogs (2002). His latest offering searches deep into ideas of what freedom means to humans, and whether it is worth defending. Gray’s critique of the erosion of freedoms in rich countries is penetrating, but he also offers food for thought for those involved in development. Are visions of ‘making the world a better place’ helpful in motivating us to do our work, or do they ultimately do more harm than good?

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