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?
Continue reading “John Gray, ‘The Soul of the Marionette’”
“Summer Reading”… a chance to catch up on important books you feel you should have read? Or the only time of the year you can get away from it all? I don’t know about you, but when I go on holiday I’d rather take a novel with me than a heavy development book. So here is my recommendation for reading this summer: * Jowhor Ile’s And After Many Days. It’s already been showered with praise by the big shots of contemporary African fiction including Taiye Selasi, Binyavanga Wainaina and Igoni Barrett. But does the first novel by Nigeria’s ‘new star’ live up to the hype?
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Spaces of Aid is an intriguing book on a neglected subject: the increasing trend towards aid workers barricading themselves away from ‘target populations’ in fortified compounds, four wheel drives and grand hotels. The book gives academic credibility to some ‘home truths’ many development workers will recognise, and contains some interesting insights on the post-tsunami reconstruction of Aceh, Indonesia. But does it actually include any lessons from the people that it says aid agencies are losing touch with – the people they are trying to help?
Continue reading “Lisa Smirl, ‘Spaces of Aid’”
Francis Fukuyama’s second tome in his massive history of the state charts the process of state-building from around 1800 to the present, looking at a range of countries from the US and Europe through Latin America, Africa and East Asia. The book argues controversially that the main challenge facing many developing countries today is not lack of democracy but lack of a competent, effective state. The process of state-building is of course deeply political – but is there also a role for economic development programmes in supporting political reform?
Continue reading “Francis Fukuyama, ‘Political Order and Political Decay’”
The Origins of Political Order, Volume 1 of Francis Fukuyama’s monumental two-volume history of the state, is a readable and compelling account of political development over the past few thousand years. Its ambition is prodigious, seeking to account for the development of the state “from Prehuman Times to the French Revolution” – Volume 2, which I’ll review next, takes the story up to the present day. It’s full of interesting insights, from politics amongst chimps to the machinations of slave-bureaucrats in the Ottoman Empire. But has Fukuyama moved away from his earlier controversial view that in liberal democracy the world has reached ‘the end of history’?
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Today is 400 years since Shakespeare’s death, so here’s my contribution to the celebrations. Edward Wilson-Lee’s Shakespeare in Swahililand is an account of the wide range of influences Shakespeare has had in East Africa from the late nineteenth century to the present day. Mixing travel writing with history and literary criticism, Wilson-Lee tells a story which starts with Victorian adventurers and ends with new translations of Shakespeare in Tanzania, Ethiopia and South Sudan.
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The Guardians is a fascinating account of the League of Nations’ ‘mandate system’, put in place to oversee administration of former German and Ottoman colonies between the wars. It provides a great insight into the early history of ‘development’ efforts and how colonial powers tried to justify and explain them to an international public. Perhaps even more important, the book reminds us how fragile ‘internationalism’ is once great powers lose interest in it – a tough lesson for our own times.
Continue reading “Susan Pedersen, ‘The Guardians’”