Lisa Smirl, ‘Spaces of Aid’

Spaces of AidSpaces 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?

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Francis Fukuyama, ‘Political Order and Political Decay’

DecayFrancis 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? 

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Francis Fukuyama, ‘The Origins of Political Order’

Origins picThe 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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Effective altruism

William Macaskill, Doing Good Better

Peter Singer, The Most Good You Can Do

These two books provide a good introduction to the emerging movement of ‘effective altruism’ which is making waves among philanthropists, students and some development wonks too. Effective altruists seek to use reason, data and evidence to maximise the amount of ‘good’ they can do in their lives. They donate a large share of their income and engage in detailed technical discussions about which charities are most effective. There are some interesting lessons for aid donors here, but also some serious questions about effective altruism, including the way it tends to portray development as a financial and technical problem, rather than a political or social one.

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James Ferguson, ‘Give a man a fish’

This fascinatFish picing and ground-breaking book is, on the face of it, an enquiry into the new cash transfer programmes which are growing fast in Southern Africa. But in the end it’s much more: Ferguson looks deep into the politics of transfers and the way in which they may be linking to demands for a fair share in national wealth. The result is a radical – and practical – agenda for addressing the extreme poverty and inequality that persist in the world today. 

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Sarah Chayes, ‘Thieves of State’

Thieves picAnti-corruption used to be something of a policy backwater for development agencies. When I started working at DFID’s London office in 2003 I sat next to the anti-corruption team. They were an enthusiastic lot, but there were only 3½ of them, and they were working against the spirit of the times in many ways, with increasing amounts of UK aid going directly to developing country governments in the form of budget support. Nowadays, anti-corruption is flavour of the month in UK development circles. The Prime Minister is putting a lot of emphasis on it, and will hold an anti-corruption summit in May this year. There is a cross-Government anti-corruption action plan. There have been two reports on the issue from the UK aid watchdog – the Independent Commission on Aid Impact – and Parliament’s International Development Committee is now getting in on the action. The issue also seems to be getting more attention globally, with the new UN Sustainable Development Goals putting much more emphasis on corruption than the previous Millennium Development Goals. In the midst of all this, I played my own personal role in the anti-corruption ‘surge’, becoming the first (I think) dedicated anti-corruption adviser for a DFID country office, in Tanzania from 2012-2015.

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Amartya Sen, ‘The Country of First Boys’

Sen First Boys“A novel”, writes Amartya Sen, “can point to a truth without pretending to capture it exactly in some imagined numbers and formulae” – and the same could be said for this book. If you tend to agree with the consensus that Amartya Sen is one of the most important development thinkers of our time, but find your eyes glazing over when he gets into “capability vectors” or “transcendental institutionalism”, The Country of First Boys may be for you. It is an accessible introduction to the main themes of Sen’s thought, as well as a good insight into his more personal interests and priorities.

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