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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Edward Wilson-Lee, ‘Shakespeare in Swahililand’

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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Susan Pedersen, ‘The Guardians’

The GuardiaGuardians picns 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.

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José Eduardo Agualusa, ‘A General Theory of Oblivion’

Oblivion pic

This harrowing and beautiful novel is based on an extraordinary true story. Ludovica Fernandes Mano walled herself up in her apartment in Luanda, Angola for 28 years – in fact, for the entire duration of the Angolan civil war (1975-2002). In telling her story, Agualusa gives us some fleeting glimpses of what life was like in those troubled times – but more importantly, tackles the difficult question of how those days should now be remembered, or forgotten.

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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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