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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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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Chigozie Obioma, ‘The Fishermen’

Fishermen picIt’s perhaps a surprising thought, but a novel can often give a clearer picture of issues in development than a hundred policy papers or academic articles. If you are flummoxed by the jargon of ‘corruption as a collective action problem’, for example, and want to know what it actually feels like – read Ayi Kwei Armah’s The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, or even a Raymond Chandler novel. Both will give you a sense of how difficult it is to be the only person trying to be honest “in a world where it’s out of style”. I’m a great believer in the power of fiction to make issues in development more real, to help them reach a wider audience and even to raise different issues than those brought up by the policy literature. Because, as David Lewis, Dennis Rodgers, and Michael Woolcock, argue in a brilliant 2005 article ‘The Fiction of Development’, policy and academic writing about development tends to construct development problems in particular ways which justify interventions by technical ‘experts’, whereas fiction can emphasise different aspects of the development process – the human, the moral, the political – which are too often ignored in academic or policy accounts.

The first novel I’m going to review here on Development Book Review is Chigozie Obioma’s The Fishermen, shortlisted for the Booker prize last year. It’s a gripping story but has a serious purpose too: the author describes it as “a wake-up call to a dwindling nation – Nigeria.” Continue reading “Chigozie Obioma, ‘The Fishermen’”

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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Steven Radelet, ‘The Great Surge’

Great Surge pic

Welcome to Development Book Review! I hope you enjoy the reviews on this site, and that they’re useful.

In this blog I’d like to review books by both development advocates and critics –those who celebrate development progress and those who take a more critical stance. The first book I’m going to review is definitely in the former camp. Steven Radelet’s The Great Surge is an account of how the past 20 years have been “a time of the greatest development progress among the global poor in the history of the world”.

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