After three decades of unprecedented success, free trade and free markets are once again under attack. This makes some people frightened and others excited. Dani Rodrik is an interesting voice to listen to on this – he’s been warning of the dangers of excessive free trade for twenty years. But he’s also aware that free trade has brought many developing countries enormous benefits. Read this book if you value balanced debate about the upsides and downsides of free markets and free trade, as well as a few ideas for how the world economy could be organised better.
Do 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.
Pankaj 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.
Boubacar 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.
Yuval 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.
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?
“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?
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?
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?
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’?