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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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’”