More books on development for the interested generalist

I’ve read quite a few fine books on on international development since I last wrote about books on development for the interested generalist.  I still stand by books 1 -4 and 6 on that list.  I suspect that 5, 7 and 8 may now be outdated.  Here’s what I would add to the list.  Please send your suggestions in as well!

  1. Violence and Social Orders: A Conceptual Framework for Interpreting Recorded Human History, by Douglass North, Jim Wallis and Barry Weingast.  A succinct and compelling discussion of why some states become rich and stay rich over the long run, while most remain relatively poor.  Does a great job getting past arguments focused on geography or technology to look at the politics of economic growth.
  2. Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means so Much, by Sendhil Mullainathan.  A fascinating look at the cognitive effects of poverty, which are considerable.  The brief version of the argument is that people who face constant stress about whether they can afford to meet their basic needs often find it difficult to focus on making longer-term investments, such as making sure their children attend school regularly.  Could be read along with James Scott’s Weapons of the Weak as a short course on why behaviors that might look confusing to outside observers are often quite rational.
  3. Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition have Failed, by James Scott.  Essentially a treatise on standardization (of names, languages, railway gauges, what have you) and the role that this has played in many ambitiously large but ultimately unsuccessful development schemes.  Scott is a wonderful writer, and he has a gift for taking topics that might be dull in the hands of a lesser writer (like the standardization of basket sizes for paying grain taxes in medieval Europe) and finding the human drama within them.
  4. More than Good Intentions: Improving the Ways the World’s Poor Borrow, Save, Farm and Stay Healthy, by Dean Karlan & Jacob Appel, and Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty, by Esther Duflo & Abhijit Banerjee.  Both books offer a great introduction to a new type of research in economics aimed at finding effective policies to reduce poverty.  What I appreciate about this type of research is that it represents to me a type of hopeful pragmatism.  It isn’t geared toward identifying the type of big push policies that might lift a whole country out of poverty in a generation (which few states besides China have the capacity to carry out anyway), but it takes an experimental, iterative approach to finding new products and services that are useful to ordinary people in low income countries.
  5. Montaillou: The Promised Land of Error, by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie.  A truly remarkable book about daily life in a small town in the mountains of southern France in the early 14th century.  Many people in the town held Albigensian beliefs, and were subject to an inquisition by the Catholic Church, which produced exhaustive records of their interactions with their neighbors and with visiting Albigensian holy men.  Le Roy Ladurie used these records to reconstruct a richly detailed portrait of personal, political and economic life in rural France nearly 700 years ago.  It’s a poignant reminder that even today’s high income countries were once basically just as poor as anywhere else – but also that poverty doesn’t inherently have to mean isolation, deprivation, or constant unhappiness.
  6. The Zenith, by Duong Thu Huong.  A fantastic recent novel by one of Vietnam’s leading authors.  It’s an imaginative retelling of the end of Ho Chi Minh’s life in an isolated mountain villa, and how it comes to intersect with the daily lives of the people living in the small towns nearby.  Rather like Montaillou, this is a much more complex, interesting, and deeply felt portrayal of rural life in a low income country than people from high income countries are usually exposed to.

African food in the Bay Area


When I saw this recent advert for the Whole Foods-sponsored African Summer event at Berkeley’s I-House on June 17, I got quite excited about the idea that the store might finally be carrying more African foods.  Alas, it turned out to be an equally interesting but rather less delicious roundtable on social enterprise in Africa instead.  There are still some great options for African food in the Bay Area, however.  Priority Africa Network has an even more detailed list, but these are some of my favorites.

The options are by far the most plentiful for Ethiopian and Eritrean food.  To name just a few:

West Africa is also decently well-represented:

Besides these, there’s also Amawele’s South African Kitchen (San Francisco) and Man Must Wak African Caribbean Food Market (Oakland).  If anyone comes across a good east African place, please do let me know!

There are also two places which are slightly confusingly named.  Radio Africa Kitchen (San Francisco) is run by an Ethiopian chef, and is delicious, but would best be described as new American with some slight Ethiopian influence.  Chopbar (Oakland) has nothing to do with its Ghanaian namesake, although their brunch is quite good.

The myth of imperial stability

Benjanim Denison and Andrew Lebovich have a very insightful piece in The Monkey Cage refuting Robert Kaplan‘s argument that neoimperialism will bring stability back to the Middle East.  Many of their points are equally applicable to the debate about whether African states like South Sudan should be placed under neotrusteeship.  Quoting at length because they had so many good points:

More troubling, however, are Kaplan’s claims about supposedly artificial borders and the “order” brought by colonial rule. The artificial borders argument is a common myth that sadly continues to pervade policy discussions of the Middle East. Kaplan simply regurgitates the claim that the Sykes-Picot Agreement was arbitrarily drawn, and did not conform to sectarian or national realities on the ground, implying that the “artificial” borders drawn by the agreement have contributed to the sectarian strife we see today.

Complaints about artificial states imply that borders can ever be natural. While nationalist elites may like to portray borders as natural to their kin groups, around the world, states were formed through social processes involving conflict and negotiation to create the borders we see today. That’s true whether those borders have expanded, contracted, or been drawn by outsiders or insiders, but in all cases they are socially constructed and no more artificial than any other borders. To hold up some imperial divisions (like Ottoman borders) as “natural” while calling more recent colonial borders “artificial” greatly confuses the extent to which all borders are drawn through social processes, politics and violence.


The crux of Kaplan’s neoimperial argument is that imperial control over the Middle East promoted more social order and less conflict. This rosy view of imperialism misses the various forms of resistance to foreign rule and the incredible violence of colonial conquest. This is most obvious in areas that faced the most intense forms of settler colonialism, such as South Africa, Kenya or Algeria. In these countries, British and French colonial governments alike faced repeated uprisings. They regularly resorted to brutal and horrific repression and awful legal regimes like the corvée or the indigénat in North and West Africa, statutes that forced colonized peoples to provide labor for the colonial government or gave colonial officials enormous latitude to criminalize many aspects of daily life. Both existed at least in part to regulate labor and exert greater control over colonized peoples. … Imperial “order” often involves almost ceaseless bloodshed and repression, something the United States learned after “liberating” Iraq.


“Empire” is not one constant thing; it’s an idea, acted out by people, in very different ways. And imperial rule doesn’t necessarily deliver stability. The Italians struggled to consolidate rule over Ethiopia, the Ottomans faced resistance in the Balkans, and the British stumbled seriously in attempting to govern Iraq after World War I.

Kaplan and others call for imperialism-lite — without acknowledging that empires aren’t always sunny, stable and successful. Policymakers and scholars alike need accurate historical examinations of imperial rule, and need to stay alert to the ways in which local politics, outside political forces and military intervention affect countries in untold and infinitely complex ways.

Updates on Burundi

The attempted coup failed after only 36 hours, and Nkurunziza is back in Bujumbura and in control of the country.  There’s a lot of concern at the moment that the ensuing crackdown will be worse than anything that happened during the pre-coup protests.  Coup leader Godefroid Niyombare is on the run in the expectation that he’ll be killed if caught, and there are reports that soldiers have entered hospitals in the capital and killed patients thought to be involved in the coup.  A Storified sampling of some concerns I saw going around Twitter today:

burundiCara Jones has written a good summary of why tensions might continue to increase in the run-up to the May 26 election.  She’s also put together an Indiegogo campaign to support citizen journalists, who are some of the only people said to be reporting on repression outside Bujumbura.  If you want to track reports in real time, Peace Direct has an interactive map of reported insecurity and election irregularities.  For more regional context, this piece by Daniel Kalinaki is a must-read.

Coup attempted in Burundi

The story, as I understand it at the moment, is that Nkurunziza was in Tanzania for an EAC meeting.  Major-General Godefroid Niyombare, a former intelligence chief, apparently announced that the current government was dissolved shortly after Nkurunziza left the country, and named himself interim president.  What will happen if Nkurunziza tries to return to Bujumbura is anyone’s guess.  Nearly all of Burundi’s previous presidents have been overthrown in coups or assassinated (save Pierre Buyoya), so while this is a disappointing shift away from the idea that the post-Arusha military was committed to staying out of politics, it is true to precedent.

If you read French, your first stop for news should be Iwacu.  The #BurundiCoup hashtag is interesting but largely speculative.  I’m following journalists and policy analysts from Burundi and elsewhere for updates:


Packing for mobility on long trips

This summer, I’ll be spending about six weeks traveling around west Africa learning about the social protection programs being implemented in the region. I’m actually trying a new model of travel planning for this trip.  Rather than picking specific dates for each country in advance, I’m going to be based in Accra, and take cheap regional flights to other countries as promising opportunities come up.

This puts a premium on packing lightly while still looking professional.  The last time I tried to check any luggage on a trip of this length, in 2012, Kenya Airways lost my checked bags on two separate occasions and I nearly missed a connection in London after pulling my overladen suitcases through multiple Tube transfers.  Since then, I’ve been refining my carry-on only strategy, and thought I’d share it here as the latest installment in the travel advice series.  Check out the rest of the posts as well!

How to Pack

  • Invest in a waterproof duffel bag.  Having to carry the bag puts a natural limit on how much you’ll pack, as Jan Chipchase points out.  It’s also quite useful if you’ll be arriving in a place where many of the streets aren’t paved, since this undermines the purpose of a wheeled bag.  I have a duffel that’s slightly larger than regulation carry-on size, and it’s always been allowed on the plane.  There are some classic styles at Topo Designs and REI.
  • Pack no more than five days’ worth of clothing.  Everything should be business casual, with perhaps one or two pieces for more formal meetings.  Rewear what you can, or commit to doing laundry every three days.
  • Rethink your toiletry bag.  Skip the liquid shampoo and conditioner, which won’t last more than a few weeks, and pick up some solid shampoo instead.  Fill the space that this frees up with things you might have a hard time finding on arrival, like waterproof sunblock, hand sanitizer, and stain remover.
  • A tablet is the ideal travel accessory.  You can download guidebooks at the last minute with the Kindle app, install the local version of Yelp, and use the maps application to navigate without paying for data.  (When you’re connected to wifi, open the map to the area you’ll be visiting and zoom in and out to make it load at different levels of resolution.  Once you’re no longer connected to wifi or data, the app should keep the pre-loaded image on the screen, and will use GPS to track your location.)
  • Get a power bank.  Perfect for recharging when you’re on the road.  PC Advisor has a list of the rather baffling range of options for something that’s essentially a glorified battery.
  • Bring a yoga mat and resistance bands.  They’re a good in-room substitute for the gym if you’re staying in a budget hotel.  These bands have good reviews. I’ve got a PVC-free yoga mat from Gaiam that rolls up nicely to fit in the duffel, and is also perfect for airport naps on long layovers.

Other Considerations

  • Check the visa policies of all the countries you might be visiting.  The decision to offer visas on arrival or not appears to be completely random.  Don’t assume you’ll be able to get one at the airport.
  • Use a free ticket reservation to get visas for countries which want proof of a return flight.  But, you are asking, how can I get that five-year multi-entry visa for Ghana if I don’t know when I’ll be there and haven’t purchased my return ticket?   Most airlines will allow you to reserve a ticket for 24 hours without having to buy it.  Send this in as proof of your return flight.
  • Call local airlines the day before your flight to confirm your seat.  They often have small fleets and need to reschedule flights due to delays or maintenance issues.
  • Book your hotels at least a day in advance.  No good has ever come of trying to find a hotel on arrival, unless for some reason you really enjoy driving aimlessly around a new city looking for places that aren’t closed, dirty or fully booked.
  • Pretend you’re in primary school and always bring a snack.  Good for long flights with inedible meals or late night arrivals after all the airport restaurants have closed.

What other tips do you have for staying mobile?

11 ways for academics to connect with policymakers

How do policymakers access research that’s relevant to their work?  Academic publishing clearly isn’t cutting it.  Very few people outside the academy are going to make the time to check a huge list of academic journals to see when they’ve updated, skim for the handful of articles relevant to their particular interests, then pay US$30 for every article they’d like to read.

In this context, I thought this list of additional ways that researchers can connect with policymakers was very interesting.  It discusses alternate channels for sharing policy-relevant research, but also had some insightful points about ways that researchers can change the policy climate more indirectly.  Here’s a short summary.  Check out the original post for more details and examples.

  1. Produce data to be mined by policy makers
  2. Collectively come to overarching lessons about particular problems (e.g.: Page Fortna—along with many others—on peacekeeping works) (N.B. I think lesson #12 from the original post – “academic ideas can open the way for new narratives that can be widely influential in policy circles” – actually falls under this rubric)
  3. Tap research on “cases of” that yield different analogies and thus different policy responses (for instance, how popular revolutions play out yields different potential responses if you think Iran 1979 versus the Philippines 1986)
  4. Delve deeply into a particular area for rich insights into cultures and practices specific to a place
  5. Draw on research for policy advocacy through op-eds or blogs
  6. Create analysis in partnership with policymakers – more likely to happen in a think tank but also among academics that contract with governments specifically to solve policy problems
  7. Develop personal relations with individual policy makers based on long-standing research expertise
  8. Generate timely (and public) analysis of a particular policy sub-issue to put pressure on policy makers.
  9. Developing forums where policy makers and researchers meet, share experiences, and get new ideas
  10. Working with particular government offices to offer academic advice to them – think of the National Intelligence Council
  11. Academic institutions—particularly APSIA schools—train the people that go to work in the policy arena

The closing line is also especially important to keep in mind: “Ultimately, academics must recognize that influencing policy is, in most cases, a long-term process.”