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  I suspect that 5, 7 and 8 may now be outdated.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.

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.

And:

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.

Finally:

“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:

 

Call for chapter contributions: researching violence

Ann Laudati and Althea-Maria Rivas are putting together a new edited volume on researching violence.  Here’s their call for abstracts.

***

Embedded in the unique spaces of violence and conflict are particular sets of issues that face researchers. These particularities present a rich but difficult terrain of inquiry for scholars attempting to navigate these complex warscapes. A scattering of instructional texts has emerged alongside the reported rise in conflict incidents around the world (HIIK 2014; UCDP 2014), however, attention to the subject of ‘doing research in violent settings’ remains lacking. Rather, the majority of textbooks on conducting research in conflict zones rarely diverges from mainstream texts despite the obvious and overwhelming evidence that the very process of working in conflict regions around the world does not fit current academic guidelines which have no clear guidelines for negotiating with warlords or working with rape survivors.

In this edited volume we aim to draw attention to the process of conducting fieldwork in conflict affected regions. Unlike previous books on the subject of doing conflict fieldwork, this edited volume does not seek to present a traditional handbook on methodologies or delineate a clear how to toolset for undertaking conflict related research.

Our purpose is to offer up a broader lens than the common focus on technical questions of methods and ethics allow. The book aims to deconstruct what it means to ‘do’ research in conflict affected or violent contexts – which we understand to be as much a reflective, emotive, and critical inquiry of the research process as it is a practical one.  This volume thus seeks to go beyond academic-centric conversations about how we can achieve rigour or handle our data collection and rather it aims to draw out the broader implications of such research efforts and our place within it.

The tone of the volume therefore is a reflective one that casts a critical eye (as much as an uncomfortably honest one) on understanding the self and practice in the process of doing research in and on conflict and violence. In this way, this volume seeks to interrogate, as much as, highlight the spaces and experiences that are overlooked in traditional methodology texts. By doing so we hope to present a more nuanced and grounded view of research that is unapologetic and unafraid to demystify and declare the messiness that is inherent in the process of research in/on violence, in order to set forth a new set of sensibilities about approaching fieldwork in conflict settings.

Papers discussing fieldwork experiences from the perspective of different academic disciplines and fields of practice are particularly welcome. Contributions may include (but are not limited to) the following broad themes:

  • The embodied politics and positionality of the researcher
  • Rumors, representations and perceptions
  • The emotive and the emotional in fieldwork
  • Collaborations, collusions, and contradictions
  • Partnerships and working with others
  • Alternative methodologies
  • Naming and negotiating power
  • Understanding the researcher self
  • Claiming and re-examining privilege
  • Race, and racism
  • Gender and identity
  • Sexuality and fieldwork
  • Diaspora and transnational research engagements
  • Fieldwork, arms, weapons and security
  • Covert missions

We especially invite contributions from a diverse suite of researchers including junior scholars, NGO staff and practitioners whom collectively will span a range of different methods, subjects, and localities. Pending funding, all invited authors will be supported to attend a two day workshop at the University of Bath through which the collection of authors will engage with one another’s work and set the groundwork for a collaboratively generated closing chapter.

Please send your abstracts by June 15, 2015 via email to either ann.laudati@bristol.ac.uk or ar826@bath.ac.uk with the subject line “Call for Chapters – Researching Conflict”.

Abstracts of no more than 450 words (ca. 1 page) should include the title, the author(s)’ name and institutional affiliation and contact details. Abstracts must clearly state the main focus/topic of the paper, the theoretical orientation (as appropriate), the locality and methodology of the fieldwork drawn upon, as well as a few sentences on how the paper fits the theme of the call. The editors will ask the authors of selected papers (max. 6-8000 words or 15-20 pages) to submit their final articles no later than November 30, 2015.

Editors:

  • Dr. Althea-Maria Rivas, University of Bath, United Kingdom
  • Dr. Ann Laudati, University of Bristol, United Kingdom

Timeline for Contributions:

  •  Deadline for abstracts: 15.06.2015
  •  Selection of abstracts by editors/decisions out: 15.07.2015
  •  Deadline for papers: 30.11.2015

Note: Once papers are submitted they will be reviewed and authors might be asked to revise their submissions in a given period of time.

What counts as “policy relevant evaluation”?

Heather Lanthorn recently wrote a great post about defining “policy relevant evaluation” that really pushed me on my priors on this concept.  As she points out:

just because research is conducted on policy does not automatically make it ‘policy relevant’ — or, more specifically, decision-relevant. it is, indeed, ‘policy adjacent,’ by walking and working alongside a real, live policy to do empirical work and answer interesting questions about whether and why that policy brought about the intended results. but this does not necessarily make it relevant to policymakers and stakeholders trying to make prioritization, programmatic, or policy decisions. in fact, by this point, it may be politically and operationally hard to make major changes to the program or policy, regardless of the evaluation outcome.  …

jeff hammer has pointed out that even though researchers in some form of applied work on development are increasingly doing work on ‘real’ policies and programs, they are not necessarily in a better position to help high-level policymakers choose the best way forward. this needs to be taken seriously, though it is not surprising that a chief minister is asking over-arching allocative questions (invest in transport or infrastructure?) whereas researchers may work with lower-level bureaucrats and NGO managers or even street-level/front-line workers, who have more modest goals of improving workings and (cost-)effectiveness of an existing program or trying something new.

I think this is a great step towards an acknowledgement that different types of research will be useful to policymakers at different levels of government and with different policy goals.  Most of the RCTs I’ve seen operate within a fairly narrow set of parameters that correlate to the types of programming decisions made by senior managers at social welfare ministries, like health or education.  There’s a specific policy goal that someone wants to achieve (improving primary school children’s reading performance), a known segment of the population targeted by the policy (children ages 5 – 16 currently enrolled in school), and a strong sense of the limits of the type of solution that can be proposed, particularly financially (we can afford one hour of tutoring per day by a literate adult, but can’t build fully equipped libraries in every town).  Within these parameters, RCTs can be a great way to evaluate the effectiveness of different types of programs that might meet this policy goal.

That said, if you change any of the parameters, RCTs are often no longer efficient way to make programming decisions.  Outside of social welfare ministries, many important policy choices either can’t be randomized (providing military support to an ally, deciding whether to invest in nuclear power) or don’t need to be (it’s already quite well-documented that expansionary monetary policy leads to inflation).  As Heather noted, RCTs frequently can’t offer much guidance to policymakers making the inherently political choice between different policy goals.  And they often don’t generate new insights effectively when the underlying process that produces a social problem, and the particular segments of the population affected by this process, aren’t known.

This is especially visible in recent RCTs examining the effects of institution-building after civil war.  While people frequently speculate that the combination of poverty, inequality, and unemployed young people increases the risk of civil war, the majority of countries fitting this description don’t ever experience war.  And even among those which do, the question of why some people choose to rebel and what can be done to prevent these people or similar ones from fighting again in the future is basically unanswered.  Virtually every country caught up in civil war has a large population of poor, politically excluded young people, but only a tiny minority of those people will ever join a rebellion, making it very difficult to figure out how to target programs aimed at reducing the likelihood of future conflict.

The point here isn’t that RCTs are useless, but that “policy relevant research” might take very different forms depending on the type of question being answered and the underlying base of knowledge about the issue.

The women of the FARDC

The New York Times is running a remarkable photo essay on Sgt. Madot Dagbinza, who was one of only about 3000 women in the 150,000-strong FARDC before she died in an ambush in 2014.  Absolutely worth a read, along with Maria Eriksson Baaz & Maria Stern’s article on the experiences of female FARDC soldiers.

fardc

The NYT piece is also notable for moving past simplistic depictions of the FARDC as an incompetent force that does nothing but rape and steal.  There are still many units who abuse civilians, but it isn’t uniform – others are better trained and better disciplined.  Christoph Vogel consulted with the NYT journalists on this aspect of the story, and has written a very good summary of the FARDC as a “chameleon army.”  Maria Eriksson Baaz’s other work on this subject is also critical reading, such as this paper with Maria Stern on soldiers’ perceptions of violence, and this paper with Judith Verweijen on how the military sometimes solves disputes between civilians in places where civilian courts are inaccessible.