24 April 2013 § Leave a Comment
Along the lines of Adam Elkus’ shared reading lists, here’s what I’ve picked up recently, along with their Amazon summaries:
- Catherine Boone, Political Topographies of the African State. “Examines political regionalism in Africa and how it affects forms of government, and prospects for democracy and development. Boone’s study is set within the context of larger theories of political development in agrarian societies. It features a series of compelling case studies that focus on regions within Senegal, Ghana, and Côte d’Ivoire and ranges from 1930 to the present.”
- Danny Hoffman, The War Machines: Young Men and Violence in Sierra Leone and Liberia. “Considers how young men are made available for violent labor both on the battlefields and in the diamond mines, rubber plantations, and other unregulated industries of West Africa. Based on his ethnographic research with militia groups in Sierra Leone and Liberia during those countries’ recent civil wars, Hoffman traces the path of young fighters who moved from grassroots community-defense organizations in Sierra Leone during the mid-1990s into a large pool of mercenary labor. Hoffman argues that in contemporary West Africa, space, sociality, and life itself are organized around making young men available for all manner of dangerous work. Drawing on his ethnographic research over the past nine years, as well as the anthropology of violence, interdisciplinary security studies, and contemporary critical theory, he maintains that the mobilization of West African men exemplifies a global trend in the outsourcing of warfare and security operations. A similar dynamic underlies the political economy of violence in Iraq, Afghanistan, and a growing number of postcolonial spaces.”
- Peter Little, Somalia: Economy Without State. “In the wake of the collapse of the Somali government in 1991, a “second” or “informal” economy based on trans-border trade and smuggling is thriving. While focusing primarily on pastoral and agricultural markets, Peter D. Little demonstrates that the Somalis are resilient and opportunistic and that they use their limited resources effectively. While it is true that many Somalis live in the shadow of brutal warlords and lack access to basic health care and education, Little focuses on those who have managed to carve out a productive means of making ends meet under difficult conditions and emphasizes the role of civic culture even when government no longer exists. Exploring questions such as, Does statelessness necessarily mean anarchy and disorder? Do money, international trade, and investment survive without a state? Do pastoralists care about development and social improvement? This book describes the complexity of the Somali situation in the light of international terrorism.”
- Richard Reid, Warfare in African History. “Examines the role of war in shaping the African state, society, and economy. Richard J. Reid helps students understand different patterns of military organization through Africa’s history; the evolution of weaponry, tactics, and strategy; and the increasing prevalence of warfare and militarism in African political and economic systems. He traces shifts in the culture and practice of war from the first millennium into the era of the external slave trades, and then into the nineteenth century, when a military revolution unfolded across much of Africa. The repercussions of that revolution, as well as the impact of colonial rule, continue to this day. The frequency of coups d’états and civil war in Africa’s recent past is interpreted in terms of the continent’s deeper past.”
- Thomas Risse (ed.), Governance Without a State? “For readers who think the world is steadily moving toward the Westphalian ideal of a universal system of sovereign states, this book will be a revelation. For readers who despair at the chronic problem of weak and failing states, this book contains intriguing ideas about alternative forms of stable governance.”
28 October 2012 § Leave a Comment
From Rysazrd Kapuscinski in The Shadow of the Sun, a collection of his travel writing on Africa:
Even if you are far from the capital and, moreover, have not been listening to the radio…the behavior of the policemen and soldiers on guard [at a roadblock] will tell you a lot about the situation within the country. If, the minute you have come to a stop, and without so much as asking you a single question, they begin shouting and punching, it means that the country is under a dictatorship, or that there is war, but if they walk up to you, smile, extend their hands, and politely say ‘You probably know that we earn very little,’ it means that you are driving through a stable, democratic country, in which elections are free and human rights are observed (p. 156).
Kapuscinski has an eye for official intrigue, and the political articles in Shadow retain their interest, from portraits of Ghana’s post-independence leaders in 1958 to a blow-by-blow account of Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi’s 1966 coup in Nigeria to the Liberian civil war in the early 1990s. He does less well at social commentary, producing some cringe-worthy statements like “Everything [about the African environment] appears in an inflated, unbridled, hysterically exaggerated form… From birth till death, the African is on the front line, sparring with his continent’s exceptionally hostile nature, and the mere fact that he is alive…is his greatest triumph” (p. 317). Skip the sweeping generalizations and it’s worth a read.
25 September 2012 § 4 Comments
I came back to Kinshasa: Tales of the Invisible City more than a year after I first picked it up and ended up admiring all the images rather than reading it. Kinshasa takes its title from Italo Calvino’s great paean to architecture and the human imagination, Invisible Cities. Specifically it is taken from the tale of Valdrada, a city on a lakeshore whose every building and happening is mirrored by the city reflected in the water. As Calvino writes, “The two Valdradas live for each other, their eyes interlocked; but there is no love between them.” Author Filip De Boeck and photographer Marie-Francoise Plissart use this as a starting point for their exploration of the connections between Kinshasa and a number of mirror realities: the city and the forest, Africa and Europe, the waking world and the world of spirits.
De Boeck and Plissart collected the stories and photos that compromise this book in 2001 and 2002, during the last days of the second war, and it’s influenced as well by the time which De Boeck spent doing anthropological research in eastern and southern Congo in the late 1980s and 1990s. I kept thinking of this in reading the tales of Kinois working to support themselves, find security, and manage their social relations – that most of the people interviewed had grown up amid the slow-motion collapse of Mobutu’s state, and had more recently lived through the violent social and political upheavals of the wars.
What strikes me most about these stories is their pervasive sense of longing. In the face of systemic poverty and insecurity, mythologies of comfort and ease spring up in various ways. Migration is one of the more obvious tropes in this vein. As De Boeck writes, “Europe is malili, cool, whereas Africa is moto, hot, full of suffering. For most, the ideal of [the West] conjures up a world without responsibilities. ‘Something is broke? … Bring it to the white man and he will fix it’ sang [popular singer] Pepe Kalle” (p. 47). The spirit world also offers the promise of riches, with De Boeck relating the story of a man who claimed to be able to enter the spirit world at will in order to take on wealthy female spirits as lovers, and to control a python which vomited money. Even street children, cast out of their homes as witches amid accusations that they engaged in cannibalism, inverted this condemnation by developing stories of the ways in which the human body can be converted to material riches. As a twelve-year old accused of witchcraft explained, “In the human body, everything is useful. The blood is fuel, diesel … and red wine… The backbone is a radio, a satellite telephone; … the head is a cooking pot; … the eyes are mirrors, a television, a telescope” (p. 183). De Boeck neither asserts nor challenges the factual accuracy of this story, but lets it stand on its own as an example of the “witchcraft idiom of … immediate access to the fruits of modernity” (p. 183).
These mythologies are not uncomplicated, however. Even as Europe is acknowledged as a place of ease, the struggles of Congolese migrants to find well-paying jobs and suitable housing are placed in contrast to this narrative. The money vomited by the spirit python eventually kills the people who handle it, as no one can care about wealth that much without being poisoned by it. And the witch-children’s stories of effortless accumulation of modern technologies stand in poignant contrast to the powerlessness of these street children, some as young as five, in daily life.
Montage of Kinshasa from the book’s frontispiece
For that matter, Kinshasa itself is not depicted as a place of endless grinding struggle, but of struggle interspersed with solidarity and diversion – a boxing match, a church service, old American Westerns showing at a cinema. Plissart’s photos do a wonderful job of capturing the diversity of enterprises and social structures which populate the city. This is the real strength of Kinshasa: its authors’ ability to step away from the lenses of poverty and corruption through which it is so often viewed, and take its inhabitants’ lives seriously on their own terms.
13 February 2012 § 1 Comment
Only eight months after I finished the book, I thought I’d finally review More Than Good Intentions, by Dean Karlan and Jacob Appel. Dean is my supervisor at Innovations for Poverty Action, as well as the organization’s founder, and what I particularly appreciated about the book was its clear explanation of how academic research in behavioral economics can lead to solutions for real problems of social policy in the developing world. Given the level of popular discontent with neoclassical economics, fairly or unfairly, after the financial crisis, works like this go a long way towards demonstrating that the economist’s conceptual toolbox can contribute to making the world a better place.
More Than Good Intentions opens with a short review of the Easterly-vs.-Sachs saga, and essentially sidesteps the debate about whether aid ever works with a call for more evaluation of extant aid programs. Their chosen tool is the randomized controlled trial. Of course, there are any number of development problems that are not amenable to randomized evaluation. Questions about the ethnicized distribution of government resources or the transnational funding networks of rebel groups really call out for other epistemological approaches. What RCTs can do well is evaluate program-based aid in contexts where funding shortages mean that some potential beneficiaries can’t be included, and this is precisely the approach taken by the research projects summarized in the book.
The rest of the book is thematically structured around financial activities (borrowing, saving, consumption) and non-financial activities (agriculture, healthcare, education). The financial sections of the book are the best non-technical introduction to the topic that I’ve seen. Dean’s interests tend towards microfinance and decision-making, and these chapters give a thorough overview of contemporary Western narratives around microfinance and the many reasons why the financial needs of the poor are more varied than simply “getting a loan.” For instance, whilst an RCT conducted in South Africa showed that randomly extending microfinance loans to people who otherwise wouldn’t have gotten one did raise those clients’ incomes, qualitative data from the Philippines also showed that the rigid structure of microfinance products drives many people back to the neighborhood moneylender. (The takeaway here isn’t that moneylenders are evil, but that microfinance banks might take a lesson in customizable loan repayments from them.) Another RCT in Peru used list randomization [PDF] to show that nearly a third of microfinance clients use their loans for household consumption instead of business needs – technically a violation of their loan agreements, but a more accurate reflection of their current financial needs.
The non-financial chapters are also consistently interesting, although they tend towards summarizing notable research and policy innovations rather than placing the results within a global context. They’re like the greatest hits of development research. For instance, the agriculture chapter doesn’t provide an overview of agricultural modernization attempts in Africa, but it does shed light on why Kenyan farmers don’t purchase fertilizer when they need it (it’s hard for them to save money after the harvest), and how Ghanaian pineapple farmers spread information about new agricultural technologies. Similarly, the education chapter doesn’t go into great depth about the history of universal primary education, but it does demonstrate that programs as simple as providing uniforms or cash grants to poor students can dramatically improve attendance. One of the most remarkable studies of recent years showed that treating Kenyan students for intestinal worms with a twenty-cent pill reduced absence rates by up to 25%. This result was so spectacular that the researchers started an NGO, Deworm the World, dedicated to reproducing this success.
All in all, More Than Good Intentions makes a strong case for the relevance of behavioral economics to development policy. It’s also an excellent popular introduction to some of the fundamental questions of foreign aid and development economics. I gave a copy to my parents to answer their perennial question of “so what exactly do you do in development work again?” So far it seems to be working.
9 February 2012 § 5 Comments
Burundi is a fascinating place. It’s one of the few nations that survived the transition from pre-colonial polity to Westphalian state with its original territory mostly intact, which could be a history lesson all by itself; its pattern of ethnicized access to resources and resultant political violence is just as heartbreaking as Rwanda’s; it’s utterly beautiful. (Check out the second photo here.) And it’s an excellent case study in the ways in which our Western gaze towards Africa is pulled towards the topics we find it easy to understand: natural resources & wildlife, unusually large-scale or savage violence, apartheid, piracy. Lacking much by the way of resources and unique fauna, its civil war somehow deemed less interesting than the Rwandan genocide, and (happily) free of “whites only” signs and pirates, Burundi is turned into a blank spot on our imagined map of Africa.
This came through quite clearly when I was researching post-conflict ethnic reconciliation in Burundi for my independent study last semester. There’s nowhere near the richness of the literature on Congo or Rwanda, although it seems that there’s a promising crop of young researchers like Cara Jones, Meghan Lynch & Cyrus Samii who have ongoing projects in the country. That said, there are still a few good books to start with.
- I haven’t read this yet, but The Great Lakes of Africa: Two Thousand Years of History by Jean-Pierre Chretien looks like it contains a great overview of pre-colonial Burundi.
- Burundi: Ethnic Conflict and Genocide, by Rene Lemarchand. Published in 1996, it covers the period from colonization to Melchior Ndadaye’s death in 1993, at the start of the civil war. Lemarchand is one of the foremost Burundi scholars around, and it’s a lucid take on the way in which the country’s ethnic divide grew steadily deeper and more violent over the course of the 20th century.
- The Dynamics of Violence in Central Africa, also by Lemarchand, collects several of the author’s recent essays on Burundi. Not nearly as thorough as his earlier book, but useful for getting up to speed on Burundian politics through the 2005 elections.
- I relied heavily on two articles in writing my paper: “Ethnicity and Political Violence: The Challenge to the Burundi State” [PDF] by Patricia Daley, and “Making Peace after Genocide: Anatomy of the Burundi Process” [PDF] by Howard Wolpe. The former is a readable overview of the Burundian civil war, whilst the latter analyzes the drawn-out peace negotiations that finally ended the war in 2005.
- Life After Violence: A People’s Story of Burundi, by Peter Uvin, is my favorite book on the country. After the war’s end, Uvin interviewed several hundred ordinary citizens about daily life in contemporary Burundi. He’s a thoughtful chronicler, and it’s great to see the opinions of average Burundians taken seriously. [Update as of 30 March 2012: I've heard more recently that other Burundi scholars have doubts about the representativeness of Uvin's sample and the quality of his questionnaires. So now I'm not sure what to make of his conclusions.]
- Burundi: Biography of a Small African Country, by Nigel Watt, offers up a less academic take on the country’s history, also peppered with extensive quotes from Watt’s Burundian friends.
26 April 2011 § 8 Comments
In the spirit of my recent post about what to read on Rwanda, here’s my take on the DRC:
- King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa, by Adam Hochschild. If you’re even remotely interested in the Congo, you will doubtlessly have had this book recommended to you. This is for an excellent reason. Hochschild is an engaging writer, and draws a detailed picture of the merciless colonial origins of the DRC. Jan Vansina also has a new book out covering the colonial period, called Being Colonized: The Kuba Experience in Rural Congo, 1880 – 1960, which I haven’t read yet.
- In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz: Living on the Brink of Disaster in Mobutu’s Zaire, by Michaela Wrong. A readable popular account of the Mobutu years. Ngugi wa Thiong’o's latest book, Wizard of the Crow, is an enjoyable fictional account of life under a dictatorship partially based on Mobutu’s 37-year rule.
- Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa, by Jason Stearns. Stearns is one of the most knowledgeable people around on the Congo (see his blog for proof of this), and his recent book is thoroughly researched and remarkably clear in its depiction of the complex wars that wracked the DRC from 1996 to 2003. Gerard Prunier’s From Genocide to Continental War covers largely the same territory as Stearns’, but plunges even more unsparingly into the thicket of local politics and important detail.
- The Congo wars have received a fair amount of additional literary attention, and I haven’t read all the recent works on the topic yet. Based on a speech she gave at SAIS recently, I’m looking forward to Severine Autesserre’s The Trouble with the Congo: Local Violence and the Failure of International Peacebuilding very much. I have not read Rene Lemarchand’s Dynamics of Violence in Central Africa or Filip Reyntjens’ The Great African War: Congo and Regional Geopolitics, 1996 – 2006. I have read Thomas’ Turner’s The Congo Wars: Conflict, Myth and Reality, but didn’t find it very analytically useful.
20 April 2011 § 15 Comments
Having received a few requests recently for books on Rwanda & the genocide, I thought I’d list those that I’ve personally found most valuable in understanding the peri-genocidal state:
- Antecedents to Modern Rwanda: The Nyiginya Kingdom, by Jan Vansina. A must-read for understanding the political, economic, and social organization of pre-colonial Rwanda, and the deleterious way that colonialism interacted with the extant social identities of “Hutu” and “Tutsi.” Alison Des Forges’ Defeat is the Only Bad News: Rwanda Under Musinga, 1986 – 1931 and Catherine Newbury’s The Cohesion of Oppression: Clientship and Ethnicity in Rwanda, 1960 – 1960 cover the same period, although I haven’t read either yet.
- The Rwanda Crisis: History of a Genocide, by Gerard Prunier. The most comprehensive history of the genocide that I’ve yet read. Prunier is a formidable researcher, and he covers the period from independence up to the late 1990s in considerable detail and from a cogent analytical perspective. His later research caused him to question this book’s favorable portrayals of Paul Kagame during several internal RPF struggles which took place during the 1990 – 1994 civil war, but I don’t think that detracts from the insight of the vast majority of analysis here. Mahmood Mamdani’s When Victims Become Killers provides a similar look at the historical roots of the genocide.
- The Order of Genocide: Race, Power and War in Rwanda, by Scott Straus. Straus does incredible work investigating the microdynamics of the genocide, with specific attention to the way in which the national-level order to commit genocide was transmitted through various levels of political machinery, and actualized in slaughter at the local level. This book should put to rest once and for all the misconception that the genocide was an unpremeditated outburst of “ancient tribal hatreds.” Lee Ann Fuji’s Killing Neighbors: Webs of Violence in Rwanda, which I haven’t read yet, looks like another excellent work on the genocide’s microdynamics.
- Machete Season: The Killers in Rwanda Speak, Life Laid Bare: The Survivors in Rwanda Speak, and The Antelope’s Strategy: Living in Rwanda After the Genocide, by Jean Hatzfeld. Hatzfeld is a French journalist who conducted extensive interviews with genocide perpetrators and victims in the mid-1990s (for Machete and Life), and then again in the early 2000s (Antelope). Machete and Life offer an incomparable into the human side of the local-level political violence that Straus documented in Order, whilst Antelope is a sobering reminder that the wounds of the genocide are still very much open for most Rwandans. Essential reading.
- Remaking Rwanda: State-Building and Human Rights After Mass Violence, edited by Scott Straus & Lars Waldorf. Published in 2011, this essay collection offers a fascinating look into social policy and domestic politics 15 years after the genocide.
What else would you recommend? (Update: see the comments for some additional recommendations!)
8 January 2010 § 33 Comments
A friend recently asked me for a list of interesting books on development, and I thought I’d share the results here. I read almost randomly in the field when I was still trying to narrow my initial broad interest in development down into something of which a career could be made, and the books below generally struck me as the most interesting, accessible, and generally well-supported introductions to their respective subject areas that I came across. (I haven’t read some of these in years, but in retrospect I think they’d all stand up decently to a reader with greater existing knowledge of development.) In roughly descending order of intellectual impact upon me:
- Development as Freedom, by Amartya Sen, is one of the best books I’ve read on the general concept of “development.” It addresses a number of common critiques, and creates a strong philosophical framework to support the argument that “development” is still necessary.
- Portfolios of the Poor is my favorite book of 2009 – an incredibly thoroughly-researched look into what poor people do with their money and how microfinance plays into this. I don’t remember learning more from a single book, well, probably ever.
- Understanding Poverty is a great introduction to a huge range of issues in development, from food security to education to microfinance. It’s written by a group of leading development economists, often from a behavioral perspective, and the thought contained here is both wide-ranging and rigorous.
- This is a bit quirky compared to the other recommendations, but I very much liked Expectations of Modernity, an ethnography of Zambian copper miners in the ’70s and ’80s. The description probably sounds boring, but it’s actually a great critique of the idea that people from the developing world who act in “Western” styles are blindly mimicking the West, instead of consciously bringing elements of Western culture into their lives in ways that reflect their own social & economic interests. It basically lays out a strong case for relativistic understandings of culture, which I find hugely important for any development worker, without framing it with that potentially off-putting phrase.
- The Bottom Billion has held up better in retrospect than its two better-known contemporaries, The End of Poverty and The White Man’s Burden, at least in my recollection. In a foreshadowing of my current interests, I liked its focus on research methodology in macroeconomics (i.e. where all that data underlying cross-country regressions comes from), and its quantitative look at the connections between war, governance and poverty. (Edit: David Roodman points out his own and Easterly‘s critiques of Collier for data mining in Wars, Guns and Votes, and believes that they’re applicable to The Bottom Billion as well. I’d suggest enjoying the intellectual curiosity of Collier’s research, but taking his statistical results with a grain of salt.)
- I can’t offer too much on the subject of public health, but I did greatly enjoy The Wisdom of Whores, which is an engaging book about health systems responses to HIV from the ’80s onwards, told by an irreverent epidemiologist with whom I would very much like to have a drink one day. It’s also a great critical look at where public health data comes from, how it’s used, and to some degree why governments and international organizations choose the health priorities that they do.
- Making Globalization Work is something I recalled as insightful on the topics of global financial institutions, markets and trade at the time I read it.
- I’ve been trying to find a good overview of the World Bank that I read for a geography class a few years ago, and while I’m not sure that I’ve identified it, The World Bank: From Reconstruction to Development to Equity looks like it covers similar subject matter. I found tracing the Bank’s historical evolution quite interesting, as it also captures the variety of Western thought on “development” that’s occurred over the past 50 years, and explains quite a lot as well about current bilateral and multilateral aid regimes.
Tell me, dear readers, what else would you recommend for the interested lay reader?