Books ‘n’ Such

This list was developed shortly after my return from Africa in 2009. Therefore, the focus is on international development with a particular emphasis on Africa. If you want to learn more, here are a few resources you might find useful.

Titles with an asterisk (*) are ones I have read. The others  still on the ‘to read’ list. Come back now and again, because I will add titles to the list.

I look forward to your suggestions to supplement this list.

*Collier, Paul. The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries are Failing and What Can Be Done About It. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Paul Collier’s book is considered a landmark publication in the world of development and was required reading for the team I was with. It was also recommended to us by partners in Africa. Written by an academic, the book is a tough slog and can only be taken in small chunks. However, it has lots of well researched information and interesting insights. He has identified four ‘traps’ that keep the bottom 50 or so poorest countries of the world from developing, but is causing them to decline further. He also proposes solutions to those problems. An essential read, if you have the patience.

*Corbett, Steve and Brian Fikkert. When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor…and Yourself. Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2009.

Great stuff and very thought-provoking. It reinforced my feeling that we as Westerners are culturally driven and feel a need to rush in to fix things, often with the unintended result of disempowering the people we are trying to help. Equally relevant to local and international contexts.

[publisher’s blurb]: Churches and individual Christians typically have faulty assumptions about the causes of poverty, resulting in the use of strategies that do considerable harm to poor people and themselves. Don’t let this happen to you, your ministry or ministries you help fund! A must read for anyone who works with the poor or in missions, When Helping Hurts provides foundational concepts, clearly articulated general principles and relevant applications. The result is an effective and holistic ministry to the poor, not a truncated gospel.

*Easterly, William. The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good. New York: Penguin, 2007.

[publisher’s blurb] From one of the worlds best-known development economists, an excoriating attack on the tragic hubris of the Wests efforts to improve the lot of the so-called developing world. In his previous book, “The Elusive Quest for Growth,” William Easterly criticized the utter ineffectiveness of Western organizations to mitigate global poverty, and he was promptly fired by his then-employer, the World Bank. “The White Mans Burden” is his widely anticipated counterpunch, a brilliant and blistering indictment of the Wests economic policies for the worlds poor.

*Maathai, Wangari. the Challenge for Africa. Anchor, 2009.

Here’s the same issue of development as Easterly and Collier, but from a different perspective. Wangari Maathai brings together a unique perspective of populism, politics, anthropology, history and environmentalism. A Noel laureate, environmentalist and former politician in Kenya, Ms. Maathai focuses on empowering the average citizen in ‘civil society’ as her solution to poverty and social dislocation in subsaharan Africa. I found the book quite refreshing after all those earnest books on the ‘Africa situation’ by economists. Some interesting ethno-cultural perspectives were added to the discussion. This book is a good starting point if you’ve read nothing on the topic — an approachable style yet well researched.  However, I sometimes got the feeling she really just wanted everybody to play nicely at the tea party. Am I being cynical?

*McCall Smith, Alexander. The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency. New York: Anchor, 2003.

Yes, this is fiction, but this entire series, which begins with The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, gives the reader a delightful insight into the culture of sub-Saharan Africa. Look beyond the plot lines and you will see everyday African life played out. The books take place in and around Gabarone, Botswana, but there is, I see now, a great deal of similarity in the culture with Zambia. It is a gentle read, but fun nonetheless. By the way, when you read ‘porridge’, I think he’s referring to the universal starch in sub-Saharan Africa of white corn meal boiled thick. Each region has its own name for it: sadza, nshima, sima, shima, ugali.

*Moyo, Dambisa. Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009.

Ms. Moyo is a Zambian-born economist with very impressive credentials. Using the research of Paul Collier and others as her launching point, she promotes free-market economics rather than bilateral aid as the way to elevate the poor countries of Africa. She has a strong bias toward a capitalist model which I didn’t always agree with. However, I must concede she makes some convincing arguments about the damaging effects of aid and how leveraging the world capital markets could be a better way.

*Nolen, Stephanie. 28: Stories of AIDS in Africa. Toronto and New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007.

This is a most compelling read. Canadian journalist Stephanie Nolen chronicles the stories of 28 people affected by AIDS in Africa—one story for each of the 28 million people in Africa affected by the disease. Each story has also been carefully selected to describe different aspects of AIDS and how the continent is affected; from farmers, sex trade workers, truck drivers, medical professionals and victims of war to politicians and family members. Well worth the read.

*Sachs, Jeffrey. The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time. London: Penguin, 2005.

[publisher’s blurb] Marrying vivid eyewitness storytelling to his laserlike analysis, Jeffrey Sachs sets the stage by drawing a vivid conceptual map of the world economy and the different categories into which countries fall. Then, in a tour de force of elegance and compression, he explains why, over the past two hundred years, wealth has diverged across the planet in the manner that it has and why the poorest nations have been so markedly unable to escape the cruel vortex of poverty. The groundwork laid, he explains his methods for arriving, like a clinical internist, at a holistic diagnosis of a country’s situation and the options it faces.

My comments: I nearly stopped reading this book several times during the first half. To me it started out as an immodest retelling of his accomplishments at turning faltering economies around, almost single-handedly. Perhaps he was just establishing his credentials. However, the second half becomes more humane and it’s worth persevering to get to it. As he says, a visit to Africa was an epiphany for him and it shows in the telling. For, in the remainder of the book, he pushes his own exploits to the backstage and focuses more on extreme poverty, especially in Africa, and why some countries can move forward and others cannot. A couple of chapters stand out: the discussions of why  most of sub Saharan Africa is trapped in extreme poverty, and counter arguments to typical arguments for why not to help. His ideas for turning things around seem a bit naive at times (significantly more foreign aid and not much more), but maybe that’s me.