Learning from a Different Angle

Want to learn about state building? Watch Deadwood.

Want to learn about state building? Watch Deadwood.

Development takes in economic change, political change, social and cultural change and technical innovation – all of which interact. This makes trying to understand development a multidisciplinary enterprise, and there are a huge range of sources and approaches to development that we can learn from. Many of them are not even strictly about ‘development’. My brother-in-law teaches history at Cambridge, and when he wants to help his students capture the sense of hope, occasion and fear that propelled so many young people into the Quit India campaign, it’s not to a history he points them, but to RK Narayan’s Waiting for the Mahatma.

In this spirit, I’ve listed a very personal suggestion of resources that may contribute to a richer understanding of development – things that I’ve learnt a great deal from. I’ve left out some of the usual suspects, simply because I wanted to focus on those that deserve a wider audience and a greater influence on what we do: A work of history, a memoir of a journey, a legal-economy book, a political polemic and a TV series. I’ve left out innumerable great books, and I’m sure readers can suggest many more: I’d be really interested to see what others have learnt from.

The Birth of the Modern World – Chris Bayly

This is a huge, ambitious and brilliant work of history, looking at the links between the various parts of the world in the period 1780 to 1914. The focus of this book is not on development at all, but on ‘modernity’, that phenomenon which swept through much of the world in the period covered. Modernity was a sense that societies were engaged in a step-change away from what went before them, but it was also a real set of changes: to the nature of the state, to the economy, to cultural practices, to social organizations and to ways of seeing the world.

In many ways, looking at modernity is more helpful for those of us working in development than our traditional, narrower focus. Bayly shows how the cultural and social changes that characterized the period under study in turn influenced and were influenced by the development of the state and of the economy. He looks at the British Industrial Revolution, the first truly modern economic development tale, and uses Jan de Vries’ idea of an ‘industrious revolution’ together with a host of information about transmission of styles, fashions and acquisitiveness across class and country and demonstrates how the economic transformations that characterized the fastest growing economies were influenced by factors well beyond politics, economy and trade, though these of course were central too.

His scope extends well beyond these economic changes and much of the book looks at the emergence of different forms of thought, religion and state as well as economy and culture. You may not come away with a policy recommendation, but it’s inconceivable you won’t understand more about the world today after reading this.

North of South – Shiva Naipaul

In the mid-1970s Shiva Naipaul, the younger brother of VS, decided to take the money earned from his first two books and spend a few months traveling through Kenya and Tanzania. He wrote North of South based on these experiences – not a travel book; certainly not a book about development; not even a piece of journalism.

North of South is at core about Africa’s passage to modernity in the post-independence years, but it’s an altogether different proposition to The Birth of the Modern World. Naipaul is intelligent, fiercely critical and sometimes overwhelmingly cynical. No-one escapes his brutally frank assessment: he derides both old and new-style colonialism, exposing their hypocrisies and implied or explicit racisms; he has little more than contempt for the new African ruling classes in most cases, painting a deeply unflattering portrait of grasping bureaucrats and incomplete, anachronistic imitation of the West. He is no less harsh on the poor; that they are unfortunate does not stop him from making clear when he considers they have contributed to their own problems, or from pointing out their prejudices. He addresses race in Africa sensitively, and being Asian does not make the common mistake that race means black and white. Yet the varied Asian communities he meets are given the same forensic examination and criticism.

For all of the cynicism and hatred of hypocrisy that Naipaul displays he never loses sight of his central interest: why things have become as they are. No criticisms are made without an attempt to understand how they’ve arisen and what they mean. Ultimately, North of South is a story about a drive towards modernity that because of the complexities of colony, independence, race and politics, was pursued in a strange, almost ritual fashion. The criticisms may be uncomfortably harsh, but many ring true.

The Mystery of Capital – Hernando de Soto

It seems like almost everyone has heard of De Soto, but far fewer have actually read The Mystery of Capital. That’s a shame, because reading and understanding the nuances of De Soto’s arguments could change approaches to the economics, politics and legal systems of developing countries in a radical, positive way.

De Soto’s central argument is nothing new: property rights are crucial for development. It’s the subtleties of the argument and approach that make it so valuable. Property rights are important not because they allows economic stability, but because the essential fuel of capitalism, capital, can only be created through an all-inclusive legal system. This legal system has five distinct socio-economic effects on capital, all of which arise from the divorce of the physical property owned from its economic potential and life in the legal system. What’s more, the approach to creating this is not simply through drafting new laws, but by harmonizing the formal legal code with the informal norms and institutions that form the basis of how the poor create local property rights, which lack the benefits of a formal national system.

His multidisciplinary approach is rooted in history, legal theory, economics and politics. It may not answer all of our questions, but it sheds light on a number of them, and calls for a new conception of development policy. To top it off, it’s a very easy read: less than three hundred pages long, and written in a simple and engaging style.

The Wretched of the Earth – Frantz Fanon

Frantz Fanon’s blistering anti-colonial polemic (and its equally famous preface by Jean-Paul Sartre) is radical in all senses of the word. Its support for violent opposition to colonialism may upset a few readers, but few books can give you so visceral a sense of the hatred, anger and dehumanisation that the colonial experience fostered – indeed he equates murder of a colonial with the emancipation of the murderer. The existence of an unjust state with no popular mandate is still a reality in parts of Africa; the often-unarticulated rationale for violent conflict between such states and the various groups under them can be glimpsed in the anger Fanon pours into this book.

Like many polemics it’s frustratingly naïve, particularly his absolute belief in the reality of a socialist ethos and singularity of ‘the masses’, but it’s certainly worth reading, if only to question why so little of Africa has experienced violent revolution since independence.

Deadwood: Seasons 1-3 – David Milch (creator)

From the profound to the profane. While the Wire speaks to contemporary problems of Western societies, its counterpart for those of us working in development, and particularly those who think we need to learn more from the history of developed countries, is Deadwood.

The three seasons of Deadwood follow a varied cast of characters in the newly established frontier town of Deadwood in the second half of the nineteenth century. Among them are the foul-mouthed local big-man Al Swearengen, the ex-Sheriff Seth Bullock and the outsider-capitalist George Hearst. Over the course of the show Deadwood, initially an anarchic collection of houses and claims, develops a system of property rights, a state to represent its people, a rudimentary system of laws. Beyond this, we see its economy consolidate from a collection of small holdings into a capitalist mining system using wage labour; we see the service sector diversify and increase in size.

What Deadwood does better than any academic book or work of history I care to mention is bring to life the often chaotic process of creating a state, an economy and a workable political settlement from a stateless collection of informal rights networks and an economy that comprised of potential and little else. The violent, corrupt, conflict- and poverty-ridden process shows the development of prosperity in all of its inglorious historical reality.

For those of us who continue to see development as a process of best-case scenarios it reminds us that nowhere has development been a pretty or an easy process.

2 thoughts on “Learning from a Different Angle

  1. Philip

    March 7, 2010 at 5:11pm

    This is a very worthy project – I’m all for getting my head out of the academic articles and reading more widely.

    My main interest is in novels, and in this area there are really loads and loads, but I think three really stand out for me: Bleak House by Charles Dickens, Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie and One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez.

    I would also recommend Candide by Voltaire on the philosophy / novel edge. And finally, A Farewell to Alms by Gregory Clark is one of the most important works of history relevant to development.

    But in general you’re absolutely right – we need to get out there and read and watch much more. If only there were more time!

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