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.