Dissing Development and Economics, Guardian Edition

"Gah! Bad Economics! Bad!"

The Guardian has produced one of those ‘we’re desperate for hits, so lets troll a little’ lists it’s so fond of, this time selecting the 100 Greatest Non-Fiction Books of all time. Though apparently selected by a blind man throwing darts in a library, there are some superb works in there – It’s nice to see EP Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm, though decidedly unsurprising.

What did jolt me a little was this: there is not a single book about development nor about economics in the entire list. They have one by Achebe (his famous The Image of Africa, which attacked Heart of Darkness and Conrad himself for racism), and they have We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, Philip Gourevitch’s excellent account of the genocide in Rwanda, but that’s it. The economics omission is sad, but unsurprising, given the poor quality of the Guardian’s economics writing in general; the lack of a single real development tome is astonishing, what with it’s high profile International Development blog and constant articles by impressive development thinkers.

No Das Kapital? No Wealth of Nations? Development as Freedom? Africans? Mystery of Capital? The General Theory? Asia’s Next Giant?

Some previous recommendations from me here and here. Please add in the comments any development or economics works that you think should have made it in.

Reading is Fundamental

... and if you don't think so, it might be time to enroll in this school...

Rajiv Shah has chosen a set of his favourite development books over at The Browser. It’s obviously a selection designed to stimulate a bit of interest in USAID’s current approaches to development, and it’s a pretty good one (though Chris Blattman has a legitimate beef with one of his comments).

One thing I like about the list is that it goes outside the standard development texts, with one selection about the development and impact of fixed nitrogen fertilizer. He also selects a work of economic history, Gregory Clark’s A Farewell to Alms. I’m glad to see some economic history here, but I probably would have chosen some different ones. Here are some suggestions:

The Great Divergence by Kenneth Pomeranz, which looks in detail at the Industrial Revolution, and why it didn’t occur in Japan or China. I can’t stress enough how important it is that we understand why massive economic transformations occur, because every country that goes from poor to rich goes through one. Why did China not have its own in the 19th Century? Pomeranz looks at some of the reasons.

Of course, one of the seminal papers about the Industrial Revolution was Jan de Vries’ The Industrial Revolution and the Industrious Revolution, which makes great play of the importance of increased output and consumption powered by effort and extended working hours – these provided a kick that supported deeper processes pushing an Industrial Revolution. It’s been criticised since its publication, but it injected a layer of complexity into the analysis of the industrial revolution that was missing. Its ideas contribute to Chris Bayly’s thinking in The Birth of the Modern World, probably the most impressive work of history I’ve come across.

Another cracking book, again flawed, is David Landes’ The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, again explicitly looking at the role of cultural norms in generating industrial transformation. I don’t agree with this 100% or even close to that, but it’s a thought provoking and excellently written work.

Finally, I’m going to cheat a little with my last two. The first is one I haven’t actually read yet: The Origins of Capitalism by Ellen Wood, subtitled A Longer View. This looks absolutely fascinating, bringing together history, economics, culture, philosophy and ideology into a wide-ranging analysis of modernity and capitalism in Europe. I can’t wait to read it.

The last book I would select as an economic history is actually a work of fiction (harking back to a previous post when I suggested five non-standard sources of learning on development). I read North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell on the recommendation of my brother-in-law and I couldn’t agree more with his high estimation of it. Written in 1855, at a time when industrial capitalism was just taking root in England, it offers remarkably thoughtful critiques of the cultural and economic impacts of industrialization and the ways in which capital and labour interact and would continue to interact under this system. It’s astonishing to think it wasn’t written with a century of hindsight. It recognizes the transition to capitalism for what it is: messy, violent, hugely beneficial and all-encompassing: no one can opt out.

Any other favourite development books out there? Always grateful for new suggestions, especially those that are well written as well as intelligent.

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.

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