I’ll be reading and posting a lot about China in Namibia soon, because it’s an issue that has come up in the news a lot lately. Xenophobia seems to be on the rise, while the newspapers and some politicians seem to be quite happy to encourage it. So this week I’ll cheat and write a few words about a book that is technically non-academic, but should still be on the top of anyone’s reading list on the topic.

Title: China’s Second Continent: how a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa.

Author: Howard W. French

One-sentence summary: French travels across the continent and speaks to ordinary Chinese migrants on the ground – farmers, traders, businesspeople. This contrast to the many other books on the topic of China in Africa, which focus on the state, allows for a lot of insight and a fresh perspective. Book info here.

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Update: Today’s New Era quotes McHenry Venaani as saying this will no longer happen. Still, would have been interesting to see the effects of this policy. 

The Namibian led with quite the headline on Wednesday: “Death of Opposition.” The article detailed a whole host of proposed constitutional amendments, the most of which are frankly dangerous. But one of them might actually have the (unintended?) effect of strengthening the political opposition in Namibia – although it is a long shot. Here is the logic:

  1. The five percent cutoff for the National Assembly means that, if things are similar to the last election, only the RDP makes it into parliament.
  2. Quite a few of the leaders of the smaller parties, suddenly deprived of their parliamentary seats, have a very big incentive to join forces with the RDP – the RDP would get their votes and they get to hold on to their seats.
  3. The opposition coalesces behind their strongest member, and we end up with a two-party system – perhaps like they have in the U.S.

Namibia’s opposition has been fracturing. In 1999, eight parties contested the election; in 2009 voters got to chose between 13. In the last decade alone, we saw five parties splinter off from their parent bodies. That many parties have an increasingly ethnic flavour to them does not give me any confidence that this fractionalization is a good idea.

A low-hurdle proportional representation such as ours comes close to the ideal of democracy in the sense that it does allow for many different groups to gain representation in parliament. But too much variety comes at the cost of cohesion: many quiet voices fail to represent the needs of the people when a stronger, unified voice could.

Of course there’s a big problem with my convenient plan: getting opposition leaders to cooperate is a particularly outrageous flight of fancy. These people are where they are to a large degree because of their egos. getting two of them, let alone a dozen, to pull together — it’s almost impossible.

But we can dream, no?


B. Higgins, cited in Andre Gunder-Frank’s The Underdevelopment of Development
“Anything that raises the level of human welfare contributes to development; anything that reduces welfare is anti-development, a subtraction from development. Thus, damage to the environment, exhaustion of non-renewable resources, deterioration of the quality of life, destructions of traditional cultural values, increasing inequalities, or loss of freedom which may appear as side effects of certain strategies to promote development reduce the amount of development that is actually achieved. By definition — my definition — there can be no conflict between efficiency and development. They are one and the same thing, and so are improvements in the level of welfare [and social justice, which Higgins adds below]”
 Of course the problem with a definition such as this is that it’s almost tautologically straightforward. “Development is all this good stuff.” Unfortunately, just about everything fails to live up to these criteria.
Higgins, B. 1991. “Equity and Efficiency in Economic Development” in Equity and Efficiency in Economic Development: Essays in Honor of Benjamin Higgins. Donald J. Savoie, Ed. Montreal:McGill QUeens University Press forthcoming
(citation from Gunder-Frank)

Whether one is justified in asserting that ‘the sun always moves’ or ‘the sun never moves’ (Goodman 1978:2) depends wholly on the context in which knowledge is sought: the architect is interested in how the sunlight moves around a building; the climate scientist in how the sun moves from one angle to another in the course of the seasons; the planetary scientist in how the sun never moves relative to the planets; the solar scientist in how the sun is constantly flaring and vibrating, and the astronomer in how our entire galaxy is flying through space at approximately 600 kilometers per second (Fairall 2002:73). In each case the specialist has limited her or his field of vision to the factors that are relevant to the question that is being asked (Goodman 1978:7–17). Knowledge, then, is constituted by what is ‘true enough’ for the task at hand (Elgin 2004), rather than by access to an absolute truth.

(From L.J. Green, “‘Indigenous knowledge’ and ‘science’: Reframing the debate on knowledge diversity”. Archaeologies 4(1), 144-163)

That’s the money quote right there. The social sciences love deconstructing things. This goes for development studies too: you’ll find books upon books on all sorts of topics: what is a state, what is agency, what is development? At some point though it’s good to remember that sometimes further deconstruction yields little in terms of  practical differences, and we might as well carry on under simpler assumptions.

Some corners of the internet have become quite enamoured with Newton’s Flaming Laser Sword, devised by Australian Mathematician Mike Adler. It states that “what cannot be settled by experiment is not worth debating.” This is a little strong for me, but I think a weaker version of it can be quite useful, something along the lines of  “that which makes little difference does not have to be debated.” (As enriching and important that debate may be).

Basically,  if the knowledge you have is good enough for the task at hand, proceed and behave as if it were accurate. 

In just about no field will we ever find complete truth. But we can come close enough, for all practical intents and purposes, to proceed as if. Deconstructivism and postmodernism are excellent tools for challenging calcified bodies of knowledge; they keep us honest and force us to continuously examine our work for bias and lazy thinking. But constant deconstructing can be paralysing, and in those moments it’s worth remembering that Newton’s flaming laser sword can cut through the thicket to make a path forward.

I’ve heard people calling on the government to shut down some aid program if one dollar of corruption is found. On the other hand, four of the past seven governors of Illinois have gone to prison for corruption, and to my knowledge no one has demanded that Illinois schools be shut down or its highways closed.

– Bill and Melinda Gates, in their annual letter

The Gates’ note on corruption — and the resulting discussion — has finally motivated me to pull out this old draft and post it. I’ve been meaning to start a regular project here, and now’s as good a time to start it as any.

Basically, on a semi-regular basis I will collect and post examples of corruption happening in Western, “developed” countries. Here is Why:

I’m very interested in corruption (I mean, I wrote my undergraduate thesis about it). I’ve become increasingly interested in the way we define and talk about this phenomenon. In the academic literature, the definition used is often one from a 1997 World Bank report, where corruption is defined as “The misuse of public office for private gain,” where that private gain is understood to be related to money. So most of the time we’re talking about bribery or embezzlement.

Notice though that this rather narrow definition is not what most people understand under corruption. The average person in the street will probably take a broader definition to be true, one that involves other misuses of office that perhaps occur more in the moral sphere than the economic one.

But even when it comes to money, the western countries that do so well in various international rankings of corruption aren’t as clean as those rankings — or their self-presentation — suggest. Let’s talk about the US. You can’t tell me that money doesn’t play a role in politics in a country where the candidates for president last time around raised over a billion dollars. Or Germany: did you know that in Germany, it’s perfectly legal to just hand a politician a sack full of money? It’s a gift after all. Until very recently, companies in France and Germany were able to tax deduct bribes they paid in foreign countries! Speaking of France: Ex-president Mitterrand was personally embroiled in a corruption scandal, after French politics had deteriorated to a point where”the frequency of corruption stories in France [had] caused a degree of scandal fatigue”

But when corruption occurs regularly in western countries (as it often does), they don’t get stuck with the same reputation that plagues developing countries. Part of this is because they have cleverly legalized and formalized many behaviours that people find dubious — hence the tangle of American campaign finance law (and the difficulty in reforming it) or the tax-deductible bribes of Western Europe. Another reason is straight-up racism: the west is defined as civilized, and developing countries have long been portrayed as incapable of running their own affairs (this language goes all the way back to the White Man’s burden).

This project is a modest consciousness-raising exercise to point out that corruption isn’t just an “African” issue, or a “Third World” issue. It matters because we need to both take it less seriously and more seriously. We need to take it less seriously in the sense that suspending aid over corruption is often a bad idea, and in the sense that many other things matter more, as Chris Blattman explains in his response to Gates. 

We can’t dismiss corruption — real harm is done to real people when graft occurs. We also  need to take it more seriously in the sense that we must realize that this is not a disease of developing countries. And we also need to consider what a commenter on Blattman’s blog pointed out:

If we think of corruption in the broader sense of subverting democracy and making holders of public office accountable to people other than the public they purport to represent, I think that not only is corruption a serious problem, but that aid bears a large part of the blame.

It this broad sense, it certainly matters a lot, in developed countries as much as in developing ones. It’s important to call that out. The sooner we can gain a realistic understanding of corruption, unobscured by tired stereotypes and ideas of western supremacy, the sooner we can deal with it appropriately — tackling it when it hurts society, and recognizing the moments when we can maybe let it slide.

Watch this space; Sunday we begin.

Addendum: please don’t read this as an endorsement of the school of thought which held that corruption was great because it increased efficiency etc. I think corruption matters a great deal (obviously), especially when it further disadvantages those who already have little. But I also agree with Gates that shutting down aid programs — or arguing against them — because some funds are diverted is misguided.


Oxford’s Department for International Development today hosted a symposium on”The Interface of Academic Research and Government Policy in Developing Countries.” It’s a really important topic. There is a lot of research being conducted on just about any topic, but the research isn’t always translated into policy.

Here are some points that were made, in no particular order:

  • A speaker on Sub-Saharan Africa: The main problem is that there is no critical mass of research and researchers. In other places there are many good researchers competing and cooperating, which drives excellent work.
  • Further, research in the region is often driven by Western researchers (western funding), and not what local governments see as important. No wonder there’s little interface.
  • Another speaker bemoaned the lack of specific case studies and other empirical work of that nature — lots of analytical and abstract work. Policy makers want to see examples of how things happened in real life, concretely. More case studies help.
  • Finally, a speaker mentioned that researchers should consider the ethical implications of their work. Policy prescriptions have an impact, and researchers –especially when they come into developing countries from abroad — should always be aware of this. “How accountable are we?”

For some reason this got stuck in the drafts folder a while back.

David Lewis, Dennis Rogers, and Michael Woolcock ask that we not look only to academic journals, but to the arts too when discussing development. A broader range of sources will have many advantages, they write:


In the first instance, we found that development knowledge – or more specifically, what counts as serious or legitimate knowledge about development – is too often narrowly represented within academic and policy discussions. Development is one of the key ideas of our time, and should not be the exclusive purview of technocrats and academics.

Second, it can take us beyond narrow (largely western and northern) forms of development professionalism and expertise, and actively incorporate other voices and other forms of knowledge into discussions about development ideas, evidence, policy and practice.

Finally, popular representations have important implications for how we teach people about development, and remind us of the wider options that are available to illustrate and to inspire.

I had a professor in college who assigned a novel in every political science class he took. In our seminar on corruption, we read No Longer at Ease by Chinua Achebe (I wrote about it elsewhere). I ended up citing it in a paper later; more so than  any academic source it tried to explain on a human level how people in postcolonial African societies can relate with the state in a way that can lead to what we term corrupt. Similarly, I would think his No Longer at Ease could be used in a class on the experience of colonialism. Many more examples come to mind, and not just in the development context. Novels can teach us so much — including just basic empathy — that it’s a shame they aren’t used as teaching materials more often.


No weekly highlight for last week, because Fanon’s Wretched of The Earth was a reading, and how can anyone else compete with that? It’s just not fair.

So, this week it was Robert Heilbroner with The Worldly Philosophersa book which has sold over 2 million copies which is incredible when you consider that it’s a history of economic thought. Lots of required readings for undergraduate courses I suspect, because this is very accessible, but it’s also just very good. Flew through the chapter on Marx without even noticing it; all throughout it he manages to explain Marx’s ideas more lucidly than just about anyone else (and definitely more clearly than “that angry genius, Karl Marx” as Heilbroner lovingly calls him). Ideas interwoven with biography and cool factoids (e.g.:  apparently when Engels came to visit Marx in London on the occasion that constituted their first proper meeting, their conversation lasted for ten days).

One point I found interesting concerned Marx’s legacy for the kind of intellectual climate on the political left.

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This is part two of a series where I’ll highlight thing I’m learning that are particularly interesting. Part 1 here.

I was just blown away by Michael Taussig’s “The Genesis of Capitalism amongst a South American Peasantry: Devil’s Labor and the Baptism of Money.” Several reasons for that:

1. It contains perhaps the most engaging explanation of commodity fetishism I’ve read (not that I’ve read that many)

2. It’s got some really deep theoretical thinking, and really highlighted our weird western way of relating to money.

3. Fascinating stories.

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The title undermines the message. Who says this is “upside down?” Image from the oxfam blog

I’m going to start jotting down some highlights of what I’m learning at Oxford every week. So every thursday/friday I’ll see which reading I liked most and quote extensively from it (especially when it’s not available to people outside the closed walls of academia). For the first week, the  reading I probably enjoyed most was from Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World byArturo Escobar. We read chapter one, in which he troubles notions of development.


From the economic development theories of the 1950s to the “basic human needs approach” of the 1970s… the main preoccupation of theorists and politicians was the kinds of development that needed to be pursued to solve the social and economic problems of these parts of the world. Even those who opposed the prevailing capitalist strategies were obliged to couch their critique in terms of the need for development … In short, one could criticize a given approach and propose modifications or improvements accordingly, but the fact of development itself, and the need for it, could not be doubted. Development had achieved the status of a certainty in the social imaginary.


But the concept of development is all but clear. Escobar wonders  “why so many countries started to see themselves as underdeveloped in the early post- World War II period.” What are called “developing countries” were seen as having certain problems, which then had to be fixed, bringing about a development discourse that has been shaped mainly by one group of countries while applied to another.
Is there an objective difference between “developing” and “developed” countries? I don’t know. You can use income figures, but you’ll have to draw a line somewhere, which will have to be a normative undertaking. And of course “developed” implies that a country is done developing, which is laughable at best and rather arrogant. In the U.S., according to some studies, African-American males have a lower life expectancy than the average man in Equador, China, or Syria (that last statistic might change once the numbers are updated of course). Who’s more developed now? In the latest round of the Human Development Index, Portugal (a “developed” nation) scored below Brunei, Barbados, and Chile, among others.

Very important points also about the power relations that gave rise to this way of talking about development (and the concept itself) — while the discourse now reinforces the power differential . (In fact, that’s really the focal point of the paper. Quoting those arguments is a bit more difficult. You ever cited a deconstructivist? It’s hell). The reading made many people uncomfortable, brought about a lot of disagreement: awesome.

Honourable Mentions:

    • Ingham, Barbara. “The meaning of development: Interactions between “new” and “old” ideas.” World development 21.11 (1993): 1803-1821.
      A very well-written, concise summary of many key ideas in development. Manages to pack an incredible amount of debates into fewer than 20 pages. Only downside: Written in 1993, so lots of recent developments are missing. But super awesome nonetheless.
    • Development Economics by Debraj Ray. We only had to read a chapter, but I’m going to go ahead and buy the book to read it all. Very well-written (something you have to treasure with economists!)