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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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.


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!)




Some longer reads if you’re looking for something to do on your sunday afternoon/evening.

An essay on lesbian separatists in the 1970s, one on being the smartest girl in the room, one on what genius does in a country where it’s not met with opportunity, and finally, a magical tale about a musical prodigy.

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Guess which college asks  applicants to describe what “YOLO” means to them? 

Wikimedia photo

Wikimedia photo

Tufts. It’s Tufts. The class of 2018 may choose the following as one of the options:

E) The ancient Romans started it when they coined the phrase “Carpe diem.” Jonathan Larson proclaimed “No day but today!” and most recently, Drake explained You Only Live Once (YOLO). Have you ever seized the day? Lived like there was no tomorrow? Or perhaps you plan to shout YOLO while jumping into something in the future. What does #YOLO mean to you?

no further comment. H/T Dan Drezner.

Below the fold: Books people stop reading, and why they put them down. How violence ensures trust in the Mafia. And what the terms development organizations like to use really mean.

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