Book Reviews for Texts Used in TBB’s Programs
TBB offers a series of book reviews on some of the many texts we use during the course of our gap year programs. Books have been chosen for TBB Book Reviews because they offer unique insight into international development issues and inspire us each to be proactive agents of change. If you are interested in exploring some of the ideas TBB students engage during our gap year programs, pick up a few books and follow along!
The End of Poverty
Jeffrey Sachs is a world renowned economist who served as the architect of the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals. In this bestseller, Sachs paints a picture of how the complexities of poverty have trapped 1.2 billion people around the world in what he calls “extreme poverty.” Read More
Sachs manages to escape the normally dull language of economics by filling the book with human interest and personal stories. However, be aware that the middle chapters are filled with quite a few case studies of his past work as an economist. For those who are less inclined toward mathematics and economics, you might consider jumping ahead to the final few chapters where he outlines his vision for creating change. This book represents an important, if not mainstream, view of the relationship between “developing” and “developed” nations. While there are certainly dissenting opinions out there, this is a great place to start for those seeking to understand how the UN and many “developed” nations are currently working to end poverty in our time.
The White Man’s Burden
William Easterly is a former World Banker staffer and is currently a professor at NYU. Building on his extensive research and personal experience in the field of international development, The White Man’s Burden delivers a strong critique of the efforts of the “developed” world to assist the “developing” world with foreign aid. Read More
Easterly’s writing style is engaging and manages to paint the complex economics of international development in very human terms. For those who have read or are familiar withThe End of Poverty by Jeffrey Sachs (reviewed here last month), Easterly’s work speaks directly against the assumptions that undergird Sachs’ Millennium Development Goals. This book is strongly recommended for anyone concerned with how to alleviate global poverty and address our global community’s needs effectively. While it is easy to be swept up in the excitement and possibility of alleviating extreme poverty through the MDGs, Easterly suggests that these goals are achievable if the developed nations stop trying to serve as savior to the poor.
The definition of “development” is elusive, to say the least. Yet, experts in the field use the term constantly without explaining what they mean. Amartya Sen committed an entire book to defining the term in Development as Freedom. Rather than focusing on the widely accepted quantifiable statistics like income and infant mortality to determine a community’s state of development, Sen writes that these only reflect… Read More
Sen’s vision and understanding of what it means for a community to “develop” is so revolutionary that he was awarded the Noble Prize. The text is academic and somewhat challenging, but it will undoubtedly challenge the views of anyone who thinks about development. In fact, it’s likely to challenge the thinking of anyone who makes decisions in their own lives. His work represents a powerful combination of new and classic economic theory, humanitarianism, and an understanding of the true needs of developing communities around the world. While this book will likely leave your head spinning, you’ll undoubtedly feel it is worth the effort.
The debate about the goals, nature, and effectiveness of aid to the developing world has raged for decades. In recent years, these debates have focused upon aid to Africa as donors struggle to determine why their efforts haven’t made greater gains on the continent. Dambisa Moyo has injected a new idea that has turned the debate upside-down. In Dead Aid, she asserts that aid has not only been ineffective, but has ultimately slowed development through… Read More
The concept of eliminating or drastically reducing foreign aid in the form of loans and grants has often been received (and dismissed) as an ultra-conservative effort to abandon the world’s poor. Dead Aid, however, is receiving impressive attention in policy circles as both an indictment of the current world order and a road map for a more effective development process. While her argument shares many fundamental assumptions about the goals of development with mainstream economists like Jeffrey Sachs and William Easterly (e.g. economic growth equals climbing the rungs of the ladder of development), her text directly challenges their approaches. Battles among economic development policy makers may seem like a contest for the chiefdom of nerdville, but this one is pretty heated, and it might just change the world.
John Perkins was part of a small and secretive sect among international corporate executives known as “Economic Hit Men” or EHMs. After nearly 30 years as an EHM, this book exposes the little known history of how a few pivotal figures changed the course of world history. Read More
If you like spy novels with a twist, this may be the book for you. But, you should note that there are two key twists: 1) this is a true story, 2) the subject of this book is anything but a hero. Throughout the story, Perkins chronicles his internal struggle as he realizes and purposefully grows his own power as an EHM. He finds himself at the center of key historical moments of the late 20th century, constantly pulled between a desire to aid the common good and a need to feed his own ego. Sadly, his ego wins every time. For those seeking to understand how development “aid” and loans are sometimes utilized as a tool to oppress those whom they supposedly help, this is a great first look. For those looking to be inspired by an example of a powerful social change leader, you’ll have to wait for next month’s TBB Book Review!
While global climate change tends to take the front seat in arguments in favor of energy policy and research, Thomas Friedman’s Hot, Flat, and Crowded takes a different approach: sustainable energy policy and technology is the future of the global economy. Further, he argues, the country that leads the way in both will lead the globe economically and politically in the decades to come. Read More
In theory, energy sustainability should be something that virtually all ends of the political spectrum in the US should be able to rally around. Citizens concerned with the environment are concerned with climate change and pollution. Those concerned with human rights are worried about funding governments guilty of egregious acts against their population. Isolationists want to limit dependence on foreign oil for issues of domestic and international security. Those who want US economic growth want the next generation of energy technology to come from the US. The question is who this leaves out. Looking to identify a slice of the citizenry on the political spectrum as the hold-outs may not be an effective means of understanding this issue. Rather, it’s more productive to identify the stakeholders who benefit from the status quo, those who may be most nervous about change, and those who are dependent upon the previous two groups for power and income. This section of the population, just like any other stakeholder group concerned with its survival, is working to expand its following and encourage others to share its opinions. One of the fundamental questions Friedman rightly asks is what it will take for the US to overcome the opposition and influence of those opposed to what may be the most important technological advances of human history. If Hot, Flat, and Crowded illustrates anything, it’s that this change will happen, and the US is in an important moment to decide whether it will lead the world or decide to fall behind.
The Huaorani were, until a few decades ago, one of the few truly isolated human societies left in the world. Living in the inhospitable Amazon lowlands of eastern Ecuador, they were known for centuries as violent defenders of the forest they called home as hunter-gatherers. Today, their rivers are poisoned, cancer and birth defect rates have skyrocketed, and their control of the forest they inhabit has largely left their hands. Read More
Lawsuits against Texaco/Chevron related to this story continue today. However, the timeliness of this issue goes far beyond this specific area of conflict. Demand for natural resources continues to grow exponentially as the global economy expands and more of the population moves into a “middle class” level of consumption. The easiest, most accessible resources are now long gone, pushing the extraction industries deeper into remote areas of the globe. Who will manage those natural resources? Who will benefit from the process? Whose values will set the standard for impact management on the environment and local communities? The utility of democratic governance is that, given the proper social infrastructure and conditions, these questions can be discussed, debated, and ultimately resolved in a manner that is just and equitable. But, what happens when the conditions aren’t right? Kane’s illustration of the challenges in managing these resources demonstrates that when the extraction sites are far from the general public, the communities affected hold different cultural assumptions from the “mainstream” public, and influence is disproportionately distributed due to language barriers, money, and political power, the democratic system fails to produce just and sustainable outcomes. Conflicts like this are increasingly common around the world, whether the resource in question is oil, natural gas, minerals, water, agricultural land, or even labor. Without structured means of addressing these resource management issues, conflicts like that of the Huaorani will increasingly affect the global community. Consider southern Sudan, Rwanda, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo and many other areas where strife rooted in such resource conflicts has resulted in war and genocide. Resource management is about far more than preserving forests and endangered species. It is about preventing the conflicts that can lead to the greatest of human atrocities.
William McDonough and Michael Braungart
For decades, the modern environmental movement has been built upon the assumption that salvation will come through doing “less bad.” Policy at all levels focuses primarily upon limiting pollution, reducing waste, and reducing resource use (though this last one is pretty rare). William McDonough and Michael Braungart’s Cradle to Cradle presents a radical shift in thinking: don’t regulate toward “less bad,” design toward “more good.” Read More
Ultimately, Cradle to Cradle points to a new approach to environmentalism and sustainability that is spreading throughout industry. And make no mistake, this is a critical new development for anyone concerned with sustainability. The dividing line in the modern environmental movement has largely been between those who think we need to sacrifice our current production/consumption system for sustainability, and those who do not believe that sacrifice is necessary. This new set of assumptions – environmentalism is most effective and efficient in the design process rather than clean up, and companies can realize great financial benefits through more sustainable product designs and production systems – represents a paradigmatic shift that is already moving industry toward greater sustainability by offering incentives for everyone to make more sustainable choices. Of course, there are plenty of producers who have not yet converted to this type of thinking. But, those who have are reaping the benefits and pushing ahead of the competition. Ford Motor Company (an American automaker who did not need a bailout) has invested 10 years in designing with this new paradigm, and it is now rapidly gaining a reputation for more sustainable products made in more sustainable ways. Just as our modern industrial system – which is painfully unsustainable – took decades to design and build, its updating and evolution toward greater sustainability will also likely take decades. For those looking for evidence that such an evolution is underway, Cradle to Cradle provides both the premise and the evidence.
There are only a few areas of development that are considered absolutes and included in every nation’s plan for growth and prosperity. Education is certainly one of them. Yet, the concept of what it means to “educate” someone is rarely examined. Perhaps, like the term “development”, education simply is too broad, too sticky, too loaded a topic for anything less than a deep philosophical tome. Paulo Freire’s seminal work Pedagogy of the Oppressed attempts to drive to the heart of the issue. Read More
As an educator and a citizen of our global society, there is neither an author nor a book that has influenced me more thanPedagogy of the Oppressed. It is a brief but thick text that requires thorough chewing to be digested. While many will read it and find themselves in disagreement with Freire’s core assertions, no one will read it without having provoked deep and relevant thoughts about our society and our role as actors within it. It is a rare human who lives their life without serving as both a learner and a teacher in at least an informal capacity. Freire shows that the process of fulfilling those roles has had an unparalleled role in shaping our society. This text challenges the reader to be conscious of that process as a means of consciously building a society that aligns with one’s core ideals. This book and author have been dismissed as socialist, leftist, and radical for decades. If you are seeking to think deeply about why our society functions as it does to make it look more the way you think it should, any political leanings within this book will be irrelevant to you. I cannot recommend this book more highly.
China is… well… really difficult to describe. It’s nearly impossible to pick up a newspaper or magazine these days without finding a story about it. We receive snippets about China’s economy, pollution, energy policy, human rights record, Olympic aspirations, and transition from Communism to Market-Socialism. Peter Hessler’s National Book Award winning Oracle Bones takes us beyond surface level into the reality of day-to-day Chinese life. Read More
It’s hard to over-emphasize the importance of understanding both historical and modern China. There should be no doubt that its ascendance to a position of global power and influence is real, rapid, and unlikely to stop any time soon. It is also a fairly safe assumption that conflicts will continue to arise and escalate among China, its neighbors, and the rest of the global community. For centuries, China has been reclusive, wanting little more than to be isolated culturally and politically from the rest of the world. Now that they are reaching deeper into the world economy, they are often portrayed as being driven by self-interest and an entirely closed society. Hessler’s work both reinforces and dispels these generalizations, ultimately reframing the reader’s perspective of the internal struggles and external relations of this nation. There is no better time than now for the American public, politicians, and business leaders to challenge their understanding of Chinese society, to come to a deeper and more nuanced understanding of its reality. As competition for resources, market share, and political influence continues to grow, taking the time to pull back the curtain on this formidable “opponent” is a crucial step in preventing the dangerous “othering” of China and its people. Oracle Bones is a great start toward relating to and understanding the lives and thinking of 1.3 billion people. Seems like an investment worth making.
In Cambodia, between 1975 and 1979, the Khmer Rouge attempted to create a completely agrarian society. In order to do so, they evacuated the cities and sent their inhabitants to the countryside to work in labor camps. So began the genocide that killed two million people, targeting the educated people, previous government officials and anyone who questioned their new society. Read More
Loung Ung was a five-year-old girl living happily in Phnom Penh when the mysterious soldiers began the evacuation of her city. All of her family members were educated, upper class citizens, making them prime targets of the Khmer Rouge. Led by wisdom and instinct for survival, her father transformed the family into peasants who worked in labor communes. Despite farming for fourteen hours a day, they were denied the crops they grew, and slowly starved. Loung was fortunate enough to scrape by until 1979 when the Vietnamese helped overthrow Pol Pot’s regime, but many of her family members were not so lucky. The book illustrates a powerful and inspirational story of survival and raises questions about contemporary genocide through the events of the not so distant past.
Michael Pollan researched The Omnivore’s Dilemma in an effort to better understand the relationship between humans and food. Throughout the book, Pollan intertwines scientific descriptions of the various ways we obtain food as humans (industrial production, sustainable farming, and hunting/gathering) with an exploration of the philosophies that undergird the human relationship with food. Read More
This work represents the most comprehensive contemporary examination of the role food plays in our society. Like many of our basic human functions – drinking water, providing shelter, and disposing of waste – acquiring food is an increasingly distant task for most of society. As we “modernize” our relationship to our meal often begins in a store aisle or while reading a menu. Pollan sheds light on the political, economic, and social forces that affect what food we eat and how it’s created. Perhaps the most striking aspect of the perspective and information he provides is how these forces have created a system that is built on values that most eaters don’t share. Reading this book will leave you questioning both what you choose to eat and how the fundamental structure of an industrial production system can affect even our most basic of human needs.
India is so often referred to as an enigma. It’s the land of Gandhi and a deep consciousness of human equality, while the caste system continues to discriminate among Indians, particularly in rural areas. Call centers and the burgeoning IT sector show a rapidly growing middle class, though India maintains the single largest population of people living in extreme poverty (less than $1.25/day). Read More
It’s hard to over-estimate the critical importance of India in the coming century. Whether it becomes the dominant global economy, a political leader, or the new geographic center of the world remains to be seen. However, Luce’s book demonstrates how deeply integrated India is in the largest issues the global community will face in the coming decades. Rapid economic growth continues to challenge both the dominance of the US and Europe, but puts India in a race with China both for dominance and for energy resources becoming more scarce by the day. Global climate change and environmental sustainability may hinge on the ability of India invest in industrial and agricultural production that offer long term benefits rather than an immediate payout. The stability of Central Asia may depend on the influence of India if extremism and war are to be avoided. The big “BUT” in all of this revolves around India’s ability to navigate its own culture, economy, and politics productively and maintain its own stability. Anyone seeking to understand current and future status of international development, global poverty, the high tech industry, the geo-politics of South and Central Asia, issues of environmental sustainability, or any one of a slew of other issues should read this book.
Paul Farmer rose from a childhood in poverty in the US to earn his MD from Harvard Medical School – with which he continued to live in poverty. Kidder’s compelling story of Farmer’s life and work chronicles his efforts to address public health needs in developing communities around the world including Haiti, Peru, and inner city Boston. Read More
Though a relatively quick read with a great story line, Mountains Beyond Mountains is likely to challenge just about anyone. The description of the epidemiology and threats posed by diseases are easy to digest, and the discussion of development theory is stated in laymen’s terms. However, the questions raised about approaches to development are relevant not only to folks in the field, but also to anyone who supports organizations financially or otherwise that work to address issues like poverty, environmental degradation, or social change. Whether you’re looking for information about the cutting-edge of development philosophy, to feel inspired by a devoted agent of change, or simply interested in a good story, this is a great option.
It’s often said that HIV/AIDS is a social disease. Jonny Steinberg illustrates this point brilliantly. A White South African journalist, he set out in 2005 to understand the factors that prevent South Africans from pursuing testing and treatment for a disease that infects 20% of the country and has killed nearly 500,000 of their countrymen. Read More
This book has specific significance for Thinking Beyond Borders. The region of South Africa in which Sizwe lives is only a two hundred miles from Plettenberg Bay, where TBB’s partners at PlettAID work as a key component of the public health services available to those with HIV/AIDS. In March 2010, TBB student Genevieve Moss-Hawkins captured many of the powerful emotions – including the deep frustration – expressed by Steinberg in her incredible spoken word piece “Wall.” It’s easy to blame and direct anger toward policy makers, pharmaceutical companies, and health care providers for the failure to deliver the desperately needed medication and services to the nearly 6 million people infected with HIV/AIDS in South Africa alone (the global estimates range between 35 and 45 million). But, Steinberg’s primary finding is clear: even if all of those services were universally available and fully sensitive to local customs and individual needs, there would still be millions of untested and untreated people continuing to spread the virus and dying painful early deaths. Fully and effectively addressing HIV/AIDS requires a profound social movement that challenges EVERYONE’S understanding of spirituality, culture, class, politics, and power. HIV/AIDS is a social disease – its presence is a sign that our global society suffers from infections and boils that must be systemically treated, not just bandaged and medicated.
Inner city Chicago faces the same problems urban communities throughout the US do: gang violence, drug trafficking, high unemployment, failing schools, and death and incarceration rates for young African American and Latino males that are astounding. There Are No Children Here illustrates these realities by chronicling the experiences of two young boys who confront these challenges each day. Read More
Those who have read some of the other books reviewed in recent months will be pushed by Kotlowitz’s work to consider the relationship of poverty in America to that in “developing” nations around the world. Upon returning to the US this week, the TBB students will take up this issue as they question whether we live in a “developed” nation. Often, the standard of living of the US is implicitly and explicitly used as a standard or end-goal of development. By reflecting upon the needs of developing communities at home, key lessons can be learned about the nature, purpose, and end-goals of development. Indeed, such perspective may be the key to understanding what “development” means to each of us.
International banking and financial systems, despite their recent time in the spotlight, will never be sexy topics. Money laundering and off shore banking are tied in our collective consciousness to corrupt government officials and drug trafficking. But, they are rarely associated with international development. In Capitalism’s Achilles Heel, Raymond Baker sheds light on one of the most significant, and possibly most neglected, aspects of international development. Read More
If you’ve stayed with me this far, you probably still agree with my first assertion that this is not an overtly sexy topic. Here’s why Baker’s research has the potential to be deeply consequential for international development: international financial institutions are allowing hundreds of billions of dollars a year in taxes and government revenue to be stolen from nations around the world, particularly in developing countries. Set aside the ethical arguments about theft and greed for a moment and turn your attention to what $500 BILLION in aid would mean to developing nations around the world each year. To put the scope of this in perspective, the development world was shocked and awed by the size of President Bush’s commitment of $5 billion per year for the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). This is 1% of the total money Baker estimates is stolen from these same countries that the “developed” world sends aid to. As we consider international development policy and the aid considered central to dominant thinkers like Jeffrey Sachs, we must ask the question of whether we should be investing more resources in developing nations or remove the system that allows such vast resources to be stolen from those same countries.
Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn
Women are oppressed. Let there be no doubt – that is an exceptionally charged statement. The emotional charge of it is most directly rooted in the horrific realities faced by many millions of women and girls around the globe every day. Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s Half the Sky is an effort to illustrate some of those circumstances and explore the socio-political, economic, and cultural reasons for them. Read More
Discussing the oppression of women is not always easy. Few will righteously claim the side of oppression and injustice. But, that doesn’t make it easy to determine what is “fair” or “equal” when males and females do have distinct physiological differences that affect individuals, families, and societies. In the US, pay equity for women continues to be a significant issue for those trying to address gender discrimination. Should the fact that a female professional may take time away from her career to have and/or raise children affect her ability to earn a salary on par with male peers? It’s not hard to find five different people with five different perspectives on this issue. However, the most striking point of Half the Sky is that globally, there are realities of grotesque injustice perpetrated upon tens and hundreds of millions of women and girls. Through their analysis of the reasons these issues exist and the examples they provide of women and girls creating change in their own cultures and communities, they demonstrate that equity and justice are not just end goals. Rather, they must be never ending components of our ongoing efforts to develop and evolve cultures, economies, political institutions, the global society, and our ideal vision for humanity. We are not likely to live in a world with absolute equity and justice, but imagine how things might be different if that were a fundamental part of every one of our personal, professional, and societal pursuits.
Social entrepreneurship is a simple idea that might just change the world: create, market, and sell a product with the express intent of improving the world. In How to Change the World, David Bornstein explores the power of this concept through a series of vignettes highlighting the various permutations this concept has taken in the hands of agents of change around the globe. Read More
Those familiar with the working reality for non-profits and NGOs know that finding funding to continue to provide critical services to the poor is a constant struggle. Many have begun looking for innovative ways to transcend this hindrance by making the capitalist system work on behalf of the poor as an efficient tool for pushing the development and distribution of meaningful products. One unique aspect of social entrepreneurship is that it puts serving communities in need as its primary goal, rather than making a profit. Another is that the enterprise must be financially viable and efficient to survive. Furthermore, when an economic crisis hits, the first to be affected are the poor; the second are non-profit and public entities that serve them. This book offers an important perspective for those who believe in the potential of capitalism as a savior of the poor, those who see it as an oppressive force, and everyone in between.
Development often fails. This is not a new premise. Many have written about it. But Edward Carr offers a fascinating perspective on why he believes this is true in Delivering Development. He begins by providing an alternative context for thinking about and defining development. Without going too deeply into his framing of his argument, perhaps one of the most unique points he makes is the human tendency toward shortsightedness. Read More
Carr is certainly not the first author to critique the dominant development process, and he’s far from the first of those authors to be reviewed here. What is unique is his focus on the human tendencies that have hindered successful development efforts. While it’s easy to see development as an economic, political, and industrial process, it is ultimately a human and personal endeavor for everyone involved. For those in the “developing” world, they clearly have motivations and intentions for their lives and those of the members of their community. For practitioners and policy makers of development, motivations range from wealth to personal fulfillment to a deep desire to improve our world for all. Perhaps Carr’s most poignant observation is that our intent may not be the predominant reason development projects have failed. It may be our shortsightedness as humans that really does us in. Whether or not this is the one human trait that disrupts proactive development (though I’m not saying this is Carr’s argument), wouldn’t it be interesting to shift the development discussion to identifying how our common human traits affect development? How would development shift if we invested time in creating development processes and infrastructure designed to counter our inherent human-ness? Perhaps this is an effort worthy of our best intentions.