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Read Me!!

27 Jul

Those born to wealth, and who have the means of gratifying every wish, know not what is the real happiness of life, just as those who have been tossed on the stormy waters of the ocean on a few frail planks can alone realize the blessings of fair weather.” ~ Alexandre Dumas

As much as I would like you all to believe that I spend each and every day being a world-changing development superstar, fighting injustice at every turn, I actually spend a lot of time just reading. (I read for an hour every evening, and whenever I’m waiting for someone/something.  The time adds up.) So if you want to try out a bit of the JF experience from the comfort of your own home, here are some excellent books I’ve tackled so far, in no particular order:

Up next: A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft, and something by Malcolm Gladwell. More book recommendations are always welcome!


Orphans, Popes and Giants

21 Apr
“A dwarf standing on the shoulders of a giant may see farther than a giant himself.”
"Orphans", Thomas Kennington, 1885, oil, Tate Gallery, London
“Orphans”, Thomas Kennington, 1885, oil, Tate Gallery, London
I remember seeing this painting about a year ago, on a day out exploring London. It seemed so out of place amidst the rooms full of royal portraits, mythic murals and noble marble statues. Staring at these tragic, starving orphans was a stirring reminder for me that poverty has been part of the public consciousness for centuries, yet we would often prefer to remember the works of opulence and affluence. Painted two years before the celebration of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee[1], this painting shows a different side of an era that is usually remembered for the great progress of science, industry, and women’s rights. Industrial progress was counterbalanced by increasingly difficult social issues, including orphaned children living on the streets. The upper classes romanticized orphans in literature and art (think Jane Eyre), but treated them with disdain in daily life.
Now, imagine that it is 1892, and you are a wealthy, educated man gazing upon this painting. These melancholic children remind you of your own beautiful daughters, and you realise that they cannot have chosen this condition or have been the cause of their own misfortune (common beliefs of the time). Your sentiments turn from “I wish we could get rid of all these filthy urchins” to “I wish that I could help these poor, innocent children”. You want to find ways to drive change in the society of London, but you have no idea where to begin… And this is where I get to the point: In issues of morality and social justice – where opinions diverge and actions influence the livelihoods of vulnerable people – who should a person turn to for advice?
Let’s say you’re a religious man, and you look to the words of Pope Leo XIII for guidance (Rerum Novarum/Concering New Things, 1891). The Pope speaks to the evil fruits of economic liberalism, including child labour, poverty and societal inequity, but he also renounces Marxian socialism for preaching class hatred. He states that all men have the right to earn a fair wage and own property, so that they may improve their own condition and sustain their own families. However, if anyone is incapable of meeting the needs of their families, all people are regarded as part of the commonwealth and therefore should be granted public aid. “To suffer and endure is the lot of humanity…” as a result of sin, but charity and religion can remedy these ills. “No one is commanded to distribute to others that which is required for his own necessities and those of his household… But when necessity has been supplied, and one’s position fairly considered, it is a duty to give to the indigent out of that which is over.” You might take these words to heart and, knowing that your family lives in comfort, you donate all of your excess earnings to the church and give alms to any poor children you see.
Conversely, you might consult Friedrich Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals, and come to a completely different conclusion about how to treat the poor. Nietzsche had no affection to spare for the unhappy and pitiable common man, who sought consolation for his repressed state in the “slave ethics” of religion. He thought that trying to create equality for the weak would drag society into a downward spiral. Instead, he proposed a Social Darwinist theory where the strong, noble “barbarians” were the creators of the greatest societies, and the weak were resentful, cunning, and manipulative in their preaching of religious virtue. (For anyone who’s seen Cloud Atlas, Tom Hanks’ 19th Century Doctor sums up this line of thought with: “The weak are meat, and the strong do eat.”) If you subscribed to this ideology, you might revert to your initial desire to get rid of those filthy urchins. Perhaps, if you met one orphan who displayed particularly tenacious leadership qualities, you would adopt him/her. Otherwise, supporting the children of the least successful members of society would be counter-productive in improving society as a whole.
I don’t think that either of these approaches would create much lasting change, but they illustrate how variations in advice and interpretation can lead to dramatically different outcomes. The thing is, you are ultimately responsible for the outcomes you create. To paraphrase Jean-Paul Sartre, if you seek advice from the Pope, you have chosen this Pope; “you already knew, more or less, just about what advice he was going to give you. In other words, choosing your adviser is involving yourself.” Furthermore, he believes that you bring your own interpretation to the advice you receive, and you are directly responsible for any action you choose to take as a result of this advice.
This existentialist viewpoint is both liberating and terrifying, given that we presently have access to more opinions and more opportunities for action than ever before. Today, when we face countless images like the one below, who should a person turn to for advice? We could visit the website of a charity, or watch an interview of Dambisa Moyo, or read a book by Tim Harford, or listen to a Development Drums podcast, or find an appropriate TED talk, or simply chat with a friend who’s done their research. The options are endless. And when it comes to taking action, things get even more confusing…
HIV/AIDS Orphans (from Google Images)
HIV/AIDS Orphans (from Google Images)
For now, I’ve just been telling myself this: when seeking advice, try to be conscious of the information you receive and accept, and try to think critically about it. I am a dwarf who would like to see further, but I’m surrounded by giants and I have no idea whose shoulders I should be standing on.

[1] 1885 was also an important year in terms of British Imperial efforts in the “Scramble for Africa”, with the Berlin Conference taking place. This is obviously relevant to Ugandan history, but I won’t write about that today.

We are all Africans?

13 Mar

australopithecus afarensis

“Olduvai Gorge and the other fossil hominid sites, together comprising a crescent that runs south from Ethiopia and parallels the continent’s eastern shore, have confirmed beyond much doubt that we are all Africans. The dust we breath here, blown by zephyrs that leave a coating of grey tuff powder on Olduvai’s sisals and acacias, contains calcified specks of the very DNA that we carry. From this place, humans radiated across continents and around a planet. Eventually, coming full circle, we returned, so estranged from our origins that we enslaved blood cousins who stayed behind to maintain our birthright.”

~The World Without Us by Alan Weisman

Found Around the Internet

24 Feb
Just thought I’d share some blog posts that I found to be interesting/educational/awesome:
It’s an eclectic mix, but what’s the point of limiting yourself to only one style of thinking, right?

More Than Words

22 Feb
Last week, I wrote a pretty lengthy post about capitalism, but I’m still sceptical about a lot of modern socio-economic practices, so I thought I’d do a bit of comparative reading. I read a chunk of the “Communist Manifesto” by Marx and Engels, since that seemed like an obvious contrast. And, just out of curiosity, I also read some of Mikhael Bakunin’s writing on Anarchism ( I highly recommend reading both!)
It was pretty cool to be able to compare Capitalism with Communism with Anarchism, and each reading challenged my values and assumptions in different ways. I found that all three readings were highly persuasive and pertinent to current political movements. Each author had their own proposal for driving societal change, but many of their values and goals were similar. Although discussions of left-wing vs. right-wing policies tend to be highly polarized, the truly powerful discussion points come from the areas of commonality. I could summarize each work, and draw out a comparison of similarities and differences, but I’d rather just show you:
(For those unfamiliar with Wordle: relative size of words = frequency of the word in a particular text)
Wordle created from text sample of  Adam Smith's "Wealth of Nations"
Wordle created from text sample of Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations”
Wordle created from Ch.2 of the “Communist Manifesto”
Wordle created from text sample of  Mikhail Bakunin's "Where I Stand"
Wordle created from text sample of Mikhail Bakunin’s “Where I Stand”
Here’s what I see when I look at these graphics together:
Each writer has their own favourite ideas and words, which are repeated frequently, and therefore dominate our understanding of their work. But, if we look at the less pushy underlying themes, there are a number of shared trends in their ideas and values. For instance, the words society/humanity/mankind  appear with moderate frequency, alongside the words development/progress/improvement  in all three works. This shows how, as a part of their proposals for new economic and social orders, each author expressed their concerns for the greater well-being of society. Another trend worth noting, is the way in which these works discuss society in terms of  resources and control, with words such as: capital, property, ideas, labour, people/man, equality, freedom, organization, division, production, and exploitation. These are all words of power and ownership, but not explicitly “money”; it is as if each author tacitly acknowledges that what a person can buy (money) is not nearly as important as what a person controls (power).
All three works propose that there will be greater stability and contentment within a society, if members of the society are provided with equal opportunity, are able to meet their own needs as a result of their own labour, and are allowed to contribute in the ways they are best suited to. When there is extreme disparity of opportunity, power, and wealth within the hierarchies of a society, it is detrimental to the progress of the society as a whole, and creates instability and the desire for revolution.
These conclusions are necessarily over-simplified, but I want to emphasize that all of these men had similar goals and hopes for humankind. What distinguished them were the methods that they advocated for, and the words that they chose to express their ideologies. The three philosophies have been implemented in various powerful ways throughout history. They have motivated and influenced many people, and are still quite relevant today, but they have also led to some terrible outcomes. They show the great power that words can have, and are proof that rhetorical flourishes can change the course of history. However, the real-world outcomes of these ideas remind us that persuasion is not equivalent to proof.
We are at a point in history where we need to move away from paradigms of ideology and subjective values. In the 21st century, big ideas need to be supported by data, not just eloquent arguments. This is especially true for development work, where the livelihoods of vulnerable communities are at stake.
This is a topic for another post, but I just want to touch on why using data and scientific thought processes are EWB-relevant and important for international development: 1)Data can help us to understand the complex systems we operate within, and reveal unexpected relationships and power dynamics. An interesting example of this is “The Network of Global Corporate Control“, which examines how the structure of the control network of transnational corporations affects global market competition and financial stability. 2) Evidence-based decision making allows us to design more effective solutions based on past projects and experiences, so that benefits are maximized, and harmful failures are minimized. For an example from the education system, check out “4 surprising lessons about education learned from data collected around the world“.
To sum up, I am finding it useful to read the works of political theorists from the past because it challenges my assumptions, provides insight into how our existing systems were formed, and highlights important lessons we have learned since the initial ideas were put forth. All three of these works were fascinating to read, but they also reminded me of why it’s important to look further than the eloquent opinions of privileged, white men, for facts and alternative perspectives.

Exploring Capitalism

11 Feb
*Warning: this one’s gonna be lengthy!*
For my Communications and Culture class, we were recently asked to write about a prominent figure from the 18th Century and compare them to “cultural artefacts” in modern popular media. Since EWB does a whole bunch of work within both small-scale and global market systems, I thought it might be useful to look into the grand-pappy of free markets, Adam Smith. Zipping back over 200 years in time to learn about modern systems might seem a bit excessive, but I found that The Wealth of Nations actually pretty applicable to EWB’s ventures, including Business Development Services (BDS), Agriculture Value Chains, the Canadian Fair Trade Network, and Kulemela. In my paper, I compared The Wealth of Nations to an article from the Harvard Business Review, which BDS actually cited in their recent strategy update for EWB’s National Conference. You gotta take full advantage of assignment descriptions with loopholes in them!
I may just be self-indulgently recycling my schoolwork, but I think it’s relevant…(I tried to chop out any excessively academic asides)
 “The times that we live in demand institutions of new and more functional kinds: institutions that overlap national boundaries and serve transnational social and economic needs.”  Cosmopolis
                In any exploration of existing societal systems, an examination of the systems’ direct history may provide clarity for understanding current structures, and may frame discussions of the future of the system. As obvious as it might seem, to learn from the past, to understand the present, and to plan for a better future is exceedingly difficult to do well. Arguably, the systems of the Modern  Era have been shaped by a few people who were exceptional at communicating their thoughts about the past, present, and future. One such historical figure was Adam Smith, whose most famous work, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, has so greatly influenced our contemporary economic system that he has been cited as the father of modern economics . This influence may also be seen to have spread beyond the boundaries of our economic system, by enabling the proliferation of many values which we associate with modern Western societies, such as freedom, equality of opportunity, and competitive growth.
                This paper will examine The Wealth of Nations as one of the influential works of Modernity, in relation to a contemporary article, “Creating Shared Value” by Michael Porter and Mark Kramer, which demonstrates how many of Smith’s ideas have evolved . Both Smith and Porter & Kramer call into question the existing economic norms of their respective societies. They propose a more “ideal” way of moving forward, by replicating the best emergent properties of the current system, and by discarding those elements which are ineffective or harmful. These two works will be studied with reference to the progression of capitalist theory. To further illustrate the respective authors’ ideas, we will also explore how these theories might look within a contemporary small business.
         Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations (1776), working within the relatively new discipline of economics, in the 18th century.  It remains one of the best known titles in economics to this day. It is a work characteristic of its age, conveying both remarkable optimism for progress in the future, and dissatisfaction with established societal norms.  “Smith attacked the restrictive practices of mercantilism and wished to free the economy to operate in accordance with the laws of nature.”(CWT 166) The selection presented in the Classics of Western Thought textbook shows Smith’s detailed understanding of the division of labour and the principles that operate within free enterprise economy.
                More specifically, Smith discusses the economic benefits of the division of labor, how labor divisions came about, how natural and market prices are determined by the “invisible hand”, and how increasing employment and wages of labor eventually result in the increasing wealth of the entire nation. Rather than directly summarising The Wealth of Nations, let us explore a hypothetical modern business venture and relate its elements to the ideas outlined by Smith. In the same way that Smith used the example of a tribal bow-maker trading for cattle in his writing, I will use a modern web designer and her father’s farm to explore the intended potential outcomes of Smith’s ideas.
Ani  is the daughter of a fish-farmer, who has always loved creating websites and writing. She has never had much time to develop her skills, because she spends so much time cooking, cleaning, gardening and helping her father with the fish. One day her father asks her to focus on creating a website for the farm. Using this as a chance to build her skills, she spends a couple of weeks creating a website for marketing and merchandising her father’s fish, with an added blog about proper fish care. Over time, the website brings in many new customers and allows for online sales of merchandise. This increase in business allows them to stop growing their own vegetables. They can buy more food using profits from their fish, than they had ever been able to grow on their own. Ani barters for more freedom with her father, so that she might spend more time working on the website and blogging. The more quality online content Ani produces, the more profitable the farm becomes, and soon they are able to hire staff and expand the business. Additionally, demand for their fish products continually increases, which allows them to raise prices and invest in equipment to make the farmwork more efficient. Eventually, Ani is able to focus solely on web design and blog writing. She gains a reputation as an expert within the fish-farm community, and was able to publish her accumulated blog posts into a book. The result is that Ani gains her own independent income and she and her father lead more comfortable lives.
                The example of Ani illustrates Smith’s argument that labour is divided so that individuals may become more skilled in a particular area, and thus generate greater wealth with the surpluses of their expertise. They reduce time lost in transition, by focussing on a single task, and find ways to streamline their work using technology. By innovating and evolving, individuals can gain an advantage over their competition, and make their surplus products even more valuable. Every person and specialization has value, and may profit from their usefulness to others. Furthermore, as experts and skilled laborers come together, wealth may be acquired and distributed even more effectively. Within this system, no person is able to meet all of his/her own needs individually, but each individual has a greater opportunity to have more of their needs met through the exchange of surplus capital. Society as a whole benefits when each individual competitively pursues their own interests.
                When we examine how closely our current economic system is aligned with Smith’s essential ideas, it becomes apparent how much our societal norms have shifted since The Enlightenment. The example of Ani probably seems unremarkable to the contemporary reader, but many of the things which Smith wrote about were considered to be uncommon and exceedingly liberal at the time. Just as Smith attacked the cruelties of 18th Century mercantilism, and proposed a more equitable and universally beneficial alternative, Porter and Kramer speak to the flaws of modern capitalism and draw attention to better business practices for the coming future.
                Porter and Kramer’s work may not be the economic treatise of our era, as Smith’s work has proven to be, but it provides a clear articulation of our existing system of capitalism, and of what many hope for the future of global economic interactions. Perhaps the best summary of this paper can be taken from its own title page:
“Capitalism is under siege….Diminished trust in business is causing political leaders to set policies that sap economic growth…. Business is caught in a vicious circle…. The purpose of the corporation must be redefined around Creating Shared Value: How to reinvent capitalism – and unleash a wave of innovation and growth.”
        Porter and Kramer outline how the capitalist system has been increasingly viewed as a cause of social, environmental, and economic problems. Companies are being seen to be pursuing their own ignoble goals at the expense of the broader community (64). They argue that a large part of the problem lies with companies’ narrow focus on short-term financial performance, rather than on long-term sustainable success. However, much like Smith, they see that there do not need to be trade-offs between economic efficiency and social progress . Porter and Kramer acknowledge that “capitalism is an unparalleled vehicle for meeting human needs, improving efficiency, creating jobs, and building wealth.”(64) They propose that these strengths of the system could be harnessed in order to drive innovation and productivity, creating value which will simultaneously grow the global economy and build the capacity of local communities. This could be accomplished “by re-conceiving products and markets, by redefining productivity in the value chain, and by enabling local cluster development.”(65) Creating shared value is not about redistributing wealth; instead, it is about expanding the total pool of economic and social value, by cultivating holistic business effectiveness. (65)
                To explore these ideas, let us return to Ani for a moment. Just as the ideas of free enterprise enabled Ani to acquire capital value and build a better lifestyle for herself, the ideas of “Creating Shared Value” could improve her business returns, build success within her community, and help her to find greater fulfillment in life.
Ani and her father have been incredibly successful in their business, but now Ani wants to help out their community, and try to be more efficient with their farming practices. Ani has been doing some research, and would like to try out integrated aqua- agriculture. She and her father decide to hire more laborers and gardeners from the local community, and implement this new method using their old garden plot. Within a year, their farm is producing vegetables and chickens, in addition to fish, with less material waste overall. Also, they are able to increase profits by selling their produce to upscale restaurants in the nearby city, and selling any remainders at a Farmer’s Market for a reduced price. The added profits allow them to provide greater benefits to their employees, which improves employee productivity, job satisfaction, and general health. Their nutritious, affordable, and delicious food develops a fiercely loyal customer-base within the community. The shared value of their business continues to grow as Ani and her father build more local trading relationships. Ani continues to blog openly about all of their farming and business experiments. Her concrete, tailored metrics for success impress local authorities, who decide to develop policies which enable the success of businesses like hers. Soon, this model of farming is being replicated throughout the province, which boosts the regional economy, increases both employment and socio-environmental awareness, and strengthens community relations.
Overall, Porter & Kramer are advocating for a more sophisticated form of capitalism imbued with a social purpose. Smith original work argued that individual success en masse would benefit society. Generally speaking, it has. And now Porter & Kramer argue that “if all companies individually pursued shared value connected to their particular businesses, society’s overall interests would be served.” (77) Their proposal for a new form of capitalism seems to have strong precedents, and to have been thoroughly considered. However, this model may be met with resistance from well-established institutions. One challenge may be the need for business and government collaboration to create regulations that are beneficial for society, since it would require extensive policy changes with multiple consultations and revisions. Difficulties might also arise when developing entrepreneurial mindsets and managerial skills in leaders of the social sector, while also integrating social and environmental awareness into business school curricula. That said, I think that their model for “Creating Shared Value” has tremendous potential to drive positive change if it were to spread throughout our economic systems. Works like these are sort of like the stepping stones of economic literature: they help us to understand the past, critique the present, and step forward to create a better future, just as Adam Smith did in his writings of the late 1700s. The Wealth of Nations helped to push the Western world into a new age of business practices and social prosperity, and the ideas of “Creating Shared Value” might do the same for coming generations.
19 Jan

I found this graphic to be pretty informative. One of my pre-departure goals is to learn more about colonial history, and the implications it has for current politics and African development.