22 December 2010

Top Reads in 2010 from IDS Staff

For all of the readers of this blog, here is a modest gift from all your friends and colleagues at IDS: -- some of our top reads in 2010. Enjoy.

John Thompson (Knowledge, Technology and Society team)

Critical Transitions in Nature and Society by Marten Scheffer. 2009. Princeton University Press.

In recent years, there has much talk about how complex dynamic systems, ranging from climate systems to financial markets, can have ‘thresholds’ or ‘tipping points’ at which a sudden shift to an alternative regime may occur. Although predicting such critical points before they are reached is extremely difficult, work in different scientific fields is now suggesting the existence of generic ‘early-warning signals’ that may indicate for a wide class of systems if a critical threshold is approaching. Findings reported in a recent book by Marten Scheffer and colleagues suggest that ‘flickering’ – i.e. those tell-tale signals – may occur before epileptic seizures, the end of a glacial period and in lakes before they shift to a turbid state; self-organised patterns can signal an imminent transition in desert vegetation and in asthma; increased autocorrelation may indicate critical slowing down before all kinds of climatic transitions and in ecosystems; and increased variance of fluctuation may be a leading indicator of an epileptic seizure or instability in an exploited fish stock. Some of these complex systems are better understood than others. However, turning the reasoning around, it could be argued that the generic character of some early-warning signals suggests that these transitions may be somehow related to bifurcations, where universal laws of dynamic systems govern the pattern (though this may be stretching the cross-system comparisons a bit).

Despite the complex nature of the topic, Scheffer’s book provides an accessible introduction to ‘dynamical systems theory’, covers critical transitions in lakes, oceans, terrestrial ecosystems, the climate, evolution and human societies, explains how to predict tipping points and offers strategies for preventing ‘bad’ transitions and triggering ‘good’ ones. Worth a read.

Tom Tanner (Climate Change and Development cluster)

Barnett, J. and O’Neill, S. 2010. 'Maladaptation' Global Environmental Change 20: p211–213

This is my stand-out, although not development directed. It is one of the most practical papers of the year, looking at the (often misused) concept of maladaptation (broadly speaking climate adaptation that inadvertently increases vulnerability). This is a great example of academics providing conceptual clarity and a proposed operational framework for a concept that practitioners and policy makers were struggling with. Oh and its nice and short!

Keetie Roelen (Vulnerability and Poverty Reduction team)

One of the most notable papers of 2010 for me would be the OPHI working paper by Sabina Alkire and Emma Maria Santos “Acute Multidimensional Poverty: A New Index for Developing Countries.”

The mere data work underlying the poverty comparisons across 104 countries is mind-boggling but beyond its empirical results, I think it provides a new and timely impetus into the debate on multidimensional poverty measurement in terms of methodology and use of such measures.

Andrew Newsham (Climate Change and Development cluster)

Li, Tania (2009) ‘To Make Live or Let Die? Rural Dispossession and the Protection of Surplus Populations.’ Antipode Vol. 41 No. S1 2009 ISSN 0066-4812, pp 66–93 doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8330.2009.00717.x

I only got round to reading this in 2010, even though it was out the previous year. But it is remarkable in a number of ways. Its use of the stats on people living with less than a dollar a day as an indicator of the lack of incentive in a market system for full employment is quite sobering. Its coverage of right-to-food initiatives in Kerala offers powerful arguments for the transformative potential of social protection and wellbeing perspectives. And it has something important to say about how “social forces [can] mobilize in a wholly make live direction”. To be sure, the paper is not beyond critique; not least because its author spent much time in previous work deconstructing the relationship between policy and practice to the point of suggesting the impossibility of policy ever governing practice.

The implications of this argument for building coalitions for making (people) live are not, as far as I can tell, really dealt with in the paper. And it is not clear at the end of the paper whether we should abandon an economic system still based on the accumulation of capital or reform it. But I found it such an intensely thought-provoking work, and could not think of another to which my thoughts had returned so often when working on a range of different issues.

Allister McGregor (Vulnerability and Poverty Reduction team)

In the wake of ‘the crisis’ and prompted by Reimagining Development , I have been reading ‘The Great Transformation’ by Karl Polanyi – thanks John Spall for the loan. It is subtitled ‘The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time’ and it is refreshing (or alarming) to see how many passages could simply be taken from this book and be thought of as speaking of our time. Charles Gore has written a nice piece in The Journal of International Development this year using Polanyi to reflect on our crisis.

Richard Longhurst (Vulnerability and Poverty Reduction team)

I have been reading and enjoying: George A Akerlof and Robert J Shiller, 'Animal Spirits - How Human Psychology Drives the Economy, and why it matters for Global Capitalism', Princeton University Press, 2009.

The authors take as a starting point the 'animal spirits' as defined by Keynes and show how psychological forces drive financial events worldwide, both boom and bust. Where else will you find an economics Nobel Prize Winner (Akerlof, 2001) and his equally distinguished co-author admit that economic theory alone is nowhere near enough to help us understand economic events.

Gabrielle Kohler (Vulnerability and Poverty Reduction team)

Can the MDGs provide a pathway to social justice? The challenges of intersecting inequalities” by Naila Kabeer

It is such a useful compendium of evidence on social exclusion impact and it provides a comprehensive set of policies to respond.

Also noteworthy is the manifest produced by French economists, making a clear and well argued and passionate case for heterodox economics for Europe - showing how there are alternatives for Europe to austerity and neoliberalism. See http://atterres.org/ manifeste des économistes attérés.

Patricia Justino (Vulnerability and Poverty Reduction team)

My all time choices are Jose Saramago’s ‘Blindness’ and ‘Seeing’. These two books are masterpieces. They show so well what is wrong with the world we live in, and what we can hope for. They are beautiful accounts about what is bad and good in humans. The books should be read together and in the order above.

For more academic material (and published in 2010), I am reading ‘Natural Experiments of History’ by Jared Diamond and James Robinson. This is an interesting collection of methodological papers using natural experiments to derive causality across a series of subjects and disciplines.

Richard Jolly (Vulnerability and Poverty Reduction team)

Ha-Joon Chang’s 23 Things They Don't Tell You About Capitalism would be high on my list for a serious but highly readable critique of neo-liberalism, more serious and analytical than its title might suggest.

Lawrence Haddad

Prosperity Without Growth? by Tim Jackson is top of my list. Published in 2009, I only got around to reading it in 2010. Unlike most books on the financial and climate crises, it is strong on diagnosis and on how to do things differently (at least for the rich countries). One gets to glimpse a picture of what an alternative future might look like, and that is rare, especially in such a well written book.

My second, is a short article called “Shining for the Poor Too?” by Gaurav Datt and Martin Ravallion, in the Indian newspaper Economic and Political Weekly (February 13, 2010 vol xlv no 7). It is great to see two highly technical economists come to grips with the economic and the political consequences of their findings (that pre 1991, rural growth was more poverty reducing than urban growth, but for the post 1991 period the reverse held true).

Martin Greeley (Vulnerability and Poverty Reduction team)

Human Development Research Paper 2010/01. Human Development: Definitions, Critiques,
and Related Concepts. Sabina Alkire.

The piece from Sabina Alkire is an important contribution to the Human Development debate. Just on Friday, Martin Ravallion wrote “The HDR has never made clear how exactly one goes from the theoretical idea of capabilities to the specific form taken by the HDI. It is not an “index of capabilities” in any sense that is obvious to me, so I am inclined to think that this is little more than theoretical hand waving.”

The MPI paper is very good (see Keetie Roelen’s selection). However, this paper may be a better one to encourage others to read. It makes a serious attempt to address the underlying Ravallion concern so far as is practicable without specific focus on any of the HD indicators, except a long section on the MDGs. The review of key messages in each of the HDRs since 1990 is not a good start, at least stylistically, but the paper warms up and I think it helps our understanding of how different welfare indicators mesh with its sections on human security and on happiness.

Carlos Fortin (Globalisation team)

Although published in late 2009, Paul Blustein’s Misadventures of the Most Favoured Nations came to prominence among WTO watchers in 2010. Blustein, an economic journalist, provides both a history of the World Trade Organisation and a sophisticated analysis of the main issues in its negotiating agenda, which in effect leads to central questions about the role of trade in the contemporary globalised world economy and in development. In so doing he deftly brings into play structural elements, political economy and the more mundane but no less important factors of –to paraphrase his subtitle- clashing egos and inflated ambitions, leading to what he terms the Great Shambles of the World Trade System. The result was aptly summarized by a reviewer in the Washington Post as: “the transmutation of the leaden history of the WTO into a shimmering, essential read for those seeking a deeper and more nuanced perspective on the modern commerce of nations.”

Jerker Edstrom (Knowledge, Technology and Society team)

A top read on gender and economics – although published in 2009, which I read in 2010 – is Nancy Fraser’s ‘Feminism, Capitalism and the Cunning of History, which was suggested by my colleague Alan Greig. Fraser charts second-wave feminism’s critique of state capitalism (in particular its ‘economism’, andro-centrism and Westphalianism), its subsequent ‘collusion’ with neoliberalism and some current post-neoliberal possibilities. She concludes that “this is a moment in which feminists should think big. Having watched the neoliberal onslaught instrumentalize our best ideas, we have an opening now in which to reclaim them. In seizing this moment, we might just bend the arc of the impending transformation in the direction of justice—and not only with respect to gender”.

Another good and well written piece is Alex De Waal’s “Dollarised” in the London Review of Books. He looks at the marketplace for loyalty and order in “fragile states” and how that intersects – or not – with “the international community’s” notions and practices of nation building. Quite topical , if unconventional, in today’s development discourse.

Richard Crook (Governance team)

Not my favourite paper of the year, but the favourite one I was involved in is from the 'Local Justice in Ghana' research for our DFID-funded Africa Power and Politics RPC. (A shorter version is to be published in the next issue of IDS Bulletin). I am proud of it because: 1. It is based on original, in-depth fieldwork in Ghana so that it shows how state-run or state-supported justice institutions in Ghana really work in practice, and what local people believe about justice and fairness. 2. It challenges a number of common stereotypes about justice in Africa, both from the point of view of what ordinary people think and how the state works and 3. It shows how basic original research can lead to useful and relevant policy lessons.

Robert Chambers (Participation, Power and Social Change team)

Among short pieces, Andy Sumner’s The New Bottom Billion (IDS Draft). Both visually and verbally this challenges the conventional wisdom about the location of poverty, and forces us to rebalance priorities.

Among books, David Lawson, David Hulme, Imran Matin and Karen Moore eds What Works for the Poorest? Poverty reduction programmes for the world's extreme poor, Practical Action Publishing. For too long development practice has focused on the moderate poor and left out those who suffer from extreme or chronic deprivation. Now at last, by gathering and presenting current ideas and experience on assisting the poorest and helping them to help themselves, this book does an outstanding service....this is one of the most important development books of the decade - a treasury of ideas and experience.


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