New books on development: bad microfinance; climate change and war; what works; inside the World Bank; mobile activism

July 21, 2010

     By Duncan Green     

One of the perks of writing a blog is that I can scrounge review copies of development-related books. I’m sure they’re all fascinating and I really want to read them but alas, they don’t come with extra hours in the day attached. So I now have a growing pile by my desk that is in danger of becoming a health hazard (pet cat crushed under falling tomes etc). In post holiday clear-out mode, I am therefore going to assuage my guilt by giving them all a plug after a cursory skim.

Bateman coverWhy Doesn’t Microfinance Work? The Destructive Rise of Local Neoliberalism, by Milford Bateman (see here for reviews of his previous work) is a passionate polemic that takes on a development shibboleth – sometimes it feels as though doubting microfinance is as heretical as criticising Nelson Mandela. But Bateman does so, arguing that microfinance doesn’t actually work, relies largely on hype, and is uncritically welcomed because it fits with an anti-state, pro-market mindset of the Washington Consensus (shades of de Soto and the debate on property rights). He thinks that microfinance has squeezed out more beneficial and effective approaches, such as local-level industrial policy. One minor criticism – he doesn’t seem to distinguish between microcredit and other, genuinely useful activities such as microsavings – it’s the microcredit bit that has been massively oversold.

Update: For another survey of the evidence, which finds a more mixed balance of success and failure (apparently independent, though funded by the Grameen Foundation), see Taking Another Look, by Kathleen Odell, summarized on his blog by CGD’s David Roodman.

Global Warring: How Environmental, Economic and Political Crises will Redraw the World Map, by Cleo Paskal of Chatham House (and author of the Tonga renewables article I posted on a while ago) links up debates on security, development and environment, exploring the intersection between geopolitics and climate change: will it accelerate the decline of the West and the move to a multipolar world? Will it alter global trade routes and the geopolitics that they shape? How will shifting rainfall patterns and rising sea levels change Asia and the Pacific?

What Works for the Poorest? Poverty Reduction Programmes for the World’s Extreme Poor, by David Lawson, David Hulme, Imran Matin and Karen Moore, showcases some of the excellent research by the Chronic Poverty Research Centre (see here for more on its work). It focuses on the 400 million or so ‘chronic poor’ – the people who are likely to be stuck below the $1.25 global poverty line for decades or lifetimes. Trickle-down economic growth often doesn’t work for groups such as the impoverished elderly, disabled people, or excluded ethnic or religious groups. The book seeks practical solutions elsewhere, with case studies of the nitty-gritty of targeting (in Bangladesh and Kenya), cash transfers and other social protection systems (Chile, Viet Nam), women’s empowerment in Gujarat, the inevitable chapter on India’s National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, decent work (South Africa) and health equity funds (Cambodia). Finally it tackles finance with chapters on microfinance and domestic resource mobilization.

The World Bank Unveiled: Inside the Revolutionary Struggle for Transparency, by David Ian Shaman is a bit long (568 pages) and shrill Shaman coverfor my taste, but at least it is written by an insider – Shaman was involved in trying to improve Bank transparency through an internet-based broadcasting station putting out unedited internal discussions and debates to the public. As can be imagined, that hit a lot of internal opposition, leading Shaman to conclude ‘I believe there are two World Banks. One recognizes mistakes and limitations; the other rejects its own fallibility, promotes its superiority and shelters itself within the confines of its authority.’ Sounds about right.

And finally, something altogether different and exciting: SMS Uprising: Mobile Activism in Africa, by Sokari Ekine (editor, and one of Nigeria’s top bloggers), is a brief edited set of case studies of how activists are using mobile phone technologies to change Africa. It’s a ‘try these ideas in your campaign’ manual, with examples from Zimbabwe, South Africa, Uganda, Kenya and the DRC. Well worth a trawl.

Apologies for cursory reviews, and if readers know of more serious treatments, please add links in the comments section. If any of the publishers feel short-changed and want their copies back, they only have to ask.