Category Archives: book review

Book review: Poor Economics by Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo

Are the poor caught in a perpetual poverty trap?


After the Japanese tsunami and subsequent Fukushima nuclear disaster last year, influential Reuters blogger Felix Salmon ruffled a few feathers by calling for people to hold back on their donations. It was a reiteration of a plea he made following the Haitian earthquake in 2010, when he claimed that campaign-based donations often result in “a mess of uncoordinated NGOs parachuting in to emergency areas with lots of good intentions, where a strategic official sector response would be much more effective”. The crux of Salmon’s argument is that philanthropy is often misplaced due to a lack of understanding of the requirements of its intended destination and of its recipients. Too often, we’re sucked in by a compelling advert or an ambitious appeal (think “make poverty history”), without giving a thought to how it might be accomplished.

Poor Economics is an attempt at moving away from such top-down approaches to eradicating poverty. The authors – both professors at Massachusetts Institute of Technology – go even further than Salmon by encouraging us to steer clear of macroeconomics and instead focus on the finer details of development. Rather than debating the generalist “does aid work?” in plush Genevan office spaces ad nauseam, the west should look at the lives of those surviving on less than $1 per day, and ask: “What can be done to improve this individual’s life?” In their lengthy, painstakingly detailed research, Banerjee and Duflo have done exactly this, using a data set of 18 countries. In trying to understand the machinations of the economics of being poor, they have presented eye-opening, fascinating results.

In one illuminating passage, the authors turn their attention to teenage pregnancies in rural Kenya, where all efforts in educating schoolgirls on the dangers of HIV and early pregnancy seemed to have fallen on deaf ears. Researchers found, however, that if given a school uniform, girls were likely to stay in education and that “for every three girls who stayed in school because of the free uniform, two delayed their first pregnancy”.

The girls were fully aware of the dangers and results of unprotected sex – but having left school, many of them saw prospective fathers as a means of survival. Rather than being foolish and carefree, the poorest people often make calculated economic decisions to ensure their futures that might initially seem baffling to those on the outside. But by figuring out why they’re doing it, perhaps governments or NGOs can provide them with alternative options. It’s this message which resonates throughout the book.

Poor Economics’ greatest success is the length to which it goes to bridging the gap between the perceived personality of rich and poor. It’s almost certainly unintentional, but many in the developed world are guilty of adopting an “us and them” attitude to the poor – a fact, arguably, compounded by the almost taxonomical term “the poor” itself. Poor Economics’ presents those featured in the research with characters we almost certainly recognise in ourselves – sometimes frustrating, but often inspiring. Just as we suffer from lapses in self-control (just one chocolate bar… one more pint), so too can somebody in sub-Saharan Africa, who instead of paying for a vaccination for a child – the benefit of which may not be visible in their own lifetime – buys some extra rice or tea. Short-termism is not exclusively a western trait; the difference is, we can get away with pandering to our immediate desires a lot more than somebody who lives on less than $1 per day.

Our lives, too, are governed by a host of invisible structures, but some potentially life-altering choices have been taken centrally on our behalf that the poor have to take themselves on a daily basis. When did you last wake up in the middle of the night and, without thought, pour yourself a glass of water? For someone in parts of, say, Indonesia or Nicaragua, they must beforehand have taken the decision to purchase chlorine to add to the water (not to mention have lugged the water back from the well). New parents in Britain are legally obliged to have their babies inoculated and a few years later, send them to school. In developing countries, there are no such obligations and quite often, there’s a lack or distrust of facilities (public sector services in the poorest regions come in for particularly strong criticism over the course of the book) that might ordinarily help them climb the social ladder.

Banerjee and Duflo almost relentlessly present evidence of such structural failings and lack of social safety nets in the developing world – along with ignorance on the part of those well-intentioned people trying to help. Until global institutions readdress their own tack and focus on the minutiae, “poverty traps” may continue to paralyse many. But from the comfort of our living rooms, it is still possible to make a difference. This book will, if nothing else, inspire you to do a little digging before you make a donation decision. Don’t always go for the heartbreaking image, the flavour-of-the-month appeal or the catchall sloganeering. Look for those charities and NGOs with clearly articulated, defined and proven methodologies and missions. The success of much of the research explained by Poor Economics shows that empiricism should always trump fleeting sympathy.

Book review: Escape from Camp 14, Blaine Harden

Shin Dong-hyuk, the only known escapee of Camp 14, with the author Blaine Harden

Shin Dong-hyuk didn’t know it was the dawn of a new year when on 2 January 2005 he used the frazzled corpse of his friend and mentor to help him clamber over a highly charged electric fence and escape from Kaechon internment camp. “Camp 14”, as it’s more systematically known, is said to be the most brutal of North Korea’s massive prison camps, although the state denies its existence. The camp has existed since 1959 – a lifespan 48 years longer than that of Auschwitz, to which it’s sometimes compared for its brutality. It’s a place where teenage boys are interrogated on spits over open fires, where babies conceived through rape are beaten to death with rods, where chemical weapons are said to be “tested” on the residents and where children are encouraged to beat one another to a pulp in order to curry favour with their teachers. Shin is the only prisoner ever known to have escaped.

About 5,000 miles away in Edinburgh, I’d just experienced my first Hogmanay celebration and was nursing the inaugural two-day hangover that came with it. I mention this triviality only because I’m roughly the same age as Shin and happen to recall what I was doing around the time he made his break from Camp 14, a fact which makes his story resonate with me all the louder. You see, Shin’s story isn’t something from the archives. The goriest experiences of his life are also being inflicted on others as you read. Half of the Korean peninsula is in the grips of a barbaric regime: the North is the world’s biggest prison and yet has been reduced to a caricature in the minds of many. Try typing “Kim Jong-il” into Google and the first two suggested search results are “Kim Jong-il looking at things” and “Kim Jong-il dropping the bass”.

The fact is, nobody ever talks about these camps, which is why Escape From Camp 14 is one of the most important books on international affairs you can read this year. It’s riveting, it’s horrifying and it’s vital. Shin’s very existence is the result of two prisoners being allowed to fornicate as a reward for working hard. He was worked to the bone, routinely beaten and starved since early childhood. A culture of paranoia pervaded in the camp: inmates may have received some extra food, or fewer beatings, for snitching on someone for stealing or slacking. Thus, upon hearing his brother and mother (in whose company he was permitted to spend a few nights a year) plotting an escape – the ultimate crime –  Shin told a prison guard. Far from being rewarded, though, he spent the ensuing months being routinely tortured in solitary confinement, before being forced to watch his mother and brother’s executions.

It wasn’t until years later – a matter of months before his escape – that he heard of North Korea’s capital Pyongyang, of South Korea, and of China for the first time. His eyes had been opened by another prisoner who, unlike Shin, had experienced life beyond Camp 14’s boundaries: the very same prisoner whose body Shin used to help hoist himself over the electric fence. Upon escaping, making his way over the Chinese border and fortuitously encountering a South Korean journalist in Shanghai who facilitated his repatriation to Seoul, Shin found that few wished to hear his story. His own memoir sold a mere 500 copies. Harden’s book has made it onto the New York Times’ and Wall Street Journal’s bestsellers lists and has helped to give Shin, now a human rights campaigner, the voice which millions before him have gone to their graves without.

The book, quite rightly, spares the reader none of the detail. There are passages that make the reader wince – Harden’s prose is plain and effective. Appropriately, there are no frills – just a vanilla retelling of Shin’s life, as bare and torturous as it should be. However, woven through the narrative is a potted history of North Korea and how it has floundered since the collapse of the Soviet Union. For those with little preexistent knowledge on the subject, this introduction may prove as disturbing as Shin’s story itself.

Far from being one of the world’s only surviving Communist states (a commonly held view), North Korea is an dictatorial kleptocracy and is now home to arguably the longest standing humanitarian crisis of our generation. Its relationship with China – which only tolerates the Kim dynasty because it provides a buffer between itself and the westernised South Korea – means that while western hawks are happy to broker war on Iran, Iraq, Libya and anyone else who fails to conform to their ideologies, intervention in North Korea isn’t an option: change must come from within and as such, progress is glacial.

Six years on from Shin’s escape, I found myself standing on the demilitarised zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea. On the south side, in which I was then living, every inch of arable land was put to work. Fields of rice, corn and barley rolled out to meet the horizon. It was a lush cornucopia compared to the absolute desolation that confronted us on the other side, in which every living thing had been razed to ground level, so as to limit the chances of defectors making it across the DMZ.

It was, no doubt, thrilling (in a twisted, voyeuristic kind of way) being so close to the most secretive place on earth, but while our guide was more than happy to fill us in on the grimiest details of the Korean War, not once did he mention the imprisonment of thousands – if not millions – of North Koreans in camps like the one Shin was born into. Over the course of a year living in South Korea, the only person who offered me an opinion on the atrocities on the wrong side of the 38th Parallel was a Canadian teacher. Escape From Camp 14 is a brilliant read, but also a klaxon, alerting a mainstream audience to the plight of millions. For these reasons, it should be viewed as a monumental success.

Originally published here

Book review: Unfair Trade by Conor Woodman



As the economy threatens to crumble in around them, politicians have been falling over each other to become the voice of “responsible capitalism”, with both David Cameron and Ed Miliband preaching a return to a “moral economy” (neither, however, have specified when such a thing ever existed in the first place, nor given much indication that they know how to get there). The British public seems to be listening. In 2011, sales of Fairtrade-certified goods topped £1.3 billion – a rise of 12 per cent on 2010 – which is no mean feat, considering the the problems faced by many other parts of the retail sector. Everywhere you go, shelves are stacked with Fairtrade and Rainforest Alliance-certified produce, people are sipping hot drinks made using “ethically sourced” ingredients and wearing “eco-friendly” jumpers. But how many people actually know what these terms mean?

A few years ago, Conor Woodman was sitting on a train, enjoying a coffee, the labelling of which promised that by buying the product, he would “enhance the lives of the villagers of Busamanga, Uganda”. This made Conor feel good, which in turn made him feel very uncomfortable. “A second later,” he reasoned, “I questioned whether making me feel better about myself was quite the intention of the scheme when it was set up.” Feeling that a billion-pound industry shouldn’t be shrouded in ambiguity, he decided to shed some light on the supply chains that provide the supposedly ethical goods we use and consume every day. Unfair Trade is a series of despatches from the Fairtrade coalface.

The lasting impression the book leaves is that ethical business is, in the vast majority of instances, a PR stunt. Satisfying the criteria to brandish the Fairtrade logo is relatively easy and does little to improve the circumstances of those at the bottom of the supply chain. Take the situation of Cadbury, discussed in the chapter entitled Keen to be green. In order to secure accreditation from the Fairtrade Foundation, Cadbury had to agree to source cocoa for no less than $1,600 (about £1,000) per tonne. At the time of writing, the International Cocoa Organization (ICCO) daily price for a tonne of cocoa is about £1,500 (14 March). So by signing up to Fairtrade principles, companies pledge to pay just 66.6 per cent of the going rate for a tonne of cocoa. The Cadbury Cocoa Partnership, which predates Fairtrade, has contributed £45 million to cocoa-growing communities in the space of a decade, which Woodman argues is a far greater contribution to the developing world.

Woodman also argues that companies are all too quick to turn a blind eye, pleading ignorance as to the source of their raw materials. In Nicaragua, there are towns full of young men, crippled by the bends contracted after diving, untrained and massively under-equipped to catch lobsters by hand. The Big Red Lobster Company, an American chain of eateries which sources stock from the area, promises customers that it doesn’t stock hand-caught lobsters, but it’s impossible to know how they’ve been caught once they’ve been brought to market. Experts estimate, though, that 50 per cent of the world’s harvest are hand-caught. Companies buying the lobsters, argues Woodman, should be investing in the training and equipment needed by those on the supply frontline, rather than perpetuating the myth that they’re not caught by hand.

Throughout the book, there are instances of misspent philanthropy. In exchange for permission to grow massive rubber plantations, China built a shiny new national stadium in Laos, now a white elephant on the horizon while the local farmers struggle to earn a living. Across Africa, well-meaning NGOs have constructed schools and water wells without providing the locals with the tools needed to operate and maintain them. They’re left to decay, shrines to the ethical naivety that Woodman finds to be rife in boardrooms around the world. Organisations want to be seen as being ethical, but are less keen to commit to ensuring what they’ve signed up for actually makes a difference.

To his credit, Woodman’s tone is measured throughout. He’s not an anti-capitalist and highlights a number of firms who are operating truly ethical businesses and making money out of it to boot (the most notable examples include Green and Black’s, Olam, Ethical Addictions and Rare Teas). The book is simply written, low on inflammatory language: Woodman is keen to let his research do the talking, and it does. In the year he spent investigating, he travelled to five different continents. Rather than observing from the periphery, he threw himself down Congolese mines, into Nicaraguan waters and among Afghan poppy-field raids. He has earned the authority to pass comment on a sector of UK industry which is widely misunderstood. His is a voice we should all listen to.

A number of years ago, I had the pleasure of visiting the Brown and Forrest smokery in Somerset (which provides stock to such restaurants as the Caprice group and Fortnum & Mason) to interview its owner, Jesse Pattison. “I don’t jump on the organic bandwagon, the local bandwagon or the Fairtrade bandwagon,” he told me. His methodology was simple: he visited farms, found the ones which operated in a way that matched his own ethical standards, and took them on as suppliers. Of course, we don’t all have the luxury of visiting the source of the products we purchase, but we all have the capacity to pose the question: am I buying this to satisfy my conscience, or to help change the life of someone less fortunate than I?


It’s Lovely To Be Here: The touring diaries of a Scottish gent by James Yorkston

With hindsight, the most endearing qualities of James Yorkston’s music have always hinted at a literary future. His songwriting is graceful, patient and precise. His best work is at once powerful and serene. He calls on a range of traditional influences, from folk music to literature, but rarely sounds anything but original. So whilst there are plenty of potentially great writers within the Domino stable, it’s no surprise that Yorkston’s debut is the first release on their Domino Press. From the outset, it’s clear that he has accepted the opportunity with both hands: It’s Lovely To Be Here, is a charming and witty account of life on the road.

Publishing a touring diary is a brave move. The arts pages are littered with harrowing tales of isolation and frustration. Touring is rarely painted in a flattering light: often either descending into debauchery or disconcerting monotony. Yorkston avoids old clichés by accepting touring for what it is. Instead of getting bogged down in boredom, he reflects on and subsequently relates the humdrum and minutiae of everyday life, much like a Kurt Wagner song. The book is laced with observational humour and a dry, sardonic wit. He can at times be abrasive and dour and his writing is often ‘matter-of-fact’, but it’s never whiney or melodramatic. He drinks heavily whilst on tour, but that isn’t the overriding theme. What we have, is one man’s search for routine and normality in the most transient existence known to man, which turns out to be more interesting than you might think.

The chapters aren’t chronological. Yorkston flits between time spent from 2004-2009 in Ireland, London, North America and Europe, but patterns emerge across locations and in the end, you get the impression that he is waging personal battles all over the world. The reader becomes engrossed in his quest for decent vegan food, his valium-fuelled struggle with aerophobia, his discomfort with being labeled a ‘folk musician’. There is nothing revelatory here; this isn’t designed to impact à la Kurt Cobain’s Journals, but it seems all the realer for that. Yorkston is a musician – a writer – we can relate to. Over the course of the extracts, we can sense small changes in character, depicted in the occasional stylistic shift in prose, or through anecdotal evidence (a fine example being his warming relationship with American touring partners).

The Fence Collective alumnus comes across as amiable and thoughtful. His musings on literature project an intelligent, well-read figure, whilst some of his deeds betray altruism in contrast to the dour Scottishness portrayed in others. From his careful consideration of cassettes and demos thrust into his hands after chance encounters with barmen, to him taking a photographer shopping for a gift after a particularly long and arduous graveyard shoot in Berlin; there’s a warmth to Yorkston that not even corrosive life in motion can erode.

For Yorkston’s fans, this book is essential reading. His accounts of various gigs across the world offer interesting insights to his own version of his performances; quite possibly at odds with your own. For the casual listener, even, this will make for an interesting, light read. James Yorkston should be commended for having the bravery to explore territory that in the wrong hands, would undoubtedly leave the read cold: a sterling effort.

Written for The Line of Best Fit

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

I don’t do many book reviews on this blog, but when I finished The Road the other day, I felt compelled to write something about it. In any case, I don’t consider this to be a review. There are already hundreds of those online. The book was a runaway success and most of you will probably have seen the recent movie adaptation (I haven’t). No, these are more the thoughts seeping from my freshly blown mind. This book is stunning; probably the best I’ve read of McCarthy’s and certainly the most thought provoking.
What I enjoyed most about his writing in All The Pretty Horses, The Crossing, No Country for Old Men, is how much he makes from so little and how he makes that little work for him. He takes this to the next level here. When I was in journalism college, my lecturer constantly told me that every word has to earn its place on the page. I’ve yet to encounter an author that practices this as brilliantly as McCarthy. In the post-apocalyptic American setting of The Road, he squeezes so much from the bleakness of the landscape. He conjures up the most barren of imagery: dark and lonely, all the while being uber-economical with his language. In his previous books (particularly the Border Trilogy), he used this to positive effect. I wanted to experience the spaciousness and under-the-stars beauty of Southern America and Mexico. This time, he’s turned it on its head.
I love how McCarthy gradually feeds us lines of information… drip, drip and then suddenly, bang! He mentions nothing about how the earth found itself in this situation. He occasionally alludes to the past, but mostly in the form of memory. There is little historical information. It makes it all the more striking when he says, kind of in passing, that cows are extinct. Or when the boy is asks his father whether crows could fly high enough to see the sun, should they still exist. All the time, the reader is left to wonder what catastrophe could have befallen the planet, but such is McCarthy’s deftness of language, it never distracts from the actually story.
This, incidentally, focuses on the relationship between father and son in the most desperate of situations. They are traveling south… but why? To escape the cold? But what will they do when they get there? What hope do they have? They have no hope. They have nothing. Each is kept alive by the desire to maintain the other. At times, their plight is truly heartbreaking. Here is a little boy who has never had a friend. He doesn’t care if he dies or not, anesthetized as he is to human demise. McCarthy attempts to show just how inter-dependent father and son are on one another. The son will do anything the father says. He accepts anything he is told. The father does everything in his power to keep his son alive, despite the knowledge that they would both be better off dead.
No part of the book brings this home more forcefully than after a time they are confronted by one of the nomadic bands of cannibals. The father washes his son’s hair in a river, telling himself that he must wash the murderous brains he’s just blown from their assailant’s head from his son because that is his job. He is the boy’s father and he must try to keep his hair clean. Simple, yet devastatingly effective and it sums up what, for me, is the meaning of The Road. Even in the most horrifying circumstances, parents are driven by an unbreakable bond at childbirth, the evolutionary desire to keep their offspring.
I had a conversation with a friend the other day about modern literature. We were wondering which contemporary writers would be viewed as “classic authors” one hundred years from now. Which authors will be studied by sixteen year old high school students? We both immediately suggested McCarthy. His books are the most wonderfully analogous I recall from modern literature. We can all learn a lot from them and particularly, The Road.

BBC 1: Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

Published by Vintage Classics

First published in 1953

337 Pages

First things first: I haven’t seen the Hollywood version and having read the book, have no desire to. Too many “classics” are getting the Beverley Hills treatment and absolutely do not want to see Leonardo Di Caprio massacre a brilliantly created character in Frank Wheeler. Equally, the thought of Keira Knightley’s wooden beak all over the movie adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, one of my favourite books, is enough to make me shudder. In fact, I struggle to think of a film adaptation that’s better than the original. I could say The Shawshank Redemption, of course, but I think the film’s almost unrecognisable from the novella by Stephen King, such is the artistic liberty they were permitted to take.

The first thing I noticed when I picked up Revolutionary Road was an endorsement in the inner sleeve from one of my favourite authors, Kurt Vonnegut. Vonnegut calls it “the Great Gatsby of my generation”. Now, it’s been a while since I read Gatsby, but I think I see where he’s coming from. This is a commentary on status in Middle America; people aspiring to something greater; people trying to outdo their peers and neighbours; people thinking they deserve better, because they’re better than those around them. Less keeping up with the Jones’, this book is about shitting all over the Jones’ perfectly coiffed lawn. In that respect, I would also draw a comparison with Death of a Salesman, by Arthur Miller. Whilst there isn’t a character in this as tragic as Willy Loman, Revolutionary Road too exposes the flaws in the very concept of the American Dream.

It’s the story of a young, handsome couple, the Wheelers, and their efforts to escape the banality of plush New England suburbia. It’s about the dynamics of their own relationship and how their dissatisfaction with their own lives really stems from their displeasure with each other. Their relationship is a war of attrition. They fell for each other under a mask of his deceit, which he has kept up throughout their marriage. He is callous, manipulative and calculating. He always thinks one step ahead of his wife, colleagues, neighbours and employers.

As you read on, though, it becomes clear that he is of limited ability and far from the great man he believes himself to be. He has gotten as far as he has on a wing a prayer and a whole load of hot air. He is one of the best characters I have come across in a long time: both pitiable and despicable. Wrapped up in the smug, clean-shaven, suited and booted persona of Frank Wheeler, I see a lot of contemporary politicians. Richard Yates does brilliantly to capture a whole breed in one smarmy character.

But what really struck me about Revolutionary Road is just how much of it I see in my every day life. The Wheelers’ existence is built upon putting on a show, keeping up appearances, as is that of the rest of the characters. People hear what they want to hear. Few are prepared to upset the applecart. In fact, the only person who isn’t afraid to speak his mind is John Givings, a certified lunatic. As I move into my late twenties (eek) I see far too much of this. Teenage abandon is, well, abandoned. People are nice, as a rule. Yates captures the anxiety that comes with getting a little older and getting trapped in a life you don’t want brilliantly. People inhabit a world of trite courtesy and phoniness. It’s not how you are, but how you are perceived to be.

It’s a cliché to say “you don’t know what goes on behind closed doors”, but it rings particularly true here. As a society, we’re obsessed with fly on the wall documentaries and real-life dramas. But few are as effective a reminder as Revolutionary Road that adversity befalls everyone. Everybody has their problems. Appearances can be deceiving. Woven in amongst these observations is a great story: slow paced and methodical. This is a great book and it comes highly recommended.

Welcome to BBC

I read a lot of books. Lately, I’ve been getting through a few every week. When I finish reading a book, I normally have a little think about it, discard it and open a new one. Recently though, I’ve been thinking I should write about them, which is what BBC is: Barney’s Book Club. I don’t envisage these pieces being reviews: more my own commentary on the books. I won’t write about every book I read, just the ones I feel I have something to say about, something people might find interesting.

I also don’t do much contemporaneous reading. I return to authors I enjoy and read books recommended by others. These are rarely the latest bestsellers and rarely anything published in the recent past. That’s not to say I purposely seek out unheard of tomes: quite the contrary. Many of the books I read are considered classics, and thus, it may be tough to shed any fresh light on them. I’ll just write what I’ve taken from the book. If it’s good, I’ll recommend it. If it’s not I won’t.

That’s about it. The first one will be coming soon.