Category Archives: books

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: 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.

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.