Jon Thiele
International Development

Gender and economic development

Enterprise development and agribusiness

Small holder farmers

Islamic economics

Promoting cooperatives

Community-based development

Credit in economic development

Economic institutions






Employ your time in improving yourself by other men's writings, so that you shall gain easily what others have labored hard for.
-- Socrates

The Wealth and Poverty of Nations by David Landes

This fairly recent book is a sweeping survey of history, one that jumps back and forth in time and darts from one society to the next. The hope is that a pattern will emerge to explain "why some are so rich and some so poor". I'd give the author partial credit, maybe a B-, on content and progess toward that goal, and an A- on general readability.

The main focus of his efforts goes toward explaining why the industrial revolution happened when and where it did. What was it about England and America that allowed them to progress so rapidly and steadily? Secondarily, he wonders why the accomplishments of earlier civilizations like the Chinese, Arab, Indian, and Inca were lost so completely and why those societies declined so drastically.

In so doing, he compares societies directly and mercilessly. He minces no words in describing superior behaviors by western populations. He touches on religion, values, politics, and even national character. Though he never gloats or condemns lesser developed countries, and does try to avoid stereotypes, he makes no apologies for western dominance of the world. He is quite objective.

The book bogs down from time to time, sidetracked by anecdotes which go on far too long, and there's no real conclusion at all. He never even speculates on why the poorer societies behave as they do other than to imply that act as they do because that is the way they are, if that makes sense. All societies rich and poor have made themselves what they are and they are what they have made themselves. He omits the Scottish Enlightenment.

It is nonetheless a somewhat entertaining and informative book, well reviewed, and worth giving a look.

The Poor and Their Money by Stuart Rutherford

This short book is an excellent hands-on review of a variety of approaches to financial intermediation among the very poor presented in a series of case studies drawn form around the world. Putting aside terms like micro-credit and micro-finance institution, the author looks at the issues involved from the perspective of the poor and sees that all of the various programs intended to serve their financial needs are variations on savings activity. He describes a variety of ways to save up and to save down toward a "usefully large lump sum". It is a brilliantly simple perspective.

Sustainability, ever the watchword in development programming generally and particularly emphasized in micro-credit projects, is achieved, he shows clearly, when the instruments deliver what the poor people need. Of course, this is obvious, but his analysis shows a different starting point from most foreign-funded program: serve the poor versus build an institution. This significant difference effects all decisions and actions that follow, and these cases studies show what a difference this makes for the poor and their money.

A Radical's Guide to Economic Reality by Angus Black

Guaranteed to offend everybody in one chapter or another, this little book was written in the late '60s by a man who must have spent most of his life drugged up. I recommend it.

By radical, he means wildly conservative, beyond libertarian. Indeed, the last chapter is entitled "A Plea for Anarchy", because, he argues, the modern American economy is a battle between ordinary peaceful, fun-loving folks like himself and the evil corporation. It is a battle he is prepared to fight, with full expectation of victory, if only the government would stay out of it.

It is a surprisingly coherent and sensible argument, though at one moment he sounds like Barry Goldwater and at the next like the pusher on the corner (his contemporaries). With foul language throughout, and hilarious examples to illustrate sound economic principles, he swings from free love and ban the bomb to a harsh criticism of Cesar Chavez's knowledge of basic commerce and a suggestion that women should be charged a penalty on their student loans if they quit a job to have a baby.

Somehow he fits it together. I really do recommend this book.

Equality, the 3rd World, and Economic Delusion by PT Bauer

This is a very well done analysis and critique of many topics, positions, and assumptions surrounding international development and assistance. Undoubtedly, as the title implies, the author's arguments and conclusions will make make development professionals uncomfortable or even angry, but this material is well researched, argued, and presented. If you approach this book with an open mind, you will be rewarded.

Especially strong are sections on population growth in LDCs, which Bauer says is a good thing; the role of credit in economic development, vastly overstated, he contends; and the generally political nature of foreign aid.

Through it all, Bauer remains notably non-political himself. He sticks to facts, logic, and well tested economic principles. His positions are well-grounded and free from any ideological baggage.

Collision and Collusion by Janine Wedel

A terribly disappointing book, it promised to analyze the "strange journey" of western aid to the newly former Soviet Union but it got tangled up in the author's painfully dull and often clumsy writing.

That said, if you get past the often dis-jointed presentation, the substance is important and interesting. It is, mostly, an indictment of those individuals and institutions which came first to USSR and eastern Europe following the collapse. It is easy to criticize those first stumbling efforts, and this book is full of stories of mis-steps and misconceptions by aid organizations. With the strength of hindsight, the author mercilessly names names and assigns blame.

While the content is unpleasant, it is educational, so there is some value here, a reason to read it. However, what stops me from recommending this book, even more than the punishing prose style, is that it has no real point to make. It's just a rant, if one can rant in a dull monotone. To save you the $19.95, here's the best line in the book, an analogy about the destruction and hoped for resurrection of the Polish economy: "It's easy to turn an aquarium into fish soup. It's more difficult to turn fish soup into an aquarium."

The Story of Philosophy by Will Durant (1926)

Here's 500 pages of brilliance.

"The lives and opinions of the greater philosophers" is the subtitle, and by that Durant means the classical western philosophers. Beginning with Plato and Aristole, rolling through Voltaire and Nietzsche, ending with Santayana, and visiting nine others in between, this is not a skimpy survey but rather an in-depth summary and explanation of the work and points of view of the headline philosophers. Although it is written in digest form, as an introductory handbook, it certainly contains more information than any two or three college courses on the subject.

And it is much more enjoyable than a college course. The writing is English at its best with complex thoughts presented clearly and in understandable detail. And with humor-- real humor, not philosophy psuedo-humor. For example, one theme repeatedly addressed by these philosophers is the difference between men and women. That all but two of these great thinkers were bachelors provides ample room for commentary, and Durant sends a stream of off-hand speculations their way. I won't quote any here; you should read it yourself and enjoy the book, one that might change the way you think about philosophy and about our world.

The Lords of Poverty by Graham Hancock

This is a rambling attempt at a tell-all book about the numerous errors made by international assistance programs, mostly but not exclusively about humanitarian aid efforts. For my taste, it is a little too activist and not investigative enough.

The author seems to have a pre-determined agenda, a point to make. He makes it early, in the preface, and goes on to repeat it over and over again through a string of anecdotes from foreign assistance programs and projects all over the world. That's fine as far it goes, I think, but it's rather pointless. There is some attempt at a prescriptive remedy toward the end, but the author has simply assumed the problems are as he assumed them to be; he didn't prove his case, but rather demonstrated a basis for his assumptions, and that leaves his argument as empty as when the book began.

Angels of Mercy or Development Diplomats? by Terje Tvedt
and The Foreign Aid Business by Kunibert Raffer and HW Singer

I take these two together because they are basically the same book. Not precisely, of course, but in style and substance they are very similar-- both take a critical look at foreign aid efforts, both are dull, and both focus on the EU. To their credit, they are well-reasoned and, in spite of the attempts at provocative titles, even handed in their analysis. This is important, because these books are highly analytical in nature. They provide good exposition on issues of concern to all developent professionals, at least at the donor level, and back up their reasoning with plenty of statistics. That can make slow going for the casual reader; indeed, as I went along with these, I got the feeling I was reading someone's grad school thesis. Only for the serious reader.

The Worldly Philosphers by Robert Heilbroner

Who read this in grad school? Or, perhaps, who should have but didn't because it wasn't on the required reading list? Go back to it and try now.

Then, this book was about economists from Adam Smith to Joespeh Schumpeter, "the lives, times, and ideas of the great economic thinkers". Now, it is a well written and enlightening review of the basic principles of economic organization and function which will provide refreshing insight to anyone working in underdeveloped countries, especially for policy and business development workers.

It is especially useful, I think, for those working in developement. We all remember the invisible hand, but how about the "insensible hand of situation and interest"? This passage alone is worth the purchase price to make the often unreasonable behavior of businessmen and markets in LDCs easier to comprehend. It is a serious challenge to those who believe markets develop spontaneously, but there are hidden prescriptions here too.

Teachings from the Worldly Philospohy by Robert Heilbroner

In a sense, you call this the Cliff Notes of thinking on economics. The book is 90% quotes from economists and 10% commentary from Heilbroner.

It starts slowly with disconnected and short quotes from the Bible and other ancient sources before getting into what we consider modern econ. Then the quotes are often extended, some run several pages, and they usually give a pretty fair sense of both the writer's general perspective, his time and place, and of the specific point or issue highlighted in that section. This can be terrifically interesting; it is enlightening to read the pages and thoughts that surround the well-known phrases of Smith, Marx, and others.

Heilbroner's interspersed comments, however, are less helpful. Some are quite useful and explanatory, they clarify references and fill in background. Others obscure the issues with references only a grad student or professor might recognize.

Three Great Economists from the Oxford Press

Smith, Malthus, and Keynes.

It is too bad the writing here is so uneven, because this could be a good book. As biography, these are interesting subjects; as pioneers in their field, they could give readers a clear understanding of what economics really is. Unfortunately, this book is actually three essays by different writers, and they are not equally readable.

The bit about Smith is the best-- well written and full of excellent content. The review of Keynes is also good and shows how brilliant he was and what he really advocated-- not really what is being advocated in his name these days.

But it is the section on Malthus that is simultaneously the best and the worst. Robert Malthus is so misunderstood, and this lengthy essay goes a long way toward clarifying his works and writings, but it is far and away the toughest bit to read. So plodding and slow. It's a shame. His famous description of calamitous growth in population was actually just a small comment in a larger series about poverty. It's pre-marginal revolution, to be sure, but there was much to value, just not widely remembered.

Principles of Economics by Alfred Marshall (1890)

Yes, 1890. With revisions as late as 1994, I believe, this book is readily available, and since even the later editions are mostly unchanged from the original, it is unlike any economics textbook you've seen. The first thing you'll notice is that there are almost no graphs and what few there are are confined to the footnotes.

But, be warned, this is a textbook. A 700 page textbook with margin notes and footnotes on every page, this is not light reading. It is a reference work.

It is not, however, your Econ 101 textbook. The writing has been updated, but the general style and approach remain. The section on agricultural and rural areas is a good example. Marshall writes about farmers and villages, not about marginal returns. But the substance is there, all of the principles are clear and correct.

And the principles haven't changed. I mentioned the ag/rural sections because they, written a century ago, recall the feudal past much better than we do now, and I and others are increasingly speculating about a third serfdom in the states of the FSU.

Tropical Gangsters by Robert Klitgaard

Probably the most readable book on this list, it is part travelogue, part personal diary, and part newspaper feature story. The author was the World Bank representative to Equatorial Guinea, one of the world's poorest countries, and he tries to write a sort of scenes-of-real-life story of his adventures. He succeeds in producing what I think is far and away the most accurate description of life for an expat development worker.

The scenes he describes bounce from frustrating encounters with bureaucrats to the best site for surfing, from garbage in the streets to an ambassador's visit to a jungle schoolhouse. All of it is entertaining; the overall tone of the book is light and airy.

While the contrasts between the incredible poverty and criminality he uncovers and the fun he has surfing and drinking with friends could easily have turned the book in a different, more bitter direction, that's not something this author is capable of, I think. It seems he really had no clue about the tragic ironies and outrages that surrounded him. The book ends with his departure from the country-- a departure that just kind of happens around him like everything else he describes. Contract over, book over. He seems oblivious to his own futility. The story was fine, but the ending left me a little empty.

All the Trouble in the World by PJ O'Rourke

Maybe this is the most readable book on this list-- at least it will be for some people. For others, reading this could be an infuriating experience. PJ's books are found in the humor section of bookstores and libraries, but I don't think that's where he really wants them, and I'm not sure I like them there either. Yes, they're very funny books, but that's just the style; the message is pretty serious and, to some, controversial.

PJ is a libertarian on the staff at a serious thinktank (CATO Institute), and as he writes about all the trouble in the world-- over-population, severe poverty, famine, and so forth--- a serious political statement takes shape.

It is a simple argument based very firmly on the principles of the rational maximizer, the sovereignty of the individual, and free markets. The points he makes about the benefits of such ideas are certainly strong, but he fails to allow that the values and institutions of other societies and how they determine value could be different from ours in the west, so he really doesn't help us answer the question of why there are so many troubles in the world.

However, he goes a long way toward pointing up the inconsistancies in the arguments of those with whom he disagrees, and he does this with biting humor. This is where he could antagonize some people. Personally, I find most of it hilarious-- the bits on multi-culturalism and concern for world environmental disaster are very funny, but other people, people who might vote for Hillary or choose their cosmetics based on whether or not it was once tested on animals, just the sort of people who should lighten up, will not be amused, even though the criticisms they might launch at him, that he is euro-centric in a diverse world, are precisely the core of his criticism of them, that their would-be remedies sound good only at suburban cocktail parties and neglect the realities of troubled societies.

Economics & Cultures by Richard Wilk

For those with a degree in economics and experience in western business management such as myself, this book is highly informative. It is a great introduction to an interesting field of study-- economic anthropology.

While the information is presented in a sometimes distracting context, a conflict among academics over whether or not economics is social science too big for its britches, it is full of insights and references to other works that complement the concepts presented here. By broadening the perspective of economics to include a variety of other issues beyond the functioning of markets and money supply, the author opens up vast areas of exploration in the search for the reasons behind the various ways people have organized their societies. The bits on peasant societies and the work of Max Weber are parts I found particularly interesting.

The Road to Hell by Michael Marin

Subtitled "the ravaging effects of foreign aid and international charity", this is the well publicized and pretty well written story of the author's term as a Peace Corps volunteer in east Africa, his later position with CRS, and what he observed along the way.

It is a bitter story. Written in the general style of a newspaper report, Marin writes a personal narrative of his experiences. It is occasionally an angry story, more often a disillusioned one. Overall, it is pretty good book, he does very well in describing events in Somalia, for example, but it is not the world-beater some of its early reviews and publicity made it out to be-- at least it isn't for someone familiar with the subject.

The Ends of the Earth by Robert Kaplan

The author has presented a "cultural travelogue", basically his journal of a trip through a number of underdeveloped countries, and put down on paper his observations about each society and the patterns he sees among them. It was written after his better known book about the Balkans and after he gathered so much publicity during and after the first gulf war as the only reasonably well-known, reasonably expert commentator on that region. I assume his Balkan effort was worth the attention, but this is just an OK book.

He works hard to weave a coherent theme. Generally tagging Islam, teeming masses, rapid technological change, cultural pollution/evolution, widening income gaps, and all of that into a recipe for a sort of imminent catastrophe, he never quite makes it through to a sound conclusion. It's by no means as bad as "The Population Bomb 1972!" and those kind of books, not even close, but it sometimes sounds as if it's headed that direction. Fortunately it never goes that far. That restraint and a few good stories here and there make it an OK book.

Theories of Underdevelopment by Ian Roxborough

This book is a little old (1979) and hard to find, but it's worth looking for. While it is a bit academic in places and overloaded with more than it's share of anti-west spin, it presents a number of ideas and perspectives on development that are outside current development discussions.

One of those is in the section on dependency theories. In 1970 an economist named dos Santos discussed dependency as a consequence of a sort of conditioning of the underdeveloped country by its more developed trading partners or colonial masters. He considered it quite similar to the sort of conditioning we think about in clinical testing of animals in psychology experiments. Just like the "press a bar get a food nugget" conditioning, he argued societies that learn commerce as colonies have trouble breaking certain patterns when they become independent and are forced to compete in the global market, compete outside the role they've learned.

The implications for the troubles in transition economies today are clear, though Roxborough wrote that at the time of his writing that this view was "unproved". From my experience, it sounds more than plausible.