Category: Books

China’s Great Famine

Courtesy of one of the students in my development seminar, here are links to a two-part NPR story about China’s famine of 1958-1962: part 1 and part 2.

Between 1958 and 1962, an estimated 20 to 43 people died of hunger in China, which China’s official statistics claiming 15 million deaths and the highest estimates reporting a death toll of 45 million. For comparison, the death toll from World War 1 is estimated to be about 17 million. During the Chinese famine, people eventually survived on anything they could find, eventually going so far as to eat their dead and their own children.

The NPR story discusses Tombstone, a book which just came out in English and which took Chinese reporter Yang Jisheng 10 years of working in secrecy to write. I’m about 100 pages into the book. It is a fascinating and monumental account of China’s Great Famine. And as one might reasonably expect, it is banned in China. Continue reading


We live in a world that seems increasingly beyond our control. Our livelihoods are at the whim of globalized forces. The problems that we face — economic, environmental, and so on — cannot be solved by our individual actions. Our politicians are distant and unresponsive to our desires. A natural response when people feel overwhelmed is to retreat into various forms of passivity. If we don’t try too much in life, if we limit our circle of action, we can give ourselves the illusion of control. The less we attempt, the less chances of failure. If we can make it look like we are not really responsible for our fate, for what happens to us in life, then our apparent powerlessness is more palatable. For this reason we become attracted to certain narratives: it is genetics that determines much of what we do; we are just products of our times; the individual is just a myth; human behavior can be reduced to statistical trends. Continue reading

Of Africa — and Writing

With the venerable Soyinka now 78, I wish I could report that his new volume of sweeping reflections is of the same stature as his best work, but sadly it is not. The book is vague, ponderous and awkward. Soyinka never says “house” when he can say “habitation,” “native” when he can say “autochthon,” “dominant” when he can say “hegemonic.” Phrases in quotation marks float free of any source. When he makes broad generalizations and criticisms he sometimes expects the reader to mentally provide specific examples. (Do you remember exactly what President Obama said in Cairo in 2009? I had to look it up.) The book abounds in passages full of 10-dollar words that have to be read two or three times to figure out what they mean. About contentions in Christian theology, for example, he says:

“These all-consuming debates and formal encyclicals are constructed on what we may term a proliferating autogeny within a hermetic realm — what is at the core of arguments need not be true; it is sufficient that the layers upon layers of dialectical constructs fit snugly on top of one another.”

That’s Adam Hochschild discussing Nigerian writer and 1986 Nobel laureate for literature Wole Soyinka‘s new book Of Africa in the New York Times Book Review. Continue reading

The Best Contemporary African Books

From The Guardian, the 10 best contemporary African books.

Based on the blurbs that accompany the slideshow, I’ve ordered Zoo City and Beneath the Lion’s Gaze.

In the case of Zoo City, William Gibson’s praise on the cover was what convinced me, and having started reading it, Zoo City does have a certain cyberpunk feel to it. Now that’s something I’d like to read more of: Afro-cyberpunk.

Guest Post: Review of “Catching Up: What LDCs Can Do and What Others Can Help,” by Paul Collier

(Note: This is a guest post by Feyza Ileri, who was a student in my development seminar last fall. Feyza took a course titled “Current Issues in International Trade and Economic Development” in the Department of Economics with my colleague Ed Tower. This book review was one of her assignments for Ed’s course.)

Catching Up: What LDCs Can Do and What Others Can Help
Paul Collier, Published by Commonwealth Secretariat, February 2011
80 pages, $24.95

Paul Collier, professor of economics and director of the Centre for the Study of African Economies at Oxford, has written a number of engaging and provocative books on development. Catching Up is one such book. The book focuses on the least developed countries (LDCs) and suggests a number of development strategies for the governments of those countries.

Although the LDCs’ share of the world’s population is around 12 percent, they account for less than 2 per cent of the world’s GDP. Taking this into consideration, Collier presents a guide for decision makers who aim to make LDCs attain and sustain a significant rate of growth and catch up with the middle income developing countries.

The book indicates that for the 2000-2008 period, the LDCs achieved and a 4-percent increase on average in GDP per capita GDP, an 11-percent decrease in mortality. Despite these improvements, since other developing countries have grown faster, the income differential between the LDCs and other developing countries has widened and is still widening. Moreover, Collier believes that governments hold the authority and credibility to force change. He thus offers concrete recommendations for the governments of the LDCs.

One striking point in Collier’s book is related to energy. The growth in the world economy has driven up the demand for energy. Therefore, the existence of natural resources is one of the most important opportunities for the improvement in the LDCs, Collier says. The book concentrates on the importance of investment in extraction and suggests sale of resource extraction rights in exchange for infrastructure or aid by donors. Continue reading