Summary of “development” book club readings from April 2017-June 2020
We are leaders of a book club that reads books related to “development” — it started out with the intention of reading books related to international development and technology but has since expanded to include content about the future of work, climate change, governance, systemic inequality, economic theory, social entrepreneurship, and much more.
The following is a summary of themes that have emerged from the books we read on a roughly monthly basis from April 2017 to June 2020 (full schedule and list of books). We selected books based on the interest of those present at each gathering, often resulting in a range of sometimes constructive, sometimes conflicting view points. Therefore, this summary is by no means necessarily a cohesive or complete picture of all content related to “development.” Rather, it is just a snapshot of some pieces and perspectives in a vast literature — and a fairly impressive one for people who are just reading these books for fun ;)
We hope this is helpful as a guideline of different ideas and potential areas to dig deeper for anyone who is interested in technology and social impact!
1. Businesses have the potential to help poor people.
Businesses can cater to the poor through specific products or services.
- It is possible to have a “social business” that optimizes for a “double bottom line” — both profit and social impact (Creating a World Without Poverty: Social Business and the Future of Capitalism by Muhammad Yunus).
- The volume of the poorest people at the “bottom of the pyramid” multiplies their individually low spending power, which actually makes them a very large market (Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid: Eradicating Poverty Through Profits by C.K. Prahalad).
- Market-creating innovations can lead to sustainable development (The Prosperity Paradox: How Innovation Can Lift Nations Out of Poverty by Clayton Christensen).
2. But it is important to keep in mind the local context when trying to “help.”
Often there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to trying to implement a technological or other type of “solution” in general. Many well-meaning approaches will fail without a real partnership with and deep understanding of the intended beneficiaries.
- Beware of technological solutionism — technology is ultimately neutral and can only “amplify” existing human and social forces, meaning any solutions or interventions should be in the context of holistic change (Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology by Kentaro Toyama).
- “Searchers” are more effective at creating social change than “planners” because they focus on a specific task and the context around it rather than stubbornly adhering to a specific plan (The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good by William Easterly).
- Well-intentioned state planning in the vein of “high modernism” that tries to make its subjects “legible” without regarding their values, desires, and objects have failed (Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed by James C. Scott).
3. There are different paths that nations have taken and continue to take towards “development.”
Some factors that are varied are the role of neoliberalism (and markets) versus that of the government. These different paths have varied impacts on the economic, social, and political state of the countries.
- There are many different types of journeys, influenced by the natural resources available and the policies and priorities of the governments in power (Asian Tigers, African Lions: Comparing the Development Performance of Southeast Asia and Africa edited by Bernard Berendsen, Ton Dietz, H.G. Nordholt, and Roel Van Veen).
- More state control has helped in some cases, such as when governments are able to focus on economic relationships with other nations, enacting protective trade measures (mercantilism) or carefully opening markets (Bad Samaritans: The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism by Ha-Joon Chang, From Third World to First: The Singapore Story: 1965–2000 by Lee Kuan Yew, The Chinese Economy: Transitions and Growth by Barry J. Naughton).
- Throughout history, colonization has impacted the “development” of the nations that were colonized and currently, similar forces are seen through China’s increased economic, political, and human presence in countries in Africa (Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World by Niall Ferguson, China’s Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa by Howard W. French, When China Met Africa, a film by Marc J. Francis and Nick Francis).
- Theory shows capital and free international trade drives growth driven by intentional investment decisions by profit-maximizing agents (Endogenous Technological Change, a journal article by Paul M. Romer).
- However, neoliberalism, the free market, and globalization isn’t always great and has left lasting impacts on equality — trade impacts labor-scarce and labor-abundant countries differently (Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World by Anand Giradharas, Good Economics for Hard Times: Better Answers to Our Biggest Problems by Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo).
- Moreover, unfettered capitalism and push towards growth has exploited people, land, and resources, leaving irreversible impacts on the environment, the burden of which disproportionately falls onto the shoulders of marginalized underclasses (Waste of a Nation: Garbage and Growth in India by Assa Doron and Robin Jeffrey, Climate Refugees, a film by Michael Nash and Justin Hogan).
4. Often, it is the power structures and systems that maintain a (broken) status quo and make it difficult to more towards equity.
Thus far, “solutions” mainly address “symptoms” that are the result of these systems. It requires true humility and evaluation of how we contribute to these to make real change.
- History shows that the pursuit of profit generates exploitation, not social progress, and is the reason for the current growing inequalities (Capital in the Twenty-First Century, a documentary based on the book by Thomas Piketty).
- Silicon Valley is built around structures of innovation at all costs and supposed meritocracy — in its current form, it will only continue to perpetuate inequality (Abolish Silicon Valley: How to Liberate Technology from Capitalism by Wendy Liu).
- The elite (rich, powerful, educated) claim to “change the world” but really only make moves that maintain/reinforce their positions in society, in part because of their limited “market world” mindset (Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World by Anand Giradharas).
5. There are some interesting economic ideas of how we can radically change society.
These include using different economic concepts and reimagining how we think of capitalism, free markets, and work.
- “Developing” and “developed” world problems are merging, though both can be understood and impacted by randomized control trials and other economic initiatives (Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty by Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo).
- Thoughtful “choice architecture” can nudge us in a beneficial direction without restricting freedom of choice (Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein).
- Capitalism can potentially bridge geographic, class, and education schisms, but only given “moral” guidelines: reciprocal obligations, shared narratives, social maternalism, esteem, and pragmatism (The Future of Capitalism: Facing the New Anxieties by Paul Collier).
- Neoliberalism and folk politics have failed and not prepared us for the future, which will require measures to ensure we have an equal society even as we are liberated from work (Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams).
- Markets can be reorganized to be “good” — genuinely open, free, and competitive markets can lead to greater equality, prosperity, and cooperation (Radical Markets: Uprooting Capitalism and Democracy for a Just Society by Eric A. Posner and E. Glen Weyl).