Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Book Review: And The Weak Suffer What They Must? by Yanis Varoufakis


Ten years ago, I read and reviewed Making Globalization Work by Joseph Stiglitz – my first Big Econ tome iirc – and my attention was immediately engaged by the eminently readable style of writing. Reading Stiglitz not only raised the bar for my expectations from nonfiction writing but lowered the barriers to my resistance to the subject of economics. I went on to devour everyone from the immortal words of The Argumentative Indians to the White Man’s Burden and it’s early hints of design thinking in development.

Today however I have a smile on my lips as I sit down to write this review of Yanis Varoufakis’ And The Weak Suffer What They Must? Europe, Austerity and the Threat to Global Stability – a search for his bio turned up a piece of trivia, we’re both born on the 24th of March in the 1960s. It seemed to validate my enjoyment of his narrative style, and my daily hour of reading pleasure over the past couple of weeks.

Varoufakis’ words breathe life into what could have been a dull and dry narrative, full of mindnumbing statistics and incomprehensible GDP growth rates. He humanizes the political economy of Europe, imbuing the German Bundesbank with nefarious motives and a schoolmaster’s strict discipline, and engagingly explains the social and political motives that shape the decisions that influence and impact the whole world.

No other economist that I’ve read has managed to dramatize the stage and the actors in such a way, crafting a gripping narrative of the sweeping changes that took place in the post war era.

The FT’s Martin Sandbu merely calls it an opinionated history, but isn’t that what ultimately history is? A well-balanced review worth reading:

His intellectual rebellion (in many ways justified) against the eurozone’s consensus view of what needed to be done with his country often seemed an end in itself rather than a policy in the service of changing the world for the better.
The book is nonetheless highly readable. It is also important, outlining a perspective on global economics that influences policy thinking in broader circles than the radical left.

What I personally found amusing when digging up the book reviews that I like to use interspersed with my own opinions in my reviews, was the The Guardian’s blatantly biased put-down of the man and his writing:

Yet while this book reflects a giant ego, and will not win prizes for its ponderous style, it is not entirely without merit for those with strength to plough through the pages.

But reading the review all the way through, one sees hints of a resemblance to the outline of points made by Sandbu in the FT. My own opinion is that if you’re looking to understand the politics of economics then there isn’t a better book yet that I’ve come across.

Highly recommend; eminently readable.

Introducing the concept of Biashara Economics, underwritten by a value web of trusted relationships

vfm hidden

The true value of social network lies not in its actor’s activities but in their relationships to each other. When social networks attempt to monetize their users, they tend to identify them as discrete individuals rather than interconnected actors all acting in a wave at a concert. The ripple effect seen in biashara informed us of the presence of an underlying web of value exchange seen as form of social digital currency.

Social digital currency can be said to consist of the following component parts that symbiotically work holistically as an integrated whole.

  1. Social capital – Trust.
  2. Virtual capital – see research on the metafilter community
  3. Live capital – livestock, chickens, fish, rabbits et al
  4. Skills and information capital – experience of paperwork for instance
  5. Cash or easily liquid capital

Thus, in the informal sector we saw instances of extremely cooperative economic behaviour bordering on barter characteristics, with cash as one of the many instruments used.

How can we bank on this richly layered wealth in rural human capital?

Book Review- Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles by Richard Dowden

After a gap of 6 years and many more journeys looking at Africa through the lens of design ethnography, I sat down to re-read Richard Dowden‘s Africa this past weekend. It moved me to want to write so many times during the read, it’s a wonder I made it through the book before starting this review. It offered me a foundation for understanding context and background, which, perhaps, I wouldn’t have appreciated, back when I first read it more than 5 years ago. I’d only just begun my own explorations of the African consumer market then, seeking to understand the patterns and rhythm of the informal and rural economy. Prepaid Africa was still an exploratory user research project, not the daily deep dive into news and views on the emerging economies of the continent that it is today.

Richard Dowden brings something unique to his writing that I rarely come across in global media, a deep respect for the African continent and its peoples. Many will write with love and affection but there’s a nuanced difference when respect, and a touch of unspoken humility, bring to one’s understanding of the other. There was a moment of shock in the beginning, when Dowden writes of dealing with his recognition of the fact that as a mzungu he was always to remain on the outside looking in, kept apart from the “inner mysteries” of the local networks and hidden relationships by virtue of his visible foreignness. It is not until the epilogue, almost 40 years later, that he feels he might finally have passed through that invisible barrier.

Shock because I realized that some of those things he called mysteries were obvious to me – the relationships, the networks, the give and take of close knit communities and societies – these are a given part of many non “Western” cultures, learnt and understood at a level below conscious understanding. They are also a tangible part of what makes the informal economy tick, the relationships of trusted referrals and social networks that underlie the formal words of transactions, negotiations, commerce and trade. That was when I settled down the read the book, to learn and understand a world which I might never be able to perceive, from my own perspective.

And that is what Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles by Richard Dowden offers you – a clear eyed, lucidly written, easy to grasp understanding of the context for many of the present day issues and challenges we see and hear in the daily news. Governments, geopolitics, socioeconomics, and the Global North’s perspective looking down. He doesn’t hesitate to gently poke at ideology and idealism; everyone’s greed is laid bare, if you can learn to read between the lines.

It introduced me to Africa in a way that I’ll never be able to see, yet made me realize that there’s value in the work that I do. For that, I recommend this book as a must read, especially if you’re an African.

Africa’s world trade: Informal economies and globalization from below by Margaret C. Lee

Margaret-C-Lee-Africas-World-Trade1The entire text of Professor Margeret C. Lee’s work is made available under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0) Licence. Clicking on the cover will take you directly to the PDF.

Chapter 3 takes the reader through a journey to different countries of Africa, including Uganda, Tanzania, Ghana, Zambia, South Africa, Namibia, Angola, and Cameroon. The reader is introduced to African traders in the markets in several African countries that trade in Chinese goods. Some of the traders actually go to China to buy goods for their shops, some import them from surrounding countries, and others buy them wholesale directly from the Chinese in their respective countries. What is perhaps most fascinating about many of these traders is the networks they have for the distribution of their goods – these traders serve as suppliers of Chinese goods to traders who come from surrounding countries to buy in bulk to sell in their respective shops.

We learn a great deal in this chapter about Africa’s world trade regimes and how globalization from below operates in this part of the world. Again, African traders, through their stories, humanize these regimes for us

Book Review: Adventures in Stationery by James Ward


I read this book in one sitting yesterday. Now I’m here writing on it.

Any adult who’s furtively indulged in scented erasers, colourful gel pens or handmade paper, to be shoved secretly down the lowermost drawer in the desk will love this book.

Pens and pencils, paperclips and pushpins. James Ward lovingly describes them all, interspersing a well researched narrative with joke bombs dropped in with the straightest face.

My only issue with his writing is that it made me feel old. He writes as though he’s middle aged yet refers to the era when I sat for my O Levels as the dim mists of history. Other than that, go find this eminently readable book. Especially if you’re a designer. Ward knows what he’s writing about and does it engagingly well.

“This book is the Salt of office supplies”


Book Review: An Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions by Jean Dreze & Amartya Sen

Photo Credit: India Habitat Centre, New Delhi

Just over a month ago, in Kinokuniya bookstore located in Singapore’s Orchard Road, I picked up the hardcover release of Amartya Sen’s latest book – An Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions – coauthored with Jean Dreze.

Today, I’ve reached the point in my daily few pages of reading where I can write something approaching a review, or at the very least, my thoughts.

The book is a vast tome yet written in an extremely accessible chatty tone  – something very rare in Indian academia which tends to be addicted to the turn of the previous century’s writing and style guides – in fact, and I’ll just get it out the way and say it upfront, Mr Sen really should get his own blog in the way Paul Krugman has or simply join a syndicate like Joseph Stiglitz. But I recognize the transitional era of the hardcover book and the need for such things in the rest of the world. Print is booming, iirc, in India, ever the reader’s market. English books taught you vocabulary and idiomatic language, along with the pre-internet peek at lifestyles and mores from a different culture or geography.

I do not regret having purchased this book although I am not happy to be reading what Dreze and Sen are saying. They have really done their homework and swept out some really cobwebby corners of India’s social and economic responsibilities to her people. Oh voiceless masses, cries one more global Bengali intellectual, who will hear thy cry upon thy mother’s breast to be fed the milk at your first indrawn breath?

India is an embarrassing mess for a country of its size and unnatural resources, its jugaad and babudom, resisting the clearly written look in the mirror that shows the continued atyachaar upon it’s girl children and the harijans in general. Unsaid in so many words but underlined with charts, graphs and lucidly explained data driven disparities, Dreze and Sen show us the social and economic apartheid that the country’s caste system perpetuates and the quarter of the population who are so destitute that the very lack of public goods and services, much less a civic consciousness of social responsiblity, should draw international wrath upon our heads for allowing this daily humanitarian crisis to continue.

It is only the recent opening of the markets in the past 20 years of liberalization of the economy with their attendant promotional cacophony that drown out the ever beating drums of the poor of India and their downtrodden voiceless plight. Somewhere around 2006, I recall reading an article in The Guardian going on about the “third india” here “A Tale of Two Indias“published April 2006, says:

Gandhi’s India, or at least his influence on economics, has all but disappeared in the past decade. From 1947 until 1991, the economy grew at 3.5% a year, the so-called Hindu rate of growth which championed equality and social stability over wealth. After 1991, that all changed. Notions of speed and efficiency were stamped on to a civilisation that traditionally took a slower, more relaxed view of life. Economic growth rose to 6% a year. In the past three years, it has zoomed to 8% a year – meaning that the economy will double in size in a decade. The message now is similar to that of China during the 90s, in the phrase attributed to Deng Xiaoping: “To get rich is glorious.”

Not that the wealth has reached all of the country. India is one land, but the rich and poor exist on apparently different planets. Virtually unreported are some awful daily realities: the rate of malnutrition in children under five is a shamefully high 45%. Less than a third of India’s homes have a toilet and most women have to wait until the dark of evening to venture out to answer the call of nature. The talk of making poverty history sounds hollow in India, a land which is home to a third of the world’s poor and where some 300 million people live on less than $1 a day.

Yet another world is growing up, fuelled by the immense wealth that is being amassed by India’s new monied classes, who shop for brand-name luxury goods, ski in the Alps and send their kids to Harvard. Very soon the country will have 3.8m households with an annual income of 10m rupees (£130,000).

Below them in any rich list is the middle class, estimated to number about 150 million. Their hunger for goods has seen a new money culture – how to make it and how to spend it. India’s masses were, under the more equal state-run economy, denied shopping choices. The country is today undergoing a consumer boom. For some, this is proof enough that, in opening up, India has gained from globalisation – allowing Dior, Bulgari and Rolls-Royce into the country. Consumption in this India is nothing if not conspicuous.

And so on and so forth about the increasing divide between the rich and the poor. I would hazard a guess that what is really the issue is a) how visible the disparity has gotten i.e. the rich are no more shy about flaunting their wealth, a la Gandhi’s coterie of Calcutta industrialists like GD Birla himself et al, and b) how much more visible the global ICT connectivity via PC, broadband and mobile smartphone is making this disparity internationally.

Sen’s global experience in the UK and USA shows in his clearly argued case against private public partnerships or other enterprise led BoP solutions. At one point in the reading one got the distinct feeling that he was debating with the late CK Prahalad on the way the BoP concept was been narrowly interpreted to mean micro user fees. He mentions the very words and points out how it immediately becomes a huge barrier to access for India’s poorer segments of society, a micro fee for preventive healthcare might end up excluding anywhere upto 90% of those it is most meant to serve.

Who will serve them, ask Dreze and Sen, if they are not profitable even in the most basic sense? The state and the public goods that are currently mismanaged, corrupt and inefficient yet can demonstrate their efficacy in spots such as Tamil Nadu or Kerala (all in Southern India). They point out that even Bangladesh next door has better social indicators and gender parity metrics than India.

One has not heard a peep about this book on Twitter, does it mean I’m following the wrong crowd or that the book has not been noticed? This is a message that every able Indian really should take to heart. Why are we such a fucking backward nation in the August of the year 2013?

Reflecting on the good old fashioned explorer’s travelogue

Reading through Jan Chipchase’s stereotypically English approach to announcing the impending arrival of his apparently well received book is making me quirk my mouth in a remiscent smile of the days when we hung on every post – Chipchase at his height, splashed as the design researcher’s Indiana Jones, across the New York Times in full colour. Yes, I tease gently as I look forward to getting a chance to scan his book at some point. You see, I’m leaving for Africa tonight.

Published! Pathways Out of Poverty by iBoPAsia Project

Innovating with the BoP in Southeast Asia.

The iBoP Asia Project has published the complete set of small grants funding innovation projects for those at the Bottom of the Pyramid in the ASEAN region. One of the first projects to win the Small Grants competition in 2008 was The Prepaid Economy Project: Understanding BoP household financial management.

The ingenuity economy: grassroots social enterprises abound

Since I’d recently completed my review of Robert Neuwirth’s book, Stealth of Nations – The rise of the global informal economy, it struck me that what best characterizes this economic activity is captured by him here:

The French have a word that they often use to describe particularly effective and motivated people. They call them débrouillards. To say a man is a débrouillard is to tell people how resourceful and ingenious he is. The former French colonies have sculpted this word to their own social and economic reality. They say that inventive, self-starting, entrepreneurial merchants who are doing business on their own, without registering or being regulated by the bureaucracy and, for the most part, without paying taxes, are part of “l’economie de la débrouillardise.” Or, sweetened for street use, “Systeme D.” This essentially translates as the ingenuity economy, the economy of improvisation and self-reliance, the do-it-yourself, or DIY, economy.

Do those words not capture the spirit of innovation we so often discuss here?  The ingenuity economy seems to capture that essence somehow, though I doubt it would ever make it into general parlance. In any case, here are such two stories from Kenya – one regarding household solar power and one on potable drinking water – traditionally the purview of design students and social entrepreneurs everywhere.

Charles Otieno Ogwel is a school dropout who makes custom inverters for household consumption drawing energy from solar power. From yesterday’s Daily Nation article:

Mr Otieno is now lighting up rural homes where Kenya Power has not yet reached to provide electricity. At a cost of Sh12,000, a homestead will get electricity as his inverter converts solar energy into high voltage alternating current. One needs a solar panel, an accumulator, and the specifications of the domestic appliances to be used. Mr Otieno then determines, through calculations, the type of inverter, in terms of capacity, suitable for that home. He then makes an inverter that suits his clients’ need.
The father-of-three says he has spent more than Sh250,000 on research to come up with the modified gadgets and has sold close to 10,000 customised inverters.

Why aren’t all the solar power enterprises snapping up fundis like Mr Otieno? And from a slightly older article from the Business Daily  comes the story of these enterprising women from Kirinyaga who brought an organic, affordable and natural solution for water purification back from the Sudan. Here’s a snippet:

Victoria Kamwenja is one of the women now working to spread the word on the water purification in training sessions.

“When added to water, the crushed seeds attract particles of dirt that are floating in the water, including certain disease organisms. The dirt attaches to the seeds and they fall together to the bottom of the jar. Then you pour off the good water to drink,” said Victoria.

“The dirtier the water the more seeds you will need”.

Together the women are now selling the seeds to other households in other areas after offering training at a fee. Susan Kinya and Anastacia Nyawira are selling the seeds in four districts surrounding Kirinyaga where the Moringa tree doesn’t grow. They package the seeds in quantities sold for Sh10, Sh20, Sh50 and Sh100. In a single day in one district, the two women manage to sell seeds worth Sh5,000 on top of the Sh2,000 that they charge for the training. They hold their demonstrations at rivers, such as the River Chania in Thika District.

“It’s a good enterprise that has been keeping me busy since I retired as a school teacher. I am now planning to be the sole trainer of cheaper ways of purifying water in the whole province,” said Susan Kinya.

And there doesn’t seem to be any external agency involved, this is a homegrown women’s enterprise. One wonders whether they and the many others like them, particularly the makers and inventors, will ever come to the notice of investors wishing to make an impact among the communities?

The White Man’s Burden by William Easterly – a user centered approach to aid programmes

Approaching William Easterly’s recent book on foreign aid and economic development challenges in the ‘third’ or ‘developing’ world from the design thinker’s point of view has been an eye opening exercise. Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen has written a mixed review evaluating Easterly’s thesis and approach, while other reviews include the London Book Review’s balanced summation.

While written about developmental economics, poverty, foreign aid and the grand plans designed to save the poor from themselves, Easterly proposes an alternate approach based on the principles of the user centered approach to design of systems and solutions.

Do exploratory research, understand the needs of the users, observe them and the systems they already have in place for addressing the issue or existing grassroots solutions [jugaad or bottom up innovation], use these as prototypes for the design of replicable successful programs, cross pollinate ideas that work across different regions or countries, adapt programs and plans to local culture and social customs – basically the user centered approach to the implementation of aid programs.

But Easterly doesn’t actually use any of these terms that we may be familiar with, he classifies the top down, traditional global foreign aid approach as one designed by “Planners” and the bottom up, grassroots, user centered approach which relies on feedback mechanisms and accountability as one developed by “Searchers”. Look at the way he describes the approach of each,

“In foreign aid, Planners announce good intentions but don’t motivate anyone to carry them out; Searchers find things that work and get some reward. Planners raise expectations but take no responsibility for meeting them; Searchers accept responsibility for their actions. Planners determine what to supply; Searchers find out what is in demand. Planners apply global blueprints; Searchers adapt to local conditions. Planners at the top lack knowledge of the bottom; Searchers find out what the reality is at the bottom. Planners never hear whether the planned got what it needed; Searchers find out whether the customer is satisfied.”

Don’t the Searchers – who adapt to local conditions, find out what the reality is at the bottom, obtain user feedback etc – sound just like the ideal user oriented consumer product companies who seek to design and develop products to fill gaps in the market or meet an unmet need, discovered by observation and understanding local culture?

Reading further, the takeaway seems to be three key approaches to successful developmental programs –

  • Design programs for local needs and local culture, adapting them to each locale and environment
  • Observe local solutions developed to address the issue successfully, particularly if they adapt the “official” way to do things to the needs of the local culture or customs
  • Then cross pollinate by taking concepts that have worked at the grassroots level – call it bottom up innovation – and scale them or adapt them for other regions or countries

Therefore, while I may not be in a position to evaluate his entire thesis on the global developmental economics platform the way Shri Amartya Sen might be able to, incisively, in his review of Easterly’s book, I do conclude that there is a powerful message here that the very same methods and tools that profit making global multinationals are beginning to use to successfully enter new markets, such as ethnographic research and understanding local culture and conditions before launching products or services without a clue, would also be extremely powerful ways for the design and development of a variety of aid programmes that actually respond to the actual needs of the local populace.

Sen concludes in his review as well,

In his wholesale praise of “searchers” over “planners,” Easterly says, “Planners determine what to supply; Searchers find out what is in demand.” This may be just so, but there is a radical difference (of which Easterly is surely aware, judging from what he writes elsewhere in the book) between the enterprise of supplying “what is in demand” — which is integrally linked to the buyers’ ability to pay — and that of supplying needed goods and services to people whose income and wealth do not allow a need to be converted into a market demand.

None of this, however, negates the importance of Easterly’s general praise of searchers. There is much merit in ground-level explorations of what is feasible — even when addressing problems that are a thousand times more difficult than selling Harry Potter books to buyers who are willing and able to pay for them. Information and initiatives have to come from many sources, including the deprived themselves (this is why studies such as Voices of the Poor are so important), and without constant searching for what the problems are and how they can be addressed, global aid efforts end up being far less effective than they could be.


NB: This review was first published on Perspective 2.0 on December 13, 2007