Jun
16

China's Gilded Age

China's Gilded Age (2020) by Yuen Yuen Ang is an accessible read that is well worth reading for multiple reasons. The book advances theoretical understandings on corruption and poverty, it presents creative methodologies that could inspire all sorts of new research, and presents unique findings that explain how China sustained high levels of economic growth alongside pervasive corruption. Ang also wrote the excellent book How China Escaped the Poverty Trap (2016).

A few notes (three long quotes, key arguments from the book):

"The durability and gigantic scale of Chinese economic expansion, juxtaposed with reports of "rising"and "explosive"corruption, cannot simply be brushed away by assertions of imminent collapse, even amid the current slowdown. How China has come this far –from an impoverished communist regime to a capitalist superpower rivaling the United States, despite a crisis of corruption that its leadership sees as "grave"and "shocking"–must be explained. This is the task of my book." (p. 5)

"Through an "unbundled"approach, my study draws a clear distinction between the quantity and quality of corruption. Wealthy economies may have low quantities of aggregate corruption, as measured by standard cross-national indices, but it doesn't mean that they have no corruption; rather, their corruption may be of a different quality –concentrated in access money, which is difficult to capture and not immediately growth-retarding. Contrary to popular beliefs, the rise of capitalism was not accompanied by the eradication of corruption, but rather by the evolution of the quality of corruption from thuggery and theft toward sophisticated exchanges of power and profit. Compared with countries that prospered earlier, China is still a relative newcomer on this evolutionary path... Why has China prospered alongside vast corruption? I offer a four-part explanation. First, the dominant type of corruption in China is access money –elite exchanges of power and wealth –rather than petty bribery or outright theft... access money may actually raise private investment –and even spur over-investment, as seen in China's real estate sector –thereby increasing growth, at least until the onset of a crisis." (p. 14)

"One of the most intractable problems of development is the trap of "corruption-causing-poverty-causing-corruption." In other words, countries are poor because they are corrupt, and they are corrupt because they are poor... The scholarly literature poses two solutions to this problem. The first is to "skip straight to Weber" by replicating the best practices of first-world public administration in developing countries. Pay is too low? Raise it. Bureaucracy is overstaffed? Slash it. Petty corruption is rampant? Vow to punish it. Although these measures appear correct in principle, in practice they routinely fail and may even backfire, raising administrative costs and undermining public sector morale. The second solution, as Fisman and Golden underscore, is to "trigger a change in social norms." Social norms are important, and muck-raking journalism and public protests can help citizens hold corrupt elites accountable. But norms cannot fill empty stomachs. Poorly paid bureaucrats often steal, extort, or moonlight in order to subsist. Reform-era China charted an unusual pathway out of this vicious cycle. Its solution was to allow street-level bureaucrats to extract some payments to top up their paltry formal salaries, while also aligning their financial incentives with long-term economic development objectives. Essentially, the state applied a profit-sharing model to the communist bureaucracy." (p. 85-86) 


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Jan
13

Qatar's Modern and Contemporary Development

One of the benefits of being in Qatar, when reading books written on the country, is the ability to walk the shelves of the Qatar National Library and stumble upon gems that almost certainly would not be available outside of Qatar. One example of this is "Qatar's Modern and Contemporary Development: Chapters of Political, Social and Economic Development", published in 2015, in Doha, Qatar. This book was written by Prof Ahmed Zakariya Al-Shelek, Prof Mustafa Oqail Mahmoud, and Dr. Yusuf Ibrahim Al- Abdulla (I believe it was originally written in Arabic but I do not have the date of that publication).

While other histories offer details of events in relation to external and colonial actions, the strength of this book is the extensive reference to local developments (e.g. related to the changes in the governance system, the consideration of a regional union when approaching independence, relations with other intergovernmental organizations like the Arab League and the UN, etc). In many ways this is much more of a history of Qatar, as opposed to other histories which situate Qatar as subject to the actions of others and their history. Entire chapters take this local focus. For example, Chapter 5 covers the Beginnings of the Modern State and is a valuable reference as it lists the emergence of various government offices, laws (e.g. nationality laws), Islamic courts, and so forth. Chapter 7 covers the political history of oil, putting it in local and international context, and Chapter 8 analyzes some of the socio-cultural impacts of oil. These histories are not included in most texts, and makes this a particularly valuable contribution.

Although not a strong focus, relatively more attention is paid in this book to the history before the colonial period as well as the role of Islam (the latter is made invisible in many works on the country). When the colonial era is covered, readers learn more of the Ottoman role in the 1800s, in comparison to other histories that emphasize that of the British. Also unlike almost all books on the country (including those published by academic presses) this book uniquely has a chapter on methods and sources, which is appreciated. This methods chapter outlines the inclusion of Arabic sources, Turkish sources, colonial sources, amongst others (including Russian sources). For this interested in the history of Qatar, this is worthwhile read.

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Nov
16

Qatar: Politics and the Challenges of Development

In the same year that Kamrava published his book on Qatar, Matthew Gray published Qatar: Politics and the Challenges of Development (2013). Kamrava's book has about three times as many citations and seems to have become the go-to book on political issues in Qatar for the time period. Kamrava took a position at Georgetown University in Qatar in 2007, and has been there since, giving him a depth of experience and insight that many others do not have. When I picked up Gray's book, and read that it was based upon three short visits to Qatar in 2011 and 2012, I was skeptical. Maybe it is a disciplinary or training difference, but I struggle to see how I could write a book with such limited contextual experience. Nonetheless, Gray's book is a really good resource, contains lots of data (which is often challenging to find in one place), it is well organized and structured. Some parts could have done with more references, allowing us readers to know where the information was obtained - for example the historical chapter gives many details that must have been sourced somewhere, but we are not told where (and a heavy reliance upon one source, in that chapter Crystal's work). As with many other works written by 'outsider' academics, no Arabic sources are used. While the author speaks of interviews and cites interviewees, we know little to nothing about who they are, how representative that data is, how many interviews are used, how the data was analyzed in order to draw conclusions, et cetera. This presents a significant methodological weakness. Nonetheless, this is a good resource for students, albeit slightly dated now, but for the period before 2012, this is worth reading.

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Dec
19

Getting to Zero: On the Ebola Frontline

  • "It seems very hard to stop this now, but I think we all just have to believe that it is possible." (Norwegian epidemiologist, p. xvii)

Within development studies literature there is a sub-genre of memoires, biographies and dairies. Some are troubling to read. Not all are well written. Some are extremely informative. Most present aspects of the sector that are invisible for those outside of it. Daily routines. Successes and failures. Lessons. Lived experiences. I enjoy reading these works. "Getting to Zero: A Doctor and a Diplomat on the Ebola Frontline" (2018) by Sinead Walsh and Oliver Johnson falls in this sub-genre and is well worth a read. The book is quite long (422 pages), so I will not attempt a summary. Rather, a few parts that I think are worth sharing:

On training: "The second problem with Ebola trainings was that they fell into the 'training the trainers' trap, another common fault of aid programmes. The logic here was that an expert, often an international consultant flown in for the task, could provide a brief training to a selection of local staff brought together from across the country. These staff would then 'cascade' this training to their colleagues after returning home. Whilst this may be effective in some specific situations, generally a few hours or a few days of classroom-based teaching simply does not give someone enough knowledge or hands-on experience of a complex real-world challenge for them to be able to undertake it independently or teach it to others" (p. 52).

Learning in emergencies: "Key to any process of community engagement is respect. This meant being willing to sit down, listen, and then have a conversation with communities to find compromises between our preferred biomedical strategies and what they felt they could actually do. It took us a long time to get to that. Much of the community engagement in the early months was one-way, telling people what to do rather than understanding the kinds of challenges they faced and what ideas they had for how to protect themselves." (p. 343)

On roles within humanitarian and development activity: "the question of how assertive to be in a situation like this is at the core of the distinction between development and humanitarian approaches to international aid. The development mindset tends to focus on supporting the country to better serve its population over the long term, and therefore recognizes the importance of being led by the government. After all, it is the government that (usually) has the democratic legitimacy to make decisions about the country's future and is therefore best placed to run the services that aid agencies are looking to strengthen. Mutual respect and a collaborative relationship between the government and the aid agency are key in this kind of approach. As a result, timelines are usually slower than if aid agencies implement services directly. A humanitarian approach can sometimes appear to be the exact opposite. The focus in an emergency situation is not on long-term improvements to government systems but on immediate relief for those in need. There is a strong sense of urgency, and aid agencies will sometimes take control, with only a token consultation with the government, so that rapid decisions can be made. Humanitarian budgets can be quite large, allowing the swift hiring of additional staff and the bringing in of supplies for the short-term effort." (p. 66-67)

Pointing fingers: "Paul Farmer has written extensively about the tendency of people in the aid system to over-focus on weak accountability in developing countries, rather than questioning the role of developed countries, either today or historically. This is both about weak accountability within their international aid systems and about how they often contribute to corruption in developing countries." (p. 361)

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