Friday, 30 March 2012

The Bottom Billion (Paul Collier)

--The blurb--
"Although nearly five billion of the world's people are beginning to climb from desperate poverty and to benefit from globalization's reach to developing countries, there is a “bottom billion” of the world's poor whose countries, largely immune to the forces of global economy, are falling farther behind and are in danger of falling apart, separating permanently [...] from the rest of the world. [...] Collier identifies and explains the four traps that prevent the homelands of the world's billion poorest people from growing and joining in the benefits of globalization. [...] Collier addresses the fact that conventional aid has been unable to tackle these problems and puts forward a radical new plan of action."

--The review--
Having approached this book on the recommendation of others after finding that teaching a course on development studies may be on the cards as part of my work, it was certainly with trepidation. Even though our household takes The Economist, I mainly only look at it for the articles on books, the arts, languages and education. I never had the chance to study economics in school and am not really inclined towards business, politics, world affairs and the like in general. It's fairly safe to say, then, that I'm not too knowledgeable about such weighty subjects as world poverty. I needed to be introduced, then, to the main problems and potential solutions in a gentle yet accessible way that still hammered home all of the facts in an unemotional way.

Paul Collier's "The Bottom Billion" does all of these things and more. He recognises that the facts themselves are emotive and so is careful to not embellish them further in this regard. Setting out the basic economic concepts behind poverty and giving key statistics, he talks the reader through them patiently without being patronising. Soon even previously completely unfamiliar concepts are clear enough to the reader that they can even explain them to others without difficulty (anyone for my explanation of Dutch disease?). Once the groundwork has been done, we're able to get into the really tough stuff.

This, too, is handled sensitively yet with all the necessary details. Collier doesn't rein in the intensity of any of the examples he gives, whether they are gruesome, terrifying, tragic, or funny-if-they-weren't-based-on-real-events. Gradually a picture is built up of the complexity of the problems faced in the third world, as well as some of the solutions that have been posited in the past. The author assesses the pros and cons of each situation and solution, and suggests his own ideas based on what has and has not worked before. 

Evidently it's not as simple as one relatively slim tome; while Collier's ideas seem realistic, it's equally evident that his research (carried out with the help of several doctoral and post-doctoral researchers) is detailed, time-consumin and even at times frustrating. In light of this, it's remarkable that he has been able to distil his work into such a concise volume. Ultimately, the readability of it combined with the shock factor of the facts means its impact stays with the reader and makes them want to know more. Even though the development studies plans toted at my workplace didn't go through, the benefits of reading Collier's research are immeasurable and long-lasting. Anyone with any awareness of the world around them should look into this book - even if they don't realise that they want, and need, to know more.

Other works by Paul Collier
The Plundered Planet (2011)
Catching Up: What LDCs Can Do and How Others Can Help (2011)
Conflict, Political Accountability and Aid (2010)
Wars, Guns and Votes (2009)
Living Down The Past (1998)
Trade Shocks (1994)
Labour and Poverty in Rural Tanzania (1989)
Labour and Poverty in Kenya (1986)

Research papers by Paul Collier can also be read here.

Sunday, 11 March 2012

This Mobius Strip of Ifs (Mathias Freese)

--The blurb--
"In this [...]collection of [...]essays, Mathias B. Freese jousts with American culture. A mixture of the author's reminiscences, insights, observations, and criticism, the book examines the use and misuse of psychotherapy, childhood trauma, complicated family relationships, his frustration as a teacher, and the enduring value of tenaciously writing through it all. Freese [...]describes the conditioning society imposes upon artists [...Freese writes] about the spiritual teacher, Krishnamurti, poet and novelist, Nikos Kazantzakis, or film giants such as Orson Welles and Buster Keaton, [...] while examining Existentialism, alternative education, and Jewish values. [...]At the core of these essays is the author's struggle to authentically express his unique perspective, to unflinchingly reveal a profound visceral truth, along with a passionate desire to be completely alive and aware."

--The review--
With 2012 being an Olympic year, it seems fitting in this year to have a book released featuring the idea of a Mobius strip as its base (in case you didn't know, an Olympic medal's ribbon is a Mobius strip - a twisted ribbon). Mobius strips have a mysterious quality; they look unusual yet simple from the outset, but when you begin to look at the maths behind them, it's clear that there is so much more about them to be unravelled. It's clear that this notion of something simple, yet complex in its beauty, with so much to be unravelled, has inspired the author greatly - and it's true that this does serve as a useful metaphor for the journey we all go through in our lives, in attempting to interpret ourselves as well as the world around us.

While this kind of philosophical problem-solving is something that can probably never be truly completed by any of us, I'm not sure either that Freese fully achieves his aim in This Mobius Strip of Ifs. Firstly, on a superficial level, the book does not have an entirely professional finish (something that's perhaps symptomatic of its self-published nature): editing is sloppy, the blurb is overly laudatory when it should be purely summative (this, along with the length of it, is the reason for my editing of the blurb in this post) with perhaps one tantalising hook, and it seems strange that his wife should not only write the introduction but also refer to her husband by his/their last name (this is unorthodox, and not in a positive way).

Freese also seems to have plenty of erroneous ideas about professions of which he has experience (namely, teaching), and of which he does not (blogging). His collection of essays was of interest to me primarily as a teacher who also aspires to write full-time, but in spite of my own aspirations it was still disappointing to find that he was so derisive of teaching and teachers, while at the same time not portraying himself in the most positive light. To say outright that "teaching was a waste of [his] time and talent" not only betrays Freese's own arrogance but also indicates his lack of understanding of what the profession can be: in my experience, you can still be autonomous as a teacher (I have had little to no interference in the formulation of my syllabi, which has allowed tremendously satisfying bursts of creativity and freedom) while still adhering to and being receptive to the authority and regime that you agree to follow the day you sign a contract. Despite the freedom I mention above, it is also important to realise that total freedom, except perhaps in our own minds, is an illusion; Freese does not seem to have realised this, and if he hoped to find total freedom through any profession where you sign a contract and work for someone else, he was always bound to be disappointed.

It is equally dangerous to include a chapter lambasting bloggers and the reviews you have been given by them when you are sending that same book out to them for yet more reviews. Reviewers do not have to agree with you in order to be right, and it seems absurd to bite the hand that (at least partly) feeds you. The author is also mistaken about the purpose of blogging; a caveat stating that there are always exceptions does little to pour oil on the troubled waters of this chapter. 

It seems a great shame that the author seems intent on damaging himself in this way, but unfortunately the flaws of this collection do not stop here. Freese comes across as having a superiority complex, even while he states the obvious. He is seemingly deliberately vague at times, perhaps to mask his faults (it is a relief to find that "In First Person" he acknowledges some of them); there is a tone of false self-deprecation in parts; and he seems to be at cross-purposes throughout the collection, preaching rather than partaking in a confidential conversation. His mode of address to the reader - "dear reader" - is annoying, unoriginal and patronising. Thankfully he drops it after about the first quarter of the book - but really, if he were going to copy anyone, why did it have to be someone as high-profile as Bronte? Equally curious is that he claims he does not write for fame or praise and seems keen to emphasis the anonymity of his writing. While I agree with him that everything we write is important for our own self-development, why not then just keep a diary? Why resort to self-publishing something that in all honesty needs a red pen taking to it before it can be truly suitable for publication?

The essays start off well, but quickly deteriorate. They have potential, but are either too dramatic or mawkish to take seriously, need clarifying or refining (Freese often digresses), or are self-indulgent in general, lacking in sensitivity and tact (but perhaps this is a generational thing; the author has fifty years on me). The collection of essays would have been more interesting by far if the writer had focused on his teaching experiences: Teachers Have No Chance is among the strongest essays in the book and contained material I could relate to well. Jefferson is also another essay with greater meaning. The rest, though, require serious tidying up, and Freese could start by removing the hyperbolic, unnecessary, and frankly insulting similes and metaphors that pepper the book in description of his own life: calling your own life a Holocaust and saying your experiences are like being tortured by a Nazi are disrespectful and do a great disservice to survivors of genocide. Blogs such as The Spohrs Are Multiplying explores the emotions relating to bereavement in a much more articulate and sensitive way.

So what are the positive points of this collection? As I believe I mentioned, there are definitely some and it is for this as well that it seems a shame for the author to do damage to himself in this way (why detract so severely from the good points of what you have created, after all?). It may not merit an Olympic gold, but perhaps a bronze can still be salvaged. 

The idea of exploring our imperfections and life's infinite circle of "what ifs" is certainly appealing and is discussed by Freese to a degree. For what Freese lacks in reflective writing, he compensates for more than adequately in his descriptive writing. There is some promising material in his life story (teacher, psychotherapist and writer is, I'm guessing, far from the usual trajectory of most lives, and that's before you even get to the patchwork of his life's loves and losses), even if it would have been better expressed in the form of a third-person narrative. Some essays have many strengths ("On The Holocaust" is possibly the best one for its intelligence and perception) and I believe past and present members of the teaching profession would find Freese's experiences in this regard to be of interest, as well as being something they can identify with themselves.

The author's advice to therapists is equally applicable to many other professions - and, in addition, his enthusiasm for some of his interests is infectious: reading his views on writers as diverse as Freud, Hitchens and Krishnamurti makes me want to go and read their works myself too. Freese is a far better poet than first-person writer and it is my belief that he should explore and exploit this avenue more fully if possible. He recommends a range of interesting books and films towards the end of the collection, which deserve to be investigated by others, even if the list should be formatted as just that - a list - as it doesn't merit a full essay in itself.

My final, and perhaps most important comment, is that the enjoyment of this collection of essays is, in all probability, highly dependent on the reader's nationality and cultural background. I am British, and this essay collection consists of several long outpourings of emotion that do not generally sit well with our traditional stiff-upper-lip approach. It is not something that we are used to, in spite of the massive influx of American self-help literature into British bookshops. It is a collection that would have perhaps appealed more to me in its entirety when I was younger and had only just discovered the self-help genre. Nonetheless, the wide range of topics covered means that I challenge anyone to read this collection and not find one single thing that is relevant to their life. It is a collection that can be picked up by anyone, and from which anyone may gain something - no matter how small.

Other works by Mathias B Freese
The I Tetralogy (2005)
Down to a Sunless Sea (2008)

Monday, 5 March 2012

Stepping out for Fairtrade Fortnight

 Viral video by ebuzzing

It can be hard at times to truly stick to the Fairtrade philosophy all the time: you know you should, but every time you promise to take steps to help small producers over big consumerist conglomerates, it never quite happens. That branch of Waterstones is always so much closer than your local bookshop, or Amazon just seems so much faster and cheaper. To promote the Fairtrade movement, celebrities are going to even greater lengths this Fairtrade Fortnight (27 February to 11 March 2012) to raise awareness, with luminaries including Louisa Lytton, Alistair McGowan and Simon Webb all starring in Youtube videos to encourage others to take steps to go Fairtrade.

Through the ‘Take A Step for Fairtrade’ campaign, the Fairtrade Foundation wants to see more individuals and businesses buying and selling Fairtrade products in the UK, The public are being asked to think about what they can do every day, every week or every month throughout 2012 and take a step to make a difference to the lives of farmers in the developing world who produce the products they buy.
With Fairtrade every step counts. In Malawi, for example, sugar farmers earn an extra $60 for every tonne they sell on Fairtrade terms. As a result, farmers in Chinangwa village have been able to bring clean water and electricity to their homes, afford roofs for their houses and school fees for their children.

The more people that support Fairtrade, the more farmers and workers will be able to improve their lives through the better terms of trade it offers. And there's really no excuse for not knowing about it: as well as buying books from high street retailers that support Fairtrade, such as Oxfam, there's also an array of books on the subject of Fairtrade itself, on sites such as and Some of these books are priced as low as £4.99; who says you can't have a bargain just because you're buying Fairtrade? There's even a free ebook, "50 reasons to buy Fairtrade", that's downloadable here.

The Fairtrade Foundation encourages everyone to start their journey at, and to check out the rest of the mini-series on the Fairtrade YouTube channel at You won't regret it!