On My Bookshelf – How Rich Countries Got Rich … and Why Poor Countries Stay Poor

I try not to make resolutions every year, because I always break them, but I do think it’s important to set goals. My three biggest goals for this year are to read more books, to support women-led projects, and to wrestle with difficult ideas outside of an academic setting. In 2018, I plan to tackle all of these at once by reading at least two books outside of class each month: one by a female author, and one about issues of economics and development as they relate to my field of study. This month, I cheated a little bit and am counting a book I had to read for my development program in Uganda. Erik Reinert’s How Rich Countries Got Rich … and Why Poor Countries Stay Poor, despite its mildly clickbaity title, illuminates development theory and the issues with economics in one of the best academic works I’ve ever read.

To be clear: the book is not particularly well-written. Entire paragraphs repeat from chapter to chapter, as if the book is a collection of lectures made by someone who really knows their talking points. There are also minor proofreading errors – basically, Reinert really needed a better copy-editor. But the meat of the text is profound. I struggled through two semesters of college-level econ and found it not only boring, but inapplicable to anything I cared about – all of the “assumptions” my professors drilled into our brains seemed so far removed from the real world as to make the theory meaningless. Turns out, I was kind of right. Reinert is a professional economist who has a lot to say about other professional economists. Rather than crafting theory specific to any historical or cultural context, economics as a discipline, he argues, has devolved into abstraction meant only to gain the approval of other economists. This has wide-reaching consequences for the field of development, which so often depends on economic theory to do good. Reinert puts into words what is wrong with the discipline, using his years of field experience and deep knowledge of history to create a compelling argument for reform.

Best quote (although there are many): “Instead of development enabling the continent to service debt, Africa gets debt cancellations. Instead of development that eradicates malaria, Africa gets mosquito nets.” (236)

Reinert touches on issues with the foreign aid industry which I’ve seen mentioned in other works (for example, Alex Perry’s excellent The Rift). I want to spend the rest of my life working with these concepts, so if you have any recommendations for further study, comment below!

I’m currently finishing up The Power, by Naomi Alderman, recommended to me by a friend. Stay tuned for a review!

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