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Archive for November 2008


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Just as with any terrorist attack, there is great reason for concern and sorrow following the events in Mumbai.

Suketu Mehta writes an impassioned and moving treatise on modern religious relations and the threats that militant religious groups pose to the “golden songbird” that is Mumbai.

Mehta is the author of Maximum City, which is required reading for anyone interested in urban poverty and institutions.


Written by Niall

November 29, 2008 at 8:14 am

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Innovations in Lighting

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I firmly hope and believe that innovations for remote, rural Africa are going to surge in coming years or perhaps the surge has already begun. Here is an awesome venture in lighting and waste disposal.

…Lebone’s idea is a microbial fuel cell, a battery that makes a small amount of energy out of materials like manure, graphite cloth and soil, which are common to African households.

But Lebone – which means “light stick” in the Sotho language – does not just want to make the batteries and sell them to African consumers. The group hopes that eventually, as the technology becomes more refined, each household will be able to build a battery at a one-time cost of no more than $15.

Written by Niall

November 11, 2008 at 8:13 pm

Posted in Africa

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With or without you…well, actually without you

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President Mugabe has decided to push ahead his own government in a straight arm move toward Morgan Tsvangirai. While action is definitely needed, it’s not clear that talk of action will actually lead to a semblance of a workable government. It is shameful that the people of Zimbabwe are forced to suffer through this silliness at the same time as a massive economic crisis and historic-level inflation. Wihout including MDC in the government, it is hard to envision and end to the use of state-back violence for achieving political ends. The IHT makes this clear in an editorial today

Update: The WFP has made a tough decision that will, most likely, negatively affect the welfare of poor Zimbabweans. However, it is the decision they must make in order to hope for some responsibility into the Zim government.

Written by Niall

November 11, 2008 at 7:47 pm

Posted in Africa, Zimbabwe

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Arenavirus hoped to be contained

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Few things scare me more than diseases the kill people by way of blood hemorrhaging. So, I really hope that we can be as optimistic as this story.

Deadly New Virus Thought to Be Contained in Southern Africa

Written by Niall

November 11, 2008 at 5:37 am

Posted in South Africa, Zambia

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The Massif

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Mulanje Massif is one of the top five most spectacular places I’ve visited in the world.

While on my morning run today, I caught a glimpse of Mulanje Mountain. Though covered in clouds and opaqued by haze, the landmark was barely visible, its presence was stunning nonetheless.

Written by Niall

November 10, 2008 at 9:14 am

Posted in Malawi, Running

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Buried in debt

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A new NBER paper on funerals in South Africa.

We find that, on average, households spend the equivalent of a year’s income for an adult’s funeral, measured at median per capita African (Black) income. Approximately one-quarter of all individuals had some form of insurance, which helped surviving household members defray some fraction of funeral expenses. However, an equal fraction of households borrowed money to pay for the funeral. We develop a model, consistent with ethnographic work in this area, in which households respond to social pressure to bury their dead in a style consistent with the observed social status of the household and that of the deceased. Households that cannot afford a funeral commensurate with social expectations must borrow money to pay for the funeral.

In light of increased death rates due to AIDS, these findings are troubling:

These results do not lead us to optimism on the impact of the AIDS crisis on the future economic wellbeing of South Africans…we add evidence that households are taking what, in other circumstances, could be productive capital and using it on coffins, meat and groceries to bury their dead.

Written by Niall

November 9, 2008 at 7:39 pm

The Fiction of Development

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David Lewis, Dennis Rodgers and Michael Woolcock have produced an interesting read in the the Brooks World Poverty Institute working paper series (check here for the pdf version of the paper).

Here’s the punchline:

It is clear that literary works sometimes have a stronger Geertzian “being there” quality than certain academic and policy works, they may cover aspects of development that are often not made explicit in conventional academic accounts, or else they are written in a more engaging and accessible manner…works of literary fiction often reach a much larger and diverse audience than academic texts and may therefore be more influential than academic work in shaping public knowledge and understanding of development issues.

I agree with their conclusion that novels often capture some of the most vivid portraits of poverty. Sometimes this can be over-caricatured, however, when a book, like A Fine Balance, does it right, the result can be a staggering perspective on the lives of the world’s poor.

The others discuss a handful of other novels and provide an excellent reading list as an appendix, but the books that get the most discussion are the following:

  • Cause Celeb (Helen Fielding)
  • Raag Darbari (Shrilal Shukla)
  • A Fine Balance (Rohinton Mistry)
  • The Kite Runner (Khaled Hosseini)
  • Brick Lane (Monica Ali)
  • The Power to Choose (Naila Kabeer)

Among these novels, there is a clear bias toward South Asia (India, Afghanistan and Bangladesh are the subject of 5 of the 6 novels listed above). Is this an English language bias? Do South Asian authors have a stronger tendency toward realism make them better sources of development reading?

Written by Niall

November 9, 2008 at 7:30 pm

Posted in Books

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