Category Archives: Book review

Our new Springer book on SA education!

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On Thursday this past week we launched our new book “South African Schooling: The Enigma of inequality” published by Springer.  Jonathan Jansen and I co-edited the book which includes 19 chapters from some of South Africa’s leading scholars. The chapters are as follows:



The reason why we wanted to write this book was twofold: (1) Books are a nice way of bringing together in one volume the latest ‘state of play’. (2) We thought it would be helpful to have a single book with contributions from both educationists and economists who otherwise rarely read each other’s work. To give you a sense of the book I have included an excerpt below from my framing chapter of the book.

Chapter 1. Equity: A Price Too High to Pay?

Nic Spaull

1.1 Introduction

South Africa today is the most unequal country in the world. The richest 10% of South Africans lay claim to 65% of national income and 90% of national wealth; the largest 90–10 gap in the world (Alvaredo et al. 2018, p. 150; Orthofer 2016). Given the strong and deeply historical links between education and the labour market these inequities are mirrored in the education system. Two decades after apartheid it is still the case that the life chances of the average South African child are determined not by their ability or the result of hard-work and determination, but instead by the colour of their skin, the province of their birth, and the wealth of their parents. These realities are so deterministic that before a child’s seventh birthday one can predict with some precision whether they will inherit a life of chronic poverty and sustained unemployment or a dignified life and meaningful work. The sheer magnitude of these inequities is incredible. In 2018 the top 200 high schools in the country have more students achieving distinctions in Mathematics (80%+) than the remaining 6,600 combined. Put differently 3% of South African high schools produce more Mathematics distinctions than the remaining 97% put together. Of those 200 schools, 175 charge significant fees. Although they are now deracialized, 41% of the learners in these schools were White. It is also worth noting that half of all White matrics (48%) were in one of these 200 schools. This is less surprising when one considers that in 2014/2015, White South Africans still make up two thirds of the ‘elite’ in South Africa (the wealthiest 4% of society) (Schotte et al. 2018, p. 98).

In a few years’ time when we look back on three decades of democracy in South Africa, it is this conundrum – the stubbornness of inequality and its patterns of persistence – that will stand out amongst the rest as the most demanding of explanation, justification and analysis. This is because inequality needs to be justified; you need to tell a story about why this level of inequality is acceptable or unacceptable. As South Africans what is the story that we tell ourselves about inequality and how far we have come since 1994? Have we accepted our current trajectory as the only path out of stubbornly high and problematically patterned inequality? Are there different and preferential equilibria we have not yet thought of or explored, and if so what are they? In practical terms, how does one get to a more equitable distribution of teachers, resources or learning outcomes? And what are the political, social and financial price-tags attached to doing so?

While decidedly local, the questions posed above and in the subsequent chapters of this book also have global relevance. Like few other countries in the world, South Africa presents an excellent case study of inequality and its discontents. As Fiske and Ladd (2004, p.x) comment in their seminal book ‘Elusive Equity’:

“South Africa’s experience is compelling because of the magnitude and starkness of the initial disparities and of the changes required. Few, if any, new democratic governments have had to work with an education system as egregiously- and intentionally inequitable as the one that the apartheid regime bequeathed to the new black-run government in 1994. Moreover, few governments have ever assumed power with as strong a mandate to work for racial justice. Thus the South African experience offers an opportunity to examine in bold relief the possibilities and limitations of achieving a racially equitable education system in a context where such equity is a prime objective.”

Inequality touches every aspect of South African schooling and policy-making, from how the curriculum is conceptualized and implemented to where teachers are trained and employed. Reviewing the South African landscape there are many seemingly progressive policies on topics such as school governance, curriculum and school finance. As the chapters in this volume will show, few of these have realized their full potential, and in some instances, have hurt the very students they intended to help (Curriculum 2005, for example). The ways that these policies have been formulated, implemented and subverted are instructive to a broader international audience, particularly Low- and Middle-Income Countries and those in the Middle East and Latin America. The visible extremes found in South Africa help to illustrate the ways that inequality manifests itself in a schooling system. In a sense, the country is a tragic petri dish illustrating how politics and policy interact with unequal starting conditions to perpetuate a system of poverty and privilege. Ultimately, we see a process unfolding where an unjustifiable and illegitimate racial education system (apartheid) morphs and evolves to one that is more justifiable and somewhat non-racial, all the while accommodating a small privileged class of South Africans who are not bound to the shared fate of their fellow citizens. Based on their reading of the South African evidence, different authors paint a more, or less, pessimistic picture of South African education. Some authors focus on the considerable progress that has been made in both the level and distribution of educational outcomes since the transition, and particularly in recent periods (Van der Berg and Gustafsson 2019). Others document tangible interventions aimed at decreasing inequality by improving early grade reading outcomes in the poorest schools, principally through lesson plans, teacher-coaches and materials (Taylor S 2019). While generally supportive of these types of interventions a number of other authors caution that these gains are the low hanging fruits of an extremely underperforming system. Unless teachers have higher levels of content knowledge (Taylor N 2019), and meaningful learning opportunities to improve their pedagogical practices (Shalem and De Clercq 2019) any trajectory of improvement will soon reach a low ceiling. Moving beyond teachers’ competencies, the book also foregrounds deficiencies in funding (Motala and Carel 2019), and the primacy of politics (Jansen 2019).

The aim of this introductory chapter is to provide an overview of the key dimensions of inequality in education and in South Africa more generally, showing that outcomes are still split along the traditional cleavages of racial and spatial apartheid, now also complemented by the divides of wealth and class. The argument presented here foregrounds the continuity of the pre- and post-apartheid periods and concludes that in the move from apartheid to democracy the primary feature of the story is a pivot from an exclusive focus on race to a two-pronged reality of race and class. This is true not only of the schooling system, but also of South African society more generally. Where rationed access to good schools was determined by race under apartheid, it is now determined by class and the ability to pay school fees, in addition to race. Rather than radically reform the former White-only school system – and incur the risk of breaking the only functional schools that the country had – the new government chose to allow them to continue largely unchanged with the noticeable exception that they were no longer allowed to discriminate on race and they were now allowed to charge fees.


The full intro chapter and chapter titles are available here. The book can be ordered here. We will be having a few more book launches (in Joburg and possibly overseas), I’ll post those either on here or on Twitter.


Book reflection: “When Breath Becomes Air” – Paul Kalanithi

41f2EooDXHL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_Recently things have been moving quite quickly in my life. Old projects are in full swing, new projects are gaining momentum and I’ve moved into a new apartment in Cape Town. (I even unpacked my books!) Somewhere in-between I travelled to Croatia and ended a long-term relationship. Today I didn’t go in to work.

Last night I finished a novel I’ve been reading for a few months on and off and cried into the sofa as I pored over the last few pages. “A Little Life” by Hanya Hanagihara was recommended to me (thanks James!) after we discovered a mutual love of “The Secret History” by Donna Tartt. A Little Life is a long book but one that is easy to slip into and feel a part of. It is a tragic story full of sadness and inhuman pain, but the relationships and the meaning sunk deep into my heart as I read on. I didn’t realise how attached I was getting to these fictional characters living non-existent lives in New York.

Before I had finished Hanagihara’s novel I came across Paul Kalanithi’s “When Breath Becomes Air” in an airport and bought it for the flight. I was absolutely hooked and read it in one day. The author, a Stanford neurosurgeon/neuroscientist, discovers that he has an aggressive cancer just at the point when he is meant to start reaping the rewards of 10-years of gruelling preparation. What do you do when you have 2 years left to live? For Kalanithi he turned to his other vocation – reading and writing.

“Lost in a featureless wasteland of my own mortality, and finding no traction in the reams of scientific studies, intracellular molecular pathways, and endless curves of survival statistics, I began reading literature again: Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward, B. S Johnson’s The Unfortunates, Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich, Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos, Woolf, Kafka, Montaigne, Frost, Greville, memoirs of cancer patients – anything by anyone who had ever written about mortality. I was searching for a vocabulary with which to make sense of death, to find a way to begin defining myself and inching forward again” (p148).

I loved this book more than most others over the last few years. I found myself regularly reflecting on my own life as I read about his life and imminent death. Career choices, relationships, ambition, children, meaning, religion, mortality – he touches on everything and draws you in to the whirlwind that was his life growing up and now as it accelerates approaching death.

In a sense you can’t script a life like his. Before going into medicine he spent his youth obsessed with English literature and the meaning of life, giving him the lessons and existential resources our culture has found or created over the centuries. Science doesn’t comfort much in the face of death.

“A few years later, I hadn’t thought much more about a career but had nearly completed degrees in English literature and human biology. I was driven less by achievement than by trying to understand, in earnest: What makes human life meaningful? I still felt literature provided the best account of the life of the mind while neuroscience laid down the most elegant rules of the brain. Meaning, while a slippery concept, seemed inextricable from human relationships and moral values. T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land resonated profoundly, relating meaninglessness and isolation, and the desperate quest for human connection. I found Eliot’s metaphors leaking into my own language. Other authors resonated as well. Nabokov, for his awareness of how our suffering can make us callous to the obvious suffering of another. Conrad, for his hypertuned sense of how miscommunication between people can so profoundly impact their lives. Literature not only illuminated another’s experience, it provided, I believed, the richest material for moral reflection. My brief forays into the formal ethics of analytic philosophy felt dry as a bone, missing the messiness and weight of real human life.

Throughout college, my monastic, scholarly study of human meaning would conflict with my urge to forge and strengthen the human relationships that formed that meaning. If the unexamined life was not worth living, was the unlived life worth examining?”

This last sentence hit me when I read it and hasn’t left me since. Am I really living my life?! I had recently come back from a Croatian island filled with compelling humans living such deliberate, authentic and vulnerable lives. Politicians, artists, nomads, hippies, techies, shamans – the works. Not all that glitters is gold – for sure – but there really were some golden folk there. We had endless conversations about desires, fears, comfort-zones, purpose and passion. And here I was living a fully defensible life.

Him: When last did you really fail at something?”

Me: Not recently”

Him: Are you really trying then?”

Me: I don’t know”

I realised how paralysed I was by fear and judgement. Of others, of my own. I’ve realised how incredibly critical I can be and that this has severe personal and social costs.

Kalanithi helped.

“Heading into my sophomore summer, I applied for two jobs: as an intern at the highly scientific Yerkes Primate Research Center, in Atlanta, and as a prep chef at Sierra Camp, a family vacation spot for Stanford alumni on the pristine shores of Fallen Leaf Lake, abutting the stark beauty of Desolation Wilderness in Eldorado National Forest. The camp’s literature promised, simply, the best summer of your life. I was surprised and flattered to be accepted. Yet I had just learned that macaques had a rudimentary form of culture, and I was eager to go to Yerkes and see what could be the natural origin of meaning itself. In other words, I could either study meaning or I could experience it. After delaying for as long as possible, I finally chose the camp.

Eventually the term ended and I was on the windy mountain road to the camp, still slightly worried that I’d made a wrong turn in life. My doubt, however, was short-lived. The camp delivered on its promise, concentrating all the idylls of youth: beauty manifest in lakes, mountains, people; richness in experience, conversation, friendships.

This was summer at Sierra Camp, perhaps no different from any other camp, but every day felt full of life, and of the relationships that give life meaning. Other nights found a group of us on the dining room deck, sipping whiskey with the assistant director of the camp, Mo, a Stanford alum taking a break from his English PhD, and discussing literature and the weighty matters of postadolescent life.

Back on campus, I didn’t miss the monkeys. Life felt rich and full, and over the next two years I kept at it, seeking a deeper understanding of a life of the mind. I studied literature and philosophy to understand what makes life meaningful, studied neuroscience and worked in a fMRI lab to understand how the brain could give rise to an organism capable of finding meaning in the world, and eniched my relationships with a circle of dear friends through various escapapades. We raided the school cafeteria dressed as Mongols; created a full fake fraternity, complete with fake rush-week events, in our co-op house; posed in front of the gates of Buckingham Palace in a gorilla suit; broke into Memorial Church at midnight to lie on our backs and listen to our voices echo in the apse; and so on. (Then I heard that Virgina Woolf once boarded a battleship dressed as Abyssinian royalty, and duly chastened, stopped boasting about our trivial pranks. 

I would recommend this book to anyone. I’m still processing what all this means for me and how I want to live my life. What and who I want to prioritise. Where I want to spend my energies. What I want to experience. Where I want to contribute. Who I want to be. Read this book.

“That which is only living. Can only die.” – T. S. Eliot.


“Becoming a man” – Paul Monette [Book reflection]

becoming a man

Last month, while browsing through the second-hand bookstore opposite the Biscuit Mill in Cape Town I came across this autobiography by Paul Monette and quickly added it to the growing pile of books I ended up leaving with. I’m very glad I did. In reading it I’ve had more than my fair share of chortles, tears and chokes – it is as moving as it is funny. I don’t think straight people will find it as meaningful given that it is written by a gay man, to gay people about gay men. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to anyone interested in either autobiographies or the struggles of gay men in straight America.

When I write, either personally or professionally, I find that my natural style – that which comes most easily to me – is to write polemically with splashes of vitriol. Moderation is not my thing. It doesn’t come easily and with prose it’s no different. There’s a joke in our Department that the bulk of my supervisor’s editing  during the first year of my PhD was simply to delete (or at the very least tame) any adjective I used in reports for government. So where I wrote about “egregious inefficiencies” or ”wholesale ineptitude” this was pacified to “clear inefficiencies” and “systemic capacity deficits”. Words like ‘heinous’, ‘sclerotic’ and ‘unfathomable’ simply had to go, and rightly so I suppose. It would seem that writing in registers is something that is learnt but never taught. In any event I’m getting carried away here. The point is that I loved this book because I identified not only with the content but also with the emotionally-rich prose. Let me give you a chunk from the first page and you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about:

“I speak for no one else here, if only because I don’t want to saddle the women and men of my tribe with the lead weight of my self-hatred, the particular doorless room of my internal exile. Yet I’ve come to learn that all our stories add up to the same imprisonment. The self-delusion of uniqueness. The festering pretense that we are the same as they are. The gutting of all our passions till we are a bunch of eunuchs, our zones of pleasure in enemy hands. Most of all, the ventriloquism, the learning how to pass for straight. Such obedient slaves we make, with such tidy rooms.

Forty-six now and dying by inches, I finally see how our lives align at the core, if not in the sorry details. I still shiver with a kind of astonished delight when a gay brother or sister tells of that narrow escape from the coffin world of the closet. Yes yes yes, goes a voice in my head, it was just like that for me. When we laugh together and dance in the giddy circle of freedom, we are children for real, at last, because we have finally grown up. And every time we dance, our enemies writhe like the Witch in Oz, melting, melting – the Nazi Popes and all their brocaded minions, the rat-brain politicians, the wacko fundamentalists and their Book of Lies…So whether or not I was ever a child is a matter of very small moment. But every memoir now is a kind of manifesto, as we piece together the tale of the tribe. Our stories have died with us long enough. We mean to leave behind some map, some key, for the gay and lesbian people who follow – that they may not drown in the lies, in the hate that pools and foams like pus on the carcass of America.” (p1)

And with prose like that I can’t help but understand his struggle and feel his pain, even as I begin to better understand my own struggles and pains. I think one of the reasons why I was drawn to this autobiography was because it is not only one man’s autobiography, but one particular refraction of a common theme – living as a gay man in a straight world. Yet the plot and narrative also show a clear development and acquired nuance in his understanding of homosexuality – masterfully written to echo his own chronological realizations. What started out as a biological understanding of sexuality, explaining who likes whom and why, morphs into a far more abstract and realistic understanding that being gay is far more than simply sexual preference. It is also a sensibility, a disposition to meaning acquired through socialization and shared experience. Interestingly educational sociologists use the term “orientation to meaning” in their discussions about the propagation of class inequalities in society. It would be interesting to explore this notion with respect to gay meaning-making in contrast to straight meaning-making in a hegemonically heterosexual world.  But again I digress. Monette – a poet by training and profession – is also a brilliant social commentator with the flair befitting his orientation. In his writing he mixes equal parts of self-awareness, sorrow, literary genius and social commentary:

“I don’t come from the past, I come from now, here in the cauldron of the plague. When the doors to the camps were finally beaten down, the Jews of Europe no longer came from Poland and Holland and France. They came from Auschwitz and Buchenwald. But I will never understand how the straights could have let us die like this – year after year, collaborating by indifference – except by sifting through the evidence of my queer journey. Why do they hate us? Why do they fear us? Why do they want us invisible? I don’t trust my own answers anymore. I’m too twisted up with rage, too hooked on the millennium. But I find myself combing the past these days, dreaming dreams without sleep, puzzling over my guys, the gay and the straight and the inbetween. Somewhere in there is a horror of love, and to try to kill the beast in them, they take it out on us. Which is not to say I don’t chastise myself for halving the world into us and them. I know that the good guys aren’t all gay, or the bad all straight. That is what I am sifting for, to know what a man is finally, no matter the tribe or gender.”

And this is where Monette comes into his own – where he reaches the peak of his literary prowess – his visceral descriptions of a life well contemplated. He is not shy to include the sordid details of his sex life, but neither is he shy to expose the heart-ache and insecurity of an approval-seeking narcissist. He helped me to see that all of life is experience – the good, the bad and the ugly. This all stands in stark contrast to the religious dogma of fundamentalists whose petty priorities can only pass for legitimate by masquerading as absolute truth. I still have not managed to reconcile how otherwise intelligent people are so uncritical of the half-baked ideas of their religious superiors.

This book also helped me to realize just how far we are from the just treatment of gay people in society. As an educational evangelist I wonder if we will ever be able to unteach and unlearn the homophobia acquired over generations of prejudice and ignorance. How do you reason someone out of a position they didn’t reason their way into? You can’t. And this is where the parallels with feminism and gender become unmistakable. Contrary to popular belief, all people have received an education about gender. The vast majority receive their education by socialization into a sexist, gendered patriarchal environment. Unfortunately most never realize they’ve been taught or that they’ve learned anything as they continue with their hum-drum lives. For the enlightened few who can think enough and empathize enough to realize that women are truly oppressed – even in ‘liberated’ Western society – the task then becomes how we orchestrate change. Like true economists, those in positions of power realize that it is not good enough to only correct the cloaked-misogynists at the dinner table, but rather that the forces of markets, politics and religion must converge on a new truth – that men and women – heterosexual and homosexual – black and white – are all fully human and thus equally entitled to the full spectrum of rights, responsibilities and opportunities. Until that day we have work to do.

The Bee Eater (Book review)

This was a badly written book about an inspiring woman; Michelle Rhee.  Michelle is a fiery Korean woman raised by immigrant parents in America to be tough and hard working. She fits the stereotype of a typical Asian over-achiever, with one peculiarity – she has a passion for kids and education. After graduating from an Ivy League university she decided to enlist in Teach For America (TFA). For those who don’t know, this is a highly successful American program which takes the best and brightest graduates in any field, gives them basic teacher-training and then places them as teachers in disadvantaged schools. The program is highly regarded and is always over-subscribed. Most TFAs teach for 2 years and then head back to their original career path, usually morphing into a highly-paid cog in the beautiful capitalist machine.

As far as the book is concerned, TFA is where Michelle Rhee cut her teeth on education, learning to manage and teach kids that come from highly dysfunctional and disadvantaged backgrounds. The vignettes about Rhee’s time as a TFA reveal her to be highly motivated, tenacious, capable, creative and original. She takes her best-performing kids on inter-state outings, creates a “shop” where students can exchange credit (awarded for good behaviour/performance) for things like sweets or stationery. One story tells how she literally ate a bumble-bee (hence the Bee-eater) that was disrupting her class, mainly out of sheer frustration at the classes lack of discipline and order in the early stages of her teaching career. The book focuses on her time as the chancellor of Washington DC public schools, where she came in guns blazing and left no stone unturned in her attempt to turn-around the dysfunctional schooling system. She fired hundreds of underperforming teachers who could not improve student learning outcomes.

Some of the take-away points for me were as follows:

  • Vested interests make change difficult. The unions and (surprisingly) the parents resisted Rhee’s reforms, ultimately leading to her being pushed out after her first (productively disruptive) term.
  • Change is possible. In spite of the numerous challenges and obstacles she faced, Rhee managed to win a number of significant victories that are likely to have long-term impacts on education throughout the country, especially holding teachers accountable for student outcomes and challenging the commonly held notion that teachers are unique in the sense that they all deserve tenure. Doing what needed to be done and letting the chips fall where they may made Rhee unpopular but it did get stuff done.
  • Don’t piss too many people off too quickly. If Rhee did it again I imagine she would have done it slightly differently. She would have still implemented all her reforms but would’ve perhaps been more diplomatic about it, and hired a decent PR person (PR people are always necessary when you have high public office).
  • Passion is contagious. Both for the reader and the other personalities in the book, Rhee’s never-say-die attitude combined with intelligence, passion, stubbornness, righteous indignation and the unwavering conviction that change was necessary, made me excited to find out what happened next, and no doubt inspired all around her.

Unfortunately the book isn’t well written which is mildly distracting. By constantly referring to himself in the first person and commenting on almost everything (particularly at the end) the author seems to believe that we care what he thinks – which we don’t, why should we? For those who don’t know him (like me) his unsubstantiated claims about what should or shouldn’t have happened, or who was or wasn’t right are quite irritating and reminded me of first-year essays where students claim all sort of things like “In my opinion, Walmart shouldn’t come to Africa” without substantiation, as if their opinion in the absence of substantiating evidence matters for anything – it doesn’t. As someone who does like to throw in the occasional pronoun, much to my supervisor’s chagrin, I made a mental note to go on a “I-my-diet”. Using the personal pronoun should always be accompanied by reasons for that held belief, and preferably sentences should be structured to exclude them entirely – readers should focus on the content and your characters, not on the author, unless that is the express purpose of the text. Otherwise,  feed your ego elsewhere.

All in all I did enjoy this book – primarily because there are so many parallels with South Africa’s education system. Rhee’s passion, drive and determination ooze off the page and inspire the reader to be likewise. I’d recommend this book to anyone who cares about their country’s education and sees the need for uncomfortable reforms. It will encourage you and remind you that change is possible. Thanks Joy Oliver for recommending this book!

Rhee has subsequently founded StudentsFirst – check it out here.

Book review: The Hiding Place – Corrie Ten Boom

File:Hidinh place book.jpg

I’ve just finished reading The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom and what a wonderful book it has been. Corrie was a Dutch watchmaker during the second world war. The biography of this incredible woman reads like a conversation you might have with your grandfather or some other old, insightful person who seems to ooze wisdom and life experience. The story centers on the the Ten Boom family and its involvement in the Dutch underground movement which aimed to help Jews and those being persecuted by the Germans, with the second half of the book about her time in concentration camps and her rehabilitation work after the war was over.

The book canvases everything from heart-break, poverty and oppression to hope, forgiveness and new beginnings. To read the conversations and thought-life of this remarkable woman opened my eyes to what it must be like to be a person of deep faith in troubling times. And yet what I found most endearing about the book is that she is so honest and human – complete with insecurities and failures. When she is filled with anger towards the Germans and her sister starts praying for them she simply prays: “Oh Lord,” I whispered, “listen to Betsie, not me, because I cannot pray for those men at all.”

I would recommend this book to any Christian who needs to regain perspective on their world. On numerous occasions I was tangibly moved by their Christian responses to unspeakable horrors. Sharing what little they had in concentration camps, praying for their oppressors, and (after the war) rehabilitating prisoners and German soldiers by providing opportunities for forgiveness and healing.

Some quotes from the book:

When she was in solitary confinement:

“And I was not alone much longer: into my solitary cell came a small, busy black ant. I had almost put my foot where he was one morning as I carried my bucket to the door when I realized the honor being done me. I crouched down and admired the marvelous design of legs and body. I apologized for my size and promised I would not so thoughtlessly stride about again. “

When she was being interrogated by a German lieutenant in the concentration camp and was explaining her pre-war Bible study with mentally handicapped people:

“The lieutenant’s eyebrows rose higher and higher. “What a waste of time and energy!” he exploded at last. “If you want converts, surely one normal person is worth all the half-wits in the world!” I stared into the man’s intelligent blue-gray eyes: true National-Socialist philosophy, I thought, tulip bed or no. And then to my astonishment I heard my own voice saying boldly, “May I tell you the truth, Lieutenant Rahms?” I knew it was madness to talk this way to a Nazi officer. But he said nothing so I plunged ahead. “In the Bible I learned that God values us not for our strength or our brains but simply because He has made us. Who knows, in His eyes a half-wit may be worth more than a watchmaker. Or-a lieutenant.”

When Corrie’s family is unexpectedly brought into the concentration camp for the reading of her late father’s will (a requirement of Dutch law that the Nazi’s were oddly unwilling to break), her sister smuggles a package into the prison and surreptitiously gives it to her in the midst of an embrace. When Corrie generously gave away her last Gospel to a fellow inmate the day before, she had no idea that she would be briefly seeing her family the following day and that they would smuggle in an entire Bible for her:

“Swiftly I opened the package that Nollie had pressed into my hand with the first embrace. It was what my leaping heart had told me: a Bible, the entire Book in a compact volume, tucked inside a small pouch with a string for wearing around the neck as we had once carried our identity cards. I dropped it quickly over my head and down my back beneath my blouse. I couldn’t even find words with which to thank her: the day before, in the shower line, I had given away my last remaining Gospel.”

and some other quotes:

“More time passed. I kept my eyes on the ant hole, hoping for a last visit from my small friends, but they did not appear. Probably I had frightened them by my early dashing about. I reached into the pillowcase, took one of the crackers, and crumbled it about the little crack. No ants. They were staying safely hidden. And suddenly I realized that this too was a message, a last wordless communication among neighbors. For I, too, had a hiding place when things were bad. Jesus was this place, the Rock cleft for me. I pressed a finger to the tiny crevice.”

“Perhaps a long, long time. Perhaps many years. But what better way could there be to spend our lives?” I turned to stare at her. “Whatever are you talking about?” “These young women. That girl back at the bunkers. Corrie, if people can be taught to hate, they can be taught to love! We must find the way, you and I, no matter how long it takes….”

“They were services like no others, these times in Barracks 28. A single meeting might include a recital of the Magnificat in Latin by a group of Roman Catholics, a whispered hymn by some Lutherans, and a sotto-voce chant by Eastern Orthodox women. With each moment the crowd around us would swell, packing the nearby platforms, hanging over the edges, until the high structures groaned and swayed. At last either Betsie or I would open the Bible. Because only the Hollanders could understand the Dutch text, we would translate aloud in German. And then we would hear the life-giving words passed back along the aisles in French, Polish, Russian, Czech, back into Dutch. They were little previews of heaven, these evenings beneath the lightbulb. I would think of Haarlem, each substantial church set behind its wrought-iron fence and its barrier of doctrine. And I would know again that in darkness God’s truth shines most clear.”

“There are no ‘ifs’ in God’s kingdom. I could hear her soft voice saying it. His timing is perfect. His will is our hiding place. Lord Jesus, keep me in Your will! Don’t let me go mad by poking about outside it.”

“When He tells us to love our enemies, He gives, along with the command, the love itself. “

Years after she has left the concentration camp and started her rehabilitation centers, Corrie goes back to visit Ravensbruck and finds out something amazing:

“Corrie learned that her own release had been part of a clerical error; one week later all women her age were taken to the gas chamber.”

“What feeds the soul matters as much as what feeds the body.”

Poor Economics – book review

The Gospel according to Banerjee and Duflo*

This book review has subsequently been published in Development Southern Africa – see here

In their latest book, Poor Economics, Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee present a highly-readable overview of the problems facing the world’s poor, as well as the most effective ways of overcoming those problems. The book covers the usual suspects of poverty research (health, education, nutrition, family-size, and financial access), and provides an overview of the findings from Randomized Control Trials. It reads as a nontechnical summary of their research over the last two decades and is completely free of economic jargon and theoretical grand-standing, making the book accessible to non-economists.

Those more familiar with RCT research will find the countless stories and anecdotes enlightening and informative. By painting a nuanced picture of the lives and choices of the poor, we are better able to understand the sometimes elusive logic that drives households, families and individuals to make the choices they do.

Yet it must be said that although the book is filled with colourful vignettes and moving anecdotes, the authors do not base their recommendations on a few personal encounters – as is so often the case in qualitative research. Rather, they use the anecdotes as emotionally-pleasing poster-boys for the less palatable RCT’s that litter the end-notes of every chapter and convince the reader that this is all based on highly legitimate stuff.

One of the lasting motifs of the book is the humanization of the poor. By placing their evidence in the wider sociological context that poor people inhabit, we begin to see that while the world of the poor is vastly different from that of our own, the contradictions and complexities inherent in all human behaviour are no less prevalent among the poor.

Another notable feature of the book is the companion website ( The site provides downloadable data for every chapter of the book, as well as data-visualisations and extensive references and research links. There is an entire section devoted to ‘Teaching the book’ which provides lecture notes, problem-sets, podcasts and assignments for every chapter of the book.  Keeping in step with the pragmatic ethos of the book, the website’s ‘What you can do’ section has links to a number of organisations involved in various projects around the world.

In their concluding chapter, the authors highlight ‘five key lessons’ which emerge from their research. The classification is both interesting and informative:

1)      Information deficiency – the poor often lack information, such as the benefits of immunization and early education, or the higher HIV prevalence among older men.

2)      Lack of access – they lack access to financial products such as savings and retirement accounts, as well as medically enhanced products like chlorinated water, iodized salt, and fortified cereals – all of which could substantially improve their lives.

3)      Missing Markets – Although there are success stories of markets emerging to meet the needs of the poor (microcredit for one), many times the conditions for a market to emerge on its own are simply not there. This deprives the poor of many services that would enhance their lives, especially health insurance and no-frills savings accounts.

4)      The three I’s: Rather than predatory elites, the Ideology, Ignorance, and Inertia of experts, aid-workers and local policy makers often explain why policies fail and why aid does not have the desired effect. Rather than continually pointing to abstract conspiracy theories that are difficult to prove, one should focus on the errors we know we are making.

5)      Incorrect expectations – the poor often do not know what they are entitled to from local government, as the authors conclude; ‘politicians whom no one expects to perform have no incentive to try improving people’s lives’. Furthermore, low expectations of their own capabilities, as well as their children’s educational capabilities, become self-fulfilling prophecies.

Throughout the book the authors highlight what solutions have worked in the past and why. They make numerous thoughtful proposals about the way forward, but their most valuable contribution is their pragmatism in tackling the global problem of poverty.  Although there are institutional deficiencies in many developing countries, these do not negate the possibility of improving governance and policy, they argue. Indeed, their research shows that improvements can be made in spite of these institutional deficits. Thoughtful policies that nudge people in the right direction can have large impacts; “We may not have much to say about macroeconomic policies or institutional reform, but don’t let the modesty of the enterprise fool you: Small changes can have big effects”.

After removing the straight-jacket of academic formality, Banerjee and Duflo provide a flowing and detailed portrait of the lives of poor people. They are content to confine their world-class research methods and award-winning techniques to the end-notes of the book and instead give centre stage to the problem at hand: global poverty. This combination of technical rigour, readability and pragmatism is likely to make this book a classic in development economics literature. By moving beyond platitudes and ideological dogmas, they show us that a small group of thoughtful, committed researchers can change the way we look at poverty, and hopefully, the way to eradicate it.

* Book review: ‘Poor Economics

A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty’

By: Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo

-Nicholas Spaull