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Joseph Hanlon, Armando Barrientos, David Hulme, 2010: Just Give Money to the Poor: The Development Revolution from the Global South. Sterling: Kumarian Press.

If it sounds novel to suggest that if you want the poor to have more money, you could just give them money, these are strange times. What could be more straightforward than giving money to people in need? But cost recovery, self-help, and “financial deepening” are essential tenets of the current development ethos, so someone must go out and make the argument – as Joseph Hanlon, Armando Barrientos and David Hulme do in Just Give Money to the Poor – that simply handing out cash may be easier, and better, than anything else.

Cash transfers are a rising idea in development policy. Even The Economist likes them. Still, they are far from a hype, and little is known to most people about the successful programmes implemented by Brazil, Mexico or Indonesia, for example. This book aims to change that. Perhaps its greatest strength and weakness is its simplicity. But hard science can be discussed elsewhere. Just Give Money to the Poor introduces a broader audience, and gives impetus, to the simple but still-controversial idea: that redistribution works.

The authors recap evidence from two decades of experimental and pragmatic progress on social transfer programmes in the developing world. They argue that no-strings-attached, widespread systems of cash distribution are far more effective and cheaper than other models, such as vouchers, food subsidies (where monitoring creates costs) or microcredit. The key is that the money must be a dependable, substantial and easy source of income for the poor. Assured regular cash transfers – not charity or philanthropy – are the key, even at a relatively small scale, for achieving impressive outcomes:

“In the short term they reduce poverty levels and ameliorate suffering. In the medium term, they enable many poor people to exercise their agency and pursue micro-level plans to increase their productivity and incomes.  In the longer term, they create a generation of healthier and better educated people who can seize economic opportunities and contribute to broad-based economic growth.”

The target groups could be particularly vulnerable demographics – children, the elderly – or simply everyone. Programmes can be gradually expanded as experience grows, since garnering political support by demonstrating impact, fairness and adequacy, is key. Read the rest of this entry »

Steven Johnson, 2010: Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation. New York: Riverhead Books.

Steven Johnson is all about crossing borders. His books deal with a great variety of topics, ranging from London’s most terrifying cholera epidemic  (“The Ghost Map“) to a praise of popular culture (“Everything Bad is Good for You“). And also in his most recent book, Steven Johnson crosses disciplinary and historical borders, when he, in his own words, “analyzed 300 of the most influential innovations in science, commerce and technology — from the discovery of vacuums to the vacuum tube to the vacuum cleaner”.

The list of reviews and summaries of the book availble online is endless, including a TED talk given by the author himself and a great video summary featured above. So I am not going to reproduce any of these but very selectively refer to one of the examples presented in the book that relates most to the issues discussed in this blog. This example is the web-based patent marketplace GreenXChange, where Nike publicly released more than 400 of its patents that involve environmentally friendly materials or technologies. Johnson discribes rationale and realization of the project as follows (p. 125):

“By keeping its eco-friendly ideas behind a veil of secrecy, Nike was holding back – without any real commercial justification – ideas that might, in another context, contribute to a sustainable future. In collaboration with Creative Commons, Nike released its patents under a modified license permitting use in ‘non-competitive’ fields.  (They also created a standardized, pre-negotiated contract for patents, thereby reducing the transaction costs of haggling over each patent license individually.)”

This is the first example, at least to my knowledge, where Creative Commons was active in standardizing licenses outside of the field of copyright regulation (see the respective announcement on its blog). Moreover, it demonstrates how similar problems and solutions in both so-called “hemispheres” of intellectual proporty – patents and copyright – might be after all. Hopefully, I will soon find the time to do some comparative studies on private regulation in both these fields.


This post is provided by our guest blogger Peggy Levitt. Peggy Levitt is Professor of Sociology at Wellesley College and a Research Fellow at The Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University where she co-directs The Transnational Studies Initiative. Together with by Sanjeev Khagram she has published the transnational studies reader, in which they among other things criticize methodological nationalism and present different ways on how to conceptualize transnational phenomena. Her entry is part of a series in which we discuss concepts and phenomena in the field of transnational studies and follows previous discussions we had on transnationalism and methodological nationalism.

Methodological nationalism is the tendency to accept the nation-state and its boundaries as a given in social analysis. Because many social science theories equate society with the boundaries of a particular nation state, researchers often take rootedness and incorporation in the nation as the norm, and social identities and practices enacted across state boundaries as the exception.  But while nation-states are still extremely important, social life does not obey national boundaries.  Social and religious movements, criminal and professional networks, and governance regimes, to name just a few, regularly operate across borders.

In a 2004 article, Nina Glick Schiller and I proposed a notion of society based on the concept of social field and drew a distinction between ways of being and ways of belonging.  Social fields are multi-dimensional and encompass structured interactions of differing forms, depth, and breadth that are differentiated in social theory by terms like “organization,” “institution,” “networks,” and “social movement.”  National social fields are those that remain within national boundaries, while transnational social fields connect actors, through direct and indirect relations, across borders.  Neither domain automatically takes precedence; rather determining the relative importance of nationally restricted and transnational social fields is an empirical question.

Read the rest of this entry »

Book review:

Milford Bateman, 2010: Why Doesn’t Microfinance Work? The destructive rise of local neoliberalism. London: Zed Books.

Since the inception of this blog, one issue which has been critically explored again and again is the dominant position of microfinance in the field of international development. For instance, a series of blog posts in early 2009 was aimed at unmasking the popular myths spun by microcredit’s advocates, from presumed gender empowerment to the purported win-win situation in which profits would go hand-in-hand with social impacts. More recently, we followed how, in the wake of two high-profile randomised studies which failed to show increases in poor people’s income, even some mainstream media have begun taking a more critical view of microfinance.

Indeed, 2009 and 2010 may have brought some disillusionment to many who believed that small loans would create “a world without poverty”. But still the microfinance industry and its epistemic community remain fiercely defensive of the reputation as a solution to poverty; still the international donor community unquestioningly pours money into a concept with much promise but little proof; and still Muhammad Yunus’ award shelf continues to fill up with precious metal as the hype around microfinance continues to enthrall the socially-concerned masses.

A few full-fledged books critiquing present microfinance practices may have been published to date, but these have addressed themselves mainly to microfinance insiders and development experts. Milford Bateman’s brand-new book (released this summer) however is the first critical book capable of crossing the border between academia and the lay world; it reaches out to convince a wider audience of questioning those accepted wisdoms which underlie the first big development hype of the 21st century. Read the rest of this entry »

The Book

Governance across borders: transnational fields and transversal themes. Leonhard Dobusch, Philip Mader and Sigrid Quack (eds.), 2013, epubli publishers.
September 2020

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