I’m joining the Center for Global Development!

On March 1, I’ll join the Center for Global Development as a Senior Fellow.

Here’s the backstory — or, to be fair, the way backstory: Back in 2000, I was finishing up my first year as a PhD student in economics and my advisor invited me to spend the summer assisting him with research in rural Kenya. As I talked with people there, it became clear that children who had lost their parents — many of them to HIV-related causes — were a major concern. So I centered my dissertation around an issue that I believed was important to people’s lives, examining the schooling impacts of losing a parent (co-written with Ted Miguel) and the spillovers of fostering orphans on non-orphan children.

At the end of my PhD, when I went on the job market, I was supposed to be able to talk about my research agenda — all the exciting research I intended to do. But to be honest, I didn’t have much of an agenda. Beyond orphanhood, I didn’t have a sense of questions that were important to people in extremely low income environments. So I went to a research thinktank and mostly worked on other people’s projects for a couple of years. Then I came to the World Bank. Here, I’ve had uncountable opportunities to listen to people in low- and middle-income countries tell me the questions that they want answers to. Some of the questions are specific: Will our pilot cash transfer program improve lives? Can we improve the efficiency of management in our rural health clinics? Others are broad: What works to improve learning outcomes in schools? How can we help teachers to be their best?

Over the last 11+ years and 5 different jobs at the World Bank, I’ve accumulated more policy relevant questions than I could research in a lifetime. Of course, at most jobs at the World Bank, you do lots of different things: I’ve managed loans, organized conferences, and helped to develop strategies. I’ve also done research and experimented with different ways of getting research used.

For a little while, I’ve wanted to dedicate a higher proportion of my time seeking answers to that lifetime of questions. I’ve long admired the Center for Global Development and its team of experts, consistently injecting rigorous evidence into important development policy debates. Way back in 2005, I positively reviewed its first edition of Millions Saved: Proven Successes in Global Health. (There’s a new edition out now!) Much later, I worked with a CGD expert to try and understand the potential economic impacts of the 2014 Ebola epidemic. When working on the World Bank’s World Development Report 2018: LEARNING to Realize Education’s Promise, my co-authors and I cited the work of CGD scholars extensively: The Center for Global Development is referenced explicitly 18 times in the bibliography of the report!

So I’m delighted to be joining that team, where I hope to do a lot of research and writing on questions that matter. I look forward to discussing it all along the way with you, dear readers.

Read African Writers — The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer

the boy who harnessed the windmalawiIn this memoir, a young man in Malawi has to drop out of secondary school for lack of funds. But with his interest in electronics, access to a modest library, and incredible tenacity, he builds a windmill to generate electricity for his family. The story is inspiring, and it’s not surprising that a movie is coming out soon:


Over the course of the memoir, Kamkwamba gives insight to a range of issues that he and those he loves have faced: surviving a famine, adolescent marriage, getting sent away from school for not having a uniform, having to reduce meals in times of food insecurity, and the HIV crisis (documented in Kim Yi Dionne’s book Doomed Interventions).

I have a couple of quibbles with the book, which necessarily entail spoilers. So if you don’t want those, stop reading now! None of them mean that you shouldn’t read the book. But if you have read the book, I’d be interested in your take.

First, after Kamkwamba builds his windmill and continues to innovate, he ultimately gets “discovered,” first by local media and later by tech types from the U.S. These Westerners sponsor Kamkwamba so that he is able to provide a more stable life for his family and pay the school fees of several of his friends. Kamkwamba goes on to study at elite schools. I’m very happy for him, and I enjoyed hearing about his adventures. But I’m personally less interested in these tales that ultimately hinge on Western charity. (Again, this isn’t a critique of Kamkwamba’s story! It’s just a comment on the kinds of stories I’m most excited to read.)

Second, in the final pages of the book, Kamkwamba calls his fellow Africans to courage: “My fellow students and I talk about creating a new kind of Africa, a place of leaders instead of victims, a home of innovation rather than charity. I hope this story finds its way to our brothers and sisters out there who are trying to elevate themselves and their communities, but who may feel discouraged by their poor situation.” Kamkwamba showed amazing ingenuity and tenacity, but ultimately what pulled him out of poverty was charity. The Western donors weren’t investing in his windmill; they wanted to help out an inspiring kid. I’m glad they did! The story tells us a lot about hard work, but I’m not sure what it tells us about elevating oneself and “innovation rather than charity” (emphasis added).

The audiobook is well read by Chike Johnson. In the ebook — but not the audiobook — there’s a nice epilogue (“about the book”) in which Kamkwamba describes what has happened in his life since the book was published. It seems like he’s doing lots of great work in Malawi and beyond.

This is book #5 in my effort to read a book by an author from every African country in 2019.

Read African Writers — When the Wanderers Come Home, by Patricia Jabbeh Wesley (Liberia)

when the travelersliberiaBorn, raised, and educated through university in Liberia, Jabbeh Wesley has lived in the U.S. for much of her adult life. In 2013, she returned to Liberia for four months, giving birth to much of her most recent poetry collection, When the Wanderers Come Home. With powerful imagery, she describes revisiting the land of her youth, now at peace but still struggling after years of civil war. (This was before the massive Ebola crisis made it to Liberia in 2014.)

In “So I Stand Here,” Jabbeh Wesley characterizes the foreignness of returning home:

I do not know these people
who have so sadly emerged out of the womb
of war after the termite’s feasting.

In “When Monrovia Rises,” she underlines the fear that pervades countries with recurring conflicts:

Everyone here barricades themselves behind steel
doors, steel bars, and those who can afford also

have walls this high. Here, we’re all afraid that one of us may light a match and start the fire again

Not all the poems are specific to post-war Liberia. In “I Need Two Bodies,” Jabbeh Wesley longs for one body to work and to fight through life, and another to rest and to sleep. In “July Rain,” she muses on the role of rain in justifying life choices: “If the rain would stop, we | would stop making babies, they say.” (Of course, as a microeconomist, I ask, Has anyone studied this? I’ve seen work on power outages and fertility and on television ownership and sexual activity, but not on rainfall.)

Here are what a couple of other critics have to say about the book:

Bidisha SK Mamata, Liberian Listener: “At heart When the Wanderers Come Home is a grieving love letter to Liberia, a country that contains her story just as she tries to contain all its stories… Despite the brokenness of what she describes, Wesley’s poetic form is smooth and steady, the neat stanzas and non-rhyming couplets capably containing the most shocking revelations.

Matthew Shenoda, World Literature Today: “In Wesley’s poetry we see the immense power of a poet working to express the human complexity and grief of a nation and her people often defined by war.”

This is book #4 in my effort to read a book by an author from every African country in 2019.

Read African Writers: What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky, by Lesley Nneka Arimah (Nigeria)

what it means when a man falls from the skynigeriaLesley Nneka Arimah’s debut collection of short stories is a revelation. I first listened to the audiobook  — beautifully narrated by Adjoa Andoh — a year ago, and I’ve just re-listened to it. The stories take place in Nigeria, in the U.S., in both. If I had to pick a theme, I’d pick loss, and Arimah explores every cave and crevice extending from that starting point.

Here are a few lines that struck me:

  • The U.S., a “country that rewards her brand of boldness, in her black of body, with an incredulous fascination that makes her put it away” (from the story “Light”).
  • A father and his daughter: “He does not yet wonder where she gets this, this streak of fire. He only knows that it keeps the wolves of the world at bay and he must never let it die out” (in “Light”).
  • “Joy had become a finite meal she begrudged seeing anyone but herself consume” (in “Glory”).
  • Turning 50, from the perspective of a child: “Mrs. Ajayi was very old, creeping on that age when life begins to lose all meaning, fifty, I think” (in “Redemption”).

Here is the effusive review that I wrote when I first listened to the book:

A breathtaking collection of stories. The prose is beautiful; it made other books I read or listened to at the same time seem pedestrian. Some of the stories are realistic, others incorporate magical realism. Some take place in Nigeria, others in the U.S., other in both. I’d read a novel by Arimah on any of these stories. One woman observes about her boyfriend: “He didn’t seem to mind how joy had become a finite meal she begrudged seeing anyone but herself consume.” Or a father comments on his daughter: “He should chastise the girl, he knows that, but she is his brightest ember and he would not have her dimmed.” As Marina Warner wrote in the New York Times, “It would be wrong not to hail Arimah’s exhilarating originality: She is conducting adventures in narrative on her own terms, keeping her streak of light, that bright ember, burning fiercely, undimmed.”

At the time of this writing, the ebook on Kindle is available for US$1.99, which is wildly high literary value-for-money.

This was book #3 in my effort to read a book by an author from every African country.

Read African Writers: Small Country, by Gaël Faye (Burundi)

small countryburundiMy second book in my effort to read a book by an author from every African country is Gaël Faye’s Small Country. Faye was born and raised in Burundi to a French father and a Rwandan refugee mother. At age 13, he fled to France. Small Country is an autobiographical novel, drawing on Gaye’s childhood experiences.

Here’s my quick take:

Rwanda’s neighbor to the south, Burundi, gets far less attention but also has a deeply troubled history. Faye, born and raised in Burundi to a French father and a Rwandan refugee mother, gives a glimpse at life over the course of coups, civil war, and stealing mangos with the neighborhood boys in this novel. Beautifully written and very evocative, Sarah Ardizzone delivers a lyrical translation into English.

Here are two passages that stood out to me. The first is on the morning of a coup.

I discovered that it was traditional to play classical music during a military coup. On November 28, 1966, for Michael Micombero’s coup, it was Schubert’s piano sonata No. 21; on November 9, 1976, for Jean-Baptiste Bagaza’s coup, it was Beethoven’s 7th symphony; and on September 3, 1987, for Pierre Buyoya’s coup, it was Chopin’s Bolero in C major. On this day, October 21, 1993, we were treated to Wagner’s Twilight of the Gods.

And the other is on genocide, recounted after his mother returns from trying to locate her loved ones after the Rwandan massacre.

Genocide is an oil slick: those who don’t drown in it are polluted for life.

Highly recommended. The audiobook is well narrated by Dominic Hoffman.

My #ReadAfricanWriters challenge for 2019

This year I plan to read a book by an author from every country across Africa. That’s 54 countries. I’ll blog and tweet about it under the hashtag #ReadAfricanWriters. You can also follow my progress on this map.

And here’s my first entry for the year, a memoir by an author from Rwanda!

the girl who smiled beadsrwandaThe Girl Who Smiled Beads: A Story of War and What Comes After, by Clemantine Wamariya and Elizabeth Weil.

Here’s my quick take:

Wow. Clemantine Wamariya was just six when the Rwandan genocide took place. Separated from the rest of her middle class family, she and her teenage sister Claire traverse several countries, in and out of refugee camps. Eventually they make it to the USA. The book gives a devastating portrait of how conflict and being a refugee can affect a child, and how a young woman seeks to make sense of her experience, including through literature, from Elie Wiesel to W.G. Sebald. Beautiful and gripping and thoughtful. Highly recommended.

Here’s how the publisher describes the book:

Clemantine Wamariya was six years old when her mother and father began to speak in whispers, when neighbors began to disappear, and when she heard the loud, ugly sounds her brother said were thunder. In 1994, she and her fifteen-year-old sister, Claire, fled the Rwandan massacre and spent the next six years migrating through seven African countries, searching for safety—perpetually hungry, imprisoned and abused, enduring and escaping refugee camps, finding unexpected kindness, witnessing inhuman cruelty. They did not know whether their parents were dead or alive.

The book also made it onto the Washington Post’s list of notable books for 2018.