The Washington Post’s list of 100 notable books is out. Two are by African writers.

The Washington Post has its annual lists of 50 Notable Works of Nonfiction and 50 Notable Works of Fiction. Lots of great writing, but not much by African writers. On the fiction list, we have Lagos-based Oyinkan Braithwaite’s My Sister, the Serial Killer, which I’m excited to read and comes out in a few days. On the nonfiction list, we have The Girl who Smiled Beads: A Story of War and What Comes After, by Rwandan-born Clementine Wamariya (and Elizabeth Weil).

Honorable mention to Tomi Adeyemi — American-born but of Nigerian parents — for Children of Blood and Bone, also on the fiction list.

What other fiction and nonfiction books by African writers — released in 2018 — should be on this list?


What will drive future growth in Rwanda?

growth in RwandaOver the course of last year, I worked closely with counterparts in the Government of Rwanda to map what human capital investments would be most likely to lead to high economic growth in the coming decades. It was a satisfying, collaborative process, and it felt like our findings on the quality of education reached high levels of government decisionmaking.

That work is now included in a volume — Future Drivers of Growth in Rwanda: Innovation, Integration, Agglomeration, and Competition. Our chapter — written by Francois Ngoboka, Ignace Gatare, Rose Baguma, Jee-Peng Tan, Deepika Ramachandran, Fei Yuan, and me — begins on page 51.

Rwanda will not achieve upper-middle income status without a dramatic increase in school completion. Even the bottom 25th percentile of upper-middle-income countries have primary completion rates of 94 percent, about 50 percent higher than Rwanda’s current rate. The median primary completion rate in upper-middle-income countries is nearly 100 percent. Likewise, the median lower-secondary completion rate for upper-middle-income countries is 87 percent, more than 2.5 times Rwanda’s current rate. The disparity is even greater for upper-secondary completion. Expanding basic education, together with ensuring quality, is essential for Rwanda’s sustained growth.

Much more on the quality of education, stunting, fertility, training, and more, in the report.

What I’ve Been Reading This Month — August 2018

straight talk on tradeStraight Talk on Trade: Ideas for a Sane World Economy, by Dani Rodrik — A few years ago, Dani Rodrik wrote one of my favorite economics books — Economics Rules: The Rights and Wrongs of the Dismal Science. Now he’s back with a nuanced discussion of globalization and trade. He lays out how much of the nuance around the impacts of trade gets lost somewhere between economists talking in a seminar room and economists talking to the media, and the profession is less credible as a result. He lays out an agenda for how to increase fairness in trade and how to deal with the losers from freer trade, as well as why trade policy often fails to do so. Rodrik weighs in on a few other topics, too, such as whether or not experts should advise repressive regimes on policy. As always, Rodrik proposes context-specific solutions. [Alice Evans called this book “pioneering, prescient, and likely to catalyse major public debate.”]

dead eyeThe Dead Eye and the Deep Blue Sea: A Graphic Memoir of Modern Slavery, by Vannak Anan Prum — A Cambodian man leaves his village to seek work and ends up enslaved on a Thai fishing vessel. He uses his artistic talents to help him survive. When he ultimately escapes, he draws the story of his ordeal. This graphic memoir is his story in his pictures. Heart-reading and terrifying. Highly recommended.

men explain 2Men Explain Things to Me — Updated edition with two new essays, by Rebecca Solnit — Solnit opens with an anecdote of a man explaining things to her that is by turns infuriating, absurd, and sadly hilarious. That essay and this whole collection goes on to discuss a range of gender issues with great fairness and deep thoughtfulness. I enjoyed this passage on the balance between hopefulness and realism: “Finding ways to appreciate advances without embracing complacency is a delicate task. It involves being hopeful and motivated and keeping eyes on the prize ahead. Saying that everything is fine or that it will never get any better are ways of going nowhere or of making it impossible to go anywhere. Either approach implies that there is no road out or that, if there is, you don’t need to or can’t go down it. You can. We have.”

behold the dreamersBehold the Dreamers, by Imbolo Mbue — A Cameroonian immigrant couple struggles in New York City. Fascinating, heart-reading interpersonal dynamics set against the backdrop of the 2007 recession. Jende, the husband, has this to say about intergenerational mobility in Cameroon: “In my country, sir, for you to become somebody, you have to be born somebody first. You do not come from a family with money, forget it. You do not come from a family with a name, forget it. That is just how it is, sir.” Cristina Henríquez of the New York Times called it “a capacious, big-hearted novel.”

your black friendYour Black Friend and Other Strangers, by Ben Passmore — In this collection of comics, Passmore lays out his experience of being black in America, the experience of being imprisoned (briefly), having white, Trump-supporting relatives. He also includes some fiction and even science fiction. It’s sometimes emotionally challenging and sometimes just kind of weird, but it’s well worth the read. Hillary Chute of the New York Times wrote, “when Passmore observes daily life — reporting on its own kind of mutancy — his work explodes with force.”

flintstones vol 1The Flintstones: Volume 1, by Mark Russell and Steve Pugh — Russell and Pugh use Flintstones characters and settings as backdrop for serious social satire, looking at topics from marriage equality to war to consumerism to animal rights. The main characters feel very human (and not at all prehistoric), and the backdrop is littered with artistic humor in Bedrock’s signage (“Tonight! Primitive art!”; “Hominid Resources”; “Neandertall and Big Men’s Clothing”; “Spears and Roebuck”). This was among the best graphic works of 2017.

killing floorKilling Floor, by Lee Child — “If there were some sort of prize for Most Widely Admired Thriller Writer, Lee Child would win it time and again,” writes Sam Leith for the Times Literary Supplement. Hearing him discuss Child’s work on the TLS podcast, I decided to see what the fuss was all about and read the original Jack Reacher novel. Reacher, an unemployed former military investigator, drifts into a Southern U.S. town and kills a bunch of people in the pursuit of justice. This passage sums up Reacher’s philosophy: “I had no laws to worry about, no inhibitions, no distractions. I wouldn’t have to think about Miranda, probable cause, constitutional rights. I wouldn’t have to think about reasonable doubt or rules of evidence. No appeal to any higher authority for these guys. Was that fair? You bet your ass. These were bad people. They’d stepped over the line a long time ago. Bad people.” Both satisfying — in fiction — and deeply problematic at the same time. Reacher does really well in one-on-many fight scenes.

crusader 2Crusader, by Joel Galloway — Crusader opens on a man buried in the desert up to his neck, one eye lying a few feet from him — removed by his torturers — as buzzards circle. In the next chapter, the priest of the modern incarnation of an ancient indigenous religion performs a human sacrifice. In the next, a young man is possessed by a demon and a mysterious priest casts it out. Later, we encounter tricked-out motorcycles and helicopters, a secret cavern of treasure in the wilderness, and hidden labyrinths beneath a cathedral. This first novel by a friend of mine has it all! [I wrote more about it here.]

milk and honeymilk and honey, by Rupi Kaur — In this poetry collection, Kaur discusses sexual violence, love, sex, gender, and loss. The quality is widely varied. Some of the poems seem like lines I might find on a romantic bag of herbal tea (“you’ve touched me / without even / touching me”). But others effectively conveyed raw emotion or simple truth. Here’s one I enjoyed: “what terrifies me most is how we / foam at the mouth with envy / when others succeed / but sigh in relief / when they are failing // our struggle to / celebrate each other is / what’s proven most difficult / in being human.” (It reminded me of Gore Vidal’s quip: “Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies.”) Priya Khaira-Hanks writes in the Guardian, “The literary world is saturated with white male voices of dubious quality. Kaur’s poetry should be given the same freedom to be flawed.” Flawed, yes, but not without value.

The Best Poetry Collections of Last Year

best poetry 201.PNGEarly in Arundhati Roy’s novel The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, one practitioner of herbal remedies “believed that poetry could cure, or at least go a long way towards curing, almost every ailment. He would prescribe poems to his patients the way other hakims prescribed medicine.” Later, one woman — Tilo — tells her lover, “Let’s read a poem before we sleep.”

I’ve inconsistently adopted Tilo’s habit of reading a little bit of poetry before bed or sometimes at other times. So where does a decided non-expert find great poetry?

I identified ten lists of the best poetry collections published in 2017. Between them, they recommend a whopping — not a word I’ve read in many poems — 110 collections. But just 10 collections are recommended on at least 3 lists. So here they are, the “top 10” poetry collections from 2017. You can find the full list of 100 collections here. May your soul be either soothed or agitated as you read, depending on the collection!

1. Don’t Call Us Dead, by Danez Smith (recommended on 5 lists)

2. Whereas, by Layli Long Soldier (4 lists)

And the remaining 8 of the top 10 are all tied for third, recommended on 3 lists each.

3.1 Half-Light: Collected Poems 1965-2016, by Frank Bidart

3.2 When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities, by Chen Chen

3.3. My Mother Was a Freedom Fighter, by Aja Monet

3.4. Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver, by Mary Oliver

3.5. Nature Poem, by Tommy Pico

3.6. Good Bones, by Maggie Smith

3.7. Afterland, by Mai Der Vang

3.8. Phrasis, by Wendy Xu

Have you read any of these? Or others? What do you think?

The Factory of Policy Relevant Education Research that Is Ben Piper


Ben Piper is an education researcher with at least three outstanding qualities. He’s incredibly productive, with at least 11 publications in the last 12 months. His work is deeply policy relevant, answering questions that policymakers are asking: How can we implement teacher coaching at scale? How much scripting in learning is helpful for teachers? And he’s a really nice person, per my several interactions with him.

Here’s a cursory review of those last 11 publications. You can read about more here.

  1. How much does learning one language help you learn another? In Kenya, comparing kids instructed in Kiswahili to those instructed in English reveals that it goes both ways. “Cross-language transfer of reading skills: an empirical investigation of bidirectionality and the influence of instructional environments” (with Kim)


  1. Is it possible to scale up an effective education pilot? In Kenya, a scaled program showed impacts on learning. This paper documents how. “Scaling up successfully? Lessons from Kenya’s Tusome national literacy program” (with Destefano, Kinyanjui, & Ong’ele)


  1. In a decentralized system, how do countries provide resources for early child education programs? Qualitative evidence from Kenya “Scaling Up Early Childhood Development and Education in a Devolved Setting: Policy Making, Resource Allocations, and Impacts of the Tayari School Readiness Program in Kenya” (with Merseth & Ngaruiya)


  1. After comparing three models for improving literacy in Kenya, a combination of “PD, teacher instructional support and coaching, 1:1 student books, and structured teacher lesson plans” was most effective AND most cost-effective. “Identifying the essential ingredients to literacy and numeracy improvement: Teacher professional development and coaching, student textbooks, and structured teachers’ guides” (with Zuilkowski, Dubeck, Jepkemei, & King)


  1. Across 13 countries & 19 projects, “structured teachers’ guides improve learning outcomes, but that overly scripted teachers’ guides are somewhat less effective than simplified teachers’ guides that give specific guidance to the teacher but are not written word for word for each lesson in the guide.” “Effectiveness of teachers’ guides in the Global South: Scripting, learning outcomes, and classroom utilization” (with Sitabkhan, Mejia, & Betts)


  1. In the era of free education, why do parents choose private schools? “Drawing on parent survey and interview data, as well as interviews with national policy makers, we found that parents who chose LCPS for their children were more driven by quality concerns than were public school parents.” “Parents, quality, and school choice: why parents in Nairobi choose low-cost private schools over public schools in Kenya’s free primary education era” (with Zuilkowski, Ong’ele, & Kiminza)


  1. Are you a big fan of mother-tongue instruction? In Kenya, “assignment to the mother-tongue group had no additional benefits for English or Kiswahili learning outcomes beyond the non-mother-tongue group, and that the mother-tongue group had somewhat lower mathematics outcomes.” “Examining the secondary effects of mother-tongue literacy instruction in Kenya: Impacts on student learning in English, Kiswahili, and mathematics” (with Zuilkowski, Kwayumba, Oyanga)


  1. Summer reading loss: Not just for rich countries anymore. Big losses during school breaks in Malawi. “Is summer loss universal? Using ongoing literacy assessment in Malawi to estimate the loss from summer breaks” (with Slade, Kaunda, King, & Ibrahim)


  1. Is it possible for a large-scale education technology program to work? In Kenya, tablets went to 1,200 instructional coaches. This study documents usage and effectiveness. “Implementing large scale instructional technology in Kenya: Changing instructional practice and developing accountability in a national education system” (with Oyanga, Mejia, & Pouezevara)


  1. Here’s how we’re working to use research to affect large-scale education policy “Improving learning in Sub-Saharan Africa using rigorous research designs


  1. How does teacher coaching affect teachers’ attitudes and practices in Kenya? (I’m not sure, since this one ) “Instructional coaching in Kenya: Supporting teachers to improve literacy outcomes” (with Zuilkowski)

Ben and his co-authors are working in real time, in the real world, which means that not every study has a massive sample or a perfectly clean identification strategy. (Many do, but not all.) But policymakers are making decisions in real time, in the real world, and Ben’s work contributes to better policymaking. Don’t get me wrong: I love big samples and perfectly clean identification strategies. But I also posit that we can learn a lot from different kinds of studies.

You might have noticed Stephanie Zuilkowski as an author on several of these papers. She’s another extremely active education researcher, with lots of other interesting work. Maybe I’ll be do a full rundown another day, but in the meantime, check out her work here.

What I’ve been reading this month – July 2018

July included a lot of family vacation, which — for me — translates to wonderful memories but less reading time. So it’s a short list for July!

The Goldilocks Challenge: Right-Fit Evidence for the Social Sector, by Mary Kay Gugerty and Dean Karlan — With an increasing emphasis on measuring the impact of non-profits and other pro-social organizations, simple monitoring can get neglected. Yet monitoring systems are fundamental to every organization, for understanding whether they’re delivering the services they intend to deliver. Gugerty and Karlan offer a set of clear principles for monitoring systems that aren’t too burdensome nor too slight, but just right. I wrote a fuller review at the Development Impact blog.

The Regional Office Is Under Attack, by Manuel Gonzales — There’s a team of women assassins. And they’re going up against another team of women assassins (the titular “regional office”), one of whom has a robot arm. There are references to the actual mission of the regional office — say, suppressing “a den of werewolves, or a nest of vampires” or battling someone’s “dead wife from the bowels of hell” or a “demon horde” — but the whole novel revolves around one assassin on each side and their stories. It’s lots of fun, full of pop-culture references (She had “one real option — to ‘Die Hard’ it John McClane style”) and life wisdom (“She’d rather they’d just given her her job to do and not this management position because what a pain in the ass managing people was turning out to be”). I found the pacing imperfect, but I had a great time. NY Times review by Kelly Braffet: “it’s rollicking good fun on the surface, action-packed and shiny in all the right places; underneath that surface, though, it’s thoughtful and well considered.”

When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead — This is one of those books that is technically science fiction, but you wouldn’t know it until you’re well into the book. It opens like a 1970s family drama revolving around Miranda, a sixth-grader, and her single mom. Then anonymous notes start appearing with strange requests. It’s all mysterious, maybe even a little bit eerie, but it all comes together in grand fashion. I listened to the audiobook in the car with my whole family, and once we got going, we couldn’t stop. NY Times review by Monica Edinger: “Smart and mesmerizing.”

Incidentally, the children’s classic A Wrinkle in Time plays a role in both The Regional Office and When You Reach Me, although unfortunately not in The Goldilocks Challenge. (Come on, Gugerty and Karlan!)

Give to panhandlers?

Bryce Covert has written a thoughtful, balanced, carefully researched piece on whether to give to panhandlers. “On the whole, all the evidence, from the statistical to the spiritual, points in one direction: if you can give, you should give. It won’t solve the problems of mass homelessness or impoverishment. But it will improve someone’s life ever so slightly and briefly.”

She also quotes Anna Popova’s and my work on how the poor tend to spend cash: “Overwhelmingly, they found that giving cash ‘had no impact on spending on alcohol and tobacco,’ Evans said. ‘In a number of cases, it even seemed to have a negative impact—people spent a lower proportion of their budget on these temptation goods.’”

After that, I go off a little bit on how we needn’t judge the poor’s spending habits, even if they did decide to go and buy a beer: “‘Do we get rid of an effective way of helping the poor just because there are a couple of people who don’t use the money in the way that we think is the most constructive?’ he [Dave Evans] asked. Perhaps, he went on, a trip to the liquor store isn’t necessarily unhelpful. ‘If a poor person wants to buy a beer and that’s going to help them feel better at the end of the day, is that something we should criticize or be concerned about?’”

I’ve often thought: Oh, rather than donate to panhandler, I’ll give the same amount to some organization that helps the poor more systematically. Here’s Covert on that: “As the economists I spoke to pointed out, most people are not likely to take the dollar they would have otherwise given a panhandler and donate it to a nonprofit later. And while service organizations do a lot of good, what they do is generally something different than give money directly on the street, one American to another—a service that has its own merit. Just as the man I saw on the median needed something other than what I’d thought to give, there is value in the simple handoff of cash in a personal encounter.”

I believe there are multiple defensible stances on what to do when someone asks for money on the street. But Covert uses evidence and reasoning to rule out those stances based on false presumptions about the poor.  Read her article. It’s much better than my quotes.