What I’m Reading

I’ve been reviewing the literature regarding the role of values in social/economic change within the context of community-based development.  Although I was certainly aware of Nobel Laureate, Amartya Sen’s paradigm shifting book (Development as Freedom), I hadn’t actually read it before.  It’s a must-read for development workers!   So is Karlan and Apple’s More than Good Intensions: Improving the Ways the World’s Poor Borrow, Save, Farm Learn, and Stay Healthy.  I wish this book had been around when I worked in community development in Africa back in the day.  Finally, every person contemplating a short-term “mission trip” needs to read Corbett and Fikkert’s When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor…and Yourself.  The same is true for people who are part of local congregations and service groups involved in community development.  Here are some additional thoughts on what I’ve been reading:


When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor…and Yourself.  By Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert (2012). Chicago; Moody Publishers.

The renewed interest among North American evangelicals in helping alleviate poverty around the world has often caused unintended harm both to the materially poor and those who sought to help. The authors lay out the foundation for this book in the basic message of Jesus—to announce the good news to the poor. Poverty, they argue, is rooted in broken relationships—with God, self, others and the rest of creation. One of the central problems of poverty alleviation efforts is the god-complexes of the rich and the sense of inferiority and shame that this inflicts on the poor. Broken systems, a collision of worldviews and a failure to distinguish between the processes of relief, rehabilitation and development add to the problem. Additionally, expatriate workers tend to over-value their own knowledge and technology while undervaluing the indigenous knowledge and assets of the poor themselves.

The authors argue that organizations need to adopt a learning orientation rather than a blueprint approach to change—a common mistake made by short-term workers. The latter typically bring a needs-based perspective to the task. They come with their own solutions to what they believe is the problem in a context they don’t understand. Meanwhile, the poor find themselves in an uneven playing field, the victims of broken systems. This requires participatory approaches that emphasize development and focus on creating economic opportunities. They should draw on local assets—knowledge, skills, labor, discipline, etc.—to the extent possible.

The authors offer the Grameen Bank and the micro-finance revolution as examples of sustainable development approaches. Engaging individuals and communities in critical reflection is important in fostering the process of change. So is mobilizing people, achieving an early success, taking a learning approach and initiating the change process with people who are the most responsive. The process of addressing poverty in one’s own community, the authors conclude, should involve assessing and mobilizing the gifts of the church, and identifying existing organizations and services in the area. This means adopting a participatory asset-based approach and then exploring the possibility of launching a new ministry that serves the poor in one’s own community. In so doing, Christians only announce that the Kingdom of God is coming, but that it’s already here!


More Than Good Intentions: Improving the Ways the World’s Poor Borrow, Save, Farm, Learn, and Stay Healthy. By Dean Karlan and Jacob Apple. New York, NY, Plume, 2012.         

The authors of More Than Good Intensions argue that the conflicting views over which approaches to development work best can be resolved through a very simple, but profound strategy. Start by understanding “the problem,” do something about it and then follow up with rigorous evaluation of how it was addressed. Find out what works and do it; find out what doesn’t work and stop doing it. This approach is grounded in three fundamental questions: What is the root cause of “the problem?” Does “the idea” being proposed as the solution, solve it? How much better are people off because of the new solution? The simplest way to determine if something works is to use Random Control Trials (RCTs). Although this book focuses primarily on microfinance, the strategy presented here has profound implications for every sector or domain in development practice. Drawing on examples and cases from around the world, the authors show how RCTs can help one assess a wide array of effects on income, consumption patterns, investments, consumer decisions and educational practice.

Karlan and Apple summarize their lessons learned by presenting “seven ideas that work:” Microsavings programs that provide people with options—savings products—help people save. So do reminders to save, particularly when delivered by text and direct mail. Prepaid fertilizer sales help farmers boost productivity by getting them to invest when their cash flow is at its height. Deworming is cheap but increases school attendance. Remedial education, based on reading groups that develop basic skills, is an effective way to work around dysfunctional schools. Providing chlorine dispensers can help people get clean water at low cost. Creating commitment devices can improve people’s decisions by making their vices more expensive and their virtues cheaper. Although each of these conclusions is context specific, the underlying strategy that generated them (finding out what works, and do it) has broad application to development practice. This is simply the finest book on development this reviewer has read in many years!


Development as Freedom.  By Amartya Sen.  New York: Anchor books, 1999.

In this book, Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen challenges the prevailing approach to development by reframing both the problem of poverty and the nature of its solution. He defines poverty in terms of deprivation—morbidity, mortality, illiteracy, lack of economic opportunity, failing infrastructure, tyranny, etc.—and sees expanding freedom (and democracy) as both a principle means as well as a principle end to development. Political rights are related to economic needs whereas their absence creates or exacerbates inequality by denying some people access to the society’s productive resources and the opportunity to fulfill their own capabilities.

Sen’s core argument is that freedom is intrinsically important because it enables people to live out what they value. It incentives the process through which people can improve their own lives. As they engage freely in open discussions of the issues affecting them and the feasibility of alternative strategies to address them, people can solve their own problems and strengthen their own capacity and agency. By way of illustration, Sen shows that when women have freedom to pursue education, the result is less gender inequality, reduced fertility and lower levels of child morbidity, improving the lives of women and their families. In another example, he argues that when democracies distribute the penalties of famine to include the ruling political groups, this incentivizes the latter to address them promptly and take steps that would prevent famines in the future. In this way, democracy not only plays a protective role in society but also provides a mechanism for engaging and empowering people. Freedom and democracy enable people to take actions that improve their own lives, communities and society itself.


Walking With the Poor: Principles and Practices of Transformational Development.  By Bryant L.  Myers. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2011 edition. 

This tour de force is a Christian response to Western models of development that separate the spiritual and material realms.  Poverty is typically viewed by development theorists in terms of deficits, entanglements, disempowering systems, lack of capacity, lack of freedom to make one’s own choices, or lack of access society’s productive resources.  Meyers, on the other hand, argues that the problem of poverty is fundamentally relational—the causes are spiritual.  Therefore, the goal of development processes is changed people who identify as children of God, and are engaged in just and peaceful relationships.  Some scholars propose strategies that are people-centered, provide access to power, enhance personal capacity, or promote freedom and human rights. In contrast, Meyers issues a clarion call for transformational change—from broken, to just and peaceful relationships—with God, with one’s self, with “the other” and with the environment around us. 

 This conceptual framework affirms both the role of God in transformation as well as the agency of human beings in promoting change that is holistic and sustainable (physically, mentally, socially and spiritually). This means broadening the role of the development worker to include to include the spiritual and religious dimensions.  This approach focuses on relationships, seeks justice and beauty, and addresses the underlying causes of poverty.  It has a bias toward peace and affirms the role of the church in transformation.   

 The book is primarily a conceptual framework for Christian development, grounded in an evangelical worldview.  The last quarter, however, does examine program development models, identify approaches to increasing participation, and suggests strategies that promote learning and value change.  Meyers’ summary of various development thinkers and their contributions is engaging for those with broad interests in development theory.  The book’s strong affirmation of God’s redemptive and restorative work in the world will be inspiring to evangelical readers while others will be looking for a more nuanced perspective.  Meyers appears to imply that people who don’t share the underlying theological commitments cannot engage in effective work.  That notwithstanding, the book is an important contribution to the theory and practice of faith-based development.    


What is Palestine-Israel? Answers to Common Questions, by Sonia K. Weaver.  Harold Press; Harrisonburg, VA; reissued in 2014.

This little paperback, published by Herald Press, is only 79 pages long but provides a very clear and succinct overview of the Israel-Palestine conflict. At the recommendation of friends, I read it in preparation for a recent trip to the Holy Land. The book provided a wonderful orientation to what we would see and experience. It includes some excellent maps that help clarify the region’s history while also sharing data regarding the underlying issues. What is Palestine-Israel? puts this contemporary conflict into historical perspective.

The book starts with some very basic questions: What is Israel? What is Palestine? What are the Occupied Territories?   Weaver looks back at how the State of Israel was established and provides an overview of various concepts/issues ranging from Zionism, the Law of Return and the new settlements, to the Oslo Accords, The Palestinian Authority and the intifadas. The book is an excellent primer, helping readers understand and they see, read and hear in the media.

Having worked for 11 years with the Mennonite Central Committee in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, Jerusalem and Jordan, Weaver brings a unique understanding of the complex issues at work in Palestine-Israel. The book identifies both the sources of the conflict and reasons for hope going forward. I was particularly interested in learning more about what the Mennonite mission agencies and Christian Peacemaker Teams are doing to help promote peace and economic development in the region. The book concludes with a very helpful list of resources for those interested in further study.

It’s an easy read—understandable and clear—but chock-full of very helpful information for those who want to know more about the complex issues around Israel-Palestine.  The author delivers on the book’s promise, embedded in the title by providing Answers to Common questions. I highly recommend it to people who want to gain a better understanding of the complicated issues in this region of the world.


Going to Extremes: How Like Minds Unite and Divide Us, by Cass R. Sunstein. Oxford University Press; New York, 2009.

If I could wave a magic wand and ensure that every American voter read one book before the next election, Going to Extremes would be it! Harvard Law Professor, Cass Sunstein, examines the research on a whole range of issues to see what causes people to take extreme views.

Drawing on many different studies, Sunstein explains everything from why some juries make huge damage awards, to why corporate leaders often make bad decisions; from why some people buy into conspiracy theories, to the reasons that lead others join terrorist networks. When people find themselves grouped only with others of like mind, he found, mutually held views tend to become more extreme. When they share and primarily discuss only their common knowledge, it reinforces each other’s a priori views, filters out dissent and builds solidarity. This process can strengthen “in-group love,” the author suggests, but may also increase “out-group hate.”

Though individually moderate, people’s views often become more extreme within the context of homogeneous groups, particularly when facilitated by “conspiracy entrepreneurs” with vested interests in polarization. When groups of people with limited knowledge are isolated from independent data sources, exchange information only with each other and lack impartial leadership, they easily become polarized.   Their “crippled epistemology” makes them prone to act on their shared knowledge rather than upon all the information that might be available about an issue.

Sunstein’s analysis suggests several strategies for avoiding polarization and keeping people’s views from moving to the extremes. A significant antidote is ensuring that groups are diverse (in terms of backgrounds, experience, a priori views, etc.) and gather input independently from a wide range of sources. A system of “checks and balances” in which competing views are contested also increases the likelihood of reaching moderate conclusions. So does having an even-handed facilitator moderate these conversations.

As we move into another election season, it will be easy for the “polarization entrepreneurs” to sway people who only read and listen to commentators with whom they agree. Meanwhile, those who build (and maintain) diverse social networks, read widely and debate vigorously with those holding competing views, are far less likely to move toward the extreme than those who “self-segregate.” Reading (and discussing) Sunstein’s book could be a significant antidote to the manipulation and polarization that usually come with political campaigns. This is a really good book; I encourage you to read it!


David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants, by Malcolm Gladwell.  Little, Brown and Company; New York, NY, 2013.

This is simply the most fascinating book I’ve read in years!  Gladwell had me by the end of the first page as he began to retell the familiar story of David and Goliath.  He helped me understand what happened that day in Palestine when a shepherd boy confronted a giant on the battlefield.  I had never really thought much about the contrast between a slingshot and the conventional weapons of the day.  Nor had I considered the laws of physics and the principles of anatomy that brought the giant down.  In spite of the perceived odds against David, the author shows, the infantryman had no chance when confronted by a gifted “slinger.” 

Against that backdrop, Gladwell tells stories of ordinary people facing overwhelming odds—people who understood that seemingly invincible “giants” carry within then, the seeds of their own destruction.   With no reasonable chance to overcome their giants using conventional strategies, these underdogs and misfits were free to consider new ways of thinking and responding.  The author shows how students, athletes, entrepreneurs, physicians, civil rights activists and others reframed the challenges they were facing and created new solutions to old problems.  These “Davids” didn’t respond or fight on the terms of their “Goliaths.”  They understood the inherent disadvantages of their opponents’ advantages, but also recognized the hidden advantages embedded within their own disadvantages.

Although based on interviews with scientists and scholars, research reports and case studies, it’s Gladwell’s uncanny ability to connect ideas in unconventional ways that makes David and Goliath such a terrific read!  It’s grounded in hard-nosed, empirical analysis.

This is not a book about higher education.  Nonetheless, the author helped me rethink some of my cherished assumptions about the issues in my field.  These are very difficult times, particularly for small and nonselective institutions that are facing enormous financial pressures as they compete with the well-funded Goliaths of higher education.  Some of the strategies that made our colleges and universities successful in the past are inadequate for the present, and will likely prove disastrous if continued into the future. Gladwell documents how some “underdogs and misfits” unexpectedly succeeded by reframing old problems and generating new solutions.  That’s what higher education leaders urgently need to do—and why I think that reading and discussing this book could provide a stimulating foundation for strategic thinking and planning going forward.


Higher Education in America, by Derek Bok.  Princeton University Press; Princeton, New Jersey, 2013.

Over the years, no author has challenged my thinking about higher education more than Harvard University President Emeritus, Derek Bok.  Clearly, one of this nation’s most respected voices in higher education, Bok uses this book to address a wide range of issues from the nature of the undergraduate curriculum, to MOOCs, college costs and the future of professional education.

I read Higher Education in America as part of a discussion group involving people who had also invested their careers in post-secondary education.  Having heard President Bok speak and read some of his other publications, this book wasn’t quite what we expected.  He frames the context of American higher education: its history, purpose, goals, governance, etc.  He then focuses on undergraduate education in a section that runs the gamut from the challenges of selecting a college (and paying tuition to attend), to the nature of teaching and learning, and the prospects for educational reform. He continues with a look at professional education (medicine, law and business) and the role of research in higher education.

Bok provides a comprehensive review of the issues that would be very appropriate for a graduate seminar in higher education but we found it less helpful in thinking through the big issues that we’re facing as we look to the future. It’s undoubtedly unfair to implicitly criticize an author for addressing his priority issues rather than those that some readers might find more salient.  I found the book’s emphasis on elite institutions less germane to the challenges facing mainstream American higher education.  Those of us who had taught in the Ivies but also worked in public or non-selective independent institutions felt this most acutely.

I would have enjoyed hearing him speak more specifically to the most compelling issues that universities are facing today—improving access to higher education, promoting equity and strengthening accountability for student success.  Although Higher Education in America is an important overview of higher education, written by a world-renown leader, I found it to be more encyclopedic than a useful tool for helping us rethink the road that lies before us.


College (Un)Bound: The Future of Higher Education and What it Means for Students, by Jeffrey J. Selingo. New Harvest, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; Boston, May 2013.

Like most of Jeffrey Selingo’s articles I have read in the Chronicle of Higher Education (which he edited) over the years, I found myself being challenged by College (Un)Bound, informed about things I didn’t know, arguing with him in some places and agreeing with him in others. His basic point is that instead of looking for a college in which to enroll, people should focus on what they want to learn and then determine how best to learn it.

He argues that higher education has lost its way; costs have run out-of-control, quality is declining and students are dropping out at unacceptable levels, never finishing their programs.  Meanwhile, our institutions are risk averse, self-satisfied and unwilling to innovate or adapt to the new world within which we now live. I have trouble disagreeing with him on any of these points.

Selingo outlines five disruptive forces that will change higher education forever.  These include the sea of red ink in which many universities are drowning, the disappearance of state support for higher education, the “drying well” of full-paying students, the improving “unbundled” alternatives to a college education and the growing gap between the cost of college and the value of what students actually learn.  Selingo argues that new models of online learning and new measures of student learning, not based on seat-time, are changing higher education.  College is becoming an a la carte menu rather than a four-year developmental experience that happens at a single institution.

Selingo sounds an alarm that we need to hear and describes some new models for teaching and learning that we should study and consider. It’s a book that needs to be read and discussed, not only by higher education leaders and university trustees, but also by the faculty. In places, I felt Selingo painted with too wide a brush in speaking to the problems such as the failure of colleges and universities to address the learning needs of adults.  Some universities have indeed developed highly successful structures, systems and programs that effectively accommodate the particular needs of adult learners.

The author seems to have bought into the “education as the transfer of knowledge and the development of skills” approach to learning.  As one of those who believes deeply in the liberal arts as a way to expose students to new ideas, help them examine their basic assumptions, developing their capacity to reason and mature as intellectual and moral beings, I felt that Selingo missed the transformative purpose of higher education.  I kept wanting to tell him, “You need to read Delbanco’s College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be!”

These concerns not withstanding, Selingo raises some very important issues that we need to think about and discuss.  Read the book!


College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be, by Andrew Delbanco.  Princeton University Press; Princeton, New Jersey, 2012.

This is simply the best book on higher education that I’ve read in a long time!  In it, Chair of American Studies and the Julian Clarence Levi Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University, Andrew Delbanco, examines the nature and history of higher education.  I appreciated his analysis of the rise of the colonial college, the emergence of the research university in the 19th century and the transformation of higher education in the 20th century.  He also speaks to the challenges facing our institutions today.

Unlike many who write on higher education, Delbanco begins with the prior question: What is college for?  He describes the deep changes in the organizations, structures and curricula but notes that students have always been searching for meaning and purpose in life as part of the college experience.  He suggests, however, that today, the most commonly cited arguments make for the importance of a college education are economic (promoting the economic competitiveness of both individuals and the nation) and political (building an educated citizenry so that democracy can flourish). 

The third argument for college that receives less attention these days is to open one’s mind by studying the past and learning to think critically about the present—and in so doing, preparing to live in a new and changing world.  Delbanco makes the classic case for a liberal education but points out how the humanities are being marginalized in U.S. higher education in favor of technical training.  Even as this is happening, the rest of the world is recognizing how the study of literature and the arts strengthens critical thinking and prepares people to live in an uncertain world.

Delbanco’s discussion of the “brave new world” of higher education describes the impact of big money, the rise of the for-profits and the flight of students from liberal education to “marketable” disciplines such as economics. His fascinating historical narrative shows how elite universities have reinforced socio and economic disparities.  Young people from families in the bottom income quartile are far less likely to attend college, graduate and therefor gain the same opportunities and advantages that their wealthier peers assume.

In his last chapter, Delbanco encourages higher education to get its house in order—dealing the problems laid out earlier—rather than giving the government a motive to do it for us. University trustees, he suggests, need to take more active roles in monitoring the academic performance and address the issue of affordability.  In this reform process, the best experiments tend to come from members of the faculty who care about their students.

While higher education institutions face many challenges today, Delbanco argues, those of us who believe in the universal value of liberal education need to make that case with policy makers and even those academics that hold a more functional view of the college experience.  He wraps up his argument with this conclusion: “A college should not be a haven from worldly contention, but a place where young people fight out among and within themselves contending ideas of the meaningful life, and where they discover that self-interest need not be at odds with concern for one another.  We owe it to posterity to preserve and protect this institution.  Democracy depends on it.”

It’s not only our faculty colleagues who teach in our colleges and universities that should read this book.  It’s particularly salient to administrators who lead these institutions and the trustees who are ultimately responsible for governance.