Sunday, 25 September 2011

Rostows model and Sim city: a comparison

Whilst teaching my A2 U6th class the other day Superpower theories; Rostow's model of development, Wallerstein's World Systems theory and the Dependency theory i found myself thinking back to the late 1980s/early 1990s playing Sim City.

It seemed to me at that juncture that there were remarkable similarities between Rostow's model of development and the object of the game itself. For those not as well acquainted with SC or simply too young, SC was a platform computer game in which the object was to simply build a city, without specific  goals to achieve (except in certain scenarios like earthquake, traffic congestion, coastal flooding etc). Like Rostow's model, the savvy player would establish firstly the pre-conditions for take off (infrastructure, industry etc) and then rapid development of 'take off' would follow, which would enable the player to invest further and enhance the city through urbanisation and a drive towards maturity and stabilisation. Rostow's model though does have it's criticisms: outdated, over-simplistic, for poor countries capital is often in the form of development aid (which then leads to debt) and that it does not take into account neo-colonialism.

Nevertheless, I do feel that teachers in both sectors, state and private, often undervalue and overlook the use of computer games as a learning tool to aid their teaching - I am of course referring here to strategic games that are imbued with logic and history of course, as opposed to shoot shoot kill genre games.

For me Sim City, Age of Empires and other games of this ilk have value and are useful in the classroom. As Collier states in his book the bottom billion one of the fundamental traps keeping many of the poorest countries poor is the fact that they (and often their landlocked neighbours) lack a basic working infrastructure which keeps them poor. This is the basic principle of Sim City - if you do not invest in the necessary pre-conditions for take off, your city will perish!

Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction & Risk profile webiste

An interactive new website, very useful for teachers and students alike who are studying hazards and tectonic processes:

Another excellent website showing the risk profiles for hazard prone areas, especially the Phillipines:

Top geography online games & tests

Here are a few great websites that will test your geographic knowledge or visualize what students understand about a topic - a fun plenary or starter to any lesson!

The Economist debates

The Economist online debates are a goldmine of topical issues, discussed at the highest level.

Past debates covered: peak oil, energy security, the rise of China etc.

Check the most recent debate out now by clicking this link:

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

The Clipperton project and Island X

Last Friday, I invited Jonathan Bonfiglio ( to speak to our L6th as part of the Sixth Form lecture program i organise. From his biography i knew that this talk would be fascinating as Jon's life path is anything but uniform: a teacher, a writer, a director and producer of plays, and now from one conversation he had a few years ago he is the driving force behind the Clipperton Project (

This project hopes to tackle the global issue of climate change and the direct and indirect impacts of global warming as well as globalisation in a completely different way.

As one of the lead researchers states:

“Clipperton is an oceanic laboratory.
 This is evidence of the state of the health of the oceans.
The Clipperton Project  voyage is an opportunity for amazing scientific and historical insight. ”
Jim Holm, The Clean Oceans Project

Everything is intriguing about this island (known as the Ile de la passion) , primarily because it is still relatively untouched and essentially a wilderness that interestingly still shows scars from humans who may never have set foot there. One of the aims of the project is to explore and investigate the impact of humans on isolated ecosystems, with the view that if damage is happening here (where there are no humans and arguably where few humans could survive), what damage are we doing to the ecosystems and habitats that we occupy or live next door to? The project seeks to tap into our global consciousness in a way that many environmental lobbyists have failed and hopefully look towards collaborative solutions and a way forward.

So if you are intrigued , like I was (and Jacques Cousteau), and want to be blown away by the fascinating and absorbing history of the island, and gain an overview of how humans are affecting the world on a global scale then take a look at the promo clip below and get researching:

Questions to consider, research and explore:

1. Why are the islands so controversial?
2. Is there such a thing as a pristine ecosystem left in the world?
3. To what extent should humans worry about the impacts 'we' are having on islands thousands of miles away?
4. How could the islands show evidence of global warming?
5. How does a freshwater pool of drinkable water exist in the middle of a coral atoll when seawater surrounds it?

As Cousteau commented:

"Here on Clipperton, creatures, including man, have little place. Yet by a harsh irony, man himself…is creating a world hostile to all but the hardiest species, a world hostile even to himself.’’

Monday, 19 September 2011

Geoengineering - the way forward for climate change...?

Of late, I appear to be leaning towards the argument for geo engineering as a possible solution to help us mitigate the effects of global warming (or the enhanced greenhouse effect or simply climate change if you are the ill-informed media!) - it must be the penultimate chapter of Superfreakonomics!

Anyway, here is the article in the Guardian which touches upon ideas expressed in the aforementioned book - yes, British scientists are really considering a giant pipe and balloon to pump water into the sky - refer to article:

My questions are:

Is geo-engineering the way forward? and if not; What  are the other alternatives?

Further reading:

Book Review: Superfreakonomics (S.Dubner & S.Levitt)

Book title: Superfreakonomics
Author(s): Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner

An intriguing read that feels more like a series of blog posts or eclectic  magazine articles as opposed to a book of the magnanimity of Gladwell's Tipping Point/Blink/Outliers/What the dog saw (

Nevertheless, I did enjoy a few chapters in particular: What Al Gore and Mount Pinatubo have in common?
In this chapter as i have touched upon earlier in my global warming article the authors look at global warming from an economic angle and to be honest they do quite a good job.

For further information you may just have to read it - but only certain sections of course!

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Book Review: The Bottom Billion (Paul Collier)

Book title: The Bottom Billion - Why the poorest countries are failing and what can be done about it?
Author: Paul Collier
Website links:

"Collier sheds much light on how the world should tackle its biggest moral challenge. [He] shows, too, how far western governments and other external actors are from currently giving the sort of help these countries desperately need."
Martin Wolf, Financial Times"Development is about giving hope to ordinary people that their children will live in a society that has caught up with the rest of the world" (page 12).This is quite simply an arresting and provocative read as Harford's review suggests on the front cover. A must for all students and teachers with a passion for Development Geography and Economics. Collier opens by reminiscing of his days in Oxford as a student but quickly makes the bold (and well-known but not often discussed) statement that "the countries now at the bottom are distinctive not just in being the poorest but also in having failed to grow (link to Sachs); he goes onto to criticise the MDGs (the basis of Scah's solution) as they talk about poverty reduction when they should focus on growth rates. Collier aims to shatter the media saturated image and attitude towards the poor - that it is their fault because of rebels, starving children, heartless businesses and crooked politicians. Collier states in his open paragraph that "the real challenge of development is that there is a group of countries at the bottom that are falling behind, and often falling apart" (page 3). He asks the obvious question of why? All societies used to be poor. most are now lifting out of it; why are the others stuck? The answer he concludes and argues or the duration of the book is: traps. He refers at this point to the work of Sachs and popularised concept of the Development trap - Collier though wants to focus on 4 traps that receive less attention as he puts it: 1. the conflict trap (Chap 2: civil war  & coups) - without growth peace is considerable more difficult pg372. the natural resource trap ( or the resource curse or "Dutch Disease" - resource exports cause country's currency to rise in value against other currencies = makes the country's other export activities uncompetitive. Yet these activities might have been the best vehicles for technological progress). Collier argues that it is the survival of the fattest and that democracy undermines the ability to harness resource surplus as they often underinvest with too many white elephant projects. But autocracy does not work in these societies either due to ethnic diversity - the only exception is Botswana. 3. the trap of being landlocked with bad neighbours - probably the best quote of the book "Among economists there has been the realisation over the past decade that geography matters" (pg 54 - link to Sachs, Krugman and Venables). Four reasons: i) transport costs & the level of transport infrastructure of their neighbours e.g, Why is Uganda so poor when Switzerland is so rich? ii) The dependency of landlocked countries on their neighbours markets indirectly but also directly. iii) In general all countries, whether landlocked or not, benefit from the growth of their neighbours: growth spills over - many of Africa's countries are inward looking - no spill over!4. the trap of bad governance in a small country. What matters is determined by differences in opportunities - why is bad governance so persistent in some environments? A: Not everybody loses from it - it pays to keep their citizens ill informed and poorly educated. Also, little popular enthusiasm for economic reform as it has a bad name/brand due to the 1980s IMF reforms (headed by Thatcher & Reagan).Collier then assesses whether globalisation (defined by 3 flows: flows of capital / trade in goods / migration of people pg 80) can rescue those countries in the bottom billion...
"I think the sad reality is that although globalisation has powered the majority of developing countries towards prosperity, it is now making things harder for these latecomers" (pg80) -  esp in the context of economies of agglomeration & outsourcing/delocalisation to the East(Asia). Therefore, export diversification is more difficult for the bottom billion. Collier states that the bottom billion have missed the boat.

He concludes with "based on present trends, it seems more likely (globalisation) to lock yet more of the bottom billion countries into the natural resource trap then to save them through export diversification" (pg 87). To play in the global economy you need to break free from traps!

Collier finally discusses the solutions looking at both tried and tested as well as innovative schemes:

1. Aid to the rescue? (chapter 7) Without aid countries of the bottom billion would have become much poorer but the problem with aid he argues is that it is subject to diminishing returns e.g. the first million dollars is more productive than the second etc So this leads to statistics like 40% of Africa's military spending is financed by aid (pg103). Collier argues that Development aid should focus on infrastructure development as well as giving country's ownership of aid programs. He concludes by stating that " aid is part of the solution rather than part of the problem. The challenge is to complement it with other actions" (pg123). 

2. Military Intervention? Collier attempts to persuade the reader that external military intervention has an important place in helping societies by arguing that catastrophe's like Somalia in October 1993 should not mean that 'we never intervene' - he refers to how the world stood and watch Rwanda tear itself apart as a poignant example to reinforce his point. He argues that the benefits of intervention are 30 times the cost of we should intervene but not necessarily everywhere.

3. Laws and Charters? Collier puts forward the notion of global charters on issues like budget transparency, natural resource revenues, democracy, and investment create global public goods, which are grossly undersupplied - but as he states getting people to abide bu them is the tricky part. 

4. Trade Policy for reversing marginalisation?
 - Is Fair Trade the Answer? The problem Collier argues is that is encourages recipients to stay doing what they are doing - growing coffee. He goes onto say that "a key economic problem for the bottom billion is that producers have not diversified out of a narrow range of primary commodities. The paradox is that they get charity as long as they stay producing the crops that have locked them into poverty!" (page 163). 
 - Export Diversification (and protection from Asia) is a feasible solution but Collier points out that protection from Asia must occur otherwise the bottom billion are doomed until Asia becomes rich. Collier points out that this is already happening in the form of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA). 

Collier concludes in his chapter entitled 'An agenda for action' and summaries what needs to happen: breaking the conflict trap; breaking the natural resource trap; lifelines for the landlocked (aid & transport corridors); breaking out of the reform impasse and limbo. he then goes onto to suggest WHO should make it happen: he argues that aid agencies should move away from photo opp aid for politicians and towards becoming increasingly concentrated int eh most difficult environments (at present they are spread too thinly) - the big problem of our charters is the free rider problem ( each country would rather not act alone & disadvantage its firms). He suggests that the MDGs lack focus.

In short, as Collier lucidly states the failure of growth is the problem we need to address and lest we not forget that capitalism is working for the majority of countries(but not the bottom billion) and so  in short we "need to narrow the target and broaden the instruments" (page 192)

Overall a very intriguing book with a more defined purpose than Sach's i feel.

JSB Sept 2011

Book Review: The End of Poverty (Jeffrey Sachs)

Book: The End of Poverty - How can we make it happen in our lifetime
Author: Jeffrey Sachs (2005)

Jeffrey Sachs, the economic polymath, attempts in this tome of a book to outline how we can end poverty in our lifetime.  His diverse background, both as an academic and advisor, lends itself well for him to comment on the issue of poverty and in the 18 chapter book he provides a detailed analysis of the core issues – yet from the onset I think it is important to note that I felt a little disappointed with the end result or the ‘action plan’ so to speak – especially when considering in his opening page Sach’s states that “This book is about ending poverty in our time” (page 1).
His vision of the ‘economic possibilities of our time’ (p.25) is thus:

  • to meet the Millennium Development Goals by 2015
  •  to end poverty by 2025
  •   to ensure well before 2025 that all of world’s poor countries can make reliable progress up the ladder of economic development
  •  to accomplish all of this with modest financial help from the rich countries, more than is now provided, but within the bounds of what they have long promised.
Sach’s starts of by touching upon examples of success in Third World countries such as microcredit in Bangladesh and India’s export valorisation through the diffusion of technology. He defines poverty into 3 categories: extreme, moderate and relative. The former category is the primary objective to eradicate. The following chapter then assess the history of modern economic growth through Kuznet and Keynes as well as a bit of Rostow’s Modernisation theory. It looks at the post World War II landscape and how the world was divided into: First (The West), Second (Socialist) and the Third (Poor). Sach’s also is not shy in analysing whys some countries fail to thrive and akin to Collier’s book on ‘The Bottom Billion’ (see other book review or He goes onto to list 8 reasons, including: The Poverty trap (poverty itself causes economic stagnation); Physical Geography; Fiscal Trap (government lacking the financial capital to invest in public services); Governance failures; Cultural Barriers (barriers to women or ethnic minorities); Geopolitics (trade barriers & sanctions); and interestingly a lack of innovation (the huge difference between rich and poor & their tendency to innovate); and finally the Demographic trap (where impoverished families choose to have lots of children). As Sach’s states “Economic development works. It can be successful. It tends to build on itself. But it must get started” (page 73).

Sachs argues that the traditional top-down discourse of Western knowledge needs to change as he questions whether the rich world Ph.D. trained economists think correctly about the problems of the countries in which they operate. Sach’s then touches upon the importance of local geography and context and uses his experiences to suggest how Development economics should behave like Clinical medicine – the field and new discourse of Clinical Economics: by asking the right and most appropriate questions the outcome will be development strategies that are far more effective because the right questions are being asked in the first place.
I would like at this point to refer top another book review which I think sums up the heart of the book quite nicely (David Westlake @ Wordpress):

“As Sachs builds his argument for how and why the end of poverty can be attained, he outlines six major areas of capital that the extreme poor lack (human, business, infrastructure, natural, public institutional and knowledge) and carefully delineates which support should come from the public sector and which from the private (p. 251).  Sachs explains that governments should finance schools, clinics and roads to avoid private monopolies and because of the positive spillover into other parts of society; they should, however, generally not provide the capital for private businesses as ‘entrepreneurs do a much better job of running businesses than governments.’
Sachs makes a strong effort to build an evidence base of examples that bolster his theory.  The eradication of smallpox, the campaign against malaria and the mobile phone revolution in Bangladesh are cited as ‘dramatic examples that prove the naysayers wrong’ – particularly those who would say that projects successful on a small-scale will not be possible when played out at a national level. 
In one of the most interesting chapters in the book, Sachs attempts to dispel the myths that greatly hinder the aims of the economic development community (p.309):
Africa needs around $30 billion per year in aid in order to escape from poverty.  But if we actually gave that aid, where would it go? Right down the drain if the past is any guide.  Sad to say. Africa’s education levels are so low that even programs that work elsewhere would fail in Africa.  Africa is corrupt and riddled with authoritarianism.  It lacks modern values and the institutions of a free market economy needed to achieve success.  In fact, Africa’s morals are so broken down that it is no surprise AIDS has run out of control.  And here is the bleakest truth: Suppose that our aid saved Africa’s children.  What then?  There would be a population explosion, and a lot more hungry adults.  We would have solved nothing.
            If your head was nodding yes … The paragraph above repeats conventional rich-world wisdom about Africa, and to a lesser extent, other poor regions.  While common, these assertions are incorrect.
Contrary to the ‘money down the drain’ myth, Sachs contends that relative to the population and the need, there has been very little aid to Africa, and thus it is no surprise that no impact has been seen.  The deep pessimism about Africans’ ability to utilise aid must be addressed; the focus on corruption and governance is exaggerated; judgements on cultural values are usually based on prejudice rather than measurable evidence.  These are strong statements made against deep-seated ideas, and it is unsurprising that Sach’s claims are not universally accepted.”
In his final chapters Sach’s outlines the action plan or the global compact to end poverty by firstly offering a tailored MDG poverty reduction strategy for every country:

  1. A differential diagnosis (based on Clinical Economics)
  2. An Investment Plan
  3. A Financial Plan
  4. A Donor Plan
  5. A Public Management Plan.
However, he states that above domestic strategies, global concerns and imbalances must be addressed as well, namely (page 280):

-          The Debt Crisis
-          Global Trade Policy
-          Science for Development (asking the right & appropriate questions for those that need help)
-          Environmental Stewardship

Extreme poverty is a trap that can be released through targeted investment if the needed investments ate tested and proved and the investment program can be implemented, centred on the MDGs – he argues then that a 5% income tax surcharge on incomes above $200,000 directed towards the US contribution to end global poverty, if applied in 2004, would have yielded $40 billion” (page 307). The problem that I find with this argument though is that once again it depends on the US – a country and a nation so far unwilling to give, especially in an era of economic hardship and upheaval – even more so when it’s status as the hegemonic superpower is under threat from the BRICs and terrorism.

Therefore disappointingly  Sach’s great master plan falls back on the rhetoric we have already heard  - a dependence on current nations to provide 0.7% of their GDP, increase aid and and reduce or wipe out any poor country debt. As a quote from the guardian’s John Vidal states:

What he believes could change the world in 20 years, and eradicate all extreme poverty at a cost that everyone could bear, is simple: far more aid, far more debt forgiveness, far better trade terms and far more access to good technology. Sounds familiar? All this is now economic orthodoxy - what everyone from the anti-globalisers, to the very poor of Brazil, charities such as Oxfam and Christian Aid, and even politicians from Gordon Brown to the Tory party have been arguing for some time.”

Whether this action plan can be realised at a time of global recession and uncertainly is questionable…yet we can only be but optimistic and act because we promised. 

Book Review: Nothing to Envy (Barbara Demick)

Book Title: Nothing to Envy
Author: Barbara Demick (2010)

What if the nightmare imagined by George Orwell in 1984 were real? What if you had to live in a country where radio dials were fixed to a single government station? Where the surroundings were entirely black-and-white except for the red lettering of the propaganda signs? Where you were required to keep a large portrait of the president on your living room wall and bow to it on national holidays? Where sexuality was repressed except for purposes of reproduction? Where spies like Orwell’s Thought Police studied your facial expressions during political rallies to make sure you were sincere not only in your speech but your thoughts?

This is just a sample of a review headline praising the merits of this engrossing and page turning book - it reads as a fictional thriller but is hauntingly based on the stories of real people who managed to escape from the shackles of the North Korean tyrannical government. 

Winner of the 2010 Samuel Johnson prize, I picked this book up after reading a positive review of it in the Week ( and it blew me away. It was a fascinating insight into a hidden world, reminiscent of an Orwellian society untouched by any global forces or Western branding. The book's main focus is weaving the stories of 6 residents of Chongjin (North Korea's 3rd largest city) and the result is a beautiful yet harrowing book which offers insights into the culture, geography and politics.

A must read for those who are interested in an alternative world that is often only depicted by images of totalitarian marches and smiling salutes to Kim II-sung the eternal leader or the supreme leader Kim Jong-il.

Further reading links:

Book Review: Collapse (Jared Diamond)

Title: Collapse: How societies choose to fail or survive
Author: Jared Diamond
Other notable books: The 3rd Chimpanzee; Guns, Germs and steel: the fates of human societies
Videos: Ted -

Diamond is a disputed author, most notably for his alleged environmental determinism* perspective conveyed in GG&S in which he argues that the gaps in power and technology between human societies do not reflect cultural or racial differences, but rather originate in environmental differences powerfully amplified by various positive feedback loops. *The theory that the physical environment (especially climate) controls human character and behaviour and consequently human cultures and societies.

In his one of his most recent offerings he looks back through history and ponders how mighty societies such as the Incas and other lost worlds/civilizations fell, and if there are any practical lessons that modern societies can learn e.g. why did some past societies collapse and others did not? He argues that we cannot afford to look at these past societies with an air of romantic detachment and fascination (a sense of hubris almost), but that we must accept that we (and other superpower societies for that matter) are just a likely to fail if action is not taken... - the assumption of Eden like environmentalism is wrong - "If we could these questions, we might be able to identify which societies are now most at risk, and what measures could help them, without waiting for more Somalia-like collapses" (page 8).

The risk of such collapses today is now a matter of increasing concern; he argues that collapse is already starting to materialise in countries like Somalia, Rwanda and other Third World countries: Ecocide could come to overshadow nuclear war especially as the environmental problems facing us today (plus 4 new ones : global warming, toxic chemicals, energy shortages & utilization of earth's photosynthetic capacity) are the same that faced past societies. Yet Diamond admits that through his study he has learnt about the importance of the 'other factors' that led to a societies collapse, other than the environment (abating his critiques who accuse him of env. determinism?) and he comes up with his 5 point framework of possible contributing factors: 1. environmental damage, 2. climate change, 3. hostile neighbours, 4. friendly trade partners and 5. the society's responses to its' environmental problems (arguably the most significant).

Diamond's background, both in academia and business, serves him well and enables him to have a holistic overview (a geographer's perspective one could say!) when assessing his work. He believes that Science is something much broader than the body of knowledge acquired in a lab (the classic or even critical rationalist approach) it is "the acquisition of reliable knowledge about the world" (page 17). 

His book flows like a 'boa constricta that has swallowed two very large sheep' (the sheep are his longer chapters) and he finishes with Part 4 on Practical lessons - The World as a Polder: What does it all mean to use today?

As he states: "For the first time in history, we face the risk of global decline. But we are also the first to enjoy the opportunity o learning quickly from developments in societies anywhere else in the world today, and from what has unfolded in societies at any time in the past."

If this interest you, please read it and then leave your own comment/review. Thanks.JSB.