More development (fiction) tales

After my review of  Disastrous Passion I received a few messages regarding recommendations of books that portray development in a similar way-fictionalised, but not 'invented' stories. I didn't want to think too long and 7 books came to my mind that are in some ways similar to Disastrous Passion even if they are not 'development fiction' in the narrow sense.
Some of them are fictionalised accounts of real events, one is purely fictional, but there are also titles that are not fictional and present 'development' in different first-hand accounts, giving you some ideas about the range of writing-styles that academics and practitioners have employed between 1959 and today.

In short, my list is subjective, eclectic and incomplete, but the following seven titles are definitely not your average (academic) text books on 'development' and they highlight the possibilities of writing about development in engaging and different ways that are still readable and enjoyable for non-experts and aid industry veterans alike. 

Please feel free to add your favourites!

I don't like rankings so they are presented alphabetically by author and the links take you straight to Google Books or the publisher's site:

Andrea Cornwall, Katja Jassey, Seema Arora-Jonsson and Patta Scott-Villiers: The Beast of Bureaucracy and Other Tales from Valhalla
This may be the least controversial book, but it is an interesting example of how creative writing can meet reflective development work in a large, bureaucratic organisation. This account from inside Swedish sida and their engagement with the 'participatory' discourse offers accessible writing, organisational ethnography and food for thought on how large organisations can engage with new/radical concepts.
Plus, you can download the pdf for free (it was published before there were ebooks, I guess...).

Max Frisch: Homo Faber

The original German subtitle Ein Bericht (A report) is an important hint at the first-person narrative style of a Swiss Engineer who implements projects on behalf of UNESCO. Written in 1959 the 'report' addresses essential questions of technology, rationality and fate and how Walter Faber experiences them in the 'modernity' of post-war development. Courtesy of Wikipedia I discovered a very good summary of what I found the most important theme of the book-being in a transient no-man's land-being a global aid worker even before global aid work was 'invented':

The theme of travel plays an important role in the novel. Using many modes of transportation, Walter is constantly on the move, visiting multiple continents, almost a dozen countries, and dozens of cities, for business and pleasure. This constant travel underscores Walter's sense of dislocation; he has no family, no real home, and no real country. Through travel, Walter is able to avoid permanent connections, to escape responsibilities, and to remain completely unknown and unjudged.
Clive S. Gray: Inside Independent Nigeria: Diaries of Wolfgang Stolper, 1960-1962
This is probably one of those interesting books that will go unnoticed and chances are slim to none that you will actually be reading this. It's ridiculously expensive (at least ~$100!) and even most academic libraries probably won't have a copy. In case you manage to find one it's well worth the effort, though.
Clive Gray presents the diary of Wolfgang Stolper, an Austrian-born economist who was the first foreign advisor in the newly independent Nigeria in the early 1960s. The diary offers fascinating insights into 'setting up an economy' in an age where there was no development industry, no academic system of competition like today and a completely different understanding of 'development'. It is a remarkable account of an era that seems so far away even if you just admire the stamina of Stolper to write his diary on a typewriter every night after a 14-hour work day. It would be fantastic if the book could be spread more widely and whether you are interested in economic development, Africa, history or first-hand accounts of a unique 'development' career ask your university or organisation to buy a copy!

Robert Klitgaard: Tropical Gangsters: One Man's Experience With Development and Decadence in Deepest Africa
It began with an all-too predicable alliteration for me... My undergrad professor in international relations recommended this book to me and even though it's not the 'best' book on the development industry in Africa, it is still a worthwhile read. Now, more than 20 years after its first publication, the question is whether this is still representative of 'development' in post-conflict countries and as far as I remember there are many stories and characters that you are likely to find hanging out at that expat bar near you...

John Perkins: Confessions of an Economic Hit Man

I wasn't sure whether I should include this one or not. I did in the end, because some of the historic events have important economic development relevance even if there is a bit of conspiracy theory involved when it comes to American foreign policy. One of the reasons why I find this book recommendable is that it sheds light on powerful players that often get neglected when people write about their love-hate-relationship with development. Foreign policy, militaries, corrupt individuals, companies and governments are also part of the development jigsaw and have often hampered 'good' development ideas.

Heidi Postlewait, Kenneth Cain, Andrew Thomson: Emergency Sex (And Other Desperate Measures): True Stories from a War Zone
A modern classic. Set standards for the entire aid industry. The mother of all development-lifestyle personal accounts. And so much of it is (still) true!

Richard Rottenburg: Far-Fetched Facts: A Parable of Development Aid
When Richard Rottenburg's ethnographical account on German aid in Africa was first published in Germany it had already seen a fair bit of controversy. In the end, the purely academic study was published as a fictionalised tale from the belly of the development beast and was more recently translated into English. The book may not be the best reading for seasoned veterans of the industry, but it offers rich details of (German) development organisations and their work- and mindsets. Plus, it's an interesting example of anthropological writing. Another addition to liven up those undergrad reading lists...


  1. More suggestions from friends on facebook: Michael Holman's 'Last Orders At Harrods' and Paul Torday's 'Salmon Fishing In The Yemen' (I never watched the movie, but will definitely check out the book...)

  2. Jennifer from recommended Marianne Elliott's 'Zen Under Fire: a story of love and war in Afghanistan' and Tori Hogan's forthcoming book 'Beyond Good Intentions: A Journey into the Realities of International Aid'

    Personally, I'm a bit 'Afghanistaned-out' when it comes to reading more non-academic stuff in my spare time, but 'Beyond Good Intentions' is definitely on my reading list! Thanks!


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