We liked the work of Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo but the language felt a little uncomfortable at times. Poor people. By any reasonable standard, the people at the heart of Poor Economics and Good Economics for Hard Times are poor. They are living on less than a dollar a day. In economics, maybe in any discipline, that is poor.
It is also unusual. Between five and 10 per cent of the world’s population live on such meagre income. The numbers were falling until the pandemic. (We have to hope the recent rise is just a blip). But the Banerjee/Duflo studies are about something that ‘other people’ experience.
In the second network discussion, the word ‘othering’ was used. Do these books ‘other’ the poor. It put me in mind of the work of Edward Said. His book Orientalism is not an easy read, and it contains many important ideas. My memory of one of those ideas goes something like this.
The concept of the Orient, the East, which a few centuries ago meant what we today call the Middle East, was shaped in culture, in art – think David Roberts’ paintings- in literature – think Flaubert’s Salammbô– and architecture – think the Royal Pavilion in Brighton. The point of the Orient was the West. We needed an East to have a West. By portraying the East as a chocolate box, or exotic, or dangerous, or dangerously exotic, the West emerged as everything the East was not. And better for it. Superior. The Orient was a reminder of our superiority.
Said’s idea is as prescient today as it was when it was first published in 1978.
But something else is represented in the Banerjee and Duflo work. The book is rooted in high quality science, stories of people experiencing life on less than a dollar a day, and the authors personal experience of growing up in India and researching across the sub-continent, Africa and South America.
Their work represents a new cradle of learning. A cradle that is generating new idea after new idea. Ideas that appear to have relevance in the West, a West struggling with its own versions of poverty and inequality. If you want to understand how to extend breast feeding rates, the Orient –the Global South we would say today– is the place to look. If you want to incentivise entrepreneurial spirit and self-help, the South is the happening place. In the future we will depend more on learning, sophisticated science applied in real world settings, and at scale, drawn from worlds other than our own.