Links I liked

Some of the blogs/articles/books that I found particularly interesting during the time-rich Christmas holidays. Turned out much longer than I anticipated…

Lots on inequality:

During his inauguration speech, new New York democratic mayor Bill De Blasio vows to wage war on inequality, citing New York’s “tale of two cities”. This includes an increase in taxes on the wealthy to pay for universal pre-kindergarten programmes (as an extra this is the LRB blog on the same speech)

This piece by Noah Smith (@noahpinion) almost went viral on twitter during the Christmas break. It is on “equality of respect”, following a visit to Japan where he was struck by how much respect was shown to all levels of worker.

Responding to Noah Smith’s piece, Tyler Cowen (@tylercowen) questions where Japan really is a beacon for “equality of respect” (and suggests that the US is actually a more respectful society than Noah Smith implies). He also considers how you might go about measuring respect.

This is an old link from the Economist on addressing inequality without compromising economic growth. It is a good leader with some striking statistics on inequality in the 21st Century cited (including in education)

Owen Barder’s (@owenbarder) development drums podcast interview with Angus Deaton. Angus Deaton talks about his new book – the Great Escape – where he discussed good progress in health and wellbeing, but notes the problem of inequality within and between nations.

A short piece giving ten facts about inequality and why it matters (mainly on economic inequality in America but many parallels/lessons can be drawn that apply elsewhere). Interesting takeaways:

  • Nor surprising that inequality between nations is more intense than inequality within nations
  • However, while inequality within specific geographies has soared in recent years, global inequality has remained relatively consistent
  • Latin-America is the most unequal region in the world, yet has made some significant strides recently to reduce inequality (for example through successful anti-poverty programmes in Mexico and Brazil)
  • Even if every single country substantially reduced economic inequality, global economic inequality would remain extremely high due to glaring economic disparities between rich and poor countries.

Bloomberg runs an Economists’ review of the most important economic developments of 2013 (not strictly about inequality but features a lot). Dani Rodrik (@rodrikdani) says “recent growth has only benefited a relatively small segment of the global population, and the traditional engines of growth — industrialization and diversification — are sputtering”.

And I liked this slideshow: a short idiosyncratic history of global inequality, using vignettes from Pride and Prejudice and Anna Karenina. This was a presentation by Branko Milanovic (@brankomilan) at the LSE.

On South Africa

Three pieces, all from 2012, but still relevant today. I’ll update shortly with pieces from the matrix results released yesterday

Why Cape Town erupted, an analysis of the troubles in the summer of 2012 by  Gavin Silber (@GavinSilber). Having spent some time in Cape Town during 2013, this paragraph sums up my own reflections of the city very effectively. “In Cape Town today, a million people live in informal or inadequate housing on the city’s inhospitable periphery. At least half of these people have no access to basic sanitation facilities. Between 2002 and 2009 the number of city households in informal dwellings did not decrease – but increased by 100 000. Basic service provision to these communities is grossly inadequate due to lack of planning, monitoring and in some cases maladministration and corruption. Meanwhile, quality of life in the inner city and surrounding suburbs compares with the best-developed cities in the world.”

On South Africa’s white elite “The ownership of the economy is still primarily in the hands of white males as it has always been”. On a flight from Cape Town to Johannesburg recently (one of the top ten busiest business routes in the world) I was struck that 80%+ of passengers were male. And in the business class cabin all but two were white males. That said, apparently South Africa has better boardroom representation of women than the USA.

A 2012 opinion piece by Jonathan Jansen (vice-Chancellor of the University of the Free State) on education in South Africa. This was written shortly after Mamphela Ramphele’s speech in which she said that education in South Africa today is worse than it was under apartheid. Her party – Agang – recently (and rather controversially) came out in support of academy/charter schools as one solution to improve education. It will be fascinating to see what role education plays in the upcoming elections.

Charter schools

Charters and choice: the top stories of 2013. This includes evidence that consolidates KIPP’s place as one of the leading charter networks; CREDO research concluding that performance during a charter school’s first year is predictive of long-term performance; and more CREDO research that shows the huge variation of charter school performance between states (worth reading that article separately – linked here)

Why new mayor, Bill de Blasio, should embrace charter schools. Michael Bloomberg’s record on education was quite outstanding – will de Blasio continue or reverse his more reformist policies? Note that this is not a super-objective piece, given its authorship by the CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

Some reflections on 2013 by big education thinkers and reformists. Doug Lemov (Uncommon Schools) cites the most significant development in 2013 as the steady rise in the importance afforded to the conversation about teacher training. And Neerav Kingsland (New Schools for New Orleans) discusses a whole new model for education in New Orleans – a full transition from public to private (non-profit) operators of schools. Do also check out his recent series of blogs on the same issue.

On the myth of the middle class as a force for change/good.

Africaa piece from 2012 on the myth of the middle class as an engine for economic growth: “images of the “rising middle class” mesmerise the corporate world and distort economic visions of the future. Some seek hope for growth in latecomer mobile telephony technology diffusion across Africa – an idea mooted for “transforming the continent” – which is akin to the “economics of wishful thinking” and a distraction from fundamental matters: unlocking natural capital and enhancing productive wealth accumulation. Such “analysts” place the commercial cart ahead of the economic horse”.

Also, from Foreign Policy a piece that disputes “Africa Rising” – mainly due to lack of industrialization (and the failure of the Africa Rising-istas to mention that). It notes that with a few exceptions, the bulk of African countries are either stagnating or moving backwards when it comes to industrialization. Better industrial policy needed on the continent.

India- beware of thinking that the middle class can solve socio-cultural challenges.

The Delhi child servant scandal – (the most liberal members of society think nothing of employing a maid, a driver, a sweeper, a cook, a gardener and a couple of house boys who sleep on the roof, or in tiny shared rooms.)

Amartya Sen on India’s women – “the mixed truth” – he notes that a distressing aspect of gender bias in India that shows little sign of going away is the preference for boys over girls. This is evidenced in the high rates of abortion of female fetuses, particularly by the middle class (see here for Lancet reporting on sex-selective abortion higher for more educated and richer mothers).

The Americas: a study assessing the impact of the new middle class on politics and democracy. Ever since Aristotle, conventional wisdom has been that a robust middle class is a sine qua non for stable democracy. Put simply: no middle class, no democracy. This analysis suggests that Aristotle was not always right. Using a preliminary dataset from the 2012 Americas Barometer survey, which included over 41,000 interviews in 26 countries, it found that the self-defined middle class has become the largest class grouping in the Americas today. But their political and democratic attitudes and practices are not that different from those who identify with the lower classes.

General Education

I work for them – but this is a lovely piece on the amazing turnaround of a failing school by ARK Schools. Charter Academy in Portsmouth used to have a GCSE pass rate of just 3%, now it is the top performing school in the city. The motto “work hard, be nice, no excuses” sums up what it is like to work for ARK! (Reminds me of Mo Farah’s London 2012 “it’s just hard work and grafting” quote”.)

Legacy of missionary schools in Africa – looks at the education of various ANC leaders in mission schools. Their founders and faculties clearly parted ways with colonial leaders (and indeed the apartheid government) by believing in the educability of black Africans and their capacity to be saved through Christ. Yet those beliefs were a long way from liberation theology

Pearson is found guilty of using foundation to further business objectives. Pearson has been heavily fined for the activities of its foundations. Having worked in corporate philanthropy I am not sure that Pearson has acted any differently to others, perhaps just less smartly.

A good interview with Doug Lemov – what makes a great teacher and what makes a great school?

A late addition – great piece by Laura McInerney on the UK Government reducing transparency over free schools decision making. Her long quest to achieve her FOI request!

So much on Edward Snowden and NSA during the last few months… NSA-fatigue?

Snowden and hysteria – by David Simon (producer of the Wire and increasingly a commentator on US society) – certainly seems to have NSA-fatigue – the Guardian, which broke this faux-scandal, is unrelenting in its desire to scale the heights of self-congratulatory hyperbole. Simon claims that “all the agitators and self-righteous bloviators on both sides of the aisle [do] not understand even the rudiments of electronic intercepts and the manner in which law enforcement actually uses such intercepts”.

This is New York Times editorial on Snowden the whistle blower who has done the USA a favour – “Mr. Snowden deserves better than a life of permanent exile, fear and flight. He may have committed a crime to do so, but he has done his country a great service”.

A self-righteous piece on how the NSA is corroding the values of Silicon Valley – a little more self-awareness about these so-called values would not go amiss (for example see here)

Snowden and snooping by Ambassador Chas Freeman (who would agree with the NYT editorial board): “noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good… One does not have to approve of Mr. Snowden’s conduct to recognize the service he has done us by exposing the cancerous growth of our government’s surveillance apparatus. The issues before us are neither his character nor the punishment he should receive. The issues we must address are: (1) how much domestic surveillance can be reconciled with the Constitution and the immunities from government intrusion it once guaranteed to individuals and groups, and (2) where, against which foreigners, and to what extent such electronic snooping should be carried out abroad”.

It has been revealed that even UNICEF was subject to NSA surveillance. Do you feel safer knowing that the NSA knew the contents of “State of the World’s Children” before you did?


A really comprehensive evidence-based response to Paul Collier’s Exodus, by Michael Clemens and Justin Sandefur – must read! The damning final sentence says it all: “Collier has written a text mortally wounded by incoherence, error, and overconfident leaps to baseless conclusions.”

Free Movement in Europe: Past and Present: a short overview of the history of the European free movement regime looking at how mobility in Europ been promoted and utilized throughout the past 60 years, the EU enlargement into Central and Eastern Europe in 2004 and 2007 and its impact on intra-European migration, and the challenges facing governments in this new era of EU mobility

Migration is Development: ” the original strategy for people seeking to escape poverty, mitigate risk, and build a better life” by Peter Sutherland. I’ve tried to avoid the post 2015 agenda but this is an interesting call to place more emphasis on migration (internal and international) in the next set of development goals. Economically it certainly makes sense: migrant remittances exceed the value of all overseas development aid combined (plus the taxes that migrants pay, the investments they make, and the trade they stimulate). Sutherland certainly agrees with Michael Clemens and Justin Sandefur – let’s view migrants as a blessing not a scourge.

Some must-read research for those Brits who fear the Romanians and Bulgarians in our schools. This is the media briefing for evidence released last summer, which shows that an increased presence of children who do not speak English as their first language is not detrimental to the educational attainment of native English speakers, and in fact in many cases the opposite is true. This would certainly echo ARK’s own experience. Indeed the UK is the only country in the world where immigrants do better than native children (see this year’s PISA – The white working class is the ethnic group with the poorest educational performance (once you exclude gypsy Roma, who are a very small group).

However, according to this Guardian poll not as many Brit do fear immigration from Eastern Europe as much as the Daily Mail would have us believe. 72% of Brits aged 35-44 are ready to welcome Romanians and Bulgarians.

And as a segway to the next section: when drains and gains coincide. Migration of national team players improves international football performance – from Science Direct

Football and football (or, soccer and American football)

The Guardian on my new favourite show: Friday Night Lights. Why this drama about an American football team in small town Texas is one of the best American shows of recent years – with its clear-eyed examination of the American dream (must learn the rules to American football)

On Football and the global market place (could football use the same selection system as American football? I defer to experts to answer that question)

From the New Scientist: the first kick of the 2014 World Cup may come from a teenager paralysed from the waist down, using the world’s most advanced mind-controlled exoskeleton to swing at the ball.



Drone wars and state secrecy (from June 2012): how Obama became a hardliner. This is depressing reading for the millions of liberals who welcomed the election in 2008 of the liberal professor who had campaigned against the Iraq war. Directly from the article:

  • Obama has presided over a massive expansion of secret surveillance of American citizens by the National Security Agency.
  • He has launched a ferocious and unprecedented crackdown on whistleblowers.
  • He has made more government documents classified than any previous president.
  • He has pressed on with prosecutions via secretive military tribunals, rather than civilian courts.
  • He has preserved CIA renditions.
  • He has tried to grab broad new powers on what defines a terrorist or a terrorist supporter and what can be done with them, often without recourse to legal process.

“I worked on the US drone programme, the public should know what really goes on.” This article went viral on twitter when it was published in December. It is an important account from an insider, but I cannot help thinking it could have had more substance.

Not quite on drones, but about Nobel Peace Prize winner Obama’s appointment of a counter-terrorism advisor. His chief responsibility is to draw up the US’ kill list.


I had called this section “technology”, and that remains the main theme, but also includes other issues that were over-hyped last year.

Many scientists are concerned that developments in human technology may soon pose new, extinction-level risks to our species as a whole. A new(ish) research group at Cambridge University – the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk – aims to steer a small fraction of Cambridge’s intellectual resources to the task of ensuring that our own species has a long-term future. Interestingly the group is seed-funded by Skype’s co-founder, Jaan Tallin. 

The South Sudan crisis map, the public-facing map for the conflict is sparsely populated, and recording a handful of traditional media reports rather than real-time incidents. This article examines whether these tools can do more harm than good (and perhaps raise a question about the actual reach of initiatives like Ushahidi? I’m sure I read something this year reporting that over 90% Ushahidi maps only have one user – unable to find that link but will post it later if I track it down). On a similar subject is this BBC click video on whether a code of conduct is needed for SMS/mobile platforms particularly in the humanitarian field.

I’m going to facetiously say that this very good piece is about the over-hype of strategy consultants with MBAs. I say facetiously because I work and have worked with many strat MBAs who are smart, passionate and immensely value-adding to the social sector. But can they save the world? This piece responds to the issue of Wired edited by Bill Gates, in which he called on you and me to “fix the world’. And he thinks that the One Campaign is a great way to do that.

Put down your smart phone, be present and appreciate where you are (good advice!) One question I’ve been thinking about this year is whether smart phone separation causes more anxiety than smart phone adhesion… Is it better to know or not know?!

This is a review of the inimitable Evgeny Morozov (@evgenymorozov)’s take on ed-tech solutionism. Who needs teachers when you have hackers, coders, algorithms, autodidacts, and, of course, videos of Salman Khan? Related to this, my quote of the year on ed-tech came from ARK’s CEO Lucy Heller, referring to tech-utopianism as “the conceit of modernity”

What is wrong with online learning? Will the economics of digital learningundermine the liberal biases built into the current education system? This piece discusses the elephant in the room – ideology – and how it is missing from current debates despite the fact that it shapes education significantly (it is behind the WSJ paywall – free version here)

The hype of MOOC: MOOCs and online education will not disrupt alone. What is clear is that for-profit education has amassed a terrible track record of failure. If you are getting a degree at a for-profit institution, you probably are paying too much for too little. But would it be any less mediocre if it were free? This article makes the clear point that technology is a vehicle not a solution. Politics needs to be addressed too.

mHealth has certainly been overhyped – a few studies were released this year which showed no impact on health outcomes. Here is one example.


Why western media get Africa wrong (via @AlexisAk) written for Al Jazeera by Nanjala Nyabola (@nanjala1), a politicl analyst at Harvard Law School. The article follows intense criticism on twitter of western reporting on the South Sudan conflict. It reflects on the hierarchy news organisations place on western reporters, whose reporting suffers because they can generally only access the “formal” sources of intelligence.

On philanthropy and giving. Dean Karlan, the founder of IPA, discussed how people do, and perhaps should, make decisions about who to give money to.

This is a long and fascinating piece about a Russian family cut off for 40 years. They were discovered in 1978 by a group of geologists. It is a beautifully written piece – very candid about the implications of isolation (close to famine, almost impossible to survive) rather than eulogizing the romanticism of the story.

This is rather sweet – after the discovery of largest prime number, the 17 million digit prime, Comedian Helen Arney wrote the 17 million digit rhyme accompanied by her ukulele.

Charlie Brooker on why “the Great British Bake Off symbolises everything cosy and chummy and ironically retro and almost certainly evil about current middle-class twattery”. Incidentally the “friend” who entered me into the Great British Sew-off (aka the Great British Sewing Bee) has been excommunicated and deleted from all forms of social media.

Rude awakenings – why swearing makes us human. Our crudest outbursts can unravel ancient links between words and thoughts.

An intimate profile of a mass murderer: the New Statesman on Bashar Al Assad. If his greatest weakness is his eagerness to please, he has turned this into his greatest asset. It is a fascinating piece, and resonates closely with reflections I hear about him from a Syrian friend.

The liberation theology Pope Francis has embraced also stands for human emancipation. If you have a lot of time you could read the 50,000 word Evangelii Gaudium – categorical in its critique of capitalism (via @notesfrompequod).

Christmas books

Absurdistan by Russian-born Gary Shteyngart is a satirical look at a former Soviet republic. It is a follow-up book to the Russian Debutante’s Handbook (although I have not read that). Dark in places, funny, substantive. Recommend!

Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov was a re-read for me. This is another political satire, this time of post-Soviet Ukraine. It is beautifully sad, painting a humorously bleak picture of life in Kiev. Highly recommend this book – and it is short for those (like me) with a limited attention span! Also, I like penguins and Misha the penguin is very sweet.

Empire of the summer moon by SC Gwynne is heavy going at times but worth persevering with. It’s vivid historical account of the forty-year battle between Comanche Indians and white settlers for control of the American West.



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