A hyperreflexive blog focussing on critical sociology, infographics, Buddhism and extreme early retirement

The truancy map of England and Wales (infographics evaluation)

Posted by Realsociology on December 20, 2014

A new blog-theme I’m getting into  – A critical look at infographics – Mostly going to focus on education for the coming months…

In 2012 Simon Rogers from The Guardian put together this Interactive truancy map of England and Wales which was constructed by ‘mashing together’ two data sets from the Department for Education: truancy figures and numbers of penalty notices issued to parents and carers.

Truancy in England map

(NB – The still doesn’t do it justice, click on the links above to get the full utility)

 What I like about this infographic

  • It’s representative – It appears to show data from all 152 LEAs in England and all 32 in wales.

  • The Trauncy data is clearly labelled – Total percent of persistent absentees 2010/11

  • It’s very easy to compare across LEAs – given that we are given the percentages and these are clearly colour coded.

  • You get a lot more detail when you hover over each area, including the option to download the data as a fusion table.

What could be improved

  • I’m not sure when the data for penalty notices was collected

  • The graphic doesn’t allow you to see changes in truancy rates over time.

  • The infograph doesn’t allow you to easily see if there is a correlation between penalty notices issued and truancy rates, and in any case, IF the years are the same this would probably be conincidental anway.

  • The infograph begs you to do more with slighlty different data to explore the above relationship – what you would need to do this is to include truancy data from previous years (or now later years) and show the percentage change year on year, and then compare this to the number of and type of penalty notices issued over time. Of course this alone wouldn’t allow you to attribute anything like causation.

  • It would also be informative to be able to compare these truancy rates to other local variables – the most obvious one being deprivation (FSM) indicators.

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Buddhism Plain and Simple by Steve Hagan – A Summary

Posted by Realsociology on December 17, 2014

This post is simply a summary of (aspects of) Steve Hagen’s ‘Buddhism Plain and Simple’

This book aims to present The Buddha’s teaching in an accessible and uncluttered way. To my mind it succeeds, and here’s my summary.

Introduction (pp1-5)

As the millennium draws to a close we have lost faith with our storybook versions of the world. The advances of science mean we see the universe as vast, beyond comprehension and perhaps meaningless. We tend to cope with this in two ways (two wretched extremes) – we either blind ourselves to our predicament by escaping via such things as drugs/ careers/ faith, in which case we tend to think ‘if only I had enough of that particular thing then I’d be happy’, or we face the woeful prospect of a meaningless (anomic) existence, in which case nothing really matters.

There is a way to move beyond this ignorance, pessimism and confusion, and to experience rather than comprehend reality as a whole. This experience is direct perception itself, seeing before the signs appear, before ideas sprout, before falling into thought. This experience is called Enlightenment and it is nothing more or less than seeing things as they are rather than as we wish or believe them to be.

The Journey into Now (pp 6-11)

2500 years ago a man named Gautama awakened from the crippling ignorance that kept him from knowing what was actually going on and became known as the Buddha,  and when asked to sum up his teachings in a single word the Buddha said ‘awareness’ – not of anything in particular, just awareness of what is going on.

This book leaves behind the cultural trappings that have enveloped Buddhist teachings in the last 2500 years and returns to the Buddha’s thought plain and simple.

Hagan now spends two pages outlining Gautama’s personal journey from prince to ascetic to his two month vigil which lead to his awakening into Enlightenment. This story provides a lesson in some of the core principles Buddhism:

1. Ultimately, The Buddha realised Enlightenment through his own efforts – and thus it is down to each individual to ‘walk the path’. Do not put blind faith in other people’s teachings, the point is to see (know) for yourself that something is wholesome or unwholesome.

2. Buddhism is the process of an open spirit of enquiry. It is about examining every aspect of life carefully, it is about seeing. It is about not being afraid to examine anything, (including the Buddha’s own teachings and our own agendas). We cannot approach Buddhism or begin any real enquiry into truth with any assumptions or belief whatsoever.

3. The notion of Awakening (Enlightenment) is just that, it isn’t anything other than being awake, pure awareness. The Buddha Dharma has no creation story, no beginning. It does not try to or ask you to explain anything, truth is simply to be seen, that is all. The notion of Awakening (Enlightenment) is just that, it isn’t anything other than awareness. -

Hagan now outlines the well-known raft analogy – In this quest for liberation, The Buddha’s teachings are but a raft – useful for getting you across to the other shore, but afterwards useless. The trouble is we tend to fall in love with the raft and we must remember that even The Buddha’s words are not truth, they merely help us get to the other side, and even these must be abandoned in the end. -

Finally, Hagan illustrates the Buddhist journey through an analogy which asks us to imagine that we have just been shot by an arrow: Being shot with the arrow is the human condition (suffering), and Buddhism involves us in attending to the arrow, the cause of our suffering, which is necessarily painful, but the only way to eliminate our suffering.   In contrast, says Hagan, what we actually do in life, is to leave the arrow in, and instead of confronting the arrow directly, we skirt around the issue by asking silly questions about who shot it, and from what kind of bow. (I’m guessing this is a critique of mainly intellectualism, but also, of the human tendancy to look for causes to our problems outside of our selves.)

Shortly after his awakening, The Buddha was asked by a Brahman named Dona, who had noticed the Buddha’s unsurpassed tranquillity, whether he was a God, to which The Buddha replied ‘no, I am awake’.


Chapter One – The Human Situation (pp15-24)

Hagan starts the chapter with a ‘banquet analogy’ – the human condition is like starving people sitting at a banquet but not eating because they fail to realise that the release from their hunger is right in front of them.

Most of us sense there is something amiss with our lives but don’t have any idea what to do about this. We long for something, we feel pain and loss etc. but we don’t realise that everything we need to resolve this suffering is right here before us.

The truth is that all of the misery we bring to ourself and others is of our own doing. It stems from our own ignorance our own inability to see things as they really are.

Buddhism does not offer a life free of problems – as outlined in the The 84th problem story:

A man came to the Buddha and explained all of his many problems. The Buddha told the man that everyone has problems, 83 problems to be exact, and that he could not help him to solve any of them, but he could help him with the 84th problem… the fact that he wanted to have no problems.

We think we need to exterminate our problems – eradicate them – but the simple truth is problems will always be with us, dissatisfaction will always be with us – weeds will grow though we hate them and flowers will fall though we love them – we need to accept this and not live our lives as if we can change this.

  • The first truth of the buddha-dharma is that human life is characterised by dissatisfaction and we need to accept this.
  • The second truth is that this dissatisfaction arises within us.
  • The third truth is that we can realise the origins of this dissatisfaction and put an end to it
  • The fourth truth is the way to end this suffering – the noble eightfold path – the way to Nirvana, or freedom of mind.

In Buddhism our journey is into here and now, but how do we do this?

In order to experience the answer to this questions there needs to be three realisations -

  1. That life is truly fleeting
  2. That you are already complete or whole
  3. That you are your own refuge, your own salvation.

Pick up a flower – it is beautiful and yet it dies. How can we deal with this, do we substitute a plastic rose? No – we want the real rose precisely because it is fleeting, precious.

Thus it is with human life – each one of us is a living thing that dies. Your body and mind are always changing. You are nothing but change itself.

Examine the body and mind – everything about it is fleeting. Every aspect of our experience is also fleeting – our wants, needs, relationships are all subject to death.

Vitality consists of this birth and death. Our lives are vibrant because of change and yet we often want to keep things the same – and it is this (clinging) that is the greatest source of woe in our lives.

You are already in reality whether you see it or not… you are already enlightened – all you have to do is attend to the moment to realise this – and stop blocking your interpretation of the moment.

In the Buddha’s final talk he said that each of you must be a light unto yourselves. No one else is the final authority – this means you have the power to wake up in the here and now – you are responsible for finding your own way.

In other words we are already prepared for anything that might come along. All we need to do is to be aware in this moment – we are already supported and sustained within this moment – there is nothing out there to get – we just need to realise this! Everything in this moment is whole, complete.

Seeing this truth is the Buddha’s noble eightfold path – it is seeing what our problem is and then resolving to do something about it. All Aspects of the path are about this moment! Morality is about this moment and meditation is about this moment.

You are already right where you need to be to start out on this path into the moment.

Chapter Two – A wheel out of kilter (pp 25 – 32)

Duhkha is the first of the four noble truths – often described as suffering but this is not a good description because duhkha also incorporates pleasure.

In sanskrit duhkha is often paired with sukha which means satisfactory, but unsatisfactoriness doesn’t quite hit the mark as a translation either.

Duhkha actually comes from a word meaning a wheel out of kilter – imagine this – if a potter’s wheel is out of kilter we make unnecessary hardship for ourselves every time we wish to make a pot. Or imagine riding on a cart with a dodgy wheel – the bumps as we go along becoming increasingly irritating.

Ordinary human life is like this – something basic and important isn’t right and with each turn of the wheel each passing day this bothers us and causes us pain.

Of course there are moments of pleasure but at the end of the day this wheel out of kilter will always. Bring us back to our pain.

What can we do about this? We can begin by seeing clearly what the nature of the problem is.

(P26) We’ve all heard the expression ‘seeing is believing’ but the fact is, seeing and believing are opposites – belief is at best informed conjecture about reality but seeing is direct, unadulterated experience – it is the direct perception of reality itself.

Once you see reality, belief becomes unnecessary. Indeed belief can stand in the way of clear, direct perception.

Truth and reality are there for you to see, only independent of you putting labels on it. We can only have truth by seeing it, not naming it or holding onto it.

Truth or reality is not something vague or mysterious. You don’t have to go to someone else to find it, and you won’t find it in a book. Truth comes through seeing and it requires no further verification.

Hagan now uses the example of an unclear picture (on p28) which looks like a man lying down, but it’s not clear – attached to this is some confusion, or uncertainty about what the picture is – this is how most of us go through life – he now asks us to look again at the picture which is actually a cow – he says that once we realise this we have an ‘aha’ moment of clarity – which is like waking up (personally the picture still doesn’t look like a cow to me, but I get the point he’s making – who cares what the picture looks like anyway!).

Seeing is absolute clarity, whereas simply having an idea involves some confusion. Enlightenment is just a profound waking up, profound realisation about the here and now!

Seeing means waking up, having a profound ‘aha’ moment, it is about the here and now. When you clearly see the situation you are in, things clear up. This waking up is called Enlightenment and it is available to everyone in every moment without exception.

Personally I find D.T Suzuki’s account of the nature of Enlightenment clearer than this. See Zen for Beginners by D.T. Suzuki for more details. (NB this other book is not as easy going as this one).

(P29) As long as we remain in our state of confusion, our minds are characterised by Dukha. In fact there are three kinds of Dukha -

  1. Straightforward pain, both physical and mental. Pain is a fact of life, the only way we can deal with it is to face it squarely.
  2. The second form of Dukkha is change. Wherever we look everything is characterised by change and if we exist in a state of confusion change is experienced as dissatisfaction. We deal with change by longing to keep things the same or by conceptualising – trying to pin things down to give things meaning. Basically any attempt to create something as I want it to be is a manifestation of Dukkha (the way out of this is simply to see reality).
  3. The third form of Dukkha is harder to see than the other two, it is the Dukkha of being. As long as you see yourself as a distinct being then you must die and this realisation carries with it Dukkha. This is also to be found in the simple realisation that I do not know the answers to some of the most basic questions such as ‘what is the purpose of life’, for example.

We cannot ourselves find answers to these questions, but we can through direct experience know the answers and thus end our suffering.

Chapter Three (pp33 – 43) Coming

The second truth of the buddha-dharma is the arising of dukha – DukKha arises from thirst – craving, wanting, trying to get the object of our desires. This craving takes one of these three forms…

  1. Physical and mental desire
  2. The desire to not die
  3. The desire for release from this life.

Name your affliction, and you will find that it is your desire, your craving, your wanting.

However, we tend not to notice this, we are ignorant that it is our desires for this or that which are the cause of our suffering. Instead, we go through life thinking ‘if I only I could get that, then I would be happy’. This is delusion, confusion, ignorance.

We are confused about what we really want, all we really want is to be awake!

If only we could deal with this 84th problem our other problems would seem less and we would be less caught up in the silly ups and downs associated with easing suffering through attachment to this or that. The ups and downs wouldn’t disappear, the 83 problems would still be there, but they would have less hold over us.

(P34) In Zen monasteries you must pay constant attention to what you are doing. All your activities are prescribed, and they’re carried out in deliberate stillness. After a time, this can get to you (as it did to one particular zen student) who went to see the master and said. ‘I can’t take this any more, I want out’ The master said ‘O.K, then leave’ As he started for the door the teacher said ‘that’s not your door’ Oh! Sorry.’ The startled fellow looked around and spotted a second door. As he headed for it the teacher said ‘That’s not your door’ ‘Oh!’ He looked around for another door. He could see that behind the teacher was a little door normally used by the teacher’s attendant. As he headed for that door the teacher screamed at him ‘That’s not your door!’ Totally bewildered and exasperated, the poor fellow said. ‘What do you mean? There’s no other door! You told me I could leave, but there’s no door I can leave by!’ ”If there’s no door you can leave by,’ said the teacher ‘then sit down’.

This means that we need to face our problems by paying attention to what is going on, face up to them rather than running away which is what most of us do.

I actually quite like this – you want to leave (your problems)  but there is no door to leave by – this is because you are the source of your problems. Our failure to realise this keeps us looking externally for solutions.

Our worst problems are not natural disasters – natural disasters actually bring us together.

Our worst problems (deep-rooted and subtle?) are created by us, as a result of our trying to create good times and avoid bad times, but these come and go of themselves.

Instead of trying to achieve this or that we should just be focussed on the present moment. Happiness is here, it isn’t there. Problems arise from our inability to see clearly the simple truth that good and bad times come and go by themselves irrespective of my desires (life is just flux). —-   Breaking the grip of ignorance rests with just seeing. You notice you want a Pizza, and you just note it, you don’t do anything about it. In this way, you stop feeding craving. (Easier said than done, I know!)

The problem is that it is hard to see see clearly. The mind has a tendency to lean – ‘I like this or that’ – craving or aversion. In the Enlightened mind there is no such leaning.

Dukkha – suffering, pain – is associated with choice. The more we fail to understand this, the more we’ll be caught up in Dukkha. And the more we’ll not see the subtlety of it.

We live in a culture where we’re taught to see freedom as the maximisation of choice. But this is not true freedom at all. In fact, it’s a form of bondage. True freedom doesn’t lie in the maximisation of choice, but ironically is most easily found in a life where there is little choice…. Consider this: often the more serious the choice, the easier it becomes to make it. _

When petty choices occupy the mind, necessity is forgotten, the mind is ill at ease for want of the petty thing. When we needlessly clutter our mind with inconsequential choices dissatisfaction is the result. (39)

(p40) Let’s consider the way intention is joined with Dukkha

The buddha-dharma is all about seeing when we act of intent, which is what most of us do most of the time by trying to bring about some desired end. Intent is important, very important!

Hagan illustrates this with a story about his going camping. He awoke to find that the roof of his car had been slashed and thought it was vandals, this caused mental anguish. Later he realised it was a Racoon who had slashed the roof to get some cookies. His anguish disappeared because there was no longer any bad intent behind the action.

The chapter ends with a reminder that walking the buddha-dharma is not about doing good because good and bad are relatives, tinged with duality (illustrated by the horse story)… The buddha-dharma is about seeing our craving (but not stopping it).

The horse story…

The horse of a wise Chinese farmer ran away. When his neighbour came to console him the farmer said ‘who knows what’s good or bad?’

When his horse returned the next day with a herd of horses following her, the foolish neighbour came to congratulate him on his good fortune.

‘who knows what’s good or bad?’ said the famer.

Then, when the farmer’s son broke his leg trying to ride one of the new horses, the foolish neighbour came to console him again.

‘Who knows what’s good or bad?’ said the farmer.

When the army passed through, conscripting men for the army, they passed over the farmer’s son because of his broken leg. When the foolish man again came to congratulate the farmer =, the farmer replied ‘Who know’s what’s good or bad’?

And so on….


Ideas of good and bad are dualistic, the point is to SEE in a way that is beyond these, not quelching your desire, just SEEing the way that mind leans.. it’s inclinations and it’s intents.

Chapter Four: Going (pp44 -52)

The Buddha’s third truth is that the cessation of suffering is possible, a state referred to by the Buddha as ‘unborn ungrown and unconditioned’, a state which we can see but which we cannot pin down.

The opposite of this, the born, grown and conditioned is everything you can conceive of, including yourself.

Nirvana is seeing completely that everything is just flux or change. Hagan uses the story of his friend dying of cancer who suddenly realises he is about to die to illustrate this. The author says to him ‘wherever we go, its always like this’ and his friend understood – meaning (I think) that his dying friend had seen that everything is change and accepted it, even his own death. (Note – that’s actually pretty hard core!)

Recall that everything is constant flux and change. Nothing endures. Yet we long for permanence and as a result we suffer, for we find none. There seems to be only this coming and going, coming and going. This is true of the physical universe, and it is true of our minds. Nirvana is seeing completely that this is so.

(P47) We do not see this – we tend to think of ourselves as distinct entities existing through time, but we cannot find a moment when we came into being – our conception is fundamentally linked to our parents, there is no ultimate separation. The truth is, you cannot find ‘coming into being’.

What we call a person the Buddha simply referred to as ‘stream’.

The same problem occurs with anything conceivable – with anything, beginnings and ends are inconceivable, there is just ceaseless flow and change, yet we perceive things to have a distinct beginning and end because we are foolish.

All three of our desires (*) arise because of our confusion (our inability to realise) that reality is just change.

Because of this ignorance we erroneously fixate on permanence, we think permance is possible – we think that if we only get this then ’I will be happy’, but in reality, all states of happiness are impermanent (thus what is the point in fixating on them?)

Similarly, because we fixate on our own existence we desire to not die, but in reality if you are born then you will die.

Finally, because (in our ignorance) this is so unbearable, we long for non-existence. All three of these desires arise because of our confusion about change. NB This final one (I think) is the vauge sense of subtle dis-ease that resides at the back of our minds, it is the kind of dis-ease that we will only find exists if we try to sit quietly and realise that we cannot do so.

(*) 1. Physical and mental desire 2. The desire to not die 3. The desire for release from this life.

The Buddha talked of extinguishing these desires but how is this possible? There are two ways. The first the Buddha called less desire and the second forgetting the self.

We have the ability to see our situation our human condition for what it really is. A starting point would be to perceive that we overload our senses, we become addicted to all manner of sense- stimulators, we need to see this, we also need to see that we tend to overload our lives with thoughts.

A second way is to forget the self by doing things for or with others


We tend to live our lives with some idea of control… we do a task to achieve a desired end, and when we fail to do this we suffer. The buddhist solution to this is to acknowledge that we never had control in the first place.

At the centre of our desire for control is our sense of self… If we can realise that ‘I’ don’t really exist, there is profound liberation in this!

On this the Buddha said

‘Just as a man shudders with horror when he steps on a serpent, but laughs when he looks down and sees that it is only a rope, so I discovered one day that what I was calling ‘I’ cannot be found, and all fear and anxiety vanished with my mistake’.

The buddha-dharma points the way for each of us to wake up from this same basic mistake. And when we awaken, our fears and anxieties quite naturally vanish, as the night fades away at the rising of the sun.

Chapter Five – The Art of Seeing (pp53-59)

The fourth truth of the Buddha is the way to realise the end of suffering – the noble eightfold path. An odd thing about this path is that it is not a path from a to b – as soon as we step on it all aspects are realised at once.

The eight aspects of the path are

  1. Right view
  2. Right intention
  3. Right speech
  4. Right action
  5. Right livelihood
  6. Right effort
  7. Right mindfulness
  8. Right meditation

Right does not mean right as opposed to wrong – but right as in ‘this works’ or as in ‘being in sync with reality’. It refers to being in touch with reality rather than being deluded by our own prejudices. ‘Right’ means conducive to awakening.

Right view

Normally when we take a view on some aspect of life we take a snap shot picture and hold onto it and people with different views peel off into separate camps and sometimes go after each other.   The view of a Buddha isn’t like this – it is not an ordinary frozen view. Right view means not being caught by ideas, concepts, beliefs or opinions.

The view of a Buddha is of how things are , or of constant change. If we know that all is change, then how can there be fixed views?

Right view is the dynamic view of the world as a whole. It cannot come into conflict with other views because it already encompasses everything else!

Right intention

There is a story of Socrates and a youth who comes to learn from him – when crossing a stream Socrates holds the youth’s head under water and he starts to fight for air. On letting him up, Socrates says ‘when you fight for truth as you fight for air then come back and see me’ – that is right intention.

You cannot learn truth from anyone, it is seen through your own resolve. It means getting on with the job of awakening.

Right speech

This basically involves not lying not speaking ill and not chatting idly.

There are many practical reasons for practising thus – basically to awaken you need to be here and now and lying, speaking ill and chatting distract you from the here and now and disturb the mind.

All that is said on right action is that it is action that stems from a clear and unfettered mind.

Right livelihood means choosing a profession that does not not do harm to others or the planet because how can this be conducive to peace of mind?

Right effort is a conscious and on-going engagement with each moment. It is the willing abandonment of our fragmented mentality and dualistic thought moment after moment and the encouragement of healthy and wholesome states of mind.

Right mindfulness means not forgetting what our real problem is – Dukkha. Right mindfulness means being mindful of how we react to states of mind in each moment.

Right meditation means collecting the mind so it becomes focussed centred and aware.

These eight aspects of the path should not be taken on faith but tested to see if they are conducive to awakening.

The chapter ends by mentioning the precepts and that these are guidelines rather than rules. Ultimately all that there is is the context you are in and your own mind – seeing things as they are moment to moment and acting accordingly is what there is. Hard and fast rules are not conducive to this.



Chapter Six – Wisdom (pp63-76)

Our prison is in us – it is in our own mind, our own thinking. We fail to see our situation for what it really is. As yang chu says – ‘we pass by the joys of life without realising we’ve missed anything’. The path to freeing the mind is not like an ordinary path. It does not lead anywhere it has no destination. As soon as you set foot on this path you have literally traversed it in its entirety.

First you have to set foot on the path, and this is right view – the idea that there is something askew or painful about human existence. What would satisfy the aching, the craving of the human heart? Nothing outside of us can do this because as soon as one craving is satisfied another arises.

So let us take a different approach and not try to define what it is we want. We do not know what we truly want because what we truly want is intangible. In fact true happiness simply involves seeing in the moment, but because we do not see this then we fixate on a search to find something to make us happy, while the only thing that can make us happy is what’s here and now – we just need to see what is going on in ourselves.

Right view is not a fixed idea it is simply awareness of how things come to be. Right view is seeing reality in its wholeness – think of a puma and a deer – we feel sorry that the deer will be eaten by the puma, so we put bells on the deer – the puma then starves so the deer population goes up which leads to overgrazing and deers dying.

Compassion alone is not enough, you need to see the whole. In life we tend to categorise and compartmentalise – we package complex events so we can understand them. But life is messier than this – in reality things are much more fluid and this is hard work to grasp and accept. In trying to understand the world we leave things out – we fail to realise that in reality there is not a clearly defined object to observe or for that matter a clearly defined observer.

Right view is beyond categories, beyond good and bad and the only way we can realise it is to be right here and right now.

( P69) – We tend to hold a static view of ourselves too – for example – ‘I’m a nervous type of person or I’m Norwegian… The truth is that I am not anything in-particular and neither is anyone else. When we lock onto an identity all we’re doing is locking onto a rigid world view, and making ourselves easier to offend. Another way we bind ourselves is through trying to explain things – ‘a means b’ and so on.

In fact, reality in the moment explains itself and so it doesn’t need explaining. How can we explain the truth without removing ourselves from it? Yet we do not see this, instead we go on seeking ever more refined or complicated explanations, and all we ever get is more and more contradictions, while Reality itself defies conceptualisation.

Having said this, it is possible to see, to perceive reality even if we can’t conceive it.

Concepts cannot be reality because conceptualising involves putting boundaries around things that are all interconnected. Take the example of a book – in reality the book is fundamentally linked to the sun because trees require the sun.

In a famous zen story emperor Wu of China asked Bodhidharma ‘who are you’, Bodhidharma replied ‘not knowing’. There is no identity there. Bodhidharma sees reality, not a thing with a name. In other words right view isn’t in the eye of the beholder, there is no beholder there.

(P73) Right intention Is simply about being here in this moment. Being awake is actually the absence of intention, because you cannot both be here and hold any intent, any gaining thought. If we are not awake then right intention is simply to be awake – now, with no gaining thought.

Hagan now relays the story of the meditating zen student and the teacher polishing the tile – no amount of meditating will make you a Buddha. Meditation should be all the time, it does not begin or end with a bell, it begins with your intention, so start paying attention – now! Being awake is just being awake, there is no reason for being awake – other than it’s better than not being awake which consists of pain anger and delusion.

(So nb right intention is actually about being now and stopping habitual ways of action that lead to suffering)

Being awake is the mind not leaning, the mind not thinking ‘I like this or I dislike that’ – these leanings lead to greed and aversion, and gaining thoughts. How to stop the mind leaning? You simply have to pay attention to what you are doing and how your mind reacts, then the mind eventually will straighten up of its own accord, you cannot force it to stop leaning – if you try to do this it will simply lean all the more.

Chapter Seven – Morality (pp77-94)

Right speech should be directed towards awakening for self and others – when you speak consider whether you are doing it to manipulate others or doing it to assist in awakening.

Hagan quotes the Buddha on what right speech is – basically being truthful, not gossiping and speaking to promote harmony.

On listening – if someone tells you something about someone else, all they are really revealing is stuff about themselves. You should realise that as soon as something is put into speech it is skewed by the speaker – thus always withhold judgement on the thing someone is speaking about, especially if it is someone you have never met before.

Right speech should be directed towards awakening for self and others – when you speak consider whether you are doing it to manipulate others or doing it to assist in awakening.   Hagan quotes the Buddha on what right speech is – basically being truthful, not gossiping and speaking to promote harmony.

On listening – if someone tells you something about someone else, all they are really revealing is stuff about themselves. You should realise that as soon as something is put into speech it is skewed by the speaker – thus always withhold judgement on the thing someone is speaking about, especially if it is someone you have never met before.   Right speech involves right listening which means seeing the whole picture including the speaker, be careful not to swallow pre packaged stories.   We need to be careful when speaking of others – whether we are downplaying or bigging them up we are leaning and not speaking the truth. In fact, putting people on a pedestal is probably the worst because this way we must create idols and to be free we need to be free of idols (nb celebrity).

Do not talk about people as if they are saints or monsters, to do so is to fail to recognise our common humanity. It is is within the capacity of human nature to act monstrously or saintly and we can do likewise. Really good or really evil people are not essentially different to us.

Sometimes it is necessary to say things people don’t want to hear for their long term good – eg a child running to a busy road or an addict.

It is impossible to give rules on how to speak that are hard and fast – much of what needs to be said, or not said, depends on the situation. What is important than when you speak to people you examine your intention – if your intention is to help them wake up then you should be speaking compassionately and the appropriate words and tone should follow in any given situation.

Where enlightenment is concerned it is beyond conceptualisation so in truth there is nothing to say.

Ryokan, a Japanese Zen poet, wrote this poem –

Maple leaf

Falling down

Showing front

Showing back

This action exemplifies right action – how different this kind of action is to the willed, goal-oriented action we are familiar with. The maple leaf’s action is natural and unwilled yet the way we act is different, if we were leaves we would either fall off in summer (running away), hang on until winter or we would wilfully try and be unleaf like and pile down rather than drift. These two types of action have two different results.

Usually discussions of morality are about rules – but there are no rules in Buddhism only guidelines- the dharma is not about rules and regulations that have been taught and accepted it is about seeing – rules are only useful when you do not see – in seeing we act naturally.

Shunryu Suzuki says that if we try to put dots on a page in a random fashion we will find this difficult as usually patterns will emerge because our minds unwittingly follow hidden rules. If we saw the whole we could arrange dots in a random fashion. Randomness involves us being with the whole, order stems from our deluded attempts to control the whole which leads to Dukkha.

When we fancy ourselves to be a particular thing with a name we see ourselves as we would a cork in a stream. In reality there is only stream, change and flow. The recognition of this as our actual experience is utter release from Dukkha.

Seeing alone leads to greater levels of moral development (nb not all monks necessarily see) because through seeing we don’t lie because we see that lying leads to confusion. Hence this is not about rules – in fact morality is beyond rules – morality can be seen but not put into rules – even the do unto others rule is flawed because different people often need to be treated differently.

The golden rule of the awakened is in fact ‘do unto others as you would not have them do unto you’ – the problem with the usual positive formulation is that it carries prescriptions, or things that should be done and this set of rules is objectifying which takes us away from the moment – thus the awakened wants of others and wants for others no objectification, to allow for freedom in the moment and real seeing. Hence the negative prescription of this imperative. (NB in the meantime there are precepts…). This avoids the problems associated with doing good which can stem form positive formulations of morality which can breed arrogance and hostility.

Another way of looking at right action is action as free of self.

Now there’s a quick note on freedom – which is not freedom to choose – but freedom to be awake or not.

Right livelihood simply says do not judge others – look at your own situation and how you respond to it.

Finally – right action is fundamentally about examining your own life – remember the only real choice we have is whether or not we choose to wake up!

Chapter Eight – Practice (pp95-109)

This chapter deals with right effort, right mindfulness and right meditation

Sit for a moment, and try not to think of an elephant. Now try to picture a square circle You will notice that both of these exercises are impossible.

Often, though, we put our efforts into tasks very much like these – trying to achieve goals which are impossible, we think of effort as something that involves straining, forcing or pushing. But with what the Buddha called right effort, there is no straining or forcing, because right effort is cojoined with right view – when you see that putting your hand in the flame is painful, you don’t have to strain to keep yourself from doing it, it just follows naturally.

Right effort means simply being present. It means being here, staying here, and seeing what is happening in this moment. It’s not about trying to achieve or control something, which is like trying to not think of an elephant. Right effort is the naturalness of becoming this moment.

This is not normally how we understand effort – we usually understand it as to control, improve, change something – human history is full of such examples, and here we are in our improved society wondering if the earth will survive!

Right effort is cutting off the fragmented and fractured states of mind that have already arisen in us – for example we see ourselves as being separate from the world, and the world as consisting of separate things (rather than a more wholesome, holistic seeing). This leads our mind to be full of thoughts such as ‘I must do this’ or ‘avoid doing that’ – Right effort just means seeing this fragmented state, not feeding it by worrying about it or acting on it, or trying to stop it – if we just see it, it will come into full awareness of its own accord.

All you have to do in right effort is continually bring yourself back to seeing – to see is to heal.

Right effort is also bringing about and preserving aware, collected, wholesome and integrated states of mind. Hagan uses the metaphor of being able to take a horse to water but not being able to make that horse drink. If we are the horse in this analogy, being led to the Buddha Dharma, drinking is like making right effort. The problem is that, although we are all thirsty (remember that deep aching of the heart), we don’t realise it, and also, although we are standing at the water trough, we don’t realise that our water is easily in reach.

Normally, if something seems valuable to us, we feel we have to work hard to get it – in the case of awakening this doesn’t work. Hagan now relays the tale of the fellow and the Zen master…. how long will it take to become Enlightened…. 10/20/ 30 years.

Donning robes has nothing to do with being enlightened – these can actually detract you from right effort – all right effort is is being in this moment. You don’t need anything else to do this.

(p100) Now Hagan deals with the different types of mindfulness…

Mindfulness of the body is to do with how the body moves, and physical senses such as smell and taste. Thich Nat Hanh suggests we savour each sense as if we were a returned astronaut, having touched back down on earth for the first time in years.

We should also be mindful of our feelings – whether we are inclined to like or dislike things for example – over time we will be less compelled to act on these things if we become more mindful of them – feelings will have less of a hold over us.

We should also be aware of our minds – in doing so you will notice (probably) an internal monologue, often moronic, that chatters much of the time – the problem is we often identify with many of these thoughts, and this is the source of much of our suffering. In time, through mindfulness, we will realise that this internal monologue, our ideas are just as fleeting as our physical sensations.

Finally, there is awareness of Dukkha itself.

In mindfulness practise it is important not to chastise yourself – all you need to do is to see that this and that arises, and when you see that attachment to certain arisings leads to suffering, you will come to cease such attachment just naturally!

While right mindfulness is to return to actual experience right meditation is simply staying with our immediate experience, moment by moment. In sitting meditation (zazen in Japanese) the focus of our activity involves the bare minimum, just body, mind and breath. He now quotes a passage from Zen master Dogen’s ‘universal recommendation for sitting meditation’ on how to do formal breath meditation. Hagan then mentions that you can sit in a chair, or kneeling. After sorting our posture, Hagan then says… Place your focus on your breath – just follow it. As you do, thoughts will arise. Don’t be bothered by them. Don’t try to drive them away. If you leave them alone, they’ll depart of their own accord. This is how to ‘cease all the movements of the conscious mind’. You cannot do it by direct application of will. Don’t strive for some special state of mind, there is no special state of mind. Striving will only disturb you.

Sitting meditation is just awareness of breath, that is all.

How long to spend in meditation? Hagan says he doesn’t know – more important is that you do it regularly. When its time to eat, eat, when its time to meditate, meditate.

You need to allow yourself the space to have thoughts and feelings, just let them be, don’t try and stop them, and they will calm down by themselves.

Breath is the perfect vehicle for meditation because it is the boundary between internal and external, place your attention there and you will see that there is no you, and no outside.

Do not approach meditation as business as usual, meditation is not business as usual. We are not doing it to achieve anything, it is not a useful activity, it is for its own sake…. do not expect anything from it. Dogen notes that when you practice meditation you… cease from practice based on intellectual understanding, pursing words and following after speech, and learn the backward step that turns your light inwardly to illuminate yourself. Body and mind of themselves will drop away, and your original face will be manifest. If you want to attain thusness, you should practise thusness without delay.

If we taste reality, we must engage it directly. If you have the least gaining idea, you are not fully engaged.

Right meditation is where everything is alive, where we neither create nor manipulate, possess nor obsess, neither try nor fail.

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Three Score Years and Twenty – An Analysis of the Ageing UK Population.

Posted by Realsociology on December 13, 2014

I just listened to this useful Radio 4 Analysis podcast – Three Score Years and Twenty on Ageing Britain. It’s of clear relevance to the demography topic within the SCLY1 families and households module….

Here are some of the main points.

In 1850,half the population in England were dead before they reached 46. Now half the population in England are alive at 85; and 8 million people currently alive in the UK will make it to 100 years or more. And if we extrapolate that to Europe, we can say 127 million Europeans are going to live to 100.

Hans Rosling points out that: We reached the turning point five years ago when the number of children stopped growing in the world. We have 2 billion children. They will not increase. The increase of the world population from now on will be a fill up of adults.

Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt: The two biggest issues that we face as an ageing society are the sustainability of the NHS and the sustainability of the pension system; and within the NHS, I include the social care system as part of that.

The basic problem we have in Northern European countries is the generational tension between individualism and communal responsibility – Across the generations within a typical family we have become more individualistic and less collective/ communal:

People in their 80s (who grew up in the 1960s) are generally very individualistic – they have retired into property wealth and are unwilling to relinquish the independence this gives them. They have also socialised their children into being more independent: most people today in their 50s (the children of those who are in their 80s) have bought into this – The family norm is one of the typical 50 year old living an independent life with their family, miles away from their own parents. Grandparents today of course help out with childcare occassionaly and pay regular visits, but they are generally not taking a day to day role in childcare, and finances are kept seperate.  This arrangement is mutual – People in their 80s don’t want to be burdens on their children, they want them to have the freedom to live their own lives – to be able to work and raise their children without having to care for them in their old age. (So I suppose you might call the 2000s the era of the individualised family).

(This is very different to what it used to be like in the UK, and what it is still like in many other parts of the world where grandparents live close by and are an integral part of family life, taking an active role in raising their grandchildren on a day to day basis. Various interviewees from less developed countries testify to this, and to the advantages of it.)

Within this context of increasing ‘familial-individualism’ a number of problems of the ageing population are discussed:

Firstly, one of the main problem which this increasing ‘familial-individualism’ creates for people in their 80s is one of increasing isolation and lonileness as their friends and neighbours move away or die.

One proposed solution is for older people to be prepared to move into communal supported housing where there are shared leisure facilities, like many people do in Florida. However, people are quite set in their ways in the UK and so this is unlikely. A second solution, which some immigrants are choosing is to return to thier country of origin where there are more collectivist values, trading in a relatively wealthy life in the UK for less money and more community abroad.

A second problem is that healthy life expectancy is not keeping pace with life-expectancy, and there are increasing numbers of people in their 80s who spend several years with chronic physical conditions such as arthritis, and also dementia – which require intensive social care. As with the above, this is more of a social problem when children do not see it as their duty to care for their elderly parents – It is extremely expensive to provide round the clock care for chronic conditions for several years, and this puts a strain on the NHS. Basically, the welfare state cannot cope with both pensions and chronic care.

On potential solution to the above is mentioned by Sally GREENGROSS: The Germans in some cases now export older people to Eastern European countries because they can’t afford – or they say they can’t – to provide all the services they need in Germany itself. Could this be the future of chronic elderly care in the UK – Exporting demntia patients to poorer countries?

However, the idea of care-homes themselves are not dismissed when it comes to end of life care – the consensus seems to be that the quality of care in UK elderly care homes is generally very good, and better than your typicaly family could provide (depsite all the not so useful scare programmes in the media).

A third problem is for those in their 50s – with their parents still alive and ‘sucking money out of the welfare state’ there is less left for everything else – and this has been passed down to the youngest generation – As a result people in their 50s now face the prospect of their own children living at home for much longer and having to help them with tuition fees and mortgage financing, meaning that their own plans for retirement in their late-50s/ early 60s are looking less likely – In other words, the next two generations are bearing a disproportionate cost of the current ageing population.

Worringly, there is relatively little being done about this in government circles – Yes, the state pension age has been raised, and measures have been taken to get people to bolster their own private pensions, but this might be too little to late, and it looks like little else is likely to be done – The issue of the ageing population and the cost of welfare for the elderly is not a vote-winner after all.

The programme concludes by pointing out that pensions and care homes are only part of the debate. What will also be needed to tackle the problems of the ageing population is a more age-integrated society, a possible renogiation at the level of the family so that granparents are more integrated on a day to day basis in family life (trading of child care for a level of elderly care) and also social level changes – to make work places and public places more accessible for the elderly who might be less physically able than those younger than them.

Here’s the full transcript of the show -analysis-ageing


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Changing Patterns of Drug Use in the UK

Posted by Realsociology on December 7, 2014

Just a quick summary of changing patterns of drug use in the UK from the UK Government’s latest drug misuse survey.. I was going to do some analysis, but the pictures look so nice I’ll just leave it as it is for now….

The headline figure has to be the long term (20 year) decline in use of all drugs except for Cocaine for 16-24 year olds, while the overall trend in drug use for 16-59 year olds has remained stable at about 3% of the population.

Key Stat One – There has been an overall decline in drug use since the mid 1990s

  • Around 1 in 11 (8.8%) adults aged 16 to 59 had taken an illicit drug in the last year. However, this proportion more than doubles for 6 to 24 year olds (18.9%).
  • Around one-third of adults had taken drugs at some point during their lifetime. Of 16 to 59 year olds, 35.6% had reported ever using drugs.
  • There has been a long term decrease in drug use since 1996. During this period any Drug use within the last year for 16-59 year olds has decreased from about 11 to 9% of the population
  • There has been a marked decrease in drug use since 1996  amongst younger people. Any drug use within the last year for 16-24 year olds has decreased from about 30% of the population to 20% of the population.
  • Use of any class A drug within the last year for 16-59 year olds has remained stable at around 3% of the population.


Key Stat Two - The only significant counter trend to the above is the increasing use of Cocaine, although this peaked in 2008 and has been in general decline since…


Key Stat ThreeA significant proportion of drug users are frequent users

  • 50% of Cannabis users and 20% of Cocaine users can be classified as frequent drug users.
  • 3.1% of adults aged 16 to 59 can be defined as frequent drug users (having taken any illicit drug more than once a month on average in the last year).
  • The proportion of young adults aged 16 to 24 classed as frequent drug users was 6.6% in 2013/14 and represented a statistically significant increase compared with 2012/13 (5.1%).


Key Stat FOURMen are more than twice as likely to take drugs compared to women


Key Stat FIVE – Unsurprisingly pub and club goers are much more likely to take drugs…

  • Those who went to nightclubs or pubs more often were more likely to use drugs frequently.
  • Levels of use of any illicit drug more than once a month on average in the last year were higher among those who went to nightclubs four or more times in the last month (10.9%) compared with 2.3% of respondents who had not visited a nightclub in the past month.
  • A similar pattern was found among those visiting pubs more often.



Key Stat SIXDrug use is highest amongst those from mixed ethnic backgrounds


Key Stat SEVEN – Gay people are about three times more likely to take Cannabis or Cocaine compared to straight people


Key Stat Eight – Poor people are twice as likely to take drugs as rich people

No nice graphic for this but…

  • People living in deprived areas were more likely to be frequent drug users.
  • A larger proportion (4.5%) of respondents who lived in more deprived areas were frequent drug users compared with those who lived in the least deprived areas (2.3%).


Drug Misuse Survey

The Guardian – Useful summary of some of the data in the above survey…


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Increasing Life Expectancy – It’s far from certain!

Posted by Realsociology on November 29, 2014

According to this eye-catching infographic from the Office for National Statistics  1/3rd of babies born in 2013 are expected to reach 100 years of age, meaning that there will be well over 100,000 centanarians alive in the UK in 2113, which is more than 6 times the estimated 14000 alive today.

According to this scenario, the expected averarage national life-expectancy is projected to be 90.7 for men and 94.0 for women, a ten year increase compared to current (2010-12) life exptencies which are 81.7 and 82.7 years respectively.

The government has used these data (unsurprising giving that this is the ONS) to justify the rising of the state pension age, given that according to these projections people will, on average spend a third of their life in receipt of a state pension, as evidenced below (full document here)


However, this future is far from certain, and such an increase depends on a number of underlying social developments taking place – such as a reduction in the number of people smoking, an increase in medical interventions to prevent deaths from heart disease, stroke and cancer, and healthier diets and lifestyles. It is also the case that a number of other factors may serve to reduce future life-expectancy – such as the increasing cost of living in real terms driving up the number of people in poverty and the increase in inequality causing more status anxiety.

In fact if you read down the infographic, this lack of certainty is recognised as the initial figures are only the ‘principal projections’ but the low and high estimates for the number of babies born today likely to reach 100 varies from as low as 16K to as high as 259K for men and as low as 31K and as high as 271K for women.

To my mind, the real story in this data is actually the very high level of uncertainty surrounding projections in the ageing population, and the difficulties society faces planning for the future in the light of such uncertainties.

It’s unfortunate that the infographic or the government fail to highlight this, but instead focuses on the principal data in order to tell a story that might (but only might) happen.

Then again, I guess this particular manifestation of uncertainty doesn’t suit the present government’s ideological war against the public sector, whereas the message that we are all living longer serves as a plausible justification for raising the pension age and reducing the overall public sector commitment to ‘caring’ for people in their old age. It is also, of course, another effective means of punishing the poor, because the poorer you are then the earlier you die.

Related posts

This is a nice series of infographics from the ONS focussing on current (2010-12 figures Life Expectancy among people aged 65+, looking at such things as the very signficant gender divide that persists into the 80 and 90 years age brackets.

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Exploring the reasons for Rwanda’s unusually high degree of gender equality

Posted by Realsociology on November 26, 2014

Rwanda makes an interesting case study of a developing nation which appears to have atypically high levels of gender equality. It ranks no 7 in the Gender Empowerment Index, just behind the Nordic countries, and actually has a higher proportion of girls enrolled in education than boys (97% compared to 95%).

Given that East and North African nations typically have the lowest levels of gender equality in the world (take neighbouring DRC as an example, Rwanda not only bucks the regional trend, but it also bucks the general trend of the correlation between higher GDP and greater levels of gender equality.  So what’s its secret? I’m not exactly an expert in Rwandan history, but here are five things which might explain the high reported levels of gender equality in Rwanda.

Firstly, the genocide, may have (somewhat perversely) played a role in female empowerment.

In the aftermath of the genocide, Rwanda found itself a country composed of 70 percent women. The violence had been perpetrated by — and largely toward — men. There were simply fewer men due to death, imprisonment, and flight. Killings also targeted civic leaders during the genocide. Out of more than 780 judges nationwide, only 20 survived the violence. Not 20 percent, 20 total.

These skewed demographics resulted in a power vacuum. Prior to 1994, women only held between 10 and 15 percent of seats in Parliament. Out of sheer necessity, and a desire to rebuild their country, women stepped up as leaders in every realm of the nation, including politics.

Or in the words of one Rwandan woman….. “Many women were left as widows because of the genocide. Others had to work hard in the place of their jailed husbands for allegedly taking part in the genocide. So even young girls got that mentality to perform genuinely to access good jobs, and good jobs means going to school first,”

Secondly – (and no doubt related to the above) women’s rights have been rooted in the constitution for over a decade – The constitution stipulates that at least 30% of government positions should be filled by women. Rwanda now tops global league tables for the percentage of female parliamentarians. Fewer than 22% of MPs worldwide are women; in Rwanda, almost 64% are.

Thirdly (and probably a knock-on effect from point two) Rwanda spends huge proportions of its national budget on health and education, according to World Bank statistics. In 2011, almost 24% of total government expenditure went to health and 17% to education. High expenditure on the former has greatly improved maternal health and reduced child mortality, while high expenditure on the later has meant there is sufficient money to fund education for both boys and girls (as a general rule)

Fourthly (and probably a knock on effect from the above three points) – A relatively high proportion of women are employed in public sector jobs – In the education system – women have also outnumbered men as primary school teachers. Higher up the education system, things are not equal, but they are improving rapidly – At secondary school, however, fewer than 28% of teachers are women, up from 21% in 2001. In higher education, only 16% of teachers are women, but this is up from 10% in 1999 and 5% in 1990. In every local police station there is a ‘gender desk’ where incidents of gender related violence can be reported (something which I think is pretty much unheard of in most African countries.)

Fifthly, there is the role of women’s support groups in rebuilding the country after the decimation caused by the genocide. These groups initially just offered a place for women to talk about their experiences of being widowed and raped, but they morphed into workers co-operatives, which has, 20 years later, led on to a very high degree of engagement with women in local politics, which is increasingly integrated with national politics.

Limitations of Rwanda’s Gender Equality….

As with all statistics, they don’t tell the full picture, one of the posts below makes the following cautions – Firstly, 60% of Rwandans live below the poverty line, and while those women how have jobs in politics and education are on decent wages, there aren’t actually that many people in the population employed in these sectors and gender equality means very little to the vast majority of women when they can’t afford to eat. Secondly, DV statistics don’t make for pretty reading, with 2/5 women saying they have experienced domestic violence, with 1/5 saying they have experienced sexual violence – And you can imagine how low the prosecution rate of men is for such crimes.

A few thoughts on the meaning of all this….

Rwanda has experienced excellent economic growth compared to countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, which suggests that Gender Empowerment has a positive effect on development, but obviously this conclusion has to be treated with caution because there are so many other variables which need to be taken into account.

If it is indeed the prevalence of women and the absence of (certain types of?) men from a society which encourages development, there are some pretty challenging implications – Most obviously it raises the question of how we are to reduce (certain types of) male influence in developing countries?

Sources -


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My Early Semi-Retirement Strategy

Posted by Realsociology on November 22, 2014

Unlike many other ERE (early retirement extreme) blogs I’ve included some fairly specific details about my income below. Having read quite a few of these blogs it really isn’t helpful that most of them don’t talk about their incomes because this makes it very difficult to assess how likely it would be for someone else to pursue a similar financial plan. I’ve decided to include my own actual income in order to make it very clear that my early retirement strategy excludes at least the bottom 80% of income earners. So in short, unless you’re a high income earner in the UK already, or are on the path to becoming one, there is no point you reading this! This is what all ERE blogs should say, but don’t.

My grand plan pads out into three stages – 40-48/ 48-60/ 60+. The boundaries are flexible. NB I only stumbled upon and committed to the idea of early-retirement when I was 41 this August  2014 (so slightly oddly I’ve backdated this plan!)

Phase One – Age 40-48 years – Full time work, voluntary poverty, paying down the mortgage and saving

This phase consists of six goals…..

  1. Reducing my expenditure to a minimum and living a voluntary-poverty lifestyle. My current outgoings are around £930/ month, which might sound high by ERE standards, but a painful £160 of this is ‘service charge’ which I intend to ditch in the medium term, and so my actual long term outgoings are really just £770/ month.
  2. Paying off the damn mortgage over a 15 year term, at the rate of +£1000 a month. I intend to downsize and buy a property outright in a cheaper part of the country after 8 years.
  3. Saving a minimum of a further £450 a month. Combined with the £20K I already have saved this should give me around £80K at a 4% growth rate over 8 years.
  4. Continue paying into my current Teacher Pension Scheme (TPS). I’ve done the maths and it simply isn’t worth stopping paying into it. This should yield about £11K/ year (post-60) after another 8 years of payments.
  5. Generating second income streams. I’ve set myself the goal of earning about an extra £20K over the next 5 years. This would enable me to quit the rat-race even earlier and some of these streams might also give me some income from age 48 onwards.
  6. Developing ‘resilience skills’ – I got the phrase from Fisker, and I like it! Resilience skills to my mind include constructive skills, cheap hobbies and meditation, the kind of things that are free, and hence work with a frugal retirement plan.

Phase Two – Age 48-60 – Semi-Retirement  -  Hobo-capitalism and working part time.

By the time I’m 48 I should have £130K (2014 figures) equity in my current property and £80K in savings, which will give me £210K in capital. At this stage, I will either simply pay off my existing mortgage or buy a much cheaper property and invest the rest, and use these investments to bring in a base-income while I travel around the world for 12 years. I will need to do a mixture of paid and voluntary work during this phase of my life to support myself, but not very much given that a £210K pot would yield £8K/ year income at a 4% return.

Alternatively I might decide not to go travelling, in which case having the mortgage paid off would mean I could afford to work part-time or intermittently for the rest of my working life based in the UK. I might also just decide to skip to phase three below.

Phase Three – Age 60+ – Full retirement

Barring further layers of neoliberal shaft, my teacher’s pension should kick in at 60, which should be worth about £11K a year, which, with no mortgage costs, will be sufficient for me to live off comfortably. Something else I intend to do at this stage of my life (although I may do this a lot sooner) is to use a portion of my capital to buy some land and establish an edible-forest, with which I will merge to become ‘man of the forest’, or something along those lines.

A few facts about this thing I call myself

I can only start my early retirement drive from where I found myself when l became obsessed with the goal of early-retirement (I think it’s fair to call it an obsession!). TBH I find myself in a pretty favourable position, in a stable job I can probably stomach for several more years, earning more than 85% of the population.

I earn a gross salary of about £44K a year and I’m one year in to paying off a £146K mortgage at 3.1% interest. Previous to buying my current flat (mere non-inheretee high-income earners simply can’t afford houses where I live) outright in 2013 I’d already saved £40K towards it, and the flat’s actually now ‘worth’ about £200K. I work in education which means I’m likely to be able to draw on a  Teacher’s Pension  from the age of 60. At time of writing, after 13 years of paying into it, this is already worth about £6.5k a year (plus a lump sum of £19K) and on my frugal budget this is approximately two thirds of my desired retirement income. To put some of these figures in monthly terms, I take home £2500 after tax and pensions contributions (the later being about £400/ month).

I’m well aware that an early retirement extreme person would look at these statistics and think a five year early retirement strategy would be a doddle, but my own plan is to do it in eight, so what’s below is very much an early retirement light strategy, a luxurious early retirement vision by extreme standards, but still frugal by normal standards.

Below is more detail about how my plan pads out… I think it’s pretty bullet-proof.

Age 40-48 years – Full time work, voluntary poverty, paying down the mortgage and saving

Goal One – Frugality budgeting

Frugality budgeting means committing yourself to voluntary poverty. To my mind this means not only reducing expenditure on ‘necessities’ such as housing, food, transport and utilities to a minimum, it also means a rejection of the consumerist mode of existence. If this is taken to extremes, it is possible to live without money, but my own attempts fall far short of this – I’ve so far only managed to cut down on the take-out Cappuccinos and beers rather than giving them up altogether.

Below is a summary of my own monthly expenditure, based on a take-home monthly income of around £2450. All figures are approximate. NB I’ve since had a small gross pay-cut since I worked out these figures in August 2014 and as a result I now take home £2500 (that’s not a typo, that’s the effect of the wierd and not so wonderful TPS scaled contributions).

My savings to expenditure ratio

According to the early retirement movement, you should aim to save and invest somewhere between 60-80% of your income, which I’m well short of. Taking into account my Pension contribution, I am only at a 30% savings rate. However, because I see my property as a form of future-capital I am going to claim an overall savings rate of 67%. Of course it will be slightly less than this once you factor in the average £3K/ year I pay on interest on the mortgage which cannot be regarded as savings, which would bring my investment rate down to the low 60s in terms of percentage.

Some in the ERE movement may not accept my inclusion of my mortgage repayments to boost my savings rate to 60% – Fair enough, I may in fact be in denial of the insult that is the mortgage and just be trying to warp these repayments into something they are not. In this case, call my effective savings rate 30%, it’s still a lot better than the average, and the important thing is that I am effectively living off 33% of my current income, and the figures all add up to an extremely early semi-retirement after eight years. It’s worth stating at this point that high property prices and being lumbered with a mortgage will prevent most people in the UK rom achieving full early-retirement US style. I think the best we can achieve here in the UK is early semi-retirement like I’m aiming for…. The section below will give you an idea of something of the scale of the mortgage-burden. There are plenty of people worse off than me!

Goal Two – Paying off the mortgage as quickly as possible is essential

Unlike in the US, here in the UK property is the factor that makes Extreme Early Retirement (in five years) simply impossible for all but the very highest income earners (top 5%?). Even if you’re well into the second-decile of income earners like I am, repaying a mortgage on even a small property is probably going to take you 10 years if you want to stash savings away on top of mortgage repayments. (NB I am assuming here that someone hasn’t benefitted financially from a dead-relative at some point in their 20s and is largely self-financing their property. It also goes without saying that owning is the only ERE option in the UK, renting works out at least twice as expensive over a lifetime).

When I bought my current property in January 2014 I took on a mortgage of approximately £146 000 on a 15 year term. At 3.1% interest I will pay back about £183 000, which means the total cost of financing the mortgage is £37 000, or about £3,000 a year (very roughly). If I were to pay this back over the normal 25 year term I would pay back a total of £211 000, or an additional £55 000 over the amount borrowed.

As well as illustrating the extreme cost of a mortgage, even at a relatively low interest rate, this also illustrates the extreme savings (£18K) to be made by paying off the mortgage 10 years earlier than normal.

As stated above, I do actually intend to pay off the mortgage in eight years rather than 15, but I’m investing money elsewhere to facilitate this, to be utilised when I downsize in the future.

I’ve got to be honest, as it stands, the £3000/ year in interest and £1700/ year in service charges I pay above pay HURTS. Over a ten year period, it would cost me £47 000 just for the privilege of living in and eventually owning a two bedroom flat, above the actual market value of the flat.

Unfortunately, looked at in the long term, unless you want to put up with some pretty severe privations, there is no realistic alternative option other than putting up with being shafted to the tune of £5K/ year, mainly because the only other option (if you rule of living with your parents or squatting) is renting, which just means a further layer of shaft (paying of someone else’s mortgage). NB I refer to this as shaft because the only reason I am paying this £47K is because people in a position of greater power (i.e having greater control over the money supply) relative to me have set up a system which makes it impossible for me to live to the standards reasonably required to hold down a demanding full-time job without paying them money for which they effectively do nothing.

Goal Three – Saving….

In addition to paying off the mortgage I’m putting an additional £450/ month away into investment funds and savings accounts, in the hope that these accumulate at a faster rate than the 3.1% interest I pay on the mortgage, a kind of partial endowment-gamble if you like.

In most early retirement models, getting a decent rate of return on investment is crucial, however, my savings are relatively short term, and my income in full and semi-retirement will simply come from part-time occasional work, rent, and a decent pension, so this type of thing is mostly irrelevant for me. If are interested in longer term investments then you should check out Jacob Lund Fisker’s E-R-E blog where you will find links to financial planning for early retirement. Getting this right can make a massive difference to how early you can retire and your income in retirement, so you might want to learn about this. Personally, I’m happy to leave this dark-art to others.

Goal Four - Building second income streams.

There are huge advantages to doing this – I could retire even earlier, I could supplement my income while travelling, and a second income would give me more security. The second batch of ideas below are potential career changers too, and I do quite like the idea of diversifying jobs sometime before I fully retire! NB – My thinking here is ‘realist’ and very much within the ‘salary-man’ mind set. I’ve seen a few ERE blogs which talk about more creative ideas for earning passive income on the side through such things as monestising blogs and social media channels, but I’ve seen much more ‘wishful thinking’ about such schemes than actual evidence that such passive-income earning schemes are likely to bring in that much money. TBH I think such schemes are more hassle than they’re worth, and probably only worth a few hundre quid a month unless you approach them like a full-time job for several months or so to kick-start them, thus not really for me.

Ideas which overlap with my present full-time job:

The ideas below are all linked into my present job. Together, they could return a few thousand pounds extra a year.

  1. Write Sociological articles – I have had a few things published already, although the only source I know is through the Sociology Review.
  2. Write and sell A level Sociology Resources, mainly focusing on revision material.
  3. Develop an online Sociology course… which could get me into offering online tuition at some point in the future, maybe through the Open University.
  4. Develop ‘how to teach A level Sociology Resources’ – which could lead into earning money through training Sociology teachers.
  5. Sell My Soul Once More – Through Examining.

Other ideas for generating income – Career changers:

At present I have no in-depth plans for generating income out of any of these ideas, these are really just my interests that could be converted into income streams. All of which are feasible to set up with relatively minimal outlay, although number two might involve illegally using the allotment to generate an income.

  1. Make infographics – This is my preferred, long-term career change idea – although there is a mountain to climb in terms of skills development.
  2. Set up a business based around Permaculture design and an ‘edible perennial plant nursery’. There seems to be a growing demand for this sort of thing.
  3. Do a fitness instructor course and focus on developing classes for the over 50s market. Presently I’m in no way qualified to do this, but I’ve always thought Nordic Walking is totally cool, and something I’d quite like to get into in later life. Even if there’s no money in it for me, it’d be another practically free hobby – basically walking with poles.

Obviously the list above is highly specific to my own circumstances, and strategies for generating a second income will vary widely.

Goal Five – Developing Renaissance Skills

As I see it, this consists of two things – firstly and most importantly developing meditation and mindfulness skills, and secondly developing those practical and social skills I’ll need to build my own personal ecotopia.

Developing meditation and mindfulness skills

This part of my early retirement strategy is very much inspired by Buddhism and TBH this aspect of my early retirement vision should come first. In essence what this means is putting meditation and mindfulness at the heart of daily life, which is best accomplished through very simple living. This facilitates early-retirement because, again simply, all of these activities involve minimum cost.

My own list of simple living tasks with the times I could spend on them each day if it were not for work are as follows, which is pretty much what I do most weekends and every day during holidays. This kind of lifestyle is what I intend to be doing when I retire, my early-retirement planning is really just to give me the property-security to allow the following to happen on a daily basis -

  • Meditate in the morning and evening and periodically throughout the day (120 mins)
  • Do ‘chores’ (mainly cleaning) mindfully and swiftly (60 mins)
  • Workout every day – for me swimming/ running/ cycling, possibly just walking by the time I’m 60 (120 mins)
  • Read about and offer critical commentary on a range of sociological issues (several hours)
  • Maintaining an allotment/ edible-forest (also several hours)
  • Soft meditation (flow type activities) – Yoga and contact juggling (90 mins)
  • Read about Buddhism (30 mins)
  • Repeat daily until enlightened

In my general life-philosophy, you don’t really need much to be happy – In fact I’m a big believer in the fact that meaningful happiness is something that is non contingent – you should be able to be happy just sitting there, breathing. If you can’t sit quietly alone, you clearly can’t stand yourself and that’s something that needs to be sorted out urgently. It is unfortunate that the norm in Britain seems to be one of constant distraction away from facing up to the ultimate intangibility of self through the work-hard, consume-hard cycle. Unfortunately for many who fall into this trap, retirement is likely to be experienced with an accompanying sense of dread, because deep down one knows that there is going to be a lot more ‘empty time’ in retirement. If you’ve already come to terms with this by the time of retirement, however, it will be much less of a concern, and you would have saved yourself tens of thousands of pounds too!

Looked at in a simpler way – the advantage of putting meditation and mindfulness practices at the heart of things is that it costs practically nothing and the basis of your life is nearly free (as is your mind, incidentally), and consuming things is just something you do occasionally, rather than the norm of unfreedom through overconsumption.

Developing money saving skills

While my own early-retirement vision is very much focused around maximising income-generation, there is also an important role for saving money by developing new skills. To this end, I am currently learning to grow my own food, build and repair bicycles, build cheap computers, and I will at some point move on to household DIY and construction and possibly even motor-mechanics if van-dwelling ends up looking like being a major part of my future. All of these will become much more important in my later years, and will be crucial to living frugally, but I haven’t dealt with them here because I simply don’t need to think about these things just now.

The 48-60 plan!

The mortgage should be paid in full by the time I’m 48,and my basic plan at this stage is to quit full-time work, rent out my flat and use the £8K I get from this as a ‘base-income’ to allow me to travel/ work abroad for 12 years, until I’m 60 and the teacher’s pension kicks in, at which point I intend to sell my flat and build ecotopia. Yes, sad to say but the only option I’ve got of retiring early is to shaft somebody else, just like I’ve been shafted for the last couple of decades where rent is concerned.

I may as well mention here that I have explored the option of buying land and living in an eco-shack now, but the depressing truth is that this isn’t feasible in the UK if you have a full-time job – basically because doing so means you essentially have to take up all out war with the planning system, which is time-consuming.

Building Ecotopia would be much more feasible abroad, but this would mean very limited opportunities for income generation. I’m sure it would be possible to do this now, if you’re creative, and prepared to take on risk, hassle and extreme-frugality, but as I’ve said before, given the fact that I quite like my job and my life and, I’m in no rush to get to this stage, and every year I hold off makes it more likely that the eco-shack future will be a pleasure rather than a miserable disaster.

The Transition from work to Nomad

The amount of money I’ll need to transition is mainly dependent on whether I want to van or cycle/ walk around the world – The former is about twice as costly as the later.  Assuming I’m prepared to go on foot I figure I’ll need something like the following -

  • £2000 to sort the flat out for rental – mainly replacing carpets/ bathroom and disposal of stuff.
  • £3000 in the bank as an initial fund/emergency fund/ return fund.
  • £1000 on traveling stuff, including tech.

If I wanted to go via bike, I’d need to add about another £1000, and if by van another £5000. So depending on my preferred mode of transport, I’ll need from between £6 and £11k to move on!   A further related advantage to my nomad Plan is that it will force me to get rid of much of the material crap I really don’t need and reduce my possessions down to the bare-minimum.

Rough plans for travelling

As I see it I’ve got another eight years to figure out what I want to do, so these are just rough ideas. If future projections work out, I’ll have about £8K/ year (or £650/month, or £20/ day) to do the following – not necessarily in the order below.

  • Cycle around the world. – Do some nice wilderness- trail walks in various places.
  • Live in Dharamsala for a while and just be.
  • Do voluntary work to learn the skills I’ll need to build my own eco-shack.
  • Find a location for ecotopia.

Needless to say spending will be a little tight, and when I’m not volunteering and exchanging my labour for room and board, most of my evenings will be spent camped at roadsides or on people’s couches. Having said this, it is possible to stay in a cheap hotel in many parts of the world for less than than the amount of money I’ll have coming in, so at times this phase of my life might mean holidaying in the classic sense of the word, and possibly for a greater period of time than most worker-consumers would typically ‘enjoy’ in their lifetimes.

It may be that I have to stop off and do paid work every now and then. I simply don’t envision this being a problem for a qualified teacher (especially as I’ve got a TEFL qualification). All of the above sounds like huge amounts of hard work, but also a lot of fun, and I really don’t understand why anyone whose already mortgage free with their kids at university (which amounts to hundreds of thousands of people in their 50s in the UK) doesn’t just quit work and do something similar, rather than continuing to work for the majority of the year and then paying through their teeth for holidays while leaving their houses empty. I guess people just lack imagination.

The 60+ Plan

TBH This post is already over-long – So I’ll just re-emphises that when I turn 60, I’ll buy some land, plant a few hundred ebible trees and shrubs and quinoa, don some lemmy style cut-offs and graze, bare chested in summer, for the next 25 years or so until this thing I call myself dies. I’ll also meditate a a lot, keep up to date with Sociology and comment via my blog, and take the odd trip into town slices of cake and a few beers. Sorted!

Related Posts

A summary of Early Retirement Extreme by Jacob Lund Fisker

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A summary of The End of Poverty Chapter Eight – The Voiceless Dying: Africa and Disease

Posted by Realsociology on November 15, 2014

A summary of The End of Poverty Chapter Eight – The Voiceless Dying: Africa and Disease

I’ve just finished re-reading this – It mainly focusses on how Malaria and AIDs have prevented development in Sub-Saharan Africa and what can be done about it – basically a precursor to the establishment of the Millennium Development Goals. It’s 10 years old now, but fascinating nonethless, especially if you read it along with current progress reports on efforts to combat these two diseases I’ll add in a few updates on the later l8r.

The chapter begins by reminding us that corruption alone is not enough to explain Africa’s poor economic growth in the post-colonial period. In fact, charging Africa with corruption is hypocritical – little surpasses the cruelty and depredations that the West has long imposed on Africa, firstly in the form of Colonialism itself which left Africa bereft of educated leaders and infrastructure, and with arbitrary boarder lines which divided ethnic groups, water courses and mineral deposits in arbitrary ways.

On top of this, as soon as the cold war ended, Africa became a pawn in the Cold War. Assistance was refused to governments who were seen to be pro-communist and some terribly oppressive regimes were actually supported if they were seen to be anti-communist….The most obvious example provided is the installation of Mobutu Sese Seko in the now DRC following the murder of the first Primeminister of the Congo – Patrice Lumumba by CIA and Belgian Operatives, with a similar process happening in at least Angola, Ghana, South Africa (US support for Apartheid), Mozambique and Somalia.

Sachs now cites a 1965 CIA report which summed up the potential for economic growth in Africa as minimal, and stated the view that Africa was unlikely to receive signficant enough investment from the US to make a difference – basically what Africa needed was a Marshall Plan level of investment, but the US was not prepared to invest this money in Africa.

Instead, what Africa got (during the 1980s and 1990s) was Structural Readjustment Policies which encouraged ‘budgetary belt tightening’ which left many African countries poorer by 2000 than they were in the 1960s immediately after the end of colonial rule. Sachs says that these policies had little scientific merit and produced little results

Deeper Causes of African Poverty

Sach’s starts of this section by pointing out that the corruption levels between 1980 – 2000, as measured by Transparency International, were higher in various Asian countries (for example Pakistan, India and Bangladesh) compared to various African countries (for example Malawi and Mali), and yet Asian countries grew at around 3% a year, while Africa stalled. NB – it’s worth noting as a quick aside that a 3% year on year growth rate might not sound like a lot, but over 20 years this compounds signficantly.

Sachs draws on his visits to Sub-Saharan Africa (the first in 1995) to explain the factors which have hindered economic growth…..

Environmental factors hinder attempts towards economic growth – Disease, Drought and distance from world markets are all features of the African environment – Adam Smith, in fact, noted in 1776 that Africa lacked the kind of navigable rivers which gave Europe an advantage in world trade.

To emphasise this Sachs also talks about just how dispersed the rural populations of Africa are, which, combined with poor soil fertility, hinder their ability to produce sufficient food for themselves, let alone producing enough to export.

Then he gets onto the prevalence of disease – AIDS was already rampant by the mid 90s, but he also cites Malaria – he states that all of his Africa Colleages lost a few days a year to boughts of Malaria, some of the boughts being serious and leading to hospitalisation. He says that nowhere on earth had he experienced so much illness and death as in Sub-Saharan Africa – in the year 2000, SSA’s LE stood at 47, a good 20 years below Asia’s and 30 years below Europes.

According to the historian Angus Maddison, SSA had experienced the lowest levels of economic growth in the world even before colonial times, which leads Sachs to theorise that the disease burden may be able to explain both this long-term historical low economic growth rate and the more recent low growth rate.

There are some other factors which might explain low growth – Firstly poor leadership is sufficient to explain this in the case of Zimbabwe.

Next Sachs asks why there is such a lack of Free Trade Zones for exporting in Africa, given that these were the path to growth which Asian countries used form the late 1960s onwards, which grew mainly through exporting garments. There is one African country which did the same – Mauritius in 1968 – Here one ethnic-Chinese academic on the island happened to visit his brother in Taiwan . The brother was playing a lead role in the new export processing zones which were then being established in Taiwan, and his brother took the concept back to Mauritious, and the rest is history….

He then points out that free market reforms would not work in African countries which were caught in a poverty trap, especially those which are landlocked (15 countries are in Africa) – even those which had generally good governance.

The Malaria Mystery

Malaria is an entirely treatable disease, and yet it still claims 3 million lives a year, 90% of which are in Africa. After pointing to the correlation between low GDP and Malaria and then asks four questions….

Is it Malaria that causes poverty, or vice-versa? Or both?

Why was the Malaria problem so much worse in Africa

What was being done about the Malaria problem?

What more could be done?


Is it Malaria that causes poverty, or vice, versa, or both….?

Both -

Poor countries cannot afford Malarial prevention strategies – such as spraying with insecticide or putting up treated mosiquito nets, or even houses with doors and windows which keep the mosquitos out.

Malaria also prevents econommic growth – not only because of work days lost, but also because mass illness can stop infrastructure development projects in their tracks – Sachs reminds us that the building of the Panama canal was hindered because of Malaria.

Malaria also means high birth rates – when children die, parents overcompensate and have more children…. then large numbers of children and poverty means the family can only afford to educate one child, so large numbers of children enter adulthood with no education.

It also means those children who do get an education taking time of school because of sickness and poor education.

In short (p199) ‘Malaria sets the perfect trap: it impoverishes a country, making it too expensive to prevent and treat the disease. Thus malaria continues and poverty deepens in a truly vicious cycle.

Why is Africa more vulnerable than other regions?

Basically because of the disease ecology – a combination of high temperatures (the parasite develops faster), moist breeding grounds, and a variety of mosquito which prefers bighting humans rather than cattle means the transmission rate is higher in SSA than Europe and Asia (with the exception of Papua New Guinea). This all leads to the transmission rate being 9 times faster in Africa than it is in Asia.

However, Malaria is treatable and a combination of spraying, bed nets, and anti-malarial drugs means that no child at least needs to die from the disease.

What was being done (in 1995) to combat Malaria?

Hardly anything – tens of millions were being spent in aid, when $2-3 billion was required ($5billion a year in today’s money)…. The world bank was too busy arging for budget cuts and privatisation to even notice Malaria.

Africa’s AIDS cataclysm

Why is AIDs more of a problem in Africa?

No one’s really sure – the common assumption is that people have more sexual partners in Africa, although data puts this in doubt – So it might be that the patterns of copulation are different (more older men with younger women), it might be more concurrent relationships (faster turn over), it might be less use of condoms.

What are economic costs of AIDs?

This is possibly worse than Malaria, at the time 10s of millions of deaths – and many adults dying – teachers/ doctors/ civil servants, not to mention the strain on the health services, the heads of households being ill and the orphaned children. Also businesses don’t invest out of fear.

What was being done?

By the late 1990s, Anti-retroviral therapy in the West was giving people with AIDS hope – which meant more people were coming forwards to be tested for the disease, but only $70 million was being spent on combatting the disease in SSA. Apparantly the World Bank did not make one single loan specifically for combatting AIDs in the Africa from between 1995-2000.

Eventally Sachs ended up charing a WHO commission on macroeconomics and health which made the case for economic investment in health to improve economic development. They found eight major causes of disease in Africa – of which AIDs and Malaria were the top two.

The commission also suggested that $27 billion of aid focussed on health a year could save 8 million lives – equivalent to 1/000 of the combined annual income of all donor countries.

The birth of the global fund to fight AIDs, TB and Malaria

This was established in 2001, following agreement from drugs companies to provide AIDs drugs for the $500 cost price (for low income countries) rather than the $10000 market price in high income countries.However, there is still an ongoing battle to secure funding and encourage low income countries to implement the necessary procedures to make all this worthwhile.

Lessons learned

In the final section of this chapter Sachs reminds us that Africa faces other barriers to growth rather than just disease – he notes that a combination of environment and poverty creates a poverty trap – He comes back again to the point that intermittent rain fall doesn not help crop fertility, but also the fact that the most heavily populated areas are the most fertile regions in Africa – which is Rwanda (and DRC I thought) – basically inland areas furthest away from the coast.

However, he notes that there are many things which could be done to assist Africa – Poor soil can be improved by organic and artificial fertilisers, irrigation schemes could help – (Africa, basically, needs its own Green Revolution), and infrastructure improvement could connect inland rural populations.

At the end of the day – if a combined effort of the International Community and African Countries can combat Malaria and AIDs, then the same can be done to improve farming and develop roads and electric infrastructure.

I’m reminded about one quote from near the beginning of the book – What does Africa need to focus on most urgently – health/ education/ infrastructure or what – the truth is, everything at once.

The chapter rounds off by mentioning that this was about to be put in place big time by the introduction of the Millennium Development Goals in 2015 – Which Sachs played a central role in….


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Putting Ebola in Perspective (along with other preventable causes of death in West Africa)

Posted by Realsociology on November 8, 2014

This is just a quick post on the spread of Ebola… Can’t really not do something on this when you teach health and development…..

The spread of Ebola

As of 7th November 2014 there have been 13268 confirmed cases of Ebola and almost 5000 deaths from Ebola, spread across Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia, with 1/2 people contracting the dieseas dying from it. This web site outlines the current cases and deaths from Ebola in West Africa and beyond…..


A report from September  (Estimating the Future Number of Cases in the Ebola Epidemic—Liberia and Sierra Leone, 2014–2015) estimated that wthout additional interventions or changes in community behavior, by January 20, 2015, there will be a total of approximately 550,000 Ebola cases in Liberia and Sierra Leone or 1.4 million if corrections for underreporting are made. The report also noted that halting the epidemic requires that approximately 70% of Ebola cases need to be cared for either in Ebola Treatment Units or in a community setting in which there is a reduced risk of disease transmission and safe burials are provided.

What are the symptoms of Ebola?

In a nutshell, victims bleed to death.

AKA Ebola hemorrhagic fever, symptoms typically start between two days and three weeks after contracting the virus as a fever, sore throat, muscle pain, and headaches. Then, vomiting, diarrhea and rash usually follow, along with decreased function of the liver and kidneys. At this time some people begin to bleed both internally and externally.The disease has a high risk of death, killing on average 50 percent of those who contract it, often due to low blood pressure from fluid loss, and typically six to sixteen days after symptoms appear.

Ebola lives on in the deceased for at least three days…..and this is when Ebola is at its most contagious. All it takes is one tiny speck of any of the various body fluids associated with death to enter your body, and you’re infected.

Why is Ebola spreading so rapidly?

Here I focus on Sierra-Leone

(1) The first case….

The first confirmed Ebola case was in Sierra Leone was in May (2014), when a woman was admitted to a government hospital in Sierra Leone. The authorities traced her back to a well known healer in the region, who many people visited both from SL and from accross the border in Guinea, where Ebola had already been confirmed. This healer (for obvious reasons) contracted Ebola herself, and died, and this was seen as a seminal event in Ebola’s spread, with 365 deaths being traced back to her well-attended funeral.

The virus, being highly contageous, spread rapdily after that, with doctors and nurses being common casualties, dampening the ability of the country to delay the further spread of the disease.

(source –

(2) Traditional burial practices in West Africa?

One THEORY of the spread of Ebola is that traditional burial practices, which involve morners touching the deceased, lead to the rapid spread of the disease.

However, the main evidence from this comes from Anthropoligsts who have observed death ceremonies in Uganda, which is firmly in East Africa (see this article)

As one anthropologist describes a UGANDAN burial ceremony…..

In the Ugandan ceremonies the sister of the deceased’s father is responsible for bathing, cleaning, and dressing the body in a “favourite outfit.” This task  is “too emotionally painful” for the immediate family. In the event that no aunt exists, a female elder in the community takes this role on. The next step, the mourning, is where the real ceremony takes place. “Funerals are major cultural events that can last for days, depending on the status of the deceased person.” As the women “wail” and the men “dance,” the community takes time to “demonstrate care and respect for the dead.”  When the ceremony is coming to a close, a common bowl is used for ritual hand-washing, and a final touch or kiss on the face of the corpse (which is known as a “a love touch”) is bestowed on the dead. When the ceremony has concluded, the body is buried on land that directly adjoins the deceased’s house because “the family wants the spirit to be happy and not feel forgotten. These burial rituals and funerals are a critical way for the community to safely transfer the deceased into the afterlife. Prohibiting families from performing such rites is not only viewed as an affront to the deceased, but as actually putting the family in danger. “In the event of an improper burial, the deceased person’s spirit (tibo) will cause harm and illness to the family,”

(3) Mistrust of health workers

Terry O-Sullivan, who spent three years volunteering in Sierra-Leone reports that….

“People have no idea how infectious diseases work. They see people go into the hospital sick and come out dead—or never come out at all,” he says. “They think if they can avoid the hospital they can survive.” This mistrust of the medical world seems to be validated when a family is prohibited from honouring the dead, participating in the funeral, or even seeing the body.”

This is backed up by a report from the BBC World Service (28/10/14) focussing on the ‘dead body management team’ in Sierra Leonne’s capital Freetown – The report described how, with Ebola still on the increase, although the message about the risks associated with the disease is getting through, there is enoromous resistance in rural or semi-rural villages when the disposal team arrives to remove a dead body for cremation. The reason for the resistance is that it is traditional for relatives to bury the body, typically with a lot of physical contact being involved.

The report followed the disposal team into one village, where a 65 year old woman had recently died. Their job was to get the morners ‘on side’, disinfect literally everything in the hut containing the body, bag the body up (in 2 body bags) and remove it, spraying everything on root. In the process the team is thoroughly suited, with gloves taped on. Apparently the most dangerous part of the process is the removal of the suit afterwards, the staff have to be sprayed with chlorine as every layer of protective clothing is removed.

(4)  The literacy rate in SL is only around 35%, which hampers the ability of authorities to explain how Ebola is spread and how to prevent its spread, athough I imagine this isn’t so important given the widespread prevalance of the radio as a means of communication in SL.

(5)  Lack of money and medical resources in SL. In the article above O’Sullivan appears to be suggesting that it would be necessary to have health workers in every village to win the trust of villagers and supervise funerals so that they can be conducted safely, without risk of spreading the disease. Until that happens, he seems to think it’s unlikely that its spread will be stopped.


Putting Ebola in perspective….

Looking at current figures, there are 14 things which kill more people per year than Ebola (including road traffic accidents) – Using WHO data from 2011 To illustrate…..

Deaths %
1. Malaria 13,262 17.77
2. Influenza & Pneumonia 10,761 14.42
3. Diarrhoeal diseases 8,673 11.62
4. Tuberculosis 7,143 9.57
5. Low Birth Weight 3,654 4.90
6. HIV/AIDS 2,775 3.72
7. Birth Trauma 2,748 3.68
8. Maternal Conditions 2,191 2.94
9. Stroke 2,143 2.87
10. Measles 2,047 2.74
11. Coronary Heart Disease 1,788 2.40
12. Meningitis 1,712 2.29
13. Road Traffic Accidents 1,311 1.76
14. Malnutrition 1,176 1.58

15. Ebola (so far in 2014) 1130

NB I don’t want to underplay the threat of Ebola – I’m aware of the unfair comparison and the doubling every 20 days or so. If current projections come true and there are 500 000 or more confirmed cases in SL and the death rate is one in two, then Ebola will top the death league tables for 2015 by a long way. It is, however, important to note that in the table above these deaths are occurring every single year – so cumulatively deaths from preventable causes is a massive problem in SL even without Ebola.

If people really want to prevent West African children dying from preventable diseases then ending poverty in SL is the most important long term goal. Just turning up in chemical suits for a few months and then turning our backs isn’t going to help that much. It will, however make us feel a lot better about ourselves.

Ebola and the globalised culture of fear….

One interesting line of analysis about Ebola is the extent to which media attention reflects predominent narratives in the West….

Ebola sits well with parellel narratives in the ‘globalised culture of fear’ – Ebola’s basically another threat from abroad – just like the immigrants and terrorists – All of our problems come from outside, and the Ebola story reinforces this ignorance, especially when, in its original incarnation, it does actually come from the Heart of Darkness, which is pretty much the same as the all-the-same countries in West Africa.

Ebola also fits well with the Modernisation Theory narrative that ‘backward Africans’ cultural practices lead to them dying off… The predominant focus in the media seems to be on silly Africans with their backward burial rituals, all touching each other and monkeys and bats and given each other Ebola, rather than focussing on the lack of money and facilities which are essential to dampening the spread of the disease and preventing the other 14 preventable causes of death which currently kill more people every year than Ebola’s killed so far this year.

Of course what the media should be focussing on are the year on year causes of death in SL and other poor countries – and the day to day causes of health problems in general – poverty, lack of clean water and poor sanitation, and of course the good ole’ unfair trade rules which keep poor countries poor. This however is a lot more difficult for an ignorant and generally uncaring audience to understand.


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‘Summary’ of Why Nations Fail

Posted by Realsociology on October 15, 2014

71obsqEDYbL._SL1199_Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty (2013) by D. Acemoglu and J.A. Robinson

Overall Summary

Developed countries are wealthy because of ‘inclusive economic institutions’ – Basically a combination of state and free market in which

  1. The state creates incentives for people to invest and innovate – (through guaranteeing private property rights and enforcing contract law)
  2. The state enables investment and growth through providing education and infrastructure, which private business uses, and
  3. The state is controlled by its citizens, rather than monopolised by a small elite. Crucially, there needs to be a democratic principle at work in which people in politics establish institutions and laws which work for the majority of people, rather than just working to make them rich.
  4. The state also needs to maintain a monopoly on violence.

The authors come to this conclusion through a number of comparative studies of countries which are in close geographical proximity to each other such as

  • Mexico/ America
  • South/ North Korea
  • Botswana/ Zimbabwe

They argue that the only factor which can explain why one of these countries is poor and the other rich is because of the institutional infrastructure which has been established through the last few decades/ centuries.

In contrast to the above ‘inclusive economic institutions’ which encourage development, the authors suggest the opposite ‘extractive economic institutions’ (think corrupt dicator and his clique sucking money into a Swiss bank account) can generate growth in the short-term, but in the long term result in poverty.

They also suggest that there has been ‘a vicious circle’ at work in many underdeveloped countries over the last three to four centuries – With their globalised history starting off with extractive institutions established by a colonial power (typically built on already existing internal extractive institutions), which, on independence, became even more extractive under postolonial rulers, which in turn lead to civil war as competing factions fought for control over the extractive institutions – which then led to a decent into chaos and failed states. The authors see little hope for such countries.

In contrast, developing countries such as the US and the UK have benefitted from three to four centuries of a virtuous circle in which institutions have become gradually more inclusive, which has created increasing incentives for entrepeneurialism and economic growth.

The gist of the book is, handily enough, covered in the intro and chapter one….


Countries such as Egypt are poor becuase they have been ruled by a narrow elite that have organised society for their own benefit at the expense of the vast mass of people. (This also applies to North Korea, Sierra Leonne, Zimbabwe)

Countries such as Great Britain and The United States are wealthy because their citizens overthrew the elites who controlled power and created a society where political rights were much more broadly distributed, where the government was accountable and responsive to its citzens and where the great mass of people could take advantage of economic opportunties. (This also applies to Japan and Botswana).


Chapter one – so close and yet so different

Starts with a comparison of the two sides of Nogales, half of which lies in Arizona, in the US, the other half in Mexico.

In the Arizonan half the average income is $30 000 U.S dollars, the majority of adults are high school graduates, the roads are paved, there is law and order, most live until over 65. In the Southern half, the average income is three times less and everything else is similarly worse.

The authors point out that the difference cannot be because of environment or culture, it must be because of politics and economic opportuntities.

They also argue that in order to understand the difference, you need to go right back to early Colonialism in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Mexico was the first to be colonised, under a system of slavery and extraction. In the 15th century, the Spanish basically used already existing systems of slavery to their own benefit and extracted mountains of gold and silver, leaving a legacy of elite-governance and a dearth of politcal rights for the majority.

In North America, settled by mainly the English 100 years later, the absence of slavery amongst indiginous populations and much lower population densities meant that slave systems simply would not work, although this didn’t stop them trying for the first twenty years or so. Eventually, however, the orginal settler company (The Virginia company) back in England realised the only way colonialism was going to work was to provide incentives for the settlers – So they offered them land in return for work. It was this that set the basis for the democratic constitution and congress of the US, which then went on to create problems for the English government.

The rest of chapter goes on to argue that the next 300 years of history are crucial to understanding why the US is now so wealthy, and why most of Latin America is so poor.

America has had 300 years of political stability, where poltical institutions control economic institutions, at least to an extent (the authors cite the breaking up of the Microsoft Monopoly as an example) broadly making them work for everyone. Other factors such as the patent system, credit systems, and education provide opportunities for anyone to make it rich and enjoy the benefits of the wealth.

By contrast in Latin America (Mexico), up until the 1990s most countries saw political turmoil and a series of dicatorships where a series of small elites ruled for their own benefit. This instability has lead to the rise of monopoly power, and it acts as a disincentive for anyone to try and do well and become rich (the next dictator might just take all your money away), also lack of finance and education prevents competition anyway.

Crucially, historical good fortune appears to be central to explaining why a country is rich now, so figuring out how a current poor country can develop is not that straight forward if a culture of monopoly, corruption and lack of political rights are the norm…..


Chapter three – the making of prosperity and poverty

This chapter contrasts North and South Korea, divided along the 38th parellel after world war two. In the late 1940s these had similar levels of development, today, however, their economies have diverged.

South Korea has living standards 10 times higher than North Korea, the former being similar to Portugal, the later similar to sub-saharan African countries. People in North Korea also live ten years less than those in South Korea.

The differences cannot be explained by anything other than institutions.

In the South, private property and markets were encouraged (albeit by dictators initially) and thus investment and economic growth were encouraged. At the same time, the government invested in education and new industries took advantage of a better educated population.

In North Korea, privated property and markets were banned, and a centrally planned economy instigated. This simply led to stagnation.

Extractive and Inclusive economic instiutions

Countries differ in their economic success becasue of their different institutions – the rules influencing how the economy works and the incentives that motivate people. Crucial is private property rights – which needs to be backed by the state…. In South Korea, people know that they will be rewarded for their efforts, in North Korea, there is no incentive to innovate and invest because the state will expropriate the benefits of any such initiatives.

In order to develop a society needs to have ‘inclusive economic institutions’ – A state that guarantees prosperity for the massess – Such a state provides a degree of infrastructure that is necessary for economic growth – for example enforcing private property rights, contract rights for all, not just a minority, and providing education and physical infrastructure such as roads. Private enterprise uses and needs such institutions.

What doesn’t work for development is extractive insitutions – where the state is used to extract wealth from one subset of the population to another…. Such as slave and colonial systems (and the Tories in the UK today?)

Engines of Prospertity

Education for the masses is crucial for innovation in an advanced technological world – This is what all developed nations have, and what many undeveloped nations lack. Education needs to be well financed and parents need to have the incentive to send their kids to school.

Inclusive and extractive political institutions

A state needs to be inclusive for economic growth to occur – that is, it needs to both be chosen by its citizens and have a centralized control over legitimate violence.

Extractive political and economic insituttions tend to support eachother (which then means the masses don’t support them…. there is disincentive!)

Why not always choose prosperity?

The simple fact is that where technological change is the engine of economic growth, this means social change, and with change there are winners and losers… Thus existing elites may resist changes that make institutions more inclusive even if this means greater prosperity for all, because it will mean less prosperity for them. (Think industrial revolutions in Europe).

The long agony of the Congo

The Congo has not developed since independence because it has not been in the interests of the ruling elite to build a centralised state which includes all voices, or in their interests to use the state to provide public services which will benefit the masses – instead the institutions remain extractive.

As an independent polity, Congo experienced almost unbroken economic decline and poverty under the rule of Jospeh Mobutu between 1965 and 1997. Mobutu created a set of highly extractive economic insitutions. The citizens were impoverished but Mobutu and the elite around him (known as the Grosses Legumes or The Big Vegetables) became fabulously wealthy. Mobutu built himself a palace at his birthplace, Gbadolite, with an ariport large enough to land a supersonic Concord jet, a plane he frequently rented from Air France for travel to Europe. In Europe he bought castles and owned large tracts of the Belgian capital Brussels.

The simple truth is that if Mobutu had introduced more inclusive economic institutions he would not have been as rich.

Growth under extractive institutions

Growth can occur under extractive instiuttions – as in Russia and South Korea at first and China today but this is unlikely to be sustained unless both economic and political insitutions become inclusive.


Chapter twelve – the vicious circle

The authors paint the vicious circle as starting off with extractive institutions established by a colonial power (which builds on previous extractive institutions), which, on leaving, becomes even more extractive under corrupt post-colonial rulers, which in turn leads to civil war as competing factions fight for control over the extractive instittions – which then leads to a decent into chaos!

Or in more detail… The British Colonial Authorities built extractive instititions which many post independence African politicians were only too happy to continue in order to enrich themselves. This happened in countries such as Sierra Leone, Ghana, Kenya and Zambia. The postcolonial rulers used their wealth to build personalised security forces which were answerable to them and also to rig elections – money thus became essential to maintain power, with only those who have money able to maintain power. This creates incentives among the opposition to depose the existing leaders in order to gain power and wealth themselves, and to protect themselves from being killed off by the said existing leaders. The point here is that power has become an end in itself rather than as a means to developing a country.

This is best illustrated through the example of Sierra Leone -

All of the West African nation of Sierra Leone became a British colony in 1896. The British identified important rulers and and gave them a new title – paramount chief. In Eastern Sierra Leone, for example, they encountered Suluku, a powerful warrior king, who was made Paramount Chief Suluku.

In 1898 the British tried levying a hut tax of five shillings, which resulted in a civil war known as the hut tax rebellion. It started in the north, but was strongest and lasted longest in the South.

In 1904, the British stopped construction of a railway line from Freetown to the North East and instead diverted it south, to Bo, in Mendeland, to give them quick access to put down this rebellion.

When Sierra Leone became independent in 1961 the British handed power to to the SLPP, which attracted support from the South, and in 1967 this party lost the election to the opposition party, the APC which drew support from the North.

Though the railway line was initially established to rule SL, by 1967, its role was economic – it allowed transportation of the country’s exports – coffee, cocoa, and diamonds, which came mostly from Mendeland in the south.

The then leader of the APC, Siaka Stevens, who drew his political support from the north, ripped up the railway line and sold off the track and rolling stock in order to weaken the oppostion in the south and consolidate his political power. This decimated the SL economy, but when it came to a choice between consolidating power and economic growth, the consolidation of power won out. Today, you can’t take the train to Bo anymore.

There is continuity between Colonial rule and Steven’s government – both extracted wealth from the people.

The Colonial rulers did this through agricultural marketing boards – farmers had to sell their goods to these boards, which typically paid much less than the market price (impovershing farmers and enriching the elite). When Stevens took power, he kept these marketing boards in place, but it got worse – under colonial rule, the colonialists extracted about 50% of the value of agricultral products, under Stevens, the rate of extracting rose to 90%.

Along with marketing boards, the old system of Paramount Chiefs remain in place today…. They control local politics at the village level, and local land rights and taxation – Paramount chiefs are elected, but only members of the ruling house can stand – and in 2005 the victor was Sheku Fasuluka, King Suluku’s great, great grandson.

The combination of these two institutions means there is very little incentive for farmers to increase productivity – because they have insecure land rights due to the paramount chief system and are the victim of extractive insitutions in the form of the marketing boards.

Thirdly, there was the control of the diamond mines – The British essentially set up a monopoloy for the entire country and handed it to DeBeers in 1936, and shortly after independence, Stevens simply nationalised this arrangement, through which he effectively personally controlled 51% of the diamonds in SL.

Stevens used his vast fortune to buy political influence and to set up his own private security forces – the ISU (known locally as the ‘I Shoot You’ and the Special Security Division – known as Siaka Steven’s Dogs).

All of this set the scene for the brutal civil war, outlined below….

Chapter 13 – Why Nations Fail Today

In the year 2000 Zimbabwe held a national lottery for everyone who had kept more than 5000 Zimbabwean dollars in their bank account (following a period of hyperinflation). The fact that it was Robert Mugabe who won this lottery just goes to show the extent of his control over Zimbabwe’s institutions and just how extractive those institutions had become.

The most common reasons nations fail today is because they have extractive institutions – and Zimbabwe illustrates the economic and social consequences of these…. By 2008 its per capita income was half that when it gained its independence, and 2009 the unemployment rate stood at 94%.

The roots of the political and economic instiututions lie in the colonial period. Orginally apartheid institutions were establised for a white elite to extract wealth from the country, but when Zimbabwe gained its indendence, these institutions were simply maintained by Mugabe. Eventually (because of lack of inclusivity) his support waned until by the year 2000 he had to find further resources to buy political support – so he expropriated the farms owned by white people and when that wasn’t enough he printed money, which led to massive hyperinflation.

Nations fail today because their extractive institutions do not create the incentives to save, invest and innovate. In many cases politicians stifle economic activity because this threatens their power base (the economic elite) – as in Argentina, Colombia and Egypt. In the cases of Zimbabwe and Sierra Leone this led to total state failure and economic stagnation. The countries in which this has happened include…

  • Angola
  • Cameroon
  • Chad
  • DRC
  • Haiti
  • Liberia
  • Nepal
  • Sierra Leone
  • Sudan
  • Zimbabwe

And the civil war, mass displacement, famines and epidemics that accompany them… in terms of development many of these countries are poorer today than they were in the 1960s.

A children’s crusade…

This section outlines the causes of the civil war in Sierra Leone. The authors put this down to decades of extractive institutions by the tyrannical APC government (the economy was collapsing by 1985, and they use the example of the TV transmitter being sold by the minister of information in 1987 and in 1989 the country’s main radio antena collapsed, ceasing radio transmissions.) By this point, the army had been dispanded because of the ruling elite feared it might overthrow them, which meant by the time Charles Taylor’s RPF crossed the boarder in 1991 there was no one there to stop them…. And then that brtual and chaotic civil war carried on for a decade – in which competing factions competed over resources in order to keep fighting eachother – diamonds/ children (soliders) and weapons.

So in summary, the historical precendent of the SL civil war is extractive institutions… the hollowing out the state to the point that was incapable of fending off rebels.

The authors now go on to outline three other countries which have suffered from different types of extractive institutions – Colombia, Argentina and Egypt, and then Uzbekistan…. a country languishing under the absolutism of a single family and the cronies surrounding them, with an economy based on the forced labour of children….

Cotton accounts for 45% of the exports of Uzbekistan. When the country was created in 1991, its first and still only president Islam Karimov, divided up the land among farmers, but each was required to devote at least 35% of their land to cotton, a valuable export crop. However, because the farmers themselves receive only a fraction of the world market price of the crop, they had no incentive to maintain, let alone invest in, cotton harvesting machinery.

No matter, however, because the country has turned to children to harvest the cotton, and every September-November the schools are emptied of approx. 2.7 million schoolchildren. Teachers, instead of being instructors, become labour recruiters.

Each child is required to pick between 20-60KG a day, depending on age, and the lucky ones who live close to their allocated farms can walk or bus to work, but the unlucky ones have to sleep over in sheds, with no toilets or wash facilities. And it’s BYO food.

While the market price for cotton was $1.40 in 2006, the children were paid somewhere in the region of $0.01 per kilo.

All of this has come to pass because Karimov has established a regime where opposition is repressed and there is no free media or NGOs allowed.

Why do nations fail?

What all of the countries loooked at in the book have in common is that they have an elite who have designed economic instiututions in order to enrich themselves and perpetuate their power at the expense of the vast majority of people in society.

Despite differences the bigger picture is that in each of these countries extractive political institutions that have created extractive economic insitutions which transfer wealth and power toward the elite.

The solution is to transform the extractive institutions into inclusive ones…

Chapter fourteen – breaking the mould

This chapter looks at three case studies – Botswana, The South of America, and China, which all managed to move from, or negotiate their way around (in the case of Botswana) extractive to inclusive political institutions which encouraged econonomic development.

Of particular interest to me is the case of Botswana – which today has the same level of development as some Eastern European countries, despite being as poor as most of the rest of Sub-Saharan Africa in the 1960s (at which time there were less than 100 graduates in the entire country).

What’s especially interesting about Botswana is that in that particular region of Africa a broadly inclusive political system was in existence pre-colonialsm – in the sense that any individual could rise up to become head of one the various different chiefdoms in the region, and so chiefdom was not hereditory, it was meritocratic, and someone could only be chief with the will of the people. Thus the principal of ruling with the will of the people, and on behalf of the people had been established for generations.

Another factor which promoted development was the fact that the English weren’t particularly interested in Botswana. In fact in the 1890s, three Twsana chiefs visited England and negotiated with the government to be part of a British Protectorate (different to a colony) – In return for protecting the region against Rhode’s South African expansionary policies (the guy who colonised Zimbabwe and Zambia, and look how they turned out!) all Enlgand wanted was enough land to build a railway in order to open up the intererior. For this the Twsana were pretty much left alone, crucially unextracted and without interefering institutions which had been set up to allow the extraction to take place.

Also signficant is that, following Colonialism and the discovery of diamonds, the Tswana chiefs passed a law that all diamond wealth was to be national property, rather than giving the rights to individuals or Corporations (like neoliberals would claim should be done, and like what happened in Sierra Leone). The effect of this was masses of public money which was then used to pay for public services. Hence development……

Something else emphasised in this chapter is that in all three cases certain key actors made important decisions at crucial junctures in the country’s history (when an existing leader died, such as Mao, creating a power vaccum, or when Independence was gained in Botswana) – The decisions taken at these crucial points in history in these countries involved either fighting the power of entrenched elites (as in China) or establishing laws which would prevent political corruption (like nationalising the diamond supplies in Botswana) – it was these decisions, in contrast to decisions in countries like Sierra Leone where a national railline was sold off to benefit an elite, which led to economic development.

Chapter 15 – understanding prosperity and poverty

The most interesting section of this concerns the predictive power of the theory – which is limited given the role of agency and contingency in said theory. However, the authors do predict that…

America and Europe are likely to get even richer than countries in most of the rest of the world, because these are the most inclusive institutions (I’d beg to differ given Tory Policy). Nations that have undergone no signficant state centralisation such as Afghanistan, Somalia and Haiti are unlikely to witness any development. Some Latin American countries are set two grow – most noteably Brazil, Chile Mexico as are some African countries – Tanzania and Ethiopia for example. Growth will not be sustained in China.

The irresistible charm of authoritarian growth…..

This section reminds us that modernisation theory is flawed – economic growth (more Mcdonalds as Thomas Friedman might put it) does not necessarily lead to to more inclusive political institutions.

Plenty of repressive regimes have pursued and achieve very rapid economic growth in the last 60 years – Germany, for example, Russia, and China.

This chapter also deals with what probably won’t work in terms of development… Firstly, any attempt at engineering policy changes such as those attempted by neoliberalisation throughout the 1980s and 90s – Because if a country is politically corrupt, they just subvert the policy changes – Privatisation happens, but the people winning the contracts are the brothers of the ministers for example, or the country says it implements a policy but they just carries on as normal!

You can’t engineer prosperity

…because the actors within developing countries are constrained by their institutions, and if these are extractive then any programmes designed to engineer change will ultimately result in further extraction.

This is true of two approaches to foreign aid preferred by the West – both the neoliberal ‘restructure your economy’ type approach and the micro-economic approach which focuses on specific institutions.

The failure of foreign aid

As above, any aid money going into a country with extractive institutions will ultimately end up being extracted. The authors do argue, however, that even if only 20% of aid money reaches its ultimate destination then it’s worth it!

What works….?

The chapter and book round off by going back to the English and US revolutions which resulted in institutions becoming more inclusive – what is required for development is a plurality of voices demanding to be heard by government and actually being heard. This cannot be imposed from above, but seems to have to become from below.

In this sense, any attempt to engineer growth and provide aid seem pointless – the only things that make any sense are programmes oriented towards empowerment and making sure media is free because the later fosters the former.

Thoughts and comments….


The comparative analysis of countries and territories in close geographical proximity does seem to rule out the role of environmental and cultural factors in explaning divergent patterns of development, leaving only political and economic institutions.

It fully recognises the importance of the legacy of extraction identified by dependency theory, however, it also puts more emphasis on the already existing extractive institutions which the early colonisers extracted and it recognises the continuation of extraction post-colinalism, acknowledging the fact that corrupt elites also play a role.

This seems to deny the validity of neoliberal theory – the state seems to be crucial in helping development, and the absence of the state seems to be crucial in explaining the descent into chaos and civil war.

This isn’t a deterministic theory – it stresses the importance of agency and contingency at crucial historical junctures.


This is  quite a generalist analysis – ‘extractive’ and ‘inclusive’ institutions are very general, broad terms, and there’s lots of variation possible within these voluminous concepts.

The book only draws on a relatively few case studies – and lacks the statistical rigour of, for example,  Paul Collier’s Bottom Billion Theory.

The book doesn’t seem to deal with the globalised context of the nation state today within a ‘world system’ – There is no mention (as far as I can see) of the role which TNCs, trade rules, the World Bank might play in allowing a global elite (rather than nationalised elites) to extract regions of the world.

As a final word, what’s maybe most timely (or not timely?) about the book is its suggestion that some kind of political infrastructure which allows a plurality of voices to be heard and wealth to be distributed so it benefits all is crucial to development – it’s time more of us started asking how we might do this at a global, rather than a national level.

Further Reading

The blog based around the book

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