"Ladies and gentlemen, for those of you going to the poverty lecture, the Old Theatre is completely full up. Please follow the signs to the new theatre for a videolink."
There are superstar academics. And then there's Bill Easterly. He's scruffy, he trips over long words. But he's very witty. And he's in his element with an audience of LSE development students, nervous charity workers and academics, mostly keen to hear him take on traditional aid narratives. I'd call him anti-establishment, but everybody knows he speaks several truths.
A quick round up:
1. We don't know how to end global poverty actually translates as 'we don't know what creates economic growth'. All the answers of the 60s (go plan!), 80s (loose all your price controls! Let free markets ring!), 90s (erm, it's a sort of mish-mash, long live Good Governance!), 00s (security!): none of them have been proven to generate growth. The data from sub-Saharan Africa is often seriously flawed anyway.
1a. And who's the 'we' – rich Western people? So even if we knew how, we'd have to impose it in an authoritarian manner.
2. So stop prescribing things. Benevolent dictators are not cool. It's a fluke! There's no evidence that planning works.
3. But it is okay to take a normative approach and say that our Western liberal way is the right way. Jefferson just stated his values, he didn't run 4m regression analyses to come with them. And there is a bit of evidence that suggests that respect for individual rights and the rule of law leads to growth. And check out America, we did okay for ourselves.
So he writes off prescriptive approaches, then prescribes something. It's as though he comes, blinking, out of the economists' cave where they try to model everything, into the real world, but then dives back in.
No, to be fair, he's arguing that if you free people from prescriptions then they'll make their own way to growth. There's no one answer save for the answer that gives millions of small solutions. John Bird of the Big Issue is on hand to point out that 'millions of small solutions' overlap, are inefficient etc. But that'll sort itself out.
Perhaps this is revolutionary for a development economist, but it's pretty obvious to most people. Not all developmenty people are economists. They haven't all argued that growth is the holy grail. NGOs lined up to decry the IMF's structural adjustment plans, which weren't great. The anthropologists, sociologists, even lawyers, scientists and political policy people, recognise that localism is key. Context is king. The efforts of the academic economists to find the key to growth are like alchemy. But he's right that a lot of global financial institution money tends to chase fads.
The general gist of his argument takes me back to that question you get into when you're really deep in Development Studies – is an increase in wealth something we should actually aim for? Is development a good thing? Are '[insert name of poor community]' people actually happy with their lot? (the old poverty-glamour fun)…the point is: it doesn't matter. It's not 'our' place to say. It's for every economically poor individual to decide. And guess what most of the global poor would say…
You said it, Jurgen.
The estate is less than 40 years old – it opened in 1974. It’s early days are described with some nostalgia, but realistically in this 2001 article from the Observer.
In 2004, Southwark Council chose to embark on a multi-billion pound regeneration for the entire Elephant & Castle area, which was to include demolishing both the Heygate and Aylesbury estates. The residents were promised rehousing by the Council. But by the time they had moved a large number of residents out, and boarded up their properties, leaving the place feeling like an abandoned ocean liner, the credit crunch hit. This delayed the demolition. In late March 2010, Southwark Council said that the new regeneration agreement was ‘nearly ready’.
Since 2007, the excellent Heygate Live blog has provided regular updates on the affairs of the 1260-unit estate.
In the last sun of an April evening, the estate was eerily quiet. Though completely empty, most entrances and walkways were still open, and a pile of fresh human faeces lay in front of a lift chamber. Empty walkways, empty corridors that must have buzzed at one time, not so long ago – now still. I saw a few people cutting through the estate, and one woman ran past me on the corridor/balcony, but walking around the site, just one single flat appeared to be still occupied.
Despite the crowds, this exhibition is utterly absorbing. The RA has gathered an impressive selection of works from the UK, Amsterdam, the States and private collections. The sense of the ‘real’ comes through the display of perhaps twenty of van Gogh’s letters.
He wrote copious short letters, some of which include sketches of planned paintings: a detailed ‘scribble’ of a weaver at a loom on a letter to his brother, Theo, becomes the great painting hung alongside it.
There are seven rooms showing different elements of Van Gogh’s work, progressing chronologically. The exhibition begins with his ‘scratches’ (sketches), follows the introduction of colour and the impact of impressionism, his move to Arles and Provence, before his final move north of Paris. The role of literature is highlighted: we read that he was a great fan of Dickens – much moved by Dickens’ humanity and his true portrayal of the poor.
The curators translate sentences from the Dutch and French letters which concern his works, but more moving are the personal details. He begins one letter with the tragic statement that ‘I have found a restaurant where I eat for a 1 franc’, a sweeping down stroke forming a stylish ‘f’. In another he asks his brother to send him brushes and sketches the types he wants.
His addiction to his work comes through strongly, writing of his desire to constantly paint and sketch, to record the beauty of seasons, landscapes and people, as though under an obligation to constantly improve, to perfect.
His handwriting degenerates as time goes by, he writes on both sides of paper, on the backs of sketches, on envelopes, anything he can get his hands on to explain his enthusiasm, his awesome passion and magnificent ambition that, for him, was always unsatisfied. It drove him to depression, exhaustion and ultimately suicide, though it took the poor man two days to die of his gunshot wounds.
The exhibition includes the last letters between Vincent and Theo, both dated (thurs) 23rd July 1890, and finally the draft that Theo found upon Vincent after he’d shot himself in the chest, complete with still pinkish blood stains.
At the RA
One gallery visitor, stood next to ‘The Yellow House’, a work of breath-taking beauty, says ‘I must admit I’m not enamoured by any of them ’, leaving one wondering what could possibly do it for her.
The RA packed its visitors in, one compared the space to rush hour on the Northern line. And on very dodgy calculations, the gallery must be taking several million pounds from ticket sales. While they must cover the costs of staging, does the surplus simply revert to the general gallery funds? They could spend some of it on decent cycle parking.
The exhibition finishes on the 18 April, but happily, you can view all van Gogh’s letters at the fantastic http://vangoghletters.org/vg/ – and if you have £400, get the book described by the Economist as possibly ‘the best autobiography of an artist yet to appear anywhere’. Could I borrow £400?