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Peter Griffiths, "The Economist's Tale" Zed Books

Reviewed in "Teaching Business and Economics"

Just as the BBC was delighting its summer time audience with up-dated versions of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales came the publication of a story of the economics profession in the form of 'The Economist's Tale'. Now, I remember Chaucer from my sixth form reading as being full of salacious detail, worldly weakness, cunning, duplicity, hypocrisy and immorality and if that is what you seek, this tale will not disappoint. All human weakness and corruption is here. Unlike Chaucer's tales, however, Peter Griffiths' story is true.

This is the tale of just one battle between economists. The location: Sierra Leone. The cast: one professional agricultural consultant economist, sundry other economists employed and unemployed, expats of varying employment and morals, government ministers and functionaries of varying degrees of honesty and graft, representatives of the World Bank, ladies of the Casablanca Bar, people of Sierra Leone from town and country, Lebanese traders afraid to trade, aid workers, some naive, some resigned and most of them far from the Mother Theresa figures Griffiths believes are required by middle class donors and readers of the British press.

The book takes the form of a diary from the beginning of one September in the late 1980s until the following January, in what turned out to be the run-up to a potential famine. It starts prosaically enough with an economist's search for the information he needed to produce a report on food output. Griffiths agonised over the ethics of trying to get more information from someone than they wanted to give him but reliable information was as scarce as food.

The scarcity of information could have any number of reasons: consultant overkill, inter-ministry rivalry, threats of military coups, the belief that the secret police might be listening, a desire to keep one's job, the strong chance that the report wouldn't be taken seriously anyway.

The cast behaved with sometimes bizarre rationality as they approached the impending crisis. The World Bank imposed the rationality of the free market in implementing its policy. This took the form of a secret agreement with the government of Sierra Leone by which all imports of food and food subsidies were to be banned. Griffiths became aware of the agreement through clever deduction based on observation of the behaviour of some of the main players. If carried out, the agreement would bring widespread famine and starvation. If the consultant drew attention to it, he might never work in West Africa or for the World Bank again.

This is a delightful read, a real page turner as the pressure builds and an antidote to the popular belief that for a book on economics to be taken seriously it must be difficult. This book is challenging, but in an entirely different way. Reading it in the run up to Christmas only heightened the contrast between our season of bulging shop displays and plentiful supply and the description of families on the margin of survival in Sierra Leone. One could be depressed by the hopelessness of it all, by the number of projects which are just wrong headed and wasteful. Alternatively, one could feel buoyed by the fact that sometimes courage and honesty will out and that economic analysis has the power to do good.

The book can be read on many levels: as a gripping narrative, as a parable for our times, as a fascinating insight into what a professional economist does when dispatched to a third world country, as a behind the scenes view of the interplay of politics, greed and the World Bank's obsession with one economic solution. It makes economics personal. As such, it is an ideal read for the sixth form economist or sociologist and an essential text for courses on development and globalisation. Its price at £15.95 may seem high for some department budgets and it is hard to envisage many class sets being purchased. [But Zed Books offers a 40% discount for class sets!] However, its value in winning the interest of students cannot be overstated. Every school should have a copy. Persuade your school or college librarian now.

Sue Turner,  Review Editor 

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Peter Griffiths

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The Economist