It is comparatively rare that the cover of a book so adequately describes not just the contents inside those covers, but also manages to capture so completely a flavour of the book itself. It is even more rare to have a ‘textbook’ land on my desk that is such an absolute pleasure to read. The author is an evaluator in the field of international development, and his down-to-earth style of writing manages to satisfy both the practicalities of the development worker in the field and the academic in the study. A quick glimpse at the comments from reviewers in the official blurb, saying ‘insightful’, ‘enjoyable’, and ‘engaging’ seem to summarise the common perspective. To that, I would add ‘useful’ because although this publication is nominally directed at rural development in ‘the global south’ there is a wealth of reading for practitioners and socially aware academics everywhere. For example, although the fine-grained details of the context vary hugely between least-developed countries and my own region of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, there are gems of thought-provoking reading in this book that should allow people “to see ourselves as others see us” (as Burns wrote in his poetry). This is a book that should stimulate people of all sorts who are working in rural development anywhere. I have little doubt that it will also usefully inform many other areas of activity, including regional studies, colonial history, the psychology of development, and several other related topics.
The main topics for each chapter deal with the big issues of our time – agricultural change, micro-finance, migration, and climate change, among others – but the inclusion of text-boxes for more detailed explanations, along with many well-chosen examples, lifts this text beyond the normal. Above all, it is both accessible and challenging – a rare combination. It is accessible because it is well-written, in language that is not cloaked in jargon nor obscured in cliché – most importantly, it is understandable. It is challenging because it looks at the failings both of practices in the field and of theories in the classroom, thereby forcing us all to re-evaluate some ideas that we have taken for granted or simply not explored thoroughly enough. This is not a smug take-down of development that has been done by others, this is an honest re-evaluation of what matters, and what should matter, when anybody begins to talk about improving social and environmental conditions, or social equity in rural areas. This is a book that can be informatively read sitting in an old armchair at home, or shared with others who have come straight from the fields and want to understand better how to plan for changes that will improve their own lives and the lives of their families.
Does this book give us ‘the answer‘ to better rural development? No, but it gives us some suggestions, and it throws a welcome and an insightful light on some ill-lit corners. I have no doubt that critically reading this book, and following up some of the many interesting ideas that are discussed here, will help readers gain a deeper appreciation of the necessity of integration, and the imperative of engaging, with the many diverse strands of activity that we loosely describe as ‘rural development’.
I will certainly put in a request for multiple copies in my university library, and I will recommend it as background reading to every student of rural development in our undergraduate and postgraduate programmes. It is not enough simply to enjoy this book personally, it has to be shared with others, and above all acted upon.
Willem van Eekelen. (2020). Rural development in practice: Exploring challenges and opportunities. London: Routledge.