I was recently asked by a group of Peace Corps Volunteers to come up with a list of must-read books in international development that would be helpful for understanding the landscape as a whole, particularly for beginners.
So while certainly not exhaustive, I came up with a handful of the texts that have helped round out my understanding over the last years. There are many more out there, and many more to come, but here’s what I offered them.
In no particular order.
by William Easterly
Most people assume it’s completely negative on development, but it’s actually calling for a shift in agency and accountability for development efforts.
by Dambisa Moyo
One of the better books out there that takes off the rose-colored glasses and asks the tough questions and makes quite compelling arguments for really rethinking how aid is done.
by Abhijit V. Banerjee
Read this to understand the economics of foreign aid, and how to approach it from a more economic (read: quantitative and realistic) perspective. Although RCTs have not become the magic bullet that this book launched them to be, it’s a cornerstone. You’ll read it in any grad program.
by Paul Collier
High-level and general overview of global poverty. Great for getting a foothold into all of the various interconnected systems.
by Amartya Sen
A little hard to approach at first, but literally the most empowering and optimistic perspective to have in approaching global development — puts both the goal and the mechanism as choice and opportunity.
by Jeffrey D. Sachs
Another high-level view. I love it because it was the first time I was confronted with the idea that extreme poverty can be eradicated — it’s not a zero-sum game.
by Thomas L. Friedman
Sort of the Ayn Rand of global economics in everyone has read it at some point, and people who don’t dive much deeper believe it’s gospel. Most folks have pointed out and disassembled much of the sometimes-overly-simplistic gloss Friedman paints on the world—but remains an important perspective nonetheless.
by Tracy Kidder
This is the one that your mother will send you while you’re in the field. It’s incredibly captivating and does an amazing job of sweeping wide and then narrowing in when needed. That said, it beatifies Paul Farmer a bit too much (Kidden acknowledges this even in the book), and thus it makes the work seem that much more daunting. A must read.
by Paul Farmer
Obviously if you read the book about him you then have to read the book by him. It’s dense and you shouldn’t read page-to-page, but the argument is really powerful and really contextualizes how health and medicine is part of everything, and everything is part of health and medicine.
by Daryl Collins
Another high-level overview of international aid/development — but this time focusing in a bit more on the micro/individual level.
by Daron Acemoğlu
One of the best books offering a macroeconomic perspective. Offers both high level perspectives but not afraid to dive into the numbers.
by Jared Diamond
One of the most transformative books for me personally. It frames the question of ‘why did the West end up with all of the power, money, and opportunity in the world when others did not’ — it was hailed as one of the first truly geographically deterministic frameworks that superseded racial and manifest destiny explanations.
by William Easterly
It’s incredibly important to read critical accounts of international development, particularly in a field that has critics from within and from without. William Easterly knows the landscape probably better than anyone, and so if you can come away from his texts with a firm skepticism but solid footing nonetheless, you’re all the better off.
by William Kamkwamba
The tinkerer in me just devoured this book. In many ways, it’s the dream story for those of working at the intersection of technology and social good. These types of stories are the ones that I think ought to be told more often in these types of formats.
Phew. I know that I’m just scratching the surface, but I wanted to make this list useful to folks right out of the gate. Let me know what you think — if I should add anything that’s absolutely critical!