Eight books on development for the interested generalist

A friend recently asked me for a list of interesting books on development, and I thought I’d share the results here.  I read almost randomly in the field when I was still trying to narrow my initial broad interest in development down into something of which a career could be made, and the books below generally struck me as the most interesting, accessible, and generally well-supported introductions to their respective subject areas that I came across.  (I haven’t read some of these in years, but in retrospect I think they’d all stand up decently to a reader with greater existing knowledge of development.)  In roughly descending order of intellectual impact upon me:

  1. Development as Freedom, by Amartya Sen, is one of the best books I’ve read on the general concept of “development.”  It addresses a number of common critiques, and creates a strong philosophical framework to support the argument that “development” is still necessary.
  2. Portfolios of the Poor is my favorite book of 2009 – an incredibly thoroughly-researched look into what poor people do with their money and how microfinance plays into this.  I don’t remember learning more from a single book, well, probably ever.
  3. Understanding Poverty is a great introduction to a huge range of issues in development, from food security to education to microfinance.  It’s written by a group of leading development economists, often from a behavioral perspective, and the thought contained here is both wide-ranging and rigorous.
  4. This is a bit quirky compared to the other recommendations, but I very much liked Expectations of Modernity, an ethnography of Zambian copper miners in the ’70s and ’80s.  The description probably sounds boring, but it’s actually a great critique of the idea that people from low income countries who act in “Western” styles are blindly mimicking the West, instead of consciously bringing elements of Western culture into their lives in ways that reflect their own social & economic interests.  It basically lays out a strong case for relativistic understandings of culture, which I find hugely important for any development worker, without framing it with that potentially off-putting phrase.
  5. The Bottom Billion has held up better in retrospect than its two better-known contemporaries, The End of Poverty and The White Man’s Burden, at least in my recollection.  In a foreshadowing of my current interests, I liked its focus on research methodology in macroeconomics (i.e. where all that data underlying cross-country regressions comes from), and its quantitative look at the connections between war, governance and poverty.  (Edit: David Roodman points out his own and Easterly‘s critiques of Collier for data mining in Wars, Guns and Votes, and believes that they’re applicable to The Bottom Billion as well.  I’d suggest enjoying the intellectual curiosity of Collier’s research, but taking his statistical results with a grain of salt.)
  6. I can’t offer too much on the subject of public health, but I did greatly enjoy The Wisdom of Whores, which is an engaging book about health systems responses to HIV from the ’80s onwards, told by an irreverent epidemiologist with whom I would very much like to have a drink one day.  It’s also a great critical look at where public health data comes from, how it’s used, and to some degree why governments and international organizations choose the health priorities that they do.
  7. Making Globalization Work is something I recalled as insightful on the topics of global financial institutions, markets and trade at the time I read it.
  8. I’ve been trying to find a good overview of the World Bank that I read for a geography class a few years ago, and while I’m not sure that I’ve identified it, The World Bank: From Reconstruction to Development to Equity looks like it covers similar subject matter. I found tracing the Bank’s historical evolution quite interesting, as it also captures the variety of Western thought on “development” that’s occurred over the past 50 years, and explains quite a lot as well about current bilateral and multilateral aid regimes.

Tell me, dear readers, what else would you recommend for the interested lay reader?

33 thoughts on “Eight books on development for the interested generalist

  1. I know this post is old, but since the time of this list there are a few more books I would add:
    Moyo, D. & Ferguson, N. (2010). Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa
    Stiglitz, J. E. (2007). Making Globalization Work
    Brautigam, D. (2011). The Dragon’s Gift: The Real Story of China in Africa
    Reid, M. (2007). Forgotten Continent: The Battle for Latin America’s Soul
    Goulet, D. (ed.) (2006). Development Ethics at Work

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  2. You might also be interested in adding, to this list, my new book called COMMENT L’AFRIQUE EN EST ARRIVEE LA (how did Africa get to its present situation) published this year thru l’Harmattan, Paris. Thanks a lot.

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  3. I’m horrifically behind on this one, but I would really recommend ‘Guns, Germs and Steel’ by Jared Diamond. A lot of what he says is hypothesis unsupported by data analysis (though given the scope of the book, that’s forgivable), but in general it’s a thought-provoking read for the interested reader.

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    1. Hi Philip,

      I’ve had that on my “to-read” list for ages! I think it needs to be bumped up a few notches. Thanks for the recommendation!

      Rachel

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  4. Hallo Rachel and others, thanks for your list, will check out ‘Understanding Poverty’
    I would like to suggest, for another angle “Things fall Apart’ from Chinua Achebe, not only because it is written by a Nigerian but mainly because it gives you a feel of what an outside intervention can do with the cultural dynamics of a place, it’s set in Nigeria in 1958.

    greetings
    Emer Beamer

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  5. Great list! On the Bottom Billion, I think the criticisms can be a little overblown- for the “interested generalist” who is skeptical enough not to take everything Collier says at face value, it’s fantastic. If you aren’t sure how to wrap your head around the problem of why poor countries are poor, it’s great place to start, not least because it’s concise and readable.

    Also Easterly’s White Mans’ Burden has to be on there. Whether one agrees with him or not, his perspective is very valuable- anyone who works in or thinks about development would benefit by regularly asking themselves, “Why would Easterly say this was stupid, and how would I respond?”

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    1. Thanks for commenting! I do agree with your take on The Bottom Billion – that was largely how I felt about it when I first read it, which is why it’s still on here.

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  6. i found this list through a link on marginalrevolution. i am genuinely curious though, why no mention of jeffrey sachs from anyone? is it because his books focus on prescriptions for development, rather than theory? or is he losing credibility in the development community?

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    1. Hi Hern,

      I can’t speak for all the commentators, but I didn’t include The End of Poverty because I didn’t recall it being nearly as insightful as the other books on this list. Descriptive, certainly, and I’m sure accurate, but I didn’t come away from it feeling that I had understood something fundamentally new about the structures and processes that perpetuate or alleviate global poverty. And that’s the feeling I had with the rest of these books.

      Cheers,

      Rachel

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  7. On Easterly, I much preferred his The Elusive Quest for Growth over White Man’s Burden.

    One of my favorites is Nicolas Van de Walle – African Economies and the Politics of Permanent Crisis, 1979-1999. A nuanced account of why adjustment policies never worked out, and overall a great description of political economy in SSA and the limits to external intervention.

    A bit dated, but Galbraith’s The Nature of Mass Poverty has some interesting thinking.

    And on another note, I enjoyed Nkrumah’s autobiography to get an inside look into his story.

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    1. Ah, I have a copy of Van de Walle’s book sitting on my bookshelf now – will have to bump it up the queue of interesting development books to read next!

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  8. I think budding development students would benefit from reading some relevant journalism and/or memoirs from the development industry.

    Robert Klitgaard’s Tropical Gangester and Peter Griffith The Economist’s Tale are good, Deborah Scroggin’s Emma’s War contains some lessons for aid workers, and the recent Our Turn to Eat by Michelle Wrong is a great book too.

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    1. I’ve also been rather impressed by some of the other Short Introduction series – I’ll have to check this one out as well. And thanks for the Easterly and Bates recommendations!

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  9. Easterly’s “The Elusive Quest for Growth” is a really readable history of mainstream development thinking, and Robert Bates has two really good short books on violence and conflict: “Prosperity and Violence” and “When Things Fell Apart”

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  10. “African Development” is really good, and if anyone ever asked me for an introductory book on development issues, I’d recommend this.

    I’d also want to point you to Axelle Kabou’s book, written in 1994, although I’m not sure, if an English translation exists… in French, it’s “Et si l’Afrique refusait le developpement?”
    Kabou is Ghanaian, and she makes many points that came into “fashion” only years later… and she makes them so much better than Easterly or Moyo.

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  11. I highly recommend “African Development: Making Sense of the Issues and Actors” by Todd Moss, particularly as an introduction to the history and challenges of working to make development happen. He does a great job of illuminating both the failed historical paradigms and the unresolved debates across different areas, while remaining admirably balanced and non-partisan throughout. Focused on Africa, but most themes are relevant anywhere. Fully lives up to its subtitle.

    Development as Freedom is my other favorite.

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    1. Oh, “African Development” sounds great – that’s going on my birthday book wishlist. Thanks!

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  12. Here are a few more:

    The Anti-Politics Machine – Ferguson
    One Economics, Many Recipes – Rodrik
    Kicking Away the Ladder – Chang (I know the criticisms but…)

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    1. I’ll definitely have to check out The Anti-Politics Machine – think it’s the most-recommended addendum to this post. And thanks for the One Economics tip, I hadn’t even heard of that one!

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  13. Lovely list. Sorry that I feel moved to accentuate the negative. Paul Collier is a wonderful theoretical story-teller. But I think Easterly’s charge of data mining is well taken. Easterly criticized a newer Collier book, but I believe the charge applies as well to Bottom Billion. In my paper Anarchy of Numbers I tested several quantitative, cross-country Collier studies of growth determinants (among others). The results were extremely fragile, and the specifications that generated them were complex, odd, and seemingly chosen because they generated significant results. Out of such complex regressions and significant results, one can spin stories, for example about how aid works in countries that have good policies and that have been out of conflict for 5-8 years.

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    1. Point very well taken! I read Easterly’s critique of War, Guns and Votes as well, and had wondered whether it might also apply to Bottom Billion. That said, I read this when I had never so much as taken a stats class, and what struck me were much more these interesting ideas that one could *quantify complex phenomena* and *look for relationships between them* than any particular statistical result. I will edit the post to tell readers to take this with a grain of salt, though.

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