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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?