I’ve read quite a few fine books on on international development since I last wrote about books on development for the interested generalist. I still stand by books 1 -4 and 6 on that list. I suspect that 5, 7 and 8 may now be outdated. Here’s what I would add to the list. Please send your suggestions in as well!
- Violence and Social Orders: A Conceptual Framework for Interpreting Recorded Human History, by Douglass North, Jim Wallis and Barry Weingast. A succinct and compelling discussion of why some states become rich and stay rich over the long run, while most remain relatively poor. Does a great job getting past arguments focused on geography or technology to look at the politics of economic growth.
- Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means so Much, by Sendhil Mullainathan. A fascinating look at the cognitive effects of poverty, which are considerable. The brief version of the argument is that people who face constant stress about whether they can afford to meet their basic needs often find it difficult to focus on making longer-term investments, such as making sure their children attend school regularly. Could be read along with James Scott’s Weapons of the Weak as a short course on why behaviors that might look confusing to outside observers are often quite rational.
- Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition have Failed, by James Scott. Essentially a treatise on standardization (of names, languages, railway gauges, what have you) and the role that this has played in many ambitiously large but ultimately unsuccessful development schemes. Scott is a wonderful writer, and he has a gift for taking topics that might be dull in the hands of a lesser writer (like the standardization of basket sizes for paying grain taxes in medieval Europe) and finding the human drama within them.
- More than Good Intentions: Improving the Ways the World’s Poor Borrow, Save, Farm and Stay Healthy, by Dean Karlan & Jacob Appel, and Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty, by Esther Duflo & Abhijit Banerjee. Both books offer a great introduction to a new type of research in economics aimed at finding effective policies to reduce poverty. What I appreciate about this type of research is that it represents to me a type of hopeful pragmatism. It isn’t geared toward identifying the type of big push policies that might lift a whole country out of poverty in a generation (which few states besides China have the capacity to carry out anyway), but it takes an experimental, iterative approach to finding new products and services that are useful to ordinary people in low income countries.
- Montaillou: The Promised Land of Error, by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie. A truly remarkable book about daily life in a small town in the mountains of southern France in the early 14th century. Many people in the town held Albigensian beliefs, and were subject to an inquisition by the Catholic Church, which produced exhaustive records of their interactions with their neighbors and with visiting Albigensian holy men. Le Roy Ladurie used these records to reconstruct a richly detailed portrait of personal, political and economic life in rural France nearly 700 years ago. It’s a poignant reminder that even today’s high income countries were once basically just as poor as anywhere else – but also that poverty doesn’t inherently have to mean isolation, deprivation, or constant unhappiness.
- The Zenith, by Duong Thu Huong. A fantastic recent novel by one of Vietnam’s leading authors. It’s an imaginative retelling of the end of Ho Chi Minh’s life in an isolated mountain villa, and how it comes to intersect with the daily lives of the people living in the small towns nearby. Rather like Montaillou, this is a much more complex, interesting, and deeply felt portrayal of rural life in a low income country than people from high income countries are usually exposed to.