Books development economists and aid workers should read

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The below list has originally been assembled by Chris Blattman, International development, politics, economics, and policy. See his webpage at


Books development economists and aid workers seldom read but should?


A car trip with a colleague yesterday spurred the question. Here is my answer, with books that (a) changed the way I think about development, yet (b) friends and colleagues seem to seldom read.

For the ADHD crowd weaned on soundbites and Twitter, I offer inadequate twitterish encapsulations of each book.

1. The Anti-Politics Machine, James Ferguson. (“Sometimes markets don’t exist for a reason.”)

2. Peasants into Frenchmen, Eugen Weber (“Do not forget that French was recently a foreign language to most Frenchmen,” or “Nation building is a long and messy business.”)

3. Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell (“So you think we’re so far away from abject poverty ourselves?”)

4. African Economies and the Politics of Permanent Crisis, Nic van de Walle (“Everything you think about the African crisis and structural adjustment is wrong,” or “the aid and democratization folks seem to forget that incentives matter.”)

5. Seeing Like A State, Jim Scott. (“The perils of scientific approaches to planning and development.”)

6. and 7. Other Jim Scott must reads: Moral Economy of the Peasant (“Don’t overestimate the material.”) and Art of Not Being Governed (“Development usually means coercion, and underdevelopment is a strategy not a condition.”)

8. In the Company of Strangers, Paul Seabright (“The origins of market cooperation, industry and development are evolutionary.”)

9. Emergence of Autocracy in Liberia, Amos Sawyer (“Authoritarian politics are not solely the products of colonialism; seek checks and balances.”)

10. and 11. Party Games, Mark Summers, and Right to Vote, Alexander Keyssar (“Corruption and electoral mayhem ­ not so crippling to growth as you think,” or “Chill out, America, and remember you were recently much worse.”)

12. Coffee and Power, by Jeffrey Paige (“Five coffee producing nations, five different power structures, five very different democratic outcomes a hundred years later”)

13. and 14. Coercion, Capital and European States, Charles Tilly (“War makes the state”). See Jeffrey Herbst’s States and Power in Africa for the post-colonial converse (“An absence of war doesn’t make the state”).

15. Embedded Autonomy, Peter Evans. (“Most of the time state-led industrialization doesn’t work, but guess what? Sometimes it does.”)

16. and 17. Cities and the Wealth of Nations, Jane Jacobs. (“Seek healthy cities not healthy nations, and here’s how.”) which is interesting to read alongside Max Weber’s The City (“Man, are we lucky the merchants not the ruling classes lived in European cities.”)

18. Staples, Markets and Cultural Change, Harold Innis. (“Everything you need to know about New World development can be gleaned from cod, fur, and wheat.”) The most forgotten AEA President ever, and also a mentor to Marshall McLuhen.

I don’t always agree with the authors, but they do make you think. A better list would have more biographies and autobiographies, and more on China, Southeast Asia, Japan, and early Europe. But I haven’t yet read them.

Your favorites? They must have transformed your thinking, been published more than a decade ago, and mostly elicit blank stares.

Authors missing from my list because I arbitrarily decided they didn’t meet one of the criteria: Smith, Schumpeter, Hayek, Marx, Hirschman, Diamond, Landes, Mokyr, McNeil, North, Bates, Collier, Sen, Mamdani, Easterly, Sachs, Rodrik, Stiglitz and many others.]

Additions by other KM4Dev members:

19. Can I instantly add J K Galbraith's memoir "A Life In Our Times" - masterly observations about how economics really works at all stages of development. Published 1981 so it fits your criteria, and full of many "so that's how it works" moments for me. Rob Parsons

20. I have to add The poisonwood Bible, which illustrates so well the challenges of (or one might say everything that is wrong with) the aid and development system without even talking about it. Hannah Beardon

21. Many thanks for this list of books we seldom read. I would like to add Jack London's relatively unknown The people of the abyss (1903), that can complement Orwell's Down and Óut.

22. Orwell's The Road to Wigan Pier, an account of his experience living with coal miners in Britain, could also be considered.

23. And for L America, Lewis' Anthropology of Poverty and Galeano's personal view of underdevelopment and the exploitation of LA's natural resources Open Veins of LA. Saludos, Teobaldo Pinzás

24. Walter Rodney's 'How Europe Underdeveloped Africa' should have made that list for showing us that development and underdevelopment are two sides of the same coin. I believe that for you to fight underdevelopment, you have to first of all understand the genesis of underdevelopment. John E. Akude

25. Great initiatives, we all should look beyond the small world of international development&aid. I would like to add the book of P. Sainath "Everybody loves a good drought: stories from India's poorest districts". Penguin, 1996. How most big newspaper articles and headlines overlook the real lives of the poor. It fits your criteria, mostly, as I am afraid that the blank looks will mostly come from 'the west'. It was a big hit in India itself. Wenny Ho

26. And on West Africa, for Anglophones like me "God's Bits of Wood “ ( Les bouts de bois de Dieu), by the Senegalese author Ousmane Sembène, about a railroad strike in colonial Senegal of the 1940s, is a great novel for perspective. (Pete Cranston)

27. Development? As they say "start small start with yourself" True development is very much about attitude, that's why I got hooked when I discovered Theory-U, leading from the future as it emerges...

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