5 Best Books To Save the World From Poverty


I didn't study development. But I did join the Peace Corps and became a development worker. Feeling a bit like a sheep in shepherd's clothing when I arrived, I sought to educate myself in the field of development work, hoping to learn as many lessons as possible through literature before I learned them the hard way.

I'm guessing there are many who wish to better understand development and its many facets without necessarily obtaining a degree, so I've assembled a list of five of the most important voices in development and their most significant works. Consider this list, in no particular order, a beginner's guide to studying development. 

1. Jeffery Sachs

Who he is: 

What to read: The End of Poverty gives the best global perspective on poverty that I've ever encountered and shows us just how complicated poverty is; for example, Sachs explains why dismal health care, rather than corruption or laziness, is impeding Africa's development. This book is a must read for those interested in the macroeconomics behind poverty and the possible method and long term actions that could end it.

2. Mohammed Yunus

Who he is: This Bangladeshi professor is essentially the father of micro-financing. He has loaned over $11.35 billion to poor Bangladeshis through his Nobel Peace Prize-winning Grameen Bank. Ninety six percent of borrowers are women and the bank boasts a 96.67% repayment rate. Lately, Yunus has focused on creating Social Businesses – businesses that run like for-profit companies but do not pay dividends and have social goals. He has created several of them already and hopes to create formal legal and market models for social businesses so they can proliferate faster.

What to read: Banker to the Poor details the creation of Grameen Bank and the creation of micro-finance as we know it. His latest book, Creating a World Without Poverty,  describes his vision for what a social business should be and how it could become a market-based solution to poverty.

3. Dr. Paul Farmer

Who he is: In my opinion, the best development worker in the world. One of the world's most influential physicians, Farmer has operated a free clinic for 25 years in Haiti's unbelievably impoverished central plateau. His organization, Partners in Health (PIH), is a leading worldwide expert in infectious diseases, especially HIV, AIDS, and tuberculosis, and in strategies to fight them  in the poorest of the poor communities. He jointly founded PIH with current World Bank president Jim Kim, who is also a close personal friend.

What to read: Start with Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder – it is a beautifully written, accessible account of both Farmer's and PIH's efforts in Haiti and around the world. Pathologies of Power addresses the importance of structural violence and ingrained racism as deterrents to effective health care rather than “cultural” faults. He argues that access to affordable health care should be not unequal in society, but  preferential for the poor. Farmer also aggressively criticizes traditional international aid efforts, particularly the clichéd and often euphemistic development terms “cost-effectiveness” and “sustainability.” 

4. Esther Duflo

Who she is: Co-founder and Director of the Jameel Poverty Action lab and Professor of Poverty Alleviation and Development Economics at MIT, Duflo takes a micro economic approach to poverty alleviation. She studies the causal relationships on the ground, such as household behavior and lack of education, that create and exacerbate poverty. For 15 years, her field experiments and critical questions have changed the way development workers think about and approach poverty eradication.

What to Read: Her 2011 book, Poor Economics, details her experience in the field. She outlines what works and what doesn't, particularly in the field of behavior change. The book also criticizes the lack of worthwhile evaluation of humanitarian aid efforts and suggests specific actions that could improve it.

5. Amartya Sen

Who he is: Considered the “Conscience of Economics,” Sen has been a force in social choice theory, welfare economics, development economics and combating famine. He received the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences in 1998 for his work in welfare economics and helped create the United Nations Human Development Index.

What to Read: Development As Freedom highlights the importance of citizens' freedom as a means of development. He focuses on political freedoms, economic facilities, social opportunities, transparency guarantees, and protective security. According to Sen, governments put their countries in incomparably better positions to develop when they ensure these five freedoms for their citizens (or when governments "help people help themselves").

Again, this list is one development worker's perspective on the field's most important voices. Please populate the comments section with other suggestions, so that interested readers gain a more holistic introduction to development literature and leaders.