Shelf help: six books on global development that will make you think

Shelf help: six books on global development that will make you think

This time last year, the World Bank headquarters in Washington, D.C. featured an exhibit inviting visitors to propose solutions to global poverty. Across large white boards displaying the words “end poverty” and “#ittakes” passerby pinned hundreds of cards. The range of scribbled recommendations was remarkable: education, good governance, the need to address the legacies of colonialism, fair trade, gender equality, an end to abortion, local solutions, stronger European militaries, a new World Bank president, humility, gumption, growth, debt relief, fertilizer, microloans and Jesus. A first grader named Rushi wrote simply, “give them some money.”

Global development professionals have long been searching for the determinants of prosperity. Scholars have emphasized everything from geography to history to public policy to culture—and have collectively proposed an array of solutions even more dizzying in scope. The following books represent just a small sample of attempts to both define development and ascertain the factors that drive it. The perspectives represented here are, I hope, sufficiently diverse, but they are by no means exhaustive.

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getting better

Getting Better: Why Global Development Is Succeeding—And How We Can Improve the World Even More, by Charles Kenny

The Takeaway: Kenney scoured the data. He found that by almost any measure of wellbeing (except income) – e.g., life expectancy, literacy levels, political freedoms, access to adequate food and healthcare – there has been dramatic progress in recent decades. Kenney attributes this global success mainly to the diffusion of technologies (e.g., vaccines) and ideas (e.g, girls’ education matters).

development as freedom

Development as Freedom, by Amarta Sen

The Takeaway: This is a classic of development literature. Sen’s argument is that freedom is the ultimate currency by which we should measure human progress. The free agency of ordinary people is the point of development and the principle means by which development is achieved. Rather than focus on traditional development metrics like GDP (Gross Domestic Product), Sen holds that policies and programs should be evaluated based on the extent to which they enhance or hinder ‘our capability to lead the lives we have reason to value’.

why nations fail

Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty, by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson

The Takeaway: Acemoglu and Robinson give little credit to theories of development that focus on anything other than political foundations. According to this model, a nation’s manmade political institutions are the biggest factor in development. They argue that a pluralistic system that protects individual rights enables prosperity; while a political system that concentrates power in the hands of a few inhibits it. The notion that all progress hinges on a single factor is difficult to sustain, but in some contexts – like in the diverging Koreas – the quality of political institutions may indeed outweigh any other consideration.

how rich countries

How Rich Countries Got Rich and Why Poor Countries Stay Poor, by Erik Reinert

The Takeaway: Taking a historical perspective, Reinert argues that almost all of today’s high-income countries grew their economies not through self-regulated markets and open trade, but through protectionism – tariff barriers and strategic government investment in domestic industries, integrating into the global economy only after reaching a sufficient level of industrialization.

guns germs

Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, by Jared Diamond

The Takeaway: Diamond chronicles the history of progress through the lens of geography and environmental science. He argues that human societies’ divergent economic trajectories are, in part, the product of geographical and environmental factors. While geographic preconditions do not determine everything, contemporary global gaps in wealth and power may have roots farther back than we might imagine.


The Age of Sustainable Development, by Jeffrey Sachs

The Takeaway: This is the most comprehensive recent book on development out there. Sachs proposes that societies should aim for economic development that is socially-inclusive, environmentally-sustainable, and underpinned by good governance. He highlights our biggest collective challenges – interconnected global problems like extreme poverty, environmental degradation and corruption in politics – and explores some big ideas for solving them.

Need some more inspiration for your summer reading list? Check-out the #Shelfies (bookshelves) of 6 smart women.


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