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Books development economists and aid workers seldom read but should? - Chris Blattman

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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.

63 Responses

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  2. This is a great list, but only one is a woman (Jacobs) and one is a person from a developing country (Sawyer). This is quite striking given that this is a list of books that aspiring development practitioners should read. I understand that this is not intended to be a comprehensive “development 101” reading list but I do feel that if women and authors of color/ authors from developing countries are almost entirely missing from this list, then perhaps you should rethink your criteria for selection.

  3. Interesting list and comments. I miss books on aid: Roger Riddel’s books are good overviews. On the history of ‘development’ and the Great divergence Peer Vries might be advised. And on divergent development economics Ha-Joon Chang. Bayart on the state and politics in Africa

  4. Polly Hill Development Economics on Trial, don’t do fieldwork without reading this book first

    Mary Howard and Ann Millard Hunger and Shame, stigma and malnutrition, essential reading

    Bill Warren Imperialism: pioneer of capitalism. Much less relevant today, but weened people like me off underdevelopment theory (Gunder Frank et al) and onto Brenner etc – mentioned already in this discussion. If you don’t know about articulation of modes of production you won’t get how economic and political systems function. In addition to Warren, it was Hyden’s Beyond Ujaama which did that but the recommended book is

    Goran Hydens No Shortcuts to Progress, the limitations of social engineering, which is what all us policy-oriented IE people are trying to do

    Not a development book but Glover Causing Death and Saving Lives is a book which truly changed my thinking (very very many years ago) – and is relevant to development insofar as there is a utilitarian calculus behind any development intervention (though official agencies of course generally insist there are no losers, that is usually bollocks)

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  6. i would, if you allow me “The River and the Source” by Margaret Ogola. the book gives a clear glimpse of how Luos in Kenya uphold high sense of moral dignity and a sense of hard work and honest pursuit of wisdom the African traditional societies institutionalize until the disruptions that came with colonialization.

  7. Please add some novels or plays as I don’t think academics (and politicians especially!) read enough literature. Politics gives you the big picture; literature brings out the human experience which we so often forget.

    Here are several ideas to start you off:

    ‘Things Fall Apart’ by Chinua Achebe
    ‘So Long a Letter’ by Mariama Ba
    ‘The Kingdom of This World’ by Alejo Carpentier
    ‘Translations’ by Brian Friel
    ‘The Quiet American’ by Graham Greene
    ‘The Secret River’ by Kate Grenville
    ‘Oil on Water’ by Helon Habila
    ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’ by Mohsin Hamid
    ‘The Year of Living Dangerously’ by Christopher Koch
    ‘The God of Small Things’ by Arundhati Roy
    ‘Season of Migration to the North’ by Tayeb Salih
    ‘Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress’ by Dai Sijie

  8. I notice Professor Blattman is mentioned in the acknowledgement section of Tyranny of Experts by Professor Easterly. Modesty, one assumes, forbade Professor Blattman from recommending the said title due to personal involvement. Or perhaps the list written originally in 2011 needs to be brought up to date.

  9. Nakumatt is one of the largest supermarket chains in Kenya. Sometimes they have a book section. A lot of the books are of the genre get rich easily. They don’t have much in the way of development but I did see recently Professor Collier on Guns etc. Professor Krugman’s Conscience of a Liberal was also for sale. Both were offered at about $11 which seemed very fair. The puzzle in Kenya is why Nakumatt’s prices are so reasonable yet the duty free bookshop books are so expensive. I am not a shareholder in Nakumatt.

  10. Thanks for the list Chris. I am now looking out for some of the recommended books. I will recommend ‘Poverty and Development into the 21st Century’ by Tim Allen and Alan Thomas for starters in development. I found it very useful many years ago. This book is very popular with The Open University, Milton Keynes, UK

  11. Thanks for the list Chris. I am now looking out for some of the recommended books. I will recommend ‘Poverty in the 21st Century’ by Tim Allen and Alan Thomas for starters in development. I found it very useful many years ago. This is book is very popular with The Open University, Milton Keynes

  12. Definitely “Aid at the Edge of Chaos” (2013) by Ben Ramalingam, a researcher from Overseas Development Institute, UK leading dev think tank. Brilliant reflection on the wishful naïve linearity of development assistance thinking versus social and environmental complexity reality in developing countries. Superbly researched and very readable.
    Studying MSc in development really makes me think how come there is so no teaching on social anthropology and so much economics in development education? Is it because in the West we have the kitty?

  13. If I’m not mistaken – all authors recommended by Chris Blattman but one are white/Western folk. Why?

    Are the books written by brown folk about themselves often read by Development practitioners or are those books not worth reading?

  14. Just wrapping up ‘Global History: A View from the South” by Samir Amin. Definitely of the World Systems Theory/global Marxist camp, but quite informative and thought-provoking if read with requisite grain of salt.

  15. No Ha-Joon Chang (Kicking Away the Ladder and Bad Samaritans)? And also Robert C. Allen on Soviet economic development and Amiya Kumar Bagchi on the history of underdevelopment. Hans Singer and Kunibert Raffer too. Duncan Green from Oxfam as well. I think Eugen Weber didn’t notice that the Algerian immigrants never did become French.

  16. I’m so pleased that Ferguson’s book is number 1. I think this should be compulsory reading for anyone who works on development.

  17. My answer to the question:A Thorough Introduction to the Philosophy of Science.

  18. ‘Europe and the People without History’ — Erik Wolf (1982)
    This magnificent re-writing of the history of mankind argues for a more holistic, connected vision, were non-European people and countries are not seen as static and unchanging. Instead, history and cultures are created through connections, conflict and interaction, An eye-opener!

    ‘Orientalism; Western Conceptions of the Orient’ Edward Said (1978)
    When thinking and writing about ‘the other’, one is able to form one’s own identity. In that way, the West ‘needed’ to create the image of the uncivilized, emotional ‘other’ in order to feel civilized and rational. This ideological construction granted the West cultural hegemony. Sadly, still appplicable..

    ‘Encountering Development; The Making and Unmaking of the Third Word’ Arthuro Escobar (1996)
    A provocative analysis of development discourse, Escobar shows how development policies became mechanisms of control, and provides the reader with a futuristic discussion of the post-development era.

  19. I’m a big advocate of Thomas Carlyle’s “The French Revolution,” it’s a fun read and one of the best descriptions of the logic of a failed state that I’ve ever come across.

  20. Peter Uvin’s “Aiding Violence” about the role of the aid industry in pre-genocide Rwanda.

  21. Henry Mayhew (1861) London Labour and the London Poor
    E.P. Thompson (1963) The Making of the English Working Class

    Both are flawed works, but incredibly important and insightful.

  22. I’d go for The Children of Sanchez and A Death in the Sanchez Family by Oscar Lewis. Not only is it likely that most people in development haven´t heard of Lewis, those that have probably despise him. Maybe he deserves this:- his signature theory, ‘The culture of poverty’ was poorly thought out, barely supported by his own research, and he contradicted himself repeatedly. Predictably the idea became used as an excuse to ‘blame the victims’ in both rich and poor countries, something that was never Lewis´s intention.

    But the two books on the Sanchez family stand in their own right as compelling accounts of the experience of poverty. By simply allowing the Sanchez family to describe their lives in their own terms without framing those words through the opinions of an ‘expert’, Lewis went into areas where most academics were, and are, afraid to tread and for that alone the books are well worth a read.

  23. I would add “putting the last first” by Robert Chambers, great list by the way, a good set of summer reading

  24. “Rule of Experts: Egypt, Techno-Politics, Modernity” by Timothy Mitchell
    This is a great book about the way development schemes are framed as technical problems and ignore underlying political issues, and about violence and coercion in technocratic politics.
    Goes well with J. Ferguson’s “Anti-politics Machine”

  25. I just assigned Eugen Weber to my undergrad/MPA students! Nice to see others know it exists.

    Also, I’m shocked that you think Crawford Young is impenetrable. I think he’s one of the best writers in the field.

    I’d also add P.P. Ekeh’s Colonialism and the Two Publics in Africa, and A. Etzioni’s Org Control & Structure. Not about development, but I think it’s applicable to everything.

    “Organizational Control and Structure,” in James March (ed.), Handbook of Organizations (Chicago: Rand McNally, 1965), pp. 650-677. Translated into French: “Les structures de controle dans les organizations,” Synopsis (May-June 1967), pp. 33-51; translated into Dutch: “De controlestructuren in de organisaties,” Synopsis (May- June 1967), pp. 37-58.

  26. I would add “Tropical Gangsters” by Klitgaard and “Capital coercion and crime” by Sidel

  27. Great list — I was incredibly lucky to have, way back in undergrad, an instructor who put me in touch with Ferguson and the like (for a 3000-level political science course that in retrospect was really quite a bit better than the theory modules I had as part of my development MSc!).

    Quick question, though: I’m assuming you get a cut if we buy through your links, do you know if this still holds if I add something to my wishlist and buy it later? There are a few of these I’d definitely like to get — and support this great blog in the process — but I’m afraid I’m in the midst of a present-day reenactment of Orwell’s classic at the moment…

  28. I’ve only read “Down and Out in Paris and London”, “Seeing Like A State” and “Embedded Autonomy”. That’s because George Orwell is one of my favorite authors and I’ll read anything by him but actually tripped over “Down and Out…” in a Paris bookstore and “Seeing Like A State” and “Embedded Autonomy” was required reading in an elective course “Political Economy of Development” by John Gershman at NYU.

    All the authors / books at the bottom that you left out was required reading in Bill Easterly’s courses, in the Austrian Economics course and the Adam Przeworski’s courses at NYU. Hmmm… perhaps across departments at NYU, thinking about development may actually come together?

  29. P.T. Bauer, “Reality and Rhetoric”, and “Equality, the Third World, and Economic Delusion”
    Older books but a lot of what he said is still valid.

    1. Peter Bauer’s Dissent on Development has several thought provoking pieces.
      the book he co-authored with Basil Yamey in 1957 The Economics of Underdeveloped Countries could as well have been written this year!

  30. Keen’s The Benefits of Famine: The Political Economy of Famine & Relief in Southwestern Sudan 1983-1989 (Governments can benefit from crisis.)
    Chabal and Daloz’s Africa Works:Disorder as a Political Instrument (Lots of people benefit from state failure and/or chaos.)
    IM Lewis, The Modern History of Somaliland (Clans matter, and Somali national identity in the colonial and early independence periods was stronger than you might think.)
    Ellickson, Order without Law (People will make their own rules when left to their own devices.) – I don’t know if economists read this, but not many political scientists do.

  31. I would add three more:
    1) “Moral Basis of a Backward Society”
    2) “Making Democracy Work” and,
    3) Strauss “Tristes Tropiques”

  32. This is a very good list–I second the Herbst, Tilly, Scott, Evans, Innis and van de Walle choices. I’ll try to find time to read some of the rest.

    I’m surprised that Bates was eliminated. His work is about as obscure as Scott and van de Walle’s, and it’s quite good of course (both Markets and States in Tropical Africa and When Things Fell Apart–I haven’t read his other work yet).

    My recommendation: anyone working in Africa should read something by Crawford Young. The African Colonial State in Comparative Perspective is good, but dense.

    But really, this list is excellent.

    1. Perhaps I’m overgenerous, but I think a majority of development academics read or know Bates. He’s one part economist and two parts political scientist himself. Hence the elimination. It’s a credit to his reputation.

  33. I would expand your items 10 and 11 to a general category of “History books about sordid chapters in your society’s past”. For Americans, anything on the post-Civil War Reconstruction era or the Jim Crow South is a must-read.

  34. Two other important books for people interested in aid effectiveness: (1) Hawken. P. (2007). Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming. New York: Viking Press and (2) Wesley, F., B. Zimmerman, and M. Q. Patton. (2006). Getting to Maybe: How the World is Changed. Random House Canada.

  35. The origin of capitalism, by Ellen M. Wood. (the shorter version of 1999 will do just fine, so I hope it meets your criteria)

    It radically changed my understanding of development. (For the ‘hardcore’ versions of the same you need to look for Robert Brenner and Marx himself, but I always reckoned that Wood offers a better and much more accessible introduction to anyone who has not really come across this paradigm before.)

  36. David Keen, ‘The Benefits of Famine’ on how failing to act is not only the outcome of incapacity or callous indifference, but is driven by the clear benefits and gains of doing nothing to those who make decisions, i.e. action through inaction or benefit through failure.

    For me, this changed how I thought about broader failures of governance (e.g. why no investment in power generation in Kenya? Because politicians have financial fingers in highly costly fuel-guzzling generators that provide power instead) and even in political violence (e.g. while Kenyan elites did not 100% directly start and orchestrate post-election violence, it was certainly in their capacity to stop it – but they did not do so until a political deal, after which violence suddenly ended (thus proving they could have stopped it at any time)).

    I heart David Keen.

  37. Books by anthropologist Carolyn Nordstrom are highly recommended, especially ‘Global Outlaws’ and ‘Shadows of War’ where she uses ethnographic insights from war zones and link them to the bigger picture of a capitalist (post-)war and development industry. And Peter Preston’s Development Theory is a must-read for postmodern ideas and the history of ‘development’.

  38. Nice list. I’ve made my recommendations in these posts:

    The Great Divergence is one.

    The Birth of the Modern World should be read by everyone, everywhere.

    North of South (Naipaul) and North and South (Gaskell, analagous to your choice of Orwell here) are also brilliantly illuminating on particular aspects of development and capitalism, mainly cultural and power-related.

    Similarly Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying, captures the totality of capitalism brilliantly in a fictitious work.

    Also, The Mystery of Capital. and Marx’s Pre-Capitalist Economic Formations.

    I’d be amazed if I met a development worker who hadn’t read Sen, though.

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