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5 Books International Development Professionals Should Read

In his book, The Bottom Billion, Oxford University economics professor Paul Collier discusses the reasons why many impoverished countries cannot progress, even with international aid and support. He states that almost 60 countries, home to about 1 billion people, who had been unable to experience economic growth throughout the 80s and 90s. He focuses on the idea of “development traps,” or factors that make economic growth extremely difficult without proper development strategies and aid. In particular, he mentions the development traps of conflict, natural resources, landlocked with bad neighbors, and bad governance in a small country. Conflict costs countries billions of dollars and can make a country instable. Natural resources can lead to conflict and can lead to a lack of accountability from the government, as well as exploitation of the resources. Landlocked countries whose neighboring countries are also poor do not have opportunities to engage in global economic growth. Finally, bad governance, especially in small countries, can lead to a poor economy because of a lack of investors. He concludes the book by suggesting solutions through concentrated aid, appropriate military interventions, international charters, and a trade policy.

International development professionals regularly interact with countries who fit into at least one of these four development traps. For that reason, this book can help them have a deeper understanding of the issues that are at the root of failing economies and a lack of development. Additionally, ID professionals should consider the solutions given when they are creating programs and implementing projects top help address these root causes of failed development. This book is important and necessary to international development practice, presenting unique ideas and theories for professionals to consider in their work and policies.

Founder of International Development Enterprises (IDE) Paul Polak uses this book to refute what he calls the “Three Great Poverty Eradication Myths”: that donations will bring people out of poverty, that national economic growth will bring people out of poverty, and that today’s Big Business will bring people out of poverty. He uses examples from various programs where these ideas have failed and often even raised poverty rates. Instead of the top-down approach, Polak suggests the more grassroots, sustainable approach of helping the poor earn more money through their own market opportunities. He uses his 25+ years of experience with entrepreneurial programs in development to show how this approach has helped increase the income of many of the rural poor in Africa and Asia. Polak emphasizes the idea of “extreme affordability” for the poor to be able to produce goods that will help them pay back their investment in just months. He shares a variety of ideas and solutions to specific problems that exist for the rural poor that can help cut costs and increase income. Polak’s theories and examples provide a unique approach to development that his own organization has proven effective.

This book offers a unique approach for international development professionals to consider. While Polak’s book has received many critiques, the success of his organization IDE has been shown in the communities with which it works. When designing programs and developing policies, ID professionals can use the approach in this book to consider the most effective options for the communities they serve.

In yet another approach to ending poverty, economist Dambisa Moyo’s Dead Aid argues that international aid has failed to help achieve sustainable economic growth in Africa and in fact made many countries worse off. Moyo argues that aid keeps countries weak and poor by avoiding accountability measures, encourages rent-seeking, takes out talent, and removes pressure to reform ineffective policies and institutions. She discusses the idea of phasing out the reliance on aid to force countries to implement alternative financing mechanisms, including increased trade, foreign direct investment, entering international capital markets, and increased domestic savings. Moyo states that this plan, while seemingly impossible, is actually easy with the necessary element of political will, rallied by Western activists. Her theory is that this approach will eliminate or greatly reduce overreliance on aid and will lead these African nations into economic growth and a decline in poverty.

While Moyo only really proves correlation and not causation, her ideas challenge typical international development approaches to aid. ID professionals can learn from her historical anecdotes and reconsider aid policies and agreements. At the least, ID professionals working with aid in Africa will be challenged to rethink the way aid is implemented and discover new, unique approaches to development and poverty reduction.

William Easterly’s book The White Man’s Burden is a critical approach to international development. Easterly argues that most large aid agencies cannot actually help the poor because of a lack of understanding of what the poor actually need and want and top-down development projects with little input or accountability measures—this he calls the “planner” method. He suggests an alternative bottom-up method—or “searcher” method—, which allows for greater observation of challenges and can lead to sustainable, successful development with accountability and feedback in place. He notes that development programs often lack feedback, so their success is measured by how much money is being put into programs instead. Easterly points out that by actually listening to the needs and wants of the poor, aid agencies will have a better understanding of what projects will actually work.

This book is essential to international development professionals because it offers a criticism of popular ways of creating development programs and provides an approach that allows the poor to be the primary source of input for program development. ID professionals will gain a better understanding of the failings of current systems and broaden their perspective and approach to aid and development.

Economist Jeffrey Sachs offers a hopeful perspective to development in his book The End of Poverty, posing the idea that extreme poverty can be eliminated by 2025 through careful development aid. Sachs argues that once poor countries can reach the “bottom run” of the economic ladder, they will be able to continue to pull themselves up into the global market economy. He emphasizes the need for “clinical economics,” which are programs and aid specifically tailored to each country’s individual needs, taking into consideration a variety of factors. Sachs also discusses the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) as one of the first steps towards the elimination of extreme poverty. Sachs offers a critical but hopeful approach to international development.

This book is important for international development professionals because it offers a perspective that, while critical of the current system, works within the current system of development and aid to create better, more effective programs. Sachs takes a unique perspective that is supportive of current large aid agencies but also recognizes the need for change. ID professionals can learn from his theories, understanding how to change the current aid programs to be more effective and sustainable.

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