Recommended reading for those interested in global development

In the world of global sustainable development, on any given day, we talk about the need for “thought leadership,” and “innovative solutions” to address 21st century challenges. So what books do the people behind the UN’s development network read to keep their minds nimble?

For International Literacy Day, we asked our colleagues to share their favourite reads. Here’s what’s on the nightstands of these global development pros.

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© UN Photo/Tobin Jones

1. 1984 by George Orwell

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© Internet Archive Images/Flickr Commons

describes a totalitarian state where “thought police” use surveillance to keep watch over citizens in order to prevent “thought crime”, or having thoughts contradictory to the Party’s ideology. The job of the protagonist is to rewrite past newspaper articles, so that the historical record always supports the party line. Until one day, he starts looking for truth and to live differently.

This political fiction describes a situation that is too familiar in some countries where including human rights abuses and violent repression are a reality. The book is about how an authoritarian state uses its powers chiefly to remain in power, and it points out risks that can arise even in a democratic society where surveillance and public freedom restrictions may be pushed too far.

I think people working in development should read this book because we are actors of change. We are in a position to advocate for human rights, peace, etc., to prevent a present situation from sliding toward an extreme one.

Recommended by: Emmanuel Soubiran is a project officer working on livelihoods in UNDP Burundi. He’s an economist and specializes in sustainable local development and aid coordination.

2. Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed by James C. Scott

James C. Scott analyses a series of grand modernization schemes (urban planning in Brasilia, collectivization in Russia, agricultural modernization in the Tropics, etc.), finding and discussing the conditions that led to failure. He builds a strong argument against grandiose development theories and state planning.

Most of the work that development practitioners engage in involves socially engineering change toward what we consider the better. However, more often than we like to recognize, we advise without fully understanding why certain social and economic institutions exist and what logic they apply to solving local specific challenges. Instead of tapping into local knowledge and valuing local solutions, our vision of modernity and its approach to organizing the world takes priority when proposing solutions. I first encountered this book during my master studies but only fully read it and understood its value in 2000 when I was working for the UN on a massive state building exercise in Timor-Leste.

Recommended by: José Bendito is an innovation specialist at UN Volunteers. He is a development practitioner with a passion for innovative, locally-owned solutions and an academic interest in the political economy of institutions.

3. War Games: The Story of Aid and War in Modern Times by Linda Polman

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Starting with the genocide in Rwanda, “War Games” recounts first-hand experiences from parts of the world that were facing crisis situations in the 1990s. The book addresses very delicate issues, including how good intentions can produce unintended negative consequences and how competition for limited resources can cause aid organizations to view each other as competitors rather than collaborators.

Having worked for DanChurch Aid (DCA) in Copenhagen, I was aware of how humanitarian assistance can be diverted to other purposes. I remember a case in which DCA had to stop working with a partner organization after it was discovered that it had done some “creative accounting”. I remember how angry I felt that anyone could steal funds meant to help the most vulnerable.

Recommended by: Freya Morales is a photojournalist and photo coordinator with UNDP’s Bureau of External Relations and Advocacy.

4. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

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© Amazon

Through the heart-rending story of a local hero and his family, “Things Fall Apart” chronicles village life in pre- and post-colonial Nigeria. Essentially, this is the best book on change management, an exciting story of what can happen when our patterns of life change.

Recommended by: Liz Huckerby is Chief of Integrated Talent Management and Deputy Director of the Office of Human Resources at UNDP.

5. “How to Win Friends and Influence People” by Dale Carnegie

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©Lottie/ Flickr Commons

Dale Carnegie’s classic self-help book provides valuable lessons for anyone at any level, both personally and professionally. One of his famous quotes is: “Most of the important things in the world have been accomplished by people who have kept on trying when there seemed to be no hope at all.”

I think this is important in development work, where we face global challenges that can seem insurmountable. Success means consistent and constant action towards worthy goals. Even when it seems like there is little hope, keep going. You don’t know how close you may be to your next achievement.

Recommended by: Kimberly Manzi is a digital web producer working on web migration at UNDP.

6. The Zanzibar Chest: A Memoir of Love and War by Aidan Hartley

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©Amazon UK

Aidan Hartley’s Zanzibar Chest opened up the bigger world to me as I became an adult. Hartley’s book is about his family, about his life, working and living in some of the most challenging locations in Africa to draw attention to humanitarian crises in the 1990s in the region. The book offers insight into the people who do these dangerous jobs of going into a war zone. I recommend it not only to people pursuing a career in journalism, but also to anyone interested in the daily lives of people who survive amidst conflict and in times of hardship.

The internet may have changed the way the world consumes information, but the work of a journalist on the ground remains as relevant as ever. The camera still bears witness to all that takes place during humanitarian crises. Visual storytelling still has the power to do in one photo or frame, what words alone can’t convey. This book is the reason I ended up in the UN system to work for peace.

Recommended by: Lei Phyu is a digital communications officer with UNDP’s Bureau of External Relations and Advocacy.

Keep the conversation going

Do you want us to start a reading list series for global development? If so, what kind of topics are are you interested in? Let us know in the comment section below. Be sure to suggest your favorite book to keep the conversation going!

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