To be effective advocates for global health and poverty, it’s not sufficient to simply have a desire to help the poor, or a willingness to donate to the most effective organizations that serve them. It’s also necessary to be smart and strategic and equipped with accurate information.
To that end, I picked six books that are great reads for this fall (or anytime, really). I challenge you to pick just one book from the list and open it up this week! Or, kick it up a notch and start a reading group using our picks to set your schedule. Who knows? It might impact your life—and the lives of those living in global poverty— in a new and extremely valuable way.
1. The Life You Can Save, Peter Singer
Many of you may have come across The Life You Can Save through reading Peter Singer’s book that shares the same name. For those who haven’t, this is a powerful read that is also easy to digest. Through vivid examples and sound reasoning, Singer makes the moral and philosophical argument that individuals in affluent countries should do more to end poverty. He also provides answers to practical and psychological obstacles to giving, and offers pragmatic resources for those interested in giving effectively.
The Life You Can Save also lays down the necessary framework to understand the effective giving movement. The book helped inspire the effective altruism movement, and led Charles Bresler, former President of The Men’s Wearhouse, to re-evaluate his life and make a major career change in order to become The Life You Can Save’s Executive Director. This book is a must-read. It just might be the single most impactful gift you could give to someone considering how to leave a positive difference in the world.
2. Doing Good Better, Will MacAskill
Doing Good Better has been roundly praised by those in the know, including Sue Desmond-Hellmann, CEO of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and Jaan Taalin, cofounder of Skype. While Peter Singer’s book is more of a philosophical and psychological exploration of effective giving, MacAskill’s book is more quantitatively-based. Rather than viewing effective giving as an obligation, MacAskill powerfully argues there’s an exciting opportunity for those of us who are privileged and empowered to do so much good in the world. Through apt anecdotes, numerical analysis, and careful reasoning, MacAskill takes us through important and counterintuitive observations like shocking examples of how (ineffective) charities can do a lot of harm, the real value of your individual vote, and how sweatshops might actually be good for poor people.
Just as importantly, Doing Good Better provides practical and well-reasoned advice to assist you in thinking for yourself when it comes to making important life decisions, like where to donate and how to make an altruistic career choice. If you’re planning to read just one book this year on how to make a difference, this should be a strong contender.
3. Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Katherine Boo
For a completely different take, this “nonfiction novel” by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Katherine Boo takes an unsentimental, unvarnished look at the normal life of individuals in a Mumbai slum. Boo tells the dramatic story of families striving toward a better life in Annawadi, a makeshift settlement in the shadow of luxury hotels near the Mumbai airport.
A riveting tale of hope, romance, entrepreneurship, corruption, and ineffective NGOs, every chapter provides something unique and interesting to learn. This makes for an extremely beautifully written narrative, and gives people privileged enough to live in the developed world a rare glimpse into the tribulations and dreams of people much like ourselves, albeit in very different circumstances. Boo takes care to not vilify or glorify the character or actions of the poor, but present them just like we might perceive ourselves—human. All too human.
4. Strangers Drowning, Larissa MacFarquhar While Boo’s book centers on the lives of those in extreme poverty, MacFarquhar studies the other end of the spectrum. What are the characteristics of otherwise normal people who are atypically and sharply pulled to help others in need? MacFarquhar profiles what she calls “extreme altruists”: people who are fairly typical in other respects, not overly rich, smart or successful, but are sharp deviants from what is “normal” in their willingness and dedication to the global poor. Stories include a woman who lives on a small fraction of her income so she can provide lifesaving medicines to those in poor countries, a couple who adopted dozens of lost and abused children, and a family from an upper caste in India who dedicated to throw their privileges away to help the most shunned of all—starting a village for individuals with leprosy. MacFarquhar also juxtaposes these stories with research on the nature of altruism, arguing that for much of the 20th century, academics have pathologized altruism, or worse, denied its very existence.
One critique of this book is echoed in this wonderful review by Reverend Helwig. Arguably, the book creates too sharp a dividing line between what Larissa calls “extreme altruists” and so-called “normal people” like you or I. In contrast, I think of human motivations and actions as more along a continuum. As Rev. Helwig puts it:
“[T]here is no need to go exploring among “extreme do-gooders,” people who can be presented as bizarre departures from the norm, to find people who have acted out of a wider caring, who have seen with vivid sharpness the pain of the world, and responded. Expanding the circle of concern beyond family and friends is not an exotic thing to do, or a project reserved only for those energetic individuals who will give over their whole lives to one singular cause.”
5. Mountains Beyond Mountains, Tracy Kidder
Anthropologist and physician Dr. Paul Farmer is considered one of the most brilliant people in the world, and whom Bill Clinton has called a “living saint.” Tracy Kidder beautifully and carefully traces the life of Farmer, who committed his life to take care of as many patients as possible in Haiti, and then the world. Dr. Farmer almost single-handedly founded Partners in Health, one of the largest global health organizations today, as well as pinpointed the causes and cures of multidrug-resistant (MDR) tuberculosis. If you want a shining example of how a single (albeit exceptional) committed individual can make a tremendous difference in the world, this book is for you.
Bonus! Compassion By The Pound, Bailey Norwood and Jayson Lusk
I never realized how complicated factory farming was until I read this book. Human societies have co-evolved with animal agriculture for thousands of years. Yet even as we (especially those of us in the developed world) reap the benefits of technological progress and longer and more luxurious lives, welfare for our farmed brethren has not improved. Are there things we can do to make their lives better? And if so, is it worth the cost? The book convincingly and passionately argues that the answer to the first question is “yes,” but ultimately leaves it to the reader to decide what the answer to the second is.
Because the authors are agricultural economists by trade, and because of the complex matter of the subject, some of the material is necessarily mathematical in nature, and may be difficult to understand for those who have never taken college-level mathematics or economics courses. Nonetheless, for those who have an educated layperson understanding of statistics, this book is well-worth the read—chock-full of economic insights into history, ethical perceptions, realities of consumer behavior, political coordination questions, and much more.
This recommendation might seem unusual compared to the other recommendations that are more directly about global health or poverty. Yet, what I especially like about the book is how Norwood and Lusk manage to distill a subject as complex and multifaceted as animal agriculture into a single textbook, without losing an iota of nuance.
What book are you reading right now? Would you be willing to add one or more of these books to your reading list this fall? What other books should we encourage our site's visitors to check out? Please tell us in the comments!