The Most Good You can Read (A question from my friend Justin)

“Hey do you have any book recommendations around doing good effectively? I feel like there are a couple famous ones but the titles are eluding me”

In the last few years, the idea of maximizing one’s effectiveness in doing good has taken off. A few weeks back a friend wrote me with a question about this trend, and I took the opportunity to explore it deeper. Take a look at this slightly edited version of my response:

So your question was way too exciting, and since there’s no internet (or coworkers) at work yet I’m giving you way more info than you would ever actually want…

If you’re really interested in being “effective” then you have to read Peter Singer. He’s the one who is behind the whole effective altruism (EA) movement. You can read one of  his books (The Life You Can Save/The Most Good You Can Do) or watch his TED talk.

I also know that Nicholas Kristoff and his wife wrote recently wrote a book covering some of the people doing “effective good” in the world; it’s called “A Path Appears”. I haven’t read it, but I’ve heard it’s pretty good.

If you want to get into the interventions themselves, then you have to read Poor Economics, by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo. The book is a layperson’s guide to EA’s academic cousin: evidence based policy. Banerjee and Duflo start from the premise that the poor act rationally in the market just like anyone else; and that you should only attempt to alleviate poverty after applying the scientific method.
The two authors run a lab at MIT where they essentially do humanitarian science experiments, handing out bednets in one village and comparing malaria rates to villages that didn’t get the nets. They come up with counterintuitive and fascinating solutions for “what works” in development, and present their findings in a compelling way.

However, before you get too excited about effective altruism, you have to read through this debate in the Boston Review. Singer defends EA, but the people responding to his arguments are pretty respected scholars with good things to say. Their critiques range from quite practical:

Angus Deaton— who won the Nobel prize in economics soon after I first wrote this— asserts that: “Development is neither a financial nor a technical problem but a political problem”

Jennifer Rubenstein is more philosophical, “[Singer] addresses these challenges via a social movement focused on alleviating poverty that excludes poor people from its ranks”.

There’s a lot more in there, and it is really worth reading. But I’m not wholly a critic either. I don’t think that EA is wrong, and I think that the effectiveness/accountability movement has been really healthy for development. But, like exclusively eating green peppers, EA ends up becoming unhealthy if it neglects other important factors. So to round out your perspective, a couple other suggestions:

1. How to Change the World, David Bornstein.

Bornstein’s book is a series of case studies of extraordinary people that have built organizations and movements that in one way or another help people. He dubs these people social entrepreneurs. Instead of the technical aspects of what makes good humanitarianism, Bornstein examines what it takes to be a good humanitarian, focussing on the personalities that spark social change and the strategies that characterise successful organisations. I think the book is important because it highlights the importance of totally unmeasurable things like relationships, determination, humility, and heart. Bornstein writes:

The quest for quantifiable social returns or outcomes has become an obsession in a sector that envies the efficiency of business capital markets. Given this obsession, it is important to remember that numbers have an unfortunate tendency to supersede other kinds of knowing. The human mind is a miracle of subtlety: It can assimilate thousands of pieces of soft information—impressions, experiences, intuition—and produce wonderfully nuanced decisions…[Numbers] favor what is easiest to measure, not what is most important.”

It is a fascinating and genuinely encouraging book to read, so I can’t recommend it enough. Think “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” meets Ghandi’s biography.

2. Plutocrats, Chrystia Freeland.

When we think about being effective in doing good in the world, our thoughts gravitate towards the poorest. Freeland (a Canadian!) writes eloquently, telling the stories of the 0.1%, the super-elite, and the impact that their lives have on society. It’s the kind of book you can read on an airplane; full of little stories and interesting tidbits.

I recommend Plutocrats because it reminds us that poverty is not only technical failure as EA tends to assume, but also a power relationship; there aren’t “poor” unless there are “rich”. Freeland doesn’t talk much about poverty, but instead foregrounds the causes and consequences of inequality, which unlike poverty, implicate all of us.

3. When Helping Hurts, Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert

You’ve probably read this, but the list wouldn’t be complete without it.  The practical stuff is a little bit outdated (we no longer preach the gospel of microfinance like we used to), but Corbett and Fikkert give a rock solid theology of why Christians should care about doing good well.

And unlike Peter Singer, they focus on relationships. I read somewhere else about a “Three mile-an-hour God”, referring to the gross inefficiency of Jesus ministry on earth. God, who can do anything, chose to communicate his message through a single person, in a world without mass media. That is hard to get my mind around.

So, my final ranking:

0. The Logic of Effective Altruism (Boston Review Debate)
1. Poor Economics (Banerjee & Duflo)
2. Plutocrats (Freeland)
3. How to Change the World (Bornstein)
4. Singer/Kristoff (True confession: I haven’t read either of these)
5. When Helping Hurts (Corbett & Fikkert)

Those are the top five. If you want 5 more, I can’t promise to spare you from macroeconomic policy!


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