This page lists books that we’ve read, loved, learnt from, and lent to friends.  We’ve loosely categorised them into ‘memoirs/biography’, ‘ethics/philosophy of aid’, ‘economics/poverty’, ‘books about MSF’, and ‘fiction by African authors’.  Alongside each book, we’ve included several quotes to give you a flavour of what it’s about.

For specific lists see Top Ten Books on Humanitarian Aid and Ten Books to Read Before Becoming a Humanitarian.  If you have anything to add, please tweet your suggestions to @aidleap



Ash in the Belly: India’s unfinished battle against hunger (2012) Harsh Mander
‘People do not just happen to be poor; they are actively impoverished.’
‘But planners estimating poverty include only those elements which can be counted’

sc Still Counting the Dead: Survivors of Sri Lanka’s Hidden War (2013) Frances Harrison
‘It involves scorched-earth tactics, blurring the distinction between civilians and combatants, and enforcing a media blackout.’
‘Denial infects both sides.’

6mnthsSix Months in Sudan (2009)  Dr James Maskalyk
‘each time we are a band-aid, we simply cover the problem, and delay the slow work towards a tenable, permanent solution.’
‘distance afforded me perspective. the difference between circling a storm, and being at its centre. i was able to glimpse a larger world’


Interventions: A life in war and peace (2012) Kofi Annan with Nader Mousavizadeh
‘The lessons are clear: the only solutions will be found in politics, not violence; and in comprehensive solutions, not partial approaches’
‘the UN must continue to play a role in peace and security, but that must be matched by its commitment to human rights and development’


The Prophet’s Camel Bell: A memoir of Somaliland (1963) Margaret Laurence
‘Every culture in the world passes on knowledge to the next generation, but the nature of that knowledge suits the survival requirements of each particular place’
‘But he lived by faith, not logic, and in this way he was closer to the Somalis than we could ever be.’

umUndercover Muslim: A journey into Yemen (2011) Theo Padnos
‘You don’t have to be a Muslim to feel that a simpler, truer way of life endures in the East.’
‘So it had been with the riots earlier in the summer: puffy clouds, soaring blue sky and that Sana’a sensation of things slipping into chaos, of locals asking soldiers to shoot them, of the whole city, even the women, especially the women, electrified by the prospect of death.’

lwThe Lassa Ward (2009) Ross Donaldson
‘I decided to keep her on all the medications, while sighing with the realisation that there was no way to know the best course. ‘First, do no harm,’ a fundamental principle of medicine, was good in theory. But it helped little when both choices could cause potential injury.’
‘Unfortunately, we did not have sufficient resources to supply medicine to the unselected refugees.’

cChasing the Flame: Sergio Vieira de Mello and the fight to save the world (2008) Samantha Power
‘Vieira de Mello began each mission by trying to “get real”: to see the world as it was rather than as he might have liked it to be.’
‘His unfailing politeness with the Khmer Rouge had earned him their respect – and at times it seemed even their affection.’

agaAgainst A Tide of Evil (2013) Mukesh Kapila
‘Al Jazeera screened the interview that very day, with explosive results.’
‘It was another thinly veiled threat. I didn’t particularly care. I knew that my days were numbered’

tbtThe Big Truck That Went By: How the world came to save Haiti and left behind a disaster (2013) Jonathan Katz
‘But in the ruckus of the street, these nuances get lost. People across the quake zone hear pledges rolling in and expect that money to show up.’


hHalf of a Yellow Sun (2007) Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
‘How much did one know of the true feelings of those who did not have a voice?’
‘Biafra is the land of genius!’

cfsCutting For Stone (2009) Abraham Vergesse
‘We come unbidden into this life, and if we are lucky we find a purpose beyond starvation, misery and early death which, lest we forget, is the common lot. I grew up and I found my purpose and it was to become a physician. My intent wasn’t to save the world as much as to heal myself.’

osThe Orchard of Lost Souls (2013) Nadifa Mohamed
‘Waiting for her on the desk at the Mobile Miliatry Court office is an envelope embossed with the governmental crest. She opens it delicately and slips out the card. It is from the propaganda office instructing her to go to Radio Hargeisa where she will be interviewed.’
‘She reaches Nasra’s street shivering and with rivulets of water running down her nose and the inside of her dress’

cbCrossbones (2012) Nuruddin Farah
‘Malik is drawing on his memory of other cities that he has witnessed on the verge of falling to enemy forces: in the Congo, in Afghanistan and son on. He writes, ”In most cases, it takes a long time for ordinary folks unaccustomed to bearing arms to work up an appetite for battle. There is more than one side to a fence, and peaceable civilians stay on whichever side makes them feel safer.’

tfaThings Fall Apart (1958) Chinua Achebe
‘Okonkwo was beginning to feel like his old self again. All that he required was something to occupy his mind.’
‘He felt a relief within as the hymn poured into his parched soul. The words of the hymn were like the drops of frozen rain melting on the dry plate of the panting earth.’

rRadiance of Tomorrow (2014) Ishmael Beah
A powerful novel about preserving what means the most to us, even in uncertain times.
‘She rounded a corner and dropped the pile, her heart sinking to her waist-bone at the resounding thud of bones hitting the dusty earth.’




Earthly Mission: The Catholic Church and world development (2013) Robert Calderisi
‘missionaries were the forerunners of the welfare state and international philanthropy’

fafFamine and Foreigners: Ethiopia since Live Aid (2010) Peter Gill
‘Ethiopia displaced Sudan as the world’s largest recipient of WFP aid in 2008, but it still did not have enough food’
‘The expulsion followed in ten days. At issue was not resettlement itself, but the way it was being conducted’

ctrCondemned to Repeat? The paradox of humanitarian action (2002) Fiona Terry
‘The term “beneficiary” implies that aid is of benefit’
‘Impartiality is based on the conviction that all people have equal rights to certain standards, but only those aid organisations that are financially and politically independent can ensure that they base their allocations of aid solely on need.’
drA Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in crisis (2002) David Rieff
‘In Goma and Bukavu, the political effect of deploying ill-informed young people, no matter how brave, committed, and serious, in situations where their technical proficiency could be misused was to prove calamitous’
‘The reality is that most conflicts in which humanitarian relief workers are needed do not have a clear-cut right side and wrong side’

hiHumanitarian Intervention: Confronting the contradictions (2009) Michael Newman
‘all actions and policies will have both humanitarian and political consequences.’
‘it seems more plausible to suggest that the overwhelming emphasis should be upon peaceful solutions, but that military action for humanitarian reasons cannot be ruled out in all circumstances.’

saThe Selfish Altruist: Relief work in famine and war (2001) Tony Vaux
‘It was not just the physical poverty that was so striking. People were in a constant state of shock and grief for a way of life that had so suddenly been lost. Physical aid was not an adequate human response to such grief and suffering.’
‘human bias affects the purity of our altruism’

tblThe Thin Blue Line: How humanitarianism went to war (2008) Conor Foley
‘humanitarian interventions are at best a necessary evil’
‘The only international principles that potentially fit all the situations in which humanitarians work are those of independence, impartiality and neutrality . . . The shift away from these principles in recent years has caused more problems than it has solved.’



wnfWhy Nations Fail: The origins of power, prosperity and poverty (2012) Daron Acemoglu & James Robinson
‘Allowing people to make their own decisions via markets is the best way for a society to efficiently use its resources’
‘The outcomes of the events during critical junctures are shaped by the weight of history, as existing economic and political institutions shape the balance of power and delineate what is politically feasible.’

pePoor Economics: Barefoot hedge-fund managers, DIY doctors and the surprising truth about life on less than $1 a day (2012) Abhijit Banejee & Esther Duflo
‘When they work well, political institutions put enough constraints on rulers to ensure that they cannot deviate too far from the public interest.’
‘Moving the goalposts closer may be just what the poor need to start running toward them.’

dafDevelopment As Freedom(1999) Amartya Sen
‘both education and outside earning increase a woman’s decisional autonomy.’
‘Famines can occur even without any decline in food production or availability.’
‘To insist on the mechanical comfort of having just one homogeneous “good thing” would be to deny our humanity as reasoning creatures.’

mcThe Mystery of Capital: Why captialism triumphs in the west and fails everywhere else (2000) Hernando de Soto
‘This lack of integration restricts interaction not only between the legal and the extralegal sector but among the poor themselves.’
‘If there are costs to becoming legal, there are also bound to be costs to remaining outside the law’
‘Only capital provides the means to support specialisation and the production and exchange of assets in the expanded market’

bbThe Bottom Billion: Why the poorest countries are failing and what can be done about it (2008) Paul Collier
‘Neither a vindicative pursuit of victor’s justice nor a blanket of forgetfulness is desirable. An international norm would provide a much-needed sense of impartiality’
‘The heart of the resource curse is that resource rents make democracy malfunction’

mgwMaking Globalization Work (2006) Joseph Stiglitz
‘Globalization entails the closer integration of the countries of the world; this closer integration requires more collective action.’
‘Developed countries are allowed, for instance, to deviate from the most favored nation principle by allowing lower tariffs on imports from developing countries’

pfPoverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation (1981) Amartya Sen
‘The characteristics of exchange relations between the pastoral and the agricultural economies thus contributed to the starvation of the herdsmen by making price movements reinforce – rather than counteract – the decline in the livestock quantity. The pastoralist, hit by the drought, was decimated by the market mechanism.’
‘The first recorded famine in Ethiopia goes back to the ninth century.’

posPlanet of Slums (2006) Mike Davis
‘the urban fringe in Asia is a regulatory vacuum, a true frontier where “Darwin beats Keynes” and piratical entrepreneurs and corrupt politicians are largely unfettered by law or public scrutiny’
‘the formal housing markets in the Third World rarely supply more than 20% of new housing stock, so out of necessity, people turn to self-built shanties, informal rentals, pirate subdivisions, or the sidewalks’


fDoctors Without Borders: Humanitarian quests, impossible dreams of Medecins Sans Frontieres (2014) Renee Fox
‘The world was changing, and what constituted testimony had changed with it, which posed a challenge’
‘By unilaterally launching a mission into Kosovo, MSF Greece had contravened the transparent, collaborative, and cooperative system of management among MSF’s five operational centers.’

hHumanitarian Negotiations Revealed: The MSF experience (2011) Magone, Neuman, Weissman
‘Because acknowledging that humanitarian aid is only possible when it coincides with the interests of the ‘powers that be’ does not have to mean giving way to political forces’
‘MSF must justify its alliances, question them, flush out any conflicts of interest and maintain a political watch’

licLife in Crisis: The ethical journey of doctors without borders (2013) Peter Redfield
‘The rationale of emergency response dictates against devoting time to anything without obvious and immediate utility.’
‘Whether one considers neutrality as an imperfect claim or an absolute principle, its effectiveness ultimately depends on the perceptions of the actors involved’

dceDilemmas, Challenges, And Ethics of Humanitarian Action: Reflections on Medecins Sans Frontieres’ Perception Project (2012) Caroline Abu-Sada
‘In the future crisis will be normal, not exceptional. Expect the unexpected. This implies that crisis response should become part of the normal business of government’

jAn Imperfect Offering: Dispatches from the medical frontline (2009) James Orbinski
‘This book is a personal narrative about the political journey I have taken over the last 20 years as a humanitarian doctor, as a citizen and as a man.’
‘It is about a way of seeing that requires humility, so that one can recognise the sameness of self in the other. It is about the mutuality that exist between us, if we so choose.’

6 thoughts on “Books

  1. Pingback: Oskar Schindler was the greatest aid worker of all times | AID LEAP

  2. Some great recommendations here, many of which I read and many which are still on my list of things to read.

    Any recommendations in terms of more M&E related stuff? Those are some of my favorite posts on the blog, and I’d be interested in reading more in depth analyses along those lines.


  3. Hi Carol,

    Thanks for the feedback!

    On M&E books, there are loads, but typically technical and not for a general audience. (Unsurprisingly). Maybe the one most closely linked to concerns on the blog is “The Politics of Evidence and Results in International Development: Playing the game to change the rules?” See a review here: and the amazon link here:

    There are loads of books by self-styled evaluation gurus. Michael Quinn Paton writes well and engagingly, and typically makes a lot of sense. See Developmental Evaluation: Applying Complexity Concepts to Enhance Innovation and Use,

    Otherwise, I get a lot of my M&E kicks through blogs; FP2P, CGDev, Chris Blattman, Kirsty Evidence (though she’s gone sadly quiet) and others.

    Hope that helps!


    • Great, thanks! I just took a job at an NGO as “focal point” for M&E (or their version, which is Planning, Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning), so I’m not averse to reading some more academic/technical stuff. I look forward to checking these out. Cheers!

  4. Just published a book you may be interested in checking out: Sudan’s Nuba Mountains People Under Siege: Accounts by Humanitarians in the Battle Zone edited by Samuel Totten. Jefferson, NC: McFarland Publishers, 2017.

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s