The End of Poverty by Jeffrey Sachs

If you are crusading for a better world, or indeed the ultimate goal of world peace itself, this book is absolutely indispensable from your reading list. Written by Jeffrey Sachs, a Harvard economist who is, quite by chance, sucked into the struggle faced by the poorer countries of the world. Thoroughly readable, he tells many remarkable stories of his work in Bolivia and Poland as well as his perspective and diagnosis of many of the problems that developing countries face. He also tells of his unique perspective as a person in a very developed country frustrated by the obstacles that even a person of his authority faces in his attempts at achieving his aims. Most importantly, at least for me, he offers a great deal of hope. Sachs now heads the Earth Institute at Columbia University and was instrumental in formulating the UN’s Millennium Development goals. An excellent book to start anyone off on their quest for world peace, Sachs lends great credibility to something of an incredible goal.

Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond

Why did civilisation “click” in some places and not in others? This book provides one of the best answers out there on the subject and it does so in a very readable and approachable manner. Diamond provides a unique perspective because he manages to wear many different hats at once. Such a multidisciplinary approach is rare from a single author and, as such, Diamond provides us with very valuable insights. A revisionist history to be sure, but one which provides a far better account of why things happened the way they did than many history books possibly could (and I’ve read a few in my time). This book challenges conventions, conventions which form the basis of our modern framework of thinking and which, we soon learn, are desperately in need of a good challenge. His book teaches us the importance of keeping an open mind and throwing away the often ridiculous assumptions which we, knowingly or unknowingly, approach any situation with.

Understanding International Conflicts by Joseph Nye

If you only ever read one book on international conflicts, make it this book. (for the record, I have read many – I’m not just being lazy). Nye, like Sachs, is another freak – summa cum laude from Princeton, a Rhodes Scholar etc. etc. He also writes very well. Considered one of the founders of neo-liberalism and the concept of “soft power” Nye speaks with great authority about various international conflicts and presents multiple views and approaches to analysing them. An invaluable book to build a knowledge base for understanding not just international conflicts, but international relations in general it is sometimes surprising how readable this book really is. The book is deceptively short – it is about a third the thickness of Kissinger’s book on diplomacy. The pages are densely packed with information and insight and there was even space for maps.

Something New Under The Sun by J. R. McNeill

J. R. McNeill’s brief environmental history of the last hundred or so years is timely and eye-opening. I challenge anyone to read this book, then look me in the eye and tell me that humans have not had a significant impact on not only the climate, but the earth’s environmental health as a whole. He systematically goes through each of the different “spheres” of the earth – the atmosphere, the lithosphere, the hydrosphere, etc. and just tells us what’s been going on in the last hundred years. The idea is pretty simple, and the result more than effective. It’s a pity that kids these days aren’t really taught much about what goes on in the environment, and how much we rely on it. If Guns, Germs, and Steel is the book to read about how the environment shaped us into our current state of civilization, then Something New Under The Sun is the book about how our current state of civilization shapes our environment. More than any other single work, it gives context and perspective to our current state of affair in relation to our natural environment – something desperately needed by everyone, not just policymakers.

Development as Freedom by Amartya Sen

The book arose out of a series of seminars which were given by Sen to the World Bank. This means that the language is very easy to understand and highly technical concepts are carefully explained so as not to confuse the less-educated layman. This book is practically canon in the literature on human rights studies (and if it isn’t, it definitely should be) and was pioneering at the time of its publishing because it presented an expanded and more comprehensive framework from which to view human rights in the world. My reading of this book is timely as Amnesty International begins to look more deeply into the problems of economic, social, and cultural rights. A background in philosophy (say if you happened to major in it at university for example) will enrich your reading of this book considerably, though it is not essential to capture the essence of what Sen is trying to say. Sen is also the winner of the 1998 Nobel prize in economics.

Freedom from Fear by Aung San Suu Kyi

A personal favourite of mine for reasons too numerous to list here. Aung San Suu Kyi (pronounced Ong san sue cheee) writes very well, as most Oxford-educated people tend to. She tells the extraordinary story of the people of Burma with great authority, not just as a scholar, not just as a Burmese, but as the person who is at the very centre of the explosive melting pot of issues which surround Burma to this day. The winner of the 1991 Nobel prize for peace, she is still under house arrest. Her unique perspective is insightful and her narrative carries the same authority as Winston Churchill’s “History of World War II” and for simialr reasons. The book gives a history lesson, a politics lesson, and a life lesson; one which everyone can benefit from. The foreword by her late husband Michael Aris is moving and deeply saddening at its heart. I’ve read this book a dozen times and I always come away invigorated because it reminds me of the urgency and importance of the work that I do (in my own quest for world peace).

Institutions, Institutional Change, and Economic Performance by Douglass North

This is the greatest evidence that exists for the saying “Don’t judge a book by it’s cover”. Perhaps the cover appeals to economists, but it didn’t exactly raise my hopes when I picked it up to do the necessary background research for my paper on the title’s topic. The book is not easy to read either, being dense and not particularly well-written. That is not to say that it is as impenetrable as say, Rorty or Derrida; far from it, but his style of writing is aimed more at a reader who is somewhat familiar with the concepts he discusses and I certainly wouldn’t recommend this as a first book on development or economics. The material covered, however, is brilliant. Many ideas that I was developing in my mind, which I had thought were rather radical and original, were presented in this book and developed very well. This was very heartening because I was beginning to think that economics was a rather trifling and trivial study which hadn’t developed much since Adam Smith. A bit of background reading in game theory will significantly enrich your reading experience here. North was the recipient of the 1993 Nobel prize in economics.

The Limits of Organization by Kenneth Arrow

Short and sweet, this book on public policy was written by the same Kenneth Arrow who brought us Arrow’s impossibility theorem (look it up), and with his buddy Gerard Debreu came up with the proof of the existence of a competitive equilibrium. Receiving the Nobel prize at 51 for economics in 1972, he is still the youngest ever recipient of the economics prize. The book isn’t incredibly groundbreaking, but it is incredibly clear. It takes a lot of ideas that you probably had floating around in a nebulous cloud in your head and gives them form and precision. An extremely useful book for its clear insights into organizational economics, it is an ideal companion to North’s book (it is also slightly easier to read). For those wanting more, another very short book by Arrow “Social Choice and Individual Values” covers the impossibility theorem and lays a lot of the groundwork for modern social choice theory. It is, however, more difficult to penetrate as it makes heavy use of formal logic and mathematical concepts (like proofs) as the book is basically an expanded and annotated version of Arrow’s PhD thesis.

The Prince by Niccollo Machiavelli

A classic of the genre on governance The Prince is as relevant today as when Machiavelli first wrote it for the Medicis. A sharp analysis of statesmanship it gives a rather bleak picture of what is required of a leader in order to retain power. This text is easy to deride as a load of ultra-conservative hogwash with no bearing on today’s civil society. But this is simply not true. As I read this on a plane flight from Hong Kong to Melbourne, I caught myself wondering why former Australian prime minister John Howard hadn’t poisoned his leadership rival, the treasurer. It turns out that he already had, in a metaphorical sense (oohh… deep). A must to read, if only to get inside the mind of a very observant and shrewd man who understood his mould and his time very well.

The Art of War by Sun Tzu

This is a tricky book to read, mostly because you have to find a few different translations of it to really get the message clearly. Unfortunately, my chinese isn’t good enough to read it in it’s original Chinese (although if anyone who can read Chinese would like to read it to me, that would be great). Reading about warfare in the middle ages might seem counterintuitive to the cause of world peace, but the fact of the matter is that Sun Tzu’s writing can be applied to a multitude of situations outside of warfare. Extremely succinct and slightly cryptic, this manual of warfare is a fount of wisdom in a way that you don’t realise until long after you’ve finished reading it. It also makes you realise just how poorly we fight our wars these days. (he also emphasized that the greatest victory is one where you don’t have to fight).

An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith

The book and the author require no introduction. Smith’s 1776 masterpiece has been the centrepiece of economic theory for a very long time. I was surprised to learn that people undertaking commerce degrees at Melbourne University are never told to read this book. Everyone should read this book, especially the proponents of the “Washington Consensus”. Being such a famous book, one reads it with many expectations. Most of those were met, but some were radically challenged. You see, the distillation and simplification of the information contained in this book means that, by the time you read about it in an economics textbook (which are, by the way, excellent solutions for insomnia) parts of the message are heavily distorted or just plain wrong. Smith writes about the world as he sees it, and he was a very observant man. The language may be difficult for some and this is certainly not an easy read. I wait with baited breath for a faithful translation into modern English (hopefully with pictures) of this book because everyone should read it.

The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins

How can evolutionary biology on the genetic level possibly help us achieve world peace? It turns out that it may help a great deal. In fact, I was so impressed with the information presented in this book, that I now maintain that, if one wishes to train one’s brain to think, one should study mathematics and philosophy, but if one wishes to understand the way the world works, one should study economics and evolutionary biology. This book also gives us about the best insight to psychology that one can find. It is my contention that a majority of psychology studies are rubbish because they involve scientists who use statistics who don’t have a good understanding of statistics. (This prejudice probably rose out of my first year stats classes which were populated by many dim-witted psychology majors… but I digress). Dawkins examines Darwinian natural selection at the level of the gene and he does it quite brilliantly. This is also an excellent starting point for the understanding of game theory and its results are derived from an experiment which has effectively been running for hundreds of millions of years. Douglass North said “all theorising in the social sciences builds, implicitly or explicitly, upon conceptions of human behaviour”. As such, this is the best starting point for understanding that.