Thursday, June 11, 2015

Research Book Recommendations: Poor Economics and The Bottom Billion

I don't know how I would write without having research materials right at my fingertips.

Actually, no, I take that back. I remember when I used to write without doing research. I remember how awful, how terrible, how truly dreadful those early manuscripts used to be. They were like playing pin the tail on the donkey--I had a vague idea that there was a donkey somewhere ahead, but I had no idea where or how to reach it. So I made things up and pretended that what I made up was a fair substitute for how reality actually worked.


Well, I know better now, though it is still so very difficult to get all the details right.

How do you know when you've done enough research? Someone told me once that you know you're finished when the information you're discovering is all something you've seen before in another context.

Of course, if that's true, there are some topics that would take years to research properly. Sometimes we don't have that much time.

I think I've stumbled upon one of those topics myself lately. I've been interested in the idea of a story set in a very poor environment. But what does that level of poverty actually look like in the day-to-day? I honestly had no idea.

So I've started doing some research, and I began with two books that have each turned out to be quite a revelation.

The first:

Poor Economics

The intent of this book is to explore what sorts of aid (if any) are actually helpful to the poorest populations. What do they need? Food? Chlorinated water? Bed nets? Will they actually use these things? Should the items be free or subsidized or what?

Some great questions, and I learned a lot about what works and what doesn't. So as a side note, if you give regularly to charity, you might consider reading this book to get a better idea of where best to send your money. The book doesn't come right out and list particular charities it recommends, but it does give some insight that you might use to come to your own conclusions.

Where Poor Economics really excels is in detailing how the poor make decisions and why they do things that might seem (to us) to be illogical. After finishing this book I feel so much more aware of how daily life actually works for those who live in extreme poverty.

The second:

The Bottom Billion

This book takes much more of a top-down approach. The major questions asked are: 1) What traps are keeping poor nations poor? and 2) What can we do to help them?

So far I've read only the first part of the book, which attempts to answer question 1 (and which is certainly the more relevant to my research). Whereas Poor Economics gives a good look at the perspective of the individual, The Bottom Billion has a lot of great information on a larger scale. For example, why is it that having one major rich resource can be detrimental for a poor nation? I would have found that idea completely mind-boggling until seeing the data laid out in this book.

So this too is good information for me, because it helps me to think about the setting of the story. (It helps that a lot of the details also fit very well with ideas I already had!)

Together these two books have gone a long way to getting me started on this research path. I probably still have a ways to go, but now at least the framework is laid out for me and I can see more clearly the areas where I might need more information.

So, if any of you similarly find yourselves in a place where you need to do research on poverty, these are an excellent place to start!

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