Here are some of our favorite fiction and non-fiction books that illustrate the injustice of poverty and remind us why it's so important to fight to help people overcome the odds.
1. "Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity" by Katherine Boo
Pulitzer Prize-winner Katherine Boo tells the dramatic and sometimes heartbreaking story of families striving toward a better life in Mumbai, one of the twenty-first century’s great, but unequal cities. In this book, based on three years of reporting, global change and inequality are made human.
2. "The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee’s, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table" by Tracie McMillan
When journalist Tracie McMillan saw foodies swooning over $9 organic tomatoes, she couldn’t help but wonder: What about the rest of us? Why do working Americans eat the way we do? And what can we do to change it? To find out, McMillan went undercover in three jobs that feed America, living and eating off her wages in each. Reporting from California fields, a Walmart produce aisle, and an Applebee's kitchen, McMillan examines the reality of our country’s food industry. Chronicling her own experience and that of the Mexican garlic crews, Midwestern produce managers, and Caribbean line cooks with whom she works, McMillan goes beyond the food on her plate to explore the national priorities that put it there.
3. "King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa" by Adam Hochschild
In the 1880s, as the European powers were carving up Africa, King Leopold II of Belgium seized for himself the vast and mostly unexplored territory surrounding the Congo River. Carrying out a genocidal plundering of the Congo, he looted its rubber, brutalized its people, and ultimately slashed its population by ten million—all the while shrewdly cultivating his reputation as a great humanitarian. "King Leopold’s Ghost" is the haunting account of a megalomaniac of monstrous proportions, a man as cunning, charming, and cruel as any of the great Shakespearean villains. It is also the deeply moving portrait of those who fought Leopold: a brave handful of missionaries, travelers, and young idealists who went to Africa for work or adventure and unexpectedly found themselves witnesses to a holocaust.
4. "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America" by Barbara Ehrenreich
Millions of Americans work for poverty-level wages, and one day Barbara Ehrenreich decided to join them. She was inspired in part by the rhetoric surrounding welfare reform, which promised that any job equals a better life. But how can anyone survive, let alone prosper, on $6 to $7 an hour? To find out, Ehrenreich moved from Florida to Maine to Minnesota, taking the cheapest lodgings available and accepting work as a waitress, hotel maid, house cleaner, nursing-home aide, and Walmart salesperson. She soon discovered that even the “lowliest” occupations require exhausting mental and physical efforts.
5. "Development as Freedom Paperback" by Amartya Sen
Freedom, Sen argues, is both the end and most efficient means of sustaining economic life and the key to securing the general welfare of the world’s entire population. Releasing the idea of individual freedom from association with any particular historical, intellectual, political, or religious tradition, Sen demonstrates its current applicability and possibilities. In the new global economy, where, despite unprecedented increases in overall opulence, the contemporary world denies elementary freedoms to vast numbers—perhaps even the majority of people—he concludes, it is still possible to practically and optimistically regain a sense of social accountability.
6. "How Change Happens" by Duncan Green
Human society is full of would-be “change agents,” a restless mix of campaigners, lobbyists, and officials, both individuals and organizations, set on transforming the world. They want to improve public services, reform laws and regulations, guarantee human rights, get a fairer deal for those on the sharp end, achieve greater recognition for any number of issues, or simply be treated with respect.
This book bridges the gap between academia and practice, bringing together the best research from a range of academic disciplines and the evolving practical understanding of activists to explore the topic of social and political change. Drawing on many first-hand examples from Oxfam, as well as the author’s insights from studying and working on international development, it tests ideas on how change happens and offers the latest thinking on what works to achieve progressive change.
7. "Surrender or Starve: Travels in Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia, and Eritrea" by Robert D. Kaplan
Reporting from Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia, and Eritrea, Kaplan examines the factors behind the famine that ravaged the region in the 1980s, exploring the ethnic, religious, and class conflicts that are crucial for understanding the region today. He offers a new foreword and afterword that show how the nations have developed since the famine, and why this region will only grow more important to the United States.
8. "Freedom From Want: The Remarkable Success Story of BRAC, the Global Grassroots Organization That’s Winning the Fight Against Poverty" by Ian Smillie
BRAC, arguably the world’s largest, most diverse and most successful NGO, is little known outside Bangladesh, where it formed in 1972. BRAC's success and the spread of its work in health, education, social enterprise development, and microfinance dwarfs any other private, government or non-profit enterprise in its impact on tens of thousands of communities in Asia and Africa. “Freedom From Want” traces BRAC s evolution from a small relief operation indistinguishable from hundreds of others, into what is undoubtedly the largest and most variegated social experiment in the developing world. BRAC's story shows how social enterprise can trump corruption and how purpose, innovation and clear thinking can overcome the most entrenched injustices that society can offer. It is a story that ranges from distant villages in Bangladesh to New York s financial district on 9/11, from war-torn Afghanistan to the vast plains of East Africa and the ruins of Southern Sudan.
9. "Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide" by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn
With Pulitzer Prize winners Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn as our guides, we undertake an odyssey through Africa and Asia to meet the extraordinary women struggling there, among them a Cambodian teenager sold into sex slavery and an Ethiopian woman who suffered devastating injuries in childbirth. Drawing on the breadth of their combined reporting experience, Kristof and WuDunn depict our world with anger, sadness, clarity, and, ultimately, hope.
10. "The Immortal Life on Henrietta Lacks" by Rebecca Skloot
Henrietta Lacks is part of the DNA of modern medicine, and yet her name had been lost to history until Rebecca Skloot embarked on a journey to learn more about the woman behind the HeLa cell. Her investigation leads her to uncover how Johns Hopkins Hospital exploited Lacks' cells while keeping her family in the dark. Though her cells have brought others millions dollars of profit, members of her family continue to live in poverty. Through her interviews with Lacks' family and the scientists involved with making a business out of HeLa, Skloot finally brings justice to Lacks' legacy.
11. "Girls Burn Brighter" by Shobha Rao
Following the interveawing narratives of two young women from a poor loom-working village in Southern India who are forced into unimaginable circumstances as the eldest daughters in their families, Rao tackles some of the most urgent issues facing women today: domestic abuse, human trafficking, immigration, and feminism. Through it all, Poornima and Savita refuse let the fires inside of them (hope for a brighter future) burn out.
12. "We Need New Names" by NoViolet Bulawayo
Our heroine Darling is only 10 years old, and yet she must navigate a fragile and violent world. In Zimbabwe, Darling and her friends steal guavas, try to get the baby out of young Chipo’s belly, and grasp at memories of Before. Before their homes were destroyed by paramilitary policemen, before the school closed, before the fathers left for dangerous jobs abroad. But Darling has a chance to escape: she has an aunt in America. She travels to this new land in search of America’s famous abundance only to find that her options as an immigrant are perilously few.
13. "What Is the What" by Dave Eggers
Eggers illuminates the history of the civil war in Sudan through the eyes of Valentino Achak Deng, a refugee living in the United States. We follow his life as he’s driven from his home as a boy and walks, with thousands of orphans, to Ethiopia, where he finds safety—for a time. Valentino’s travels bring him in contact with government soldiers, janjaweed-like militias, liberation rebels, hyenas and lions, disease and starvation—and a string of unexpected romances. Ultimately, Valentino finds safety in Kenya and, just after the millennium, and is resettled in the United States, from where this novel is narrated. In this book, written with expansive humanity and surprising humor, we come to understand the nature of the conflicts in Sudan, the refugee experience in America, the dreams of the Dinka people, and the challenge one indomitable man faces in a world collapsing around him.
14. "Nervous Conditions" by Tsitsi Dangarembga
This novel, set in colonial Rhodesia during the 1960s, centers on the coming of age of a teenage girl, Tambu, and her relationship with her British-educated cousin Nyasha. Tambu, who yearns to be free of the constraints of her rural village, especially the circumscribed lives of the women, thinks her dreams have come true when her wealthy uncle offers to sponsor her education. But she soon learns that the education she receives at his mission school comes at a price.
15. "A Thousand Splended Suns" by Khaled Hosseini
Born a generation apart and with very different ideas about love and family, Mariam and Laila are two women brought jarringly together by war, by loss and by fate. As they endure the ever escalating dangers around them—in their home as well as in the streets of Kabul—they come to form a bond that makes them both sisters and mother-daughter to each other, and that will ultimately alter the course not just of their own lives but of the next generation.
16. "Little Bee" by Chris Cleave
This novel explores the tenuous friendship that blooms between two disparate strangers—one an illegal Nigerian refugee, the other a recent widow from suburban London—who are linked through their experiences of a horrifying event.
17. "The Glass Palace" by Amitav Ghosh
Set in Burma during the British invasion of 1885, this novel by Amitav Ghosh tells the story of Rajkumar, a poor boy lifted on the tides of political and social chaos, who goes on to create an empire in the Burmese teak forest. When soldiers force the royal family into exile, Rajkumar befriends Dolly, a young woman in the court of the Burmese Queen, whose love will shape his life. He cannot forget her, and years later, as a rich man, he goes in search of her.
18. "The Rent Collector" by Camron Wright
Survival for Ki Lim and Sang Ly is a daily battle at Stung Meanchey, the largest municipal waste dump in all of Cambodia. They make their living scavenging recyclables from the trash. Life would be hard enough without the worry for their chronically ill child, Nisay, and the added expense of medicines that are not working. Just when things seem worst, Sang Ly learns a secret about the bad-tempered rent collector who comes demanding money—a secret that sets in motion a tide that will change the life of everyone it sweeps past.