This is our first book review here at Scientifica, but I think it is long overdue. I'm not sure how often we will be able to do these but it something that I have wanted to do for some time now. Hopefully you will find some books that interest you and if you have any recommendations, please put them in the comments.
Poor Economics is not one of your typical skeptical book. It doesn't talk about ghosts or people who think the Earth is hollow. Instead, it dives into poverty and the solutions that people offer to the poor. As someone who is a fan of critical thinking and has done a fair about of service work, this book was the best blend of the two I have ever seen.
Humanitarian efforts are almost always run by people who really want to make a difference in peoples lives. Unfortunately, sometimes people get so caught up in trying to help that they never ask if what they are doing is working. It is easy to just go off anecdotes to justify your work and to some degree that is OK to do. However when it comes to putting in place programs that are really going to try to make an impact on social problems and increase peoples standard of living we should demand evidence. These programs are not free and like any consumer we should want the most bang of our buck.
Poor Economics does a really impressive job of reviewing the mixed and often limited data around poverty. Do people use a bug net that was given to them for free? Is a lack of food what keeps people poor? Are the poor one loan away form being thriving business owners? These are hard questions that have complex answers. Even if you don't read the book I strongly recommend you peruse their website. There is a lot of good data there as well a some resources for teaching about poverty.
The Bottom Line: This book is excellent. It doesn't matter if you know nothing about poverty or if you are engrossed in these issues. This book tries gives the reader understanding of why the poor make the choices they do and what can be done to help improve their lives.
As an aside, it is the end of the year so if you are looking for good charities I recommend you look at GiveWell.org and Foundation Beyond Belief. Give Well reviews charities that address lots of difference social issues. Like the authors of Poor Economics, they review the evidence for a charities effectiveness and rank them accordingly. Foundation Beyond Belief organizes secularists to donate to charities on a variety of issues. If you are able, please give back to humanity this holiday season.