People often ask me for suggestions on what to read so they can better understand how international development works. There are many excellent books out there (and some really bad ones), but three stand out, and if I had limited time I would focus on one or two of these. In fact, a lazy development economics student could get more than a decent education by just reading these three books:
White Man's Burden, by William Easterly. This book is an in-depth exploration of the structure of the aid industry. The bottom line is that aid is done mostly by top-down "planners" rather than bottom-up "searchers." In my view, this book is the best pointer to the future of where aid needs to go.
How to Change the World, by David Bornstein. David does in-depth stories about a number of incredible "social entrepreneurs" who are changing the world by introducing innovations in the economic, social, and environmental spheres. These people are superb examples of the "searchers" that Bill Easterly talks about, and they are the type of people who lead projects listed on GlobalGiving.
The Elusive Quest for Growth, by William Easterly. This book is about all the grand theories underlying foreign aid over the past 50 years, and about the lack of evidence that any of them have worked. In addition to being very entertaining, this book will arm you against the charlatans out there (including some prominent ones) who are trying to re-bottle old, failed approaches and sell them as new "breakthroughs."
If you read these three books, you will be well on your way to being an effective philanthropist, aid worker, or just informed citizen.