A grad student’s guide to the international development blogosphere

Several friends have recently asked me which blogs I read and how I manage my reading. This post is targeted at my fellow international development grad students, but other young professionals should find it useful as well. Let’s start with why to read blogs, then move on to the how, and finally the what.

1. Why should I read blogs? I do plenty of reading for class/work already…

I’m a fan of reading blogs. No big surprise there. Reading blogs should be part of how you get smart about your field. You read the news, right? New York Times or the Economist or whatever? Well newspapers write for general audiences. They won’t get very far into the complexity and nuance. You read a bunch of scholarly articles for class too? Well most journals are written for academics. They generally won’t tell you what the academic theories mean for the actual work of development.

Blogs cover many of the same issues as both newspapers and journals, but with an eye toward what they mean for practitioners and policy makers. You’ll get stories from the field, scathing critiques of the latest development fads, and heated debates on everything from microfinance to conflict minerals. The blogosphere is the one place where geography is no barrier to the conversation. Academics, journalists, donors, Washington think tank-ers, UN or NGO staff — they all bounce ideas around here.

For a grad student, blogs also provide a check on what the professors say. You’ll find out pretty quickly which issues are actually top-of-mind for practitioners and which issues only matter to the Ivory Tower types. And if classes don’t allow you to delve far enough into an issue you care about, blogs can make up for that.

2. Blogs can be overwhelming. How do I manage the information flow?

First and foremost: You do not need to visit every blog’s website to check for new posts. In fact, you shouldn’t. You can subscribe by email if you like (see the widget in my right-hand column) but even that can be overwhelming as blog posts mix with your normal emails.

There’s an easier way to read blogs. Instead of subscribing by email, you subscribe to the blog’s RSS feed. RSS means “really simple syndication.” You just subscribe to the RSS feed using a feed aggregator, and you’ll get all of your blogs in one place.

Some email programs (e.g. Outlook) can act as feed aggregators. I prefer to use Google Reader; if you have a Google Mail account, then you already have a Google Reader account. When I’m on the road someplace with spotty internet connections, I use a free program called FeedDemon; it’s a little clunkier than Google Reader, but it can download posts for viewing when you’re offline. On my iPhone, I use another free program called MobileRSS. Both FeedDemon and MobileRSS sync with my Google Reader account, so my RSS subscriptions or starred items will always be the same in all three. (There are also many other options for feed aggregators. Follow this link to read Owen Barder’s recent reviews of a few others.)

RSS

Once you have a feed aggregator, start subscribing. Most sites with feeds will have a link that looks like this orange square. Click on it to subscribe. Often you can just type the site’s URL into the feed aggregator, and it will figure out the rest.

The practical upshot of this feed aggregator stuff is that you can go to one place and see all of the new posts from all the blogs you follow. You can also “follow” your normal news (more on this below). This keeps you from being overwhelmed, so you’re more likely to keep up with them.

3. Okay, I’m sold. What should I be reading?

In my opinion, there are six must-read blogs for any development student.

Following these six will keep you up to speed with the debates of the day, and you’ll get links to the most interesting posts from other blogs. Seriously, if you read nothing else, at least subscribe to these six.

4. C’mon. Only six? I can handle a few more.

I hoped you’d say that. Here are a some others that I highly recommend.

Most of the blogs above are pretty general, though everyone brings different perspectives and interests. There are also many issue/region-specific blogs you may want to check out. Here are a few that I recommend:

I generally steer away from the blogs of NGOs and donor agencies. The content tends to be fluff. Of course, if you work for (or want to work for) a particular organization, it might be worth following them. There are two that I would recommend as generally thoughtful and interesting:

Finally, there’s news. Almost every news website does RSS feeds, so you can subscribe to them through Google Reader. I get the Economist, the New York Times Africa feed, the East African, Foreign Policy, and others bundled together with my blogs. I also subscribe to TED talks, xkcd, Gallup World polls, and more. If a site publishes regular content, it probably has an RSS feed. I barely even go to websites anymore.

5. But Dave, you forgot about…

Am I missing anything? Feel free to fill the comments section with suggestions.

Please don’t be offended if I failed to include you or your favorite blog above. This isn’t meant as a definitive list. Here are some more blogs I think are worthwhile. The full list of what I follow is longer still. The above is simply meant to get people started — and I don’t want to scare off the newcomers.