on 4 March 2012
Professor Collier is one of the most progressive thinkers in development economics. His earlier book `The Bottom Billion' was an inspired piece of intellectual virtuosity. His follow-up doesn't disappoint.
Putting to use his razor-sharp economics brain, Professor Collier cuts through the sea of romanticized preconceptions and prejudices surrounding development economics. He has no time for self-interested lobbies or the fluffy middle-class love affair with peasant agriculture. The book is written with two basic ethical principles in mind:
1) the world's poorest must be lifted up; and
2) civilisation must be made sustainable.
Almost everyone will find some of their positions exploded (I certainly did).
The first section lays out his ethical principles. The second (long, technical) section deals with the chain of decision-making required for African countries to orchestrate an economic transformation through resource exploitation. The final sections deal with the big-picture environmental issues of the day.
Some key points
- International fishing rights need to be owned, otherwise international fisheries will be destroyed
- All subsidies to the fishing industry should be ended as soon as possible.
- A carbon tax is by far the most economically rational solution to climate change
- The key players who might block such a deal are Russia and the Middle East (i.e. the carbon exporters), not China and the USA
- The world needs more commercial agriculture on the Brazilian model, not less
- America should drop its fantasy of achieving energy independence through home-gown biofuels
- Europe should lift its damaging and anti-progressive ban on GM
- Organic food is a rich-world luxury, not a tool for feeding the poor
Telling statistic: until the GM ban in 1996, European grain yields tracked those of the US. Since 1996 they've fallen behind by 1-2% per year. As Europe is a big grain producer this is a major contributing factor to higher food commodity prices.
Quote: "The idea that fishermen should get the rights to scarce fish for free is analogous to oil companies getting the rights to oil for free."
Professor Collier points out that in this networked age, people power will prove decisive to more enlightened public policy. Have a look at NaturalResourceCharter[DOT]org. A brilliant book - anyone interested in a better, more sustainable, world would do well to absorb its lessons.
on 24 January 2012
A very original and very well written book. Incredible how a subject treated so often in writing can be given a whole new angle. The best way to help the poorest countries is most likely not the various popular and ubiquitious types of human development projects but perhaps rather e.g. prospecting aid which - unfortunately - has little public appeal and goes up against vested interests of multinational mining conglomerates.
Importantly, also a simple and convincing description of economic theory dealing with socalled "global commons" such as international fisheries and carbon emissions. Yet also a problem in that category: Why not admit that the same theory applies equally well to child birth and population growth? Not even a passing mention. I suspect the author consider the subject too controversial and rather than writing some gobbledygook he knows is false, he choose to ignore it.
Paul Collier is Professor of Economics at Oxford, and mainly famous for his previous book The Bottom Billion, on the economics of the third world, notably Africa. In this new work he develops that theme but also expands his scope to the more general topic of managing the world's resources globally.
It would be fair to call Collier very logical, but of course his logic rests on certain values and ethical assumptions. Fundamental to his case is that natural resources have no private owners, with the corollary that natural liabilities such as greenhouse gases are also public responsibilities. This perspective seems only common rationality and common sense to me, but I expect there are conservative schools of thought to whom such ideas are anathema. In fact Collier goes further and regularly points to governments as being the only proper owners and managers of the resources that he categorises as being public, so presumably if you view actions by governments as being the agency of the devil on earth you may find the professor's reasoning unpalatable. In that case I should warn you that there is even worse in store, and that Collier brazenly prescribes international action as being necessary, via the United Nations if necessary.
None of this commits Collier to any unduly rosy view of governments much less of the UN. His argument, if I am not misrepresenting him, is not that governments carry out their responsibilities well, only that certain tasks are inescapably governmental responsibilities whether carried out well or badly, and of course he does not rule out delegation by governments to private or at least non-governmental groups where there is clear benefit in doing so. He is also, or certainly appears to be, extremely methodical in testing his findings by historical analysis. When the historical research comes up with counter-intuitive findings, he does not gloss this over but comes out upfront with what his analysis tells him. Sometimes, indeed, he might seem to be labouring the obvious ever so slightly, as when he solemnly informs us that good governance in Africa has beneficial economic effects for the governed. It needs no professor come from Oxford to tell us this, you might say, but really I support his way of doing it even here. Perhaps we can trust our common sense in the way we can trust our memory - a large proportion of the time. However a large proportion is not a totality, and it is worth checking whether the perception in question is a majority or a minority instance.
Where I suspect Collier is pulling his punches a little is when the economic benefits that he identifies point in the opposite direction from the non-economic. Where exactly has he positioned himself with regard to the preservation of natural species, for instance? On the one hand he is unequivocal in his support for large-scale farming, but we all know that this threatens some varieties of wildlife. He is impatient with certain environmentalists' attitudes that seem to him `romantic', and I suppose justifiably so up to a point, but is he tacitly implying that the giant panda is heading for extinction by its own efforts or lack of them, never mind as a result of human-engineered developments? He is patently humane and fair-minded, but not exactly a sentimentalist, as I suppose I must be to a certain extent. I would also like to pull him up sharply over the question of nuclear power generation. He states, as its proponents always state, that it is guiltless of carbon emissions. This is true of course, but what are we to do with the wastes? I have the uneasy suspicion that wholesale commitment to nuclear power, or at least fission generation, is only going to take us out of the frying pan into you-know-where. You can't destroy nuclear material, you can only take it somewhere else, and some of the actinides are dangerous for what is effectively the rest of eternity as measured against the human life-span, wherever we are supposed to put them. It may be a different story if we can overcome the monumental obstacles inherent in fusion generation, but that does not look to be just round the corner.
However I recommend this important book without hesitation. Collier can be witty and even acerbic at times, witness his withering comments on the recent Copenhagen conference and its idiotic fumbling. He is not a great stylist in the sense that I would call Galbraith a stylist, and he is in general less polemical and `political' than Galbraith might be thought to be. However he majors on thoroughness, and if at times he might even seem slightly flat-footed, I recall what Galbraith himself said about new concepts in economics - there are none. The only financial reality is cash, the rest is smoke and mirrors. On the matter of public responsibilities, here is another - it is the duty of every adult citizen to become familiar with at least basic economics, because the stridently vocal and pathologically ignorant are getting away with too much by way of `debate'. Collier is not difficult to read, so it is up to the rest of us to read him.
on 31 March 2011
In the never-ending war between "romantics" and "ostriches," economist Paul Collier stands squarely in the middle. Deeply grounded in the economic and environmental issues of the world's poorest nations, Collier's book provides background and cogent strategy for rational, pragmatic environmental practices (thus pacifying the romantics) and for bringing economic growth to the developing world via the sane, honest exploitation of natural resources (thus pleasing the ostriches). Collier describes the history and economic theory of resource "plunder," and discusses how to turn it into resource management. He's willing to fly in the face of popular opinion, and his hard-earned knowledge makes his arguments difficult to resist. In a perfect world, Collier would write less like an economist. But his ideas are so necessary and his solutions so urgent that readers who put up with his less-than-perfect flow of prose will gain important new insights. getAbstract strongly recommends this groundbreaking work to environmentalists, economists, policy makers, governments of any nation grappling with extracting their natural resources and all those concerned with these issues. And that should be everybody.
on 30 January 2013
As Paul Collier points out, on the basis of thorough economic analysis, natural resources such as oil, and mineral deposits have the potential to transform the economies of poor countries, provided they are well managed. Poor governance and management mean that most often they are not used for the benefit of future generations, though there are a few positive examples. Professor Collier makes suggestions for how countries can be helped to make better decisions on how the resources are exploited, how greater benefits can be obtained by better deals with exploration companies and what can be done to improve transparency. As he points out, the potential benefits to many countries in Africa far outweigh those from overseas development assistance (ODA), though ODA could provide assistance in improving the governance and management processes.
on 4 February 2012
Reading this book effectively brings home the fact that issues regarding natural resources are central to the future of many of the poorest countries. Add to this the subject of global warming through carbon emissions and it would be hard to think of a book which dealt with more fundamental issues.
First and foremost Collier is an economist through to his core, and quite a free market one at that. The strength of the best parts of this book derives from this fact, as also do the parts which other strongly environmentalist readers may baulk at.
He gives an excellent accessible account of the basic economic incentive and contractual problems at the heart of relations between many weak and often corrupt poor country governments and the private companies that extract their natural resources. There is no prevaricating on the evils of large corporations, just astute insights into the nature of the issues. Just like the poverty traps explained in his "Bottom Billion" book, these insights and explanations are pure gold. As in the bottom billion he explains how natural resource incomes can taint the incentives and processes of democracy.
A major theme which some environmentalists may struggle with is the concept that depleting nature is more acceptable for a country as long as the incomes from that depletion is invested to provide future generations with a higher standard of living. Many environmentalists would be unwilling to give nature or natural assets any such opportunity cost or value, but as an economist Collier is prepared to, and points a finger at the "romantics". He puts forward that we have "custody" responsibly over nature and should not plunder it, but we do not have the obligation to completely preserve it.
He discusses at length two tragedy of the commons type issues, being fishing and carbon emissions. Regarding fishing he suggests that the international seas should have ownership rights which revert to the United Nations, where profits can be used for food aid. The ownership would be the perquisite for a quota system to stop plunder.
Regarding carbon he favours a universal "shadow price" for carbon emissions rather than a cap and trade system. He argues that a cap and trade system encourages "gaming" by states to angle for advantage. Cap and trade approaches could see rich polluters willing to pay poorer countries to use up their pollution allocations, where as a shadow tax approach aspires to make polluting equally more expensive for everyone, which obviously is proportionally more hurtful to poorer people. His approach could therefore be argued to be more efficient but perhaps regressive. But of course an economist may conclude that efficiency should come first, and issues of distribution can be balanced after by other means.
Finally another point Collier brings up is that although China's habit of paying for extracted African resources by building infrastructure has been criticised by the West for being opaque, actually compared to the poor record of African governments effectively investing resource incomes, the Chinese approach could be viewed as a good deal.
That's enough summarising. Just buy it.
on 3 August 2014
If there is one thing I took away from this book it is that: whatever one might think, we, the inhabitants of planet earth, are so far from living a sustainable lifestyle it is unbelievable. And, what is more, we have never possessed so much knowledge as today, with which we could easily live a sustainable lifestyle if we wanted. And the thing is, we know now that our descendants will not forgive us!