on 13 December 2007
As a kid growing up in Nigeria, I thought that it was 'normal' that Latin Americans, Asians and Africans were classified as The Third World. Now as an adult, it seems that the only pictures of starving children I see on TV are those from my native continent. Despite the aid and attention that Africa has received in the last 20 years, most African countries are still stuck in pre-industrial poverty. Professor Collier's highly accessible book provides some illumination on the matter.
BOTTOM-BILLION IN BRIEF
The thesis of the book is that the economies of the poorest countries in the world, the so-called bottom-billion, have not grown in the last 30 years because they are stuck in one or more of the following traps: (1) the conflict trap; (2) the natural resource trap; (3) the "landlocked with bad neighbours" trap; and (4) the "bad governance in a small country" trap. Collier proposes the following solutions to the problems: (1) Military intervention; (2) adoption of voluntary laws and charters; and 3) changing rich-world trade policy.
WHAT I LIKED ABOUT THE BOOK
The book is written in a logical, easy-to-read style. Professor Collier, former head of research at the World Bank, is remarkably familiar with African societies. He rightly points out that aid and revenue from commodities have enriched local parasitic elites, who prefer to maintain the status quo rather than invest in economic development; 'rent' money, based solely on patronage, funds the gravy train for elites. The narrative is laced with delectable anecdotes of author's travels in Africa. He recalls how he was treated as a celebrity in the Central African Republic and how, after he disclosed that he worked for the World Bank, he was shunned by the Immigration official in Nigeria. The reader even learns jargon such as 'Dutch disease' and 'ex and ante' conditionality for investment.
Collier does not pull punches when describing the entrenched elite in the bottom-billion. If, after reading the book you think, "Geez, African elites are self-serving, egoistical spurns of the Devil", then you may be forgiven. Collier reserves his most excoriating remarks for the Angolans. According to Collier, when the East Timorese government needed an example of how to spend their anticipated oil revenues, they turned to Portuguese-speaking Angola. Collier snidely opined that they (the East Timorese) could have asked a brothel for a lecture on sanctity! Funny, sad but true.
Collier also rightly points out that in a number of bottom-billion countries, there are courageous men and women, who are working hard at reforming their economies. He names a few of them like Nigeria's Ngozi Okonji Iweala and Charles Soludo. Professor Collier notes that these brave people deserve support. So true!
Furthermore, he criticizes aid policy as had been administered to date. Aid has not worked and for good reason: it has been badly administered and done with the heart and not the head. As one who is sceptical of the arguments of both the aid-loving left and the aid-bashing right, I was pleased to read how Collier strikes a balance between both camps. His point: aid does not have to be given to poor countries as a sop for colonialism. It must be committed, targeted and given for over a decade to post-conflict societies.
CRITICISM OF THE BOOK
The first few chapters are about the Professor and his students/co-researchers. He reduces the complexity of human interaction to sterile models, which may be - wait for it - be used to predict the risk of civil war. How neat! He manages to do the odd name-dropping also; how his models were recognized by the CIA and the United Nations. An effort to put some humanity in the numbers would have helped the tone of the first few chapters. Also, he purposely skipped the names of the bottom-billion countries except for a few countries like Nigeria, Central African Republic and Zimbabwe. What harm could have been done by mentioning the names of the countries? Moreover, he does not give any information on the equally poor Central Asian countries. It would have been nice to see how the dynamics of poverty differ between Africa and Afghanistan, for example.
The book's major weakness is that its assessment of the failure of African economies is almost wholly agentic i.e. the book focuses on 'bad' actors and ignores the role institutions, especially the post-colonial systems in Africa. Collier observes that Africa has the largest number of landlocked countries in the world. According to him, "...The international system should not have let them become economic entities in the first place..." Well, that's putting a gloss on the issue here. Why not call a spade a spade? The reason why there are so many landlocked countries in Africa is colonialism. For example, landlocked Chad and Burkina Faso were carved up as French zones of influence in 1888 and remain so till this day. The Professor does not even mention the "C" word. The situation is even more complicated than Collier suggests. The international system (a.k.a. the European imperial powers) carved up Africa into a quilt of nation-states and left them at independence with schizophrenic political institutions that were neither African nor European. Using terms like "international system", Collier skilfully avoids naming names. Afterall, if a system caused the problem, no one did it. He asks us to get over it and move on as these countries are here to stay. I agree. Yet, I fear that this is an injustice to readers, who may not understand that most African countries are not 'nations'. Collier, who knows Africa very well, should have emphasised the 'stickiness' of institutions in the post-colonial era.
Reading the book, you'll get the impression that Africans merrily squandered Western aid in the last 50 years. The truth is more complex: there was the added complication of the Cold War, which was anything but cold in the Third World. Indeed, Africa and Latin America were the key frontlines in the Cold War. It is in Africa, for example, that the US supported unsavoury dictators like Mobutu Sese-Seko and Jonas Savimbi's UNITA, leading them to commit the heinous crimes against their own people. The book does not tell this side of the story well.
One of Professor Collier's instruments for pulling the bottom-billion out of poverty, military intervention, is not well-thought through; indeed, it seems to be an after-thought. He does not convincingly argue why the West should intervene in places like Congo. His argument that he does not want his son to live in such a divided world is a good one for the family dinner but may not cut much ice with hard-nosed politicians, beholden to electorates, who do not like to see their soldiers dragged through the streets of a 'God-forsaken' Third World country.
Colier has a message for both sides of the political spectrum. To the left: there is nothing romantic about the poor African native, who lives in abject misery, is 'happy' with his lot and in touch with nature. Aid and growth can and should be compatible if it is to be effective. To the right: Don't overplay the efficacy of growth. It alone cannot life the bottom billion out of poverty. Economic growth must be combined with some painful change of policies, such as at the WTO, to be effective. I hope that the right people are listening to this message.
on 6 April 2008
I find Paul Collier's book(The Bottom Billion) interesting to read. He easily highlights Many of the economic difficulties facing the poorest countries in the world. He then suggests multi-faced approach that can be applied to tackle some of the issues he highlighted, not only by the poor countries themselves but also by the so called "donor" countries.
Much of Paul's argument is based on data collected by international organization such as IMF and The World Bank and so on. When reading through the pages you would meet some high ranking individuals in these countries, i.e. the Finance minister, but rarely the ordinary person in the street and the challenges he/she faces. In my opinion this is the main weakness of this book. It's a top down approach. He does not talk so much about some of the side effects that export driven policies had on these countries such as planting crops for export in the best available land instead of the staple food of the country which people need to survive. Overall very good book, though I encourage Paul to get out of the big hotels and ministerial headquarters and meet ordinary people next time he visits one of these countries.
on 2 January 2008
This is a thought-provoking book: the problems of the poorest countries are deeply and cogently analysed and explained, and appropriate policies proposed. It has the added virtue of being written in simple and refreshingly straight-forward language. There is much that is absolutely original here.
The one comment I have is that Collier bases some of his policy prescriptions on the assumption that the only way to develop is through export, which seems to suggest export-led growth and large projects. There is nothing about micro projects and the need to work with the poor to alleviate poverty through the provision of appropriate/intermediate technology.
I e-mailed him about this and received a rapid and courteous reply saying that he did not have space in the book to cover everything and that he agreed that exporting only makes sense as a growth strategy for some countries and that he has no fault to find with the micro approach.
He also suggested I might write this review; so I did.
PS I also thoroughly recommend the lecture on his website.
on 20 January 2011
Parts of this book are pure gold in my opinion. Paul Collier appears to have a career rooted in the free market economic establishment, but what he has to say should be read by EVERYONE. I have read no clearer description of the present plight and bleak prospects of some very poor countries.
The heart of his book is the proposition that there are four groups of reasons or "traps" which keep some very poor countries poor. This approach to the subject of global poverty, taken together with the insinuations in the title, and the earlier sections of the book, could be accused of being part of a narrative which qualifies and explains away the failure of the free market paradigm. In other words it performs an act of "paradigm maintenance" (see Eric S. REINERT)How Rich Countries Got Rich and Why Poor Countries Stay Poor by implying that the free market ideas are basically right, except for this one billion people, only in specific countries, with special extraordinary problems. Although this last point is debatable, the reasoning, evidence and anecdotes provided by Collier for the actual traps themselves are completely compelling and should be read, whatever your wider political leanings or economic views.
However the part of the book which fascinates me more is the later chapters where he admits that actually for many poor countries, even if they get their act together, the free market gobalised system STILL will not help them much. He states that they may have "missed the boat" and will be in "limbo", due to China, India etc having dominated the kind of markets they need to enter into in order to succeed within the free market arena. As he notes, it took the present wave of industrialising developing countries a long time to reach a level of wage disparity compared to the West before out sourcing became viable. With much of China's and India's large populations yet to enter global markets, how long will it take before poorer countries look attractive to international manufacturing? Remember, Collier is no left wing reactionary, and these ideas are all the more potent being voiced by a member, (if perhaps a free thinking member) of the free market economic establishment.
Colliers conclusions continue this pattern of being kind of radically progressive and free market establishment at the same time. To summarise to the point of doing him a disservice, he dismisses the industrial policy route for poor countries as resulting in, and being motivated by, corruption, and then proposes that very poor countries require an international artificial trade advantage over China and India etc just to get a kick start. Also he dodges and ducks the usual left wing criticisms of the WTO by asserting that the organisation is just a "marketplace" for "reciprocal bargains" and is not always really for them or relevant to them.
Many of Collier's conclusions feel so urgently right, but also personally for my tastes, I am not sure whether Paul Collier has left his free market background behind enough yet to be able to conclude all the right answers in some areas. However he is definitely shaking the right trees and lifting the right stones better than most, ie issues of trade, progressive protectionism, and creating healthy fair competition.
on 30 August 2008
In my work over the last few years, struggling with the issues of development and poverty reduction, and I read a lot of books on the issues. Recently, I read one of the best books in the form of Paul Collier's The Bottom Billion.
Just as Mr. Collier says at the end of his book, discussions on poverty and development have over the last few years been dominated by two extremes: On the one extreme Mr. Jeffrey Sachs call for more aid to "end poverty", and on the other side, William Easterly's negativity that nothing really works (in the books The End of Poverty and The White Man's Burden, respectively).
Mr. Collier strikes a marvelous and necessary balance between these two. On one side, he says about Mr. Sachs:
"At present the clarion call for the left is Jeffrey Sach's book the end of poverty. Much as I agree with Sachs' passionate call to action, I think that he has overplayed the importance of aid. Aid alone will not solve the problems of the bottom billion - we need to use a wider range of policies."
Mr. Sachs is an advocate of more money will solve the problems, but as Mr. Collier puts well in the book, many of the problems related to poverty are structural, from lack of investement, infrastructure, education, conflict, to being landlocked. Some of these problems are not solved just with more money. Unfortunately, this is a tendency in development aid nowadays, perhaps as aid agencies and staff need to justify their existence, even increase it: the need of more money, much of it in the form of budgetary support, which goes directly to a poor country's budget, in ever bigger amounts. But the link to poverty reduction is awkward to say the least: as pointed out in both Easterly's and Collier's book, higher dependence on foreign aid hardly leads to poverty reduction.
How much did I see this in Mozambique: had any of the subsistence farmers I worked with ever benefitted from the Agricultural SWAp...?
Nevertheless, while one cannot argue that aid will help everything, one can not jump into the other side of "Nothing helps" like the old disillusioned Mr. Easterly does (in my personal view Mr. Easterly is the kind of person who would have let slavery continue, not because he agreed with it, but because "we cannot do anything about it"):
"At present the clarion call for the right is economist William Easterly's book The White Man's Burden. Easterly is right to mock the delusions of the aid lobby. But just as Sachs exaggerates the payoff to aid, Easterly exaggerates the downside and again neglects the scope for other policies. We are not as impotent and ignorant as Easterly seems to think."
As Collier amply argues for, there are many situations and examples that aid has helped and alleviated poverty. But as Mr. Collier also amply discusses and argues for, the aid money needs to be allocated in a well-planned way, and not ignoring the context: aid alone is unlikely to help.
I must admit that at first I found the book to start really slowly: Mr. Collier took time to explain his framework for analysis, ennumerating four "traps" which developing countries, or rather, the "bottom billion", the poorest of the poorest caught in a vicious circle of misery of landlockedness, resource trap, conflict and bad governance. These four traps are inter-related and Mr. Collier carefully presents his huge array of statistics to present his argument.
This part was a somewhat tedious read, but after passing this part, the book moves into more interesting areas, namely what can be done about it, the huge dilemmas and difficulties surrounding these issues.
Nevertheless, on a more critical view, the book's argument is built too much on statistics. It makes it powerful, but at the same time one can feel that the argumentation, like with all statistics, is political and absolutist: in social sciences, there are exceptions to all statistics! At the same time, some of the correlations, like for instance between post-conflict situations and democracy, seem so vague that I would never look at a specific situation with that data, but only focus on the context.
Personally, I like that he says it can be done - too often in the world people say: "there have always been poor people, and there always will be". While I don't deny this is true, I find it appalling that this should be used as an excuse: we have always had murders, rape, wars, but nobody in their right mind would say we should do nothing about it!
I like the book, because we finally have a well-written balance abut development aid, something that has been missing for a while as the issue is discussed more and more.
on 22 April 2009
This book is famous and rightly so. It is outstanding for its rigorous academic analysis and for the way it draws its conclusions. As a previous participant in Interrnational standard setting (albeit in telecommunications) I particularly warmed to the proposals for the development of Charters. This is painstaking, and sometimes painful, work but repays the effort: we should lobby our politicians to support this approach.
The other reviews deal with this book adequately. My main comment is for readers and potential purchasers who, like me, are interested in exactly which countries are included in the bottom billion. The information is to be found in an appendix of the sequel, which is as good if not better and called "Wars, Guns & Votes".
Are you troubled by the grinding poverty in the poorest countries? If so, this book will give you hope that something more can be done.
How can a global economy that routinely produces new billionaires leave a billion people behind in countries where the economic prospects are bleak despite enormous spending aimed at turning things around? Obviously, the remedy isn't working. You could have figured that out for yourself without reading this book.
Professor Paul Collier takes us beyond that disquieting simplification to measure what some of the reasons are that contribute to the stalled economies in those countries (which are mostly located in sub-Saharan Africa and central Asia) where a billion people live.
The primary factors that he can isolate include frequent armed conflicts (coups, civil wars, and wars with other countries), producing high value natural resources that can be easily exported, having no access to the oceans while being surrounded by neighboring countries having a lot of problems, and poorly performing government in a small country. Armed conflicts not only take a lot of lives and do a lot of damage; armed conflicts drive people into new areas creating enormous dislocations and increased disease. Armed conflicts interrupt the ability to run a farm, a business, or to have a normal life. High value exports encourage those in government to seek payoffs from the exports while the exports drive up the value of the currency making local businesses less competitive with imports. If you are surrounded by bad neighbors, you cannot do much exporting or importing so your economy is stuck where it is. A poorly performing government simply siphons off funds into corruption.
If a poor country overcomes these problems, it has new issue: There may not be a local size sufficient to compete with other low-cost labor markets in global exports.
Give a country too much aid of the wrong kind, and you make things worse. Excess infrastructure aid (a current favorite among developed countries) leads to corruption and more spending on the military (which increases the risk of armed conflicts). Military intervention is only cost effective if those who are the peace keepers are serious and the spending is low (unlike Iraq). Laws and charters can provide guidelines that can make the subsequent actions more appropriate. Appropriate trade policies can also help open markets for those from the poorest countries.
The book concludes with a call to action to shift development spending from the middle four billion to the bottom billion while increasing reliance on influences other than sending money for aid.
I appreciated having the chance to read this book and recommend it to those who want to know what can be done to help the poorest people. I would have learned more if Professor Collier had shared more details of his research, rather than just citations of his academic works. I was particularly interested in how strong these statistical patterns are. I was also curious about the multivariate effect of these factors in the past.
I have a lot of admiration for the hard work that goes into assembling data to do this kind of work and to then find ways to draw conclusions from the data that make sense. Bravo to Professor Collier and his colleagues!
At the same time, I would encourage serious readers to also look at the problem from the ground up . . . what educated people who live in these countries can do to make things better for the most impoverished. I am highly encouraged by the work that some of my students have done in identifying how small educational and capital inputs can generate enormous numbers of successful entrepreneurs who need employees. Many of these nations lack an educational infrastructure that can produce the skilled labor and business leadership needed for rapid economic growth. It looks to me like working on providing such advanced educational opportunities could be a great way to attack these persistent problems, as well.
on 28 September 2007
Despite well-publicised significant improvements in the average condition of several billion people in our world, there remain some one billion seriously poor people, and their condition is unlikely to improve. They are trapped, by conflicts, by possessing natural resources (sic), by being landlocked with bad neighbours, and/or by bad governance. Additionally, globalization is not going to help those caught in the trap. Do we have a responsibility to help? Yes, says Oxford professor of economics and African studies expert, Paul Collier, we do because we are citizens, and that status demands that we help our fellow human beings.
We are a book group of retired men, with experience in a wide range of disciplines and countries, who have read and discussed "The Bottom Billion". Without exception, we all found Collier's identification of this group of non-developing nations, and the problems they face, highly thought-provoking. We were particularly impressed by his use of researchers from different countries and disciplines, and the quantitative techniques used, to analyse the causes of those countries' problems, the impacts on them, and for identifying potential solutions. The power of these analyses was such that many of our preconceived views were changed and we were left wondering what, if anything, we could do as individuals to help the people of these countries escape from their terrible plight.
The Bottom Billion is very principled treatise that takes a close look at one of the biggest running sores in our world, and offers some solutions where many people may have said, sorrowfully, that no cure exists at all.
This book is essentially about the failure of aid. The failure of donor governments to direct their aid packages at those who need it most and the failure of those countries in receipt of aid to target it for the benefit of their citizens. Of course, says the author this arrangement suits all parties.Aid can be given to buy political leverage for access to resources or markets,alternately to create export demand in the donor country's economy. While the 'grateful' governments of the developing world can use this funding as way of entrenching their political control -either through force or bribery,that's when it's not being funneled overseas into anonymous bank accounts for use later. This book is about the failure of aid, but more importantly,what can be done to improve the lot of the citizens of the World's failed or failing states.
What is refreshing about 'TBB' is it's essential honesty and directness.'The Bottom Billion' is not some hand-wringing, lets feel guilty about poverty tract. It is a dissection of a problem that can only get bigger with time,so let's do something about it.Collier's argument can boiled down to a few simple points.Here is a sample:
1):Aid make matters worse unless it is used appropriately.The context in which aid is given determines vey often the kind and degree of outcome.
2):Aid is only a partial solution. Citizens and governments in LDC's have to be more responsible and creative in how they look to create wealth and opportunity. However,this may often be very difficult and is a long term project lasting years.So wealthy nations need to pitch in with appropriate assistance - advice, finance and maybe military support in the worst cases.
3):It is time to stop thinking of aid as a charitable gesture. Aid has to be dispensed only to those governments who who will act responsibly and with transparency, so that there is accountability for aid related outcomes.Governments have to earn the right to assistance.
4):Aid is not a simple act of charity. It is a way of nations avoiding the spillover effects that occur when famines, natural disasters or civil wars bring a country to the edge of disillusion.The cost of not helping a country in need(let alone the moral wrong that it represents)is much higher then clearing up the mess later.So,as a business transaction aid represents a bargain.Resolve the problems of the very poor and suddenly the world is safer, happier and less war torn place to live in.It is a slow and expensive business, but there is no other way!
'The Bottom Billion' is a well argued, tightly structured and detailed analysis of the development problem.It steers a clever path between the wide optimism of the Bono brigade and the fundamentalist 'Devil take the hindmost' rightist thinking.It looks for solutions rather then harping on about the problems.I felt that the author's suggestions for resolving the development issues could have warranted more space.In a nutshell Collier wants the citizens and governments to understand that giving money in itself is not enough.Pressure has to brought to bear on governments in the most failing country's to reform,to look at what they can do for themselves,to look for local solutions that focus on particular needs and opportunities.Donors should also expect to provide practical support but only where and when it can be reasonably monitored and justified.In addition aid transactions should accord to internationally accepted standards - a code that sets out how and why aid should be given and how it should be used.Transparency and accountability is the key to the success of aid.
If I have a criticism of this excellent little book is that it fails to explain why it is that failing country's Chad,Somalia and Afghanistan are really failing.Could it be that the rich West through their extensive use of trade barriers, subsidies and dumping policies are quite happy for many other countries to remain in servitude? Instead of worrying about aid and it's proper use, shouldn't we be looking to establish a level playing field for trade to take place on? Trade in the long term will accrue benefits that aid will never deliver.Trade encourages enterprise,wealth creation and choice as well as employment and higher incomes. Aid creates dependency.It may take a generation or two judging by the snails pace of the Doha Round, but at least it may offer a real alternative to the depressing failure of the World to resolve the all important question of poverty reduction by it's current methods. So, If we really want to help the very poor in this World we have to look to create political and economic mechanisms that encourage trade (and I don't mean the slash and burn policies of the WTO in times past). Not a glamorous idea,certainly not a quick fix and certainly it will involve sacrifices on our behalf, but surely the elevation of a huge mass of people from deprivation is worth it?
'The Bottom Billion' is an absorbing read.It doesn't tug Geldolf-like at the heartstrings. Instead it has clear headed ideas about the origins of World poverty and how it can be solved.Yes, there is a particular agenda and yes it tends to lay blame more on less developed nations then seems fair, but at least the author argues his case with conviction and with reference to facts rather then emotion.
This is one the best policy books that I have read and an example of what a good policy book should be all about. It deals with the subject that is often in public spotlight and yet it seems as intractable today as it was decades ago. This sad state of affairs may in at least part be attributed to some of the misunderstanding of what global poverty is all about, who is most affected by it, and what sort of traps those most affected find themselves incapable of escaping. As this book clearly argues, the so called "poverty trap" in and of itself is not a trap at all, since otherwise all World would still be as poor as a few centuries ago. Furthermore, vast segments of the "global poor" actually live in countries that are developing at a more or less steady pace and can expect to be lifted out of that poverty within a generation or two. The ones who seem stuck are the bottom billion of the world population, and this book deals with them. The research that this book is based on comes up with four basic traps that could permanently hinder the poorest countries in development. The traps, some of them counterintuitive, are:
1. The Conflict Trap
2. The Natural Resource Trap
3. Landlocked with Bad Neighbors
4. Bad Governance in a Small Country
Not every one of the poorest countries in the world is subject to all of these traps, but they are subject to at least one of them. Furthermore, Collier is not content to just describe the problem; he offers several courses of action that can deal with them. At least one of them, military interventions, has been largely discredited lately in the eyes of the public and policy wonks alike. However, if we are sincere and serious about helping the poorest in this world, we need to keep the military option open.
All in all, this is a wonderful book that is both data-driven and engaging. Even if you have not followed the issues surrounding global poverty in the past, this book may induce you to get engaged in thinking about it more actively and seriously.