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Must read for anyone interested in poverty reduction,
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This review is from: The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries are Failing and What Can be Done About It (Grove Art) (Hardcover)
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.