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 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 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.
on 2 August 2009
This is another effort by the neo-liberal economic establishment to distance itself from the consequences of its policies in Sub-Saharan Africa. This book is mainly about Sub-Saharan Africa.
The former head of research at the World Bank is perplexed by the failure of Sub-Saharan countries to develop. Maybe, this failure is due to the policies forced on African countries by the Western donors, the World Bank, the IMF and the WTO.
Collier tells us that Sub-Saharan countries are not developing because they have fallen into one or more of four traps. These traps are:
1. Bad governance ( read corruption );
2. Being land-locked with bad neighbours;
3. Natural resources curse, and
4. Wars and civil conflict.
Let's take corruption first. Corruption was rampant in Europe and North America in the 18th and 19th centuries. Public posts used to be given to the highest bidder. The British Treasury was a private institution until the 19th century. In the USA, loyal supporters of winning parties used to be rewarded with public office. A practice that continues to this day-a complete change of personnel when a new administration takes office. None of this stopped Europe or North America becoming rich.
Next, let's look at wars and conflict. European nations were constantly at each other's throat until relatively recently. In the 1990s the Balkans were torn apart by war. In the summer of 2008 war broke out in the Caucuses.
In the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s the wars in Africa were mainly proxy wars brought about by the cold war. True, there have been a tiny number of inter-state wars caused by border disputes. The majority have been civil wars over resources.
Wars never stopped Europeans becoming rich.
The differnce between Europe and North America on the one hand, and Africa on the other is that Europe and North America were free to use activist and interventionist policies to promote their manufacturing industries.
Africa is forbidden from using activist and interventionist policies to promote her manufacturing industry by the West.
To get aid, Africa is forced, by the donors, to open her markets to full global competetion. The little industry that is there is completely overwhelmed. Thousands of people are thrown out of work, increasing levels of poverty.
Cheap food produced by subsidised farmers in the West is dumped on Africa, destroying local food markets.
All this is done at the insistence of the World Bank, the IMF and the WTO.
Now let me relate the story of a small, land-locked and resource rich Sub-Saharan country. Botswana is rich in diamonds. Botswana gained independence from Britain in the early 1960s. From the beginning, Botswana practised multi-party democracy. Botswana has never known military coups or civil conflicts. Botswana accepted aid only during its first few years of independence. Botswana holds the world record for the fastest growing economy over the past 40 years. I believe that Botswana has been able to do this because she hasn't needed aid. Therefore, she did not have to take the bitter pills prescribed by the World Bank and the IMF. The medicine prescribed by these two organisations usually kills the patient.
In his prescription, Collier doesn't discuss the role of Western policy on Sub-Saharan development.
Collier doesn't tell us that the economic and social policies of Sub-Saharan countries are dictated by the West. World Bank staff are embedded in African central banks and ministries of finance. Many Sub-Saharan countries cannot pass a budget into law without the approval of the IMF. This has been going on for about three decades.
Now that the West's policies have failed to deliver development, the architects of these policies are casting around for someone or something to blame for the failure.
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 24 November 2007
This is a first rate book that deserves to be read widely. It is aimed at the intelligent general reader, rather than at the economist or the development wonk. That said, most of them would enjoy reading it too, and would gain a lot from doing so. It is based on many years of top-quality research.
The book sets out the "4 traps" that can and do consign a country to poverty: conflict, natural resources (such as oil and diamonds), being landlocked with bad neighbours, and suffering bad governance. It also sets out the possibilities: looking at how countries like China, India, Vietnam etc have developed remarkably well in recent years. It then goes on to look at the sorts of policies that can be used to get the bottom billion on track to follow the path set out by the emerging economies. Those policies are (as expected) aid and trade, but Collier also sets out a role for transparency and even military intervention. Not to depose bad regimes, but to prevent (and occasionally reverse) coups, in the Sierra Leone model. A friend in the Aid-Biz told me once that that intervention was so successful that the people of SL would happily have voted to make Tony Blair their constitutional monarch. The book also explains the different strengths and weaknesses of each approach in different circumstances.
The prize for getting policies towards the bottom billion correct is immense: it would mean that, within my lifetime malnutrition would be abolished. No child would go to bed hungry. We have seen how fast change can happen - in Japan early this century, in Korea after the war, and, as mentioned, in any number of East and South Asian countries today.
We can do this, and Collier sets out much more convincingly than Sachs, Easterly or most aid agencies, how to do this. As citizens we need to press our leaders to advocate the policies in this book. If we do that, then, together we can make a dramatic difference.
(The author is an economist, teaching economic history at the London School of Economics)
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 9 August 2007
This book is not only fascinating and thought-provoking, but very easy to read. Collier distills concepts that are broad, deep and complicated like few writers I have come across. He is probably an excellent teacher because he can translate his knowledge into language I can understand.
The big reason to buy this book is that he does a great job explaining exactly why being resource-rich is a curse. Others have alluded to this phenomenon, but Collier is the first to really impact my understanding of the issue. He also explains why electoral democracies with poor checks and balances are actually worse at dealing with this curse than autocracies.
The good news is that full-fledged liberal democracies with strong checks on executive spending are able to out-compete them both.
This book is refreshing because he is not a polemic loud-mouth like so many writers on politics, aid and development. He is very conscious of over-reach and he is very measured in his praise and condemnation. He seems like a reasonable guy with a ton of experience and some very good ideas about helping make the world a better place.
He offers counter-intuitive insights into many issues regarding aid and development and he debunks a few myths.
Charles Abugre/ Steven Buckley? not only has two names, but an obvious bias. I am surprised that more of the agencies Collier took to the mat have not written bad reviews in an attempt to silence Paul Collier. I will be looking to see if Robert Mugabe reviews the book and claims that Collier has it out for him too. I would hope so.
The book is only 188 pages, just buy it already. You won't regret it.
on 23 November 2015
Very interesting analysis. Particularly fascinating were the attempts to look beyond the stated objectives and values of those directly involved in conflict in the poorest corners of the world, often revealing said conflicts to be rooted primarily in common environmental/structural/economic factors rather than in the ideological convictions of the principal players. The book is not perfect, with the author having his own fair share of ideological millstones to lug around, but at least he's blunt about his own convictions. Well worth reading.
on 8 April 2015
Working in the mining sector as a geologist and mineral economist, I had previously read Paul Collier’s Plundered Planet looking specifically at resources related economic development, so I was looking forward to reading The Bottom Billion to broaden my understanding of economic development more generally. Prof. (and knight!) Paul Collier is no doubt one of the most qualified people globally to write on this issue, as a professor of economics and public policy at Oxford University with a lifetime of experience looking at development issues in Africa. I listened to this book using the Kindle Audible Narration and was transfixed from the start.
As the sub-title suggests the book effectively explains “Why the poorest countries are failing and what can be done about it”.
The Bottom Billion presents a very clear framework for understanding and acting upon the problems facing the most severely poor countries. Prof. Collier describes four kinds of poverty trap: conflict, natural resources, landlocked and bad governance. He then discusses four tools which can be used for resolving these issues and importantly the limits of each: aid, military intervention, laws & charters and trade policy, before highlighting in combination the areas of most fruitful action. In particularly he makes a stand for the brave ‘heroes’ of economic development and reform in the developing world and how Western institutions and the electorate (that’s us) need to stand by and support them. I found his framework and arguments very convincing. This is in part due to the concise, lively and personal way he writes. The book is amazingly short for the breadth of material covered. However, it is clear that the book sits atop a tower of research, and thus is in no way lightweight in this respect. In this sense, Prof. Collier is very careful to highlight the sources of his information, and what has and has not been peer reviewed.
One of the things I particularly like about this book is its balanced nature. For example, there is careful, nuanced but persuasive discussion of why globalisation has worked for the developed West, and is working for Asia, and will work for most other developing countries, but that for a few countries (the ‘bottom billion’) it will not work. He tackles this issue and other politically charged issues, such as aid, military intervention and international trade, carefully, and in my opinion in a balanced manner, neither leaning too left, or too right; whilst trying to use data rather than ideology in his arguments. I previously held strong (and perhaps ill informed) views on some of these issues and have found that his arguments have at least begun to change my mind and thinking about them.
The mineral economist in me also found the sections on natural resources very interesting, and it is relieving to see economists moving beyond simple resource curse theory and onto more constructive arguments about how to develop countries with abundant natural resources. He expands on the subject greatly in The Plundered Planet, which would be a fine accompaniment to this book. For readers more generally interested in economic development, reading the Bottom Billion and then the Plundered Planet is probably the most fruitful order, starting broadly and then focusing on the particularly tricky issue of the resource curse. For those in the minerals or petroleum sectors, starting with the Plundered Planet covering these industries, and then taking a broader look at economic development in general via The Bottom Billion, as I have done, would be recommended.
In general, whilst I am still somewhat new to the field of development economics, and I’m sure Prof. Collier is not right on everything, I would be surprised if there were many better starting points for understanding economic development in the poorest countries than this book.