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.