October 2007

The bottom billion

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The Bottom Billion – Why the Poorest Countries are Failing and What Can Be Done About It

Author: Paul Collier
Published by: Oxford University Press
Pages: 224
ISBN13: 978-0-19-531145-7

“This slip of a book is set to become a classic of the 'how to help the world's poorest' genre. Crammed with statistical nuggets and common sense, this book should be compulsory reading for anyone embroiled in the hitherto thankless business of trying to pull people out of the pit of poverty where the 'bottom billion' of the world's population of 6.6 billion seem irredeemably stuck.”
                                                                              The Economist

Global poverty, Paul Collier points out, is actually falling quite rapidly for about eighty percent of the world. The real crisis lies in a group of about 50 failing states, the bottom billion, whose problems defy traditional approaches to alleviating poverty.

In The Bottom Billion, Collier contends that these fifty failed states pose the central challenge of the developing world in the twenty-first century. The book shines a much needed light on this group of small nations, largely unnoticed by the industrialised West, that are dropping further and further behind the majority of the world's people, often falling into an absolute decline in living standards. A struggle rages within each of these nation between reformers and corrupt leaders-and the corrupt are winning. Collier analyses the causes of failure, pointing to a set of traps that snare these countries, including civil war, a dependence on the extraction and export of natural resources, and bad governance. Standard solutions do not work against these traps, he writes; aid is often ineffective, and globalisation can actually make matters worse, driving development to more stable nations. What the bottom billion need, Collier argues, is a bold new plan supported by the Group of Eight industrialized nations. If failed states are ever to be helped, the G8 will have to adopt preferential trade policies, new laws against corruption, and new international charters, and even conduct carefully caliberated military interventions.

As former Director of Research for the World Bank and current Director of the Centre for the Study of African Economies at Oxford University, Paul Collier has spent a lifetime working to end global poverty. In The Bottom Billion, he offers real hope for solving one of the great humanitarian crises facing the world today.

The book is being seen as an attack on the likes of Jeffrey Sachs, the celebrity economist who is the intellectual force behind the official United Nations Millennium Development Goals, for placing too much reliance on aid. And it is an assault on William Easterly, the main critic of Sachs, who argues that much aid is wasted. Also, although Collier makes an important distinction between the bottom billion and the rest, some critics are of the opinion that he tends to overdraw it. The problem of lack of development, according to this school, goes much further than extreme poverty. For example, 2.6 billion people in the world live on less than $2 a day.

The developing world still has a long way to go before it catches up with Western levels of prosperity. Even China, which has become so talked about with its rapid development over the past three decades, will take several more decades to catch up with the West in terms of living standards, even on the most optimistic assumptions.

Another problem with Collier's approach is that he automatically makes an assumption about Western intervention being generally benign. One of the telling examples of this is the way in which the book sees the G8 group of leading industrialised countries having the potential to solve the problem of extreme poverty. The question is whether the interventions in such places as Iraq, Sierra Leone and Somalia are apparently without any problems worth considering. The substantial evidence that Western intervention has made things worse in these countries, is not deemed even worthy of examination. As an example, the book states how millions in India have been lifted out of poverty in the nineties. This is a simplistic assumption and the national figures tell a very different story, where real employment has fallen, and many have been forced to fend for themselves by becoming self-employed in the informal economy. Also the state of agriculture in the last decade, reflects a different side of the so-called development.  

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