Keywords: Economics, politics, current affairs, international development

Title: The Bottom Billion

Author: Paul Collier

Publisher: OUP

ISBN: 0195311450


The popular view of global poverty rests on the assumption that we live in a world of one billion people in the rich countries and five billion people in the developing world. In this view of the world, globalisation and economic development have had little effect and outside of the West and Japan, people are poor, sick and their situation either shows no signs of improvement or is getting worse. However the facts don't bear this out, and a key point in Paul Collier's passionately argued 'The Bottom Billion' is that this simplistic and outdated picture does not accord with the facts. According to Collier along with the billion in the rich world, there are now four billion people living in economies that are growing rapidly and that the progress of these economies is being felt directly by the people in these countries. But that leaves a billion people living in societies that are failing - these are the bottom billion and for them the future remains bleak.

If globalisation and development has been able to turn things around for four billion people, why can't it do the same for those in the bottom billion? And why is that the aid agenda persists in presenting the more simplistic 'us' and 'them' picture of the world?

Collier first addresses what he regards as the root causes of the continued failure of the states at the bottom - most but not all in Africa. He describes a series of traps that ensure that escape from the bottom is extremely difficult. Based on solid statistical analyses rather than conjecture or anecdotal evidence, Collier lists each of these traps in turn: conflict, geography, governance, mineral riches. The existence of these traps means that many of these countries are going backwards rather than forwards, and, as he argues this is bad for their neighbours and the rest of the world, let alone the people who live their.

Trying to address the problems in these poorest countries is hard, much harder than it is in the other poor but developing countries around them. This is part is why so much development activity and aid is still addressed to these other countries. In the poor but developing countries life is less dangerous, results are more encouraging and it is easier for development agencies and foreign governments to have some influence. And, Collier points out, in these countries increased trade, liberalisation and the other benefits of globalisation are making huge in-roads to problems that were deemed intractable.

However, what can be done about those poorest countries where civil conflict, endemic corruption and/or incompetent governments make progress next to impossible? Why can't globalisation work here as well? Collier suggests that globalisation won't work for these countries because they've already been left behind by the other developing countries (who not only have cheap labour to offer, but also stability, existing infrastructure and governments that are attempting to tackle corruption and gangsterism).

Although difficult, Collier is not without hope that something can be done to help the poorest countries. His suggestions range from supporting those reformists who do, miraculously, manage to make it into power, to preferential trade agreements, to proposals for international norms (such as the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative) and, most contentiously, to support for military intervention.

Where there are good arguments for the many of Collier's proposals, it is in his support for military intervention that is likely to be most controversial. Despite the disaster of Iraq, Collier believes that foreign military intervention may be necessary to break the cycles of civil war and conflict that afflict many of these poor countries. He cites Sierra Leone as the best example where this has worked. However, the conditions for making a success of such a venture are so difficult to achieve that it is questionable whether in practice it can ever be made to work. That's not to mention the objections to the 'ethical imperialism' that would enable governments in the West to police the rest of the world.

Whether you agree with Collier's proposals or not, there's no doubt of the solid research that underpins his arguments. His descriptions of the problems, and his characterisation of the traps that have ensnared the poorest countries on the planet, move beyond the na´ve and emotional responses that are common in the discourse of many of the NGOs who campaign for debt relief but against trade and economic development.

In any case this is an interesting and thought-provoking read no matter what your politics when it comes to global poverty and economic development.

Contents © London Book Review 2007. Published June 11 2007