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Sunday Book Review: The Bottom Billion

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This is the fifth in a seven part series on the Patterson School Summer Reading List.

  1. In Spite of the Gods, Edward Luce
  2. The Utility of Force, Rupert Smith
  3. Negotiating Change, Jeremy Jones
  4. Enemies of Intelligence, Richard Betts
  5. The Bottom Billion, Paul Collier

Paul Collier’s The Bottom Billion is about the developing countries that have failed to develop. Over the past twenty-five years, the greater portion of the “developed world” has developed; incredible growth rates in China, Southeast Asia, and South Asia have dramatically lowered the percentage of the world’s population that is in extreme poverty. This development has opened a new gap between developing and not-developing countries, the latter mostly in Africa. Collier wonders why these states haven’t developed, and tries to produce solutions for the most serious problems. His main culprits are a series of “traps” that prevent economic growth: The conflict trap (war and its aftermath), the resource trap (also known as the resource curse, the landlocked with bad neighbors trap, and the bad governance trap (the latter two are self-explanatory). Within this context he discusses the limits of developmental aid and of the ways in which developed countries can assist (or fail to assist) the not-developing world. Collier has engaged in substantial quantitative research, attempting to determine the links between several variables and a lack of economic growth.

Unfortunately, Collier can rarely go a page without launching a broadside salvo against “leftists” and “Marxists” who, through good intention or ill, manage to foul up every effort to provide genuine assistance to the bottom billion. That there are people on the left who have idiotic ideas about development isn’t surprising; there are people of every political stripe who have idiotic ideas on trade and development, and who once held to ideas that have since become idiotic. I find it hard to believe, however, that these “western Marxists” have had the impact on policy that Collier would impute to them. I mean, we all remember Howard Zinn’s disastrous turn as Secretary of the Treasury, and we’d all like to forget Noam Chomsky’s six years as Reagan’s Secretary of Defense, but beyond that I’m hard pressed to conceive of precisely how raving leftists have dictated US and European development policy.

A related problem is that Collier attempts to dismiss genuine policy differences with anti-leftist screeds. For example, Collier doesn’t have much patience for development efforts focusing on health and education. He’s aimed clearly at growth, but he fails to acknowledge that folks arguing for health and educational development are also pro-growth; they just think that health and education are better ways to spend money than infrastructure. This is a debate that can go back and forth, and there’s evidence on both sides (indeed, Collier scores an own goal on infrastructure projects when he mentions the corruption endemic to the construction industry), but it’s hardly the case that health and education advocates are starry eyed idealist rock star celebrity Marxists, and it ill serves Collier’s argument to treat them as such.

Advocates for health and education aid, however, get off easy compared to environmentalists. It’s fair to say that Collier sees no value whatsoever in any project, developed or developing world, which is designed to limit environmental damage. Advocates of such projects get trashed as Marxists and as indifferent to the suffering of the poor. This is, of course, a gigantic blind spot; environmental projects can indeed have negative effects on growth, especially in the short term, but they can have quite beneficial effects on long term prospects for development. They can also have a positive impact on infrastructure and health, both of which are key to development. Collier’s dismissal of such projects (and of environmental concerns more generally) is beyond silly; it’s derelict.

I do think that Collier’s approach is basically correct; the answer to extreme poverty in Africa and elsewhere lies in more, not less, contact with international markets. Such contact may have numerous negative effects, but it is remarkably difficult to produce economic growth in isolation from them, and without growth there are severe limits to what can be accomplished in terms of human development. I also think that his concept of producing international charters for resource development and post-conflict management make a lot of sense. We know from John Meyer et al that governments new to the international system most often try to duplicate the institutions they see in other states, even if those institutions don’t make sense (this is why landlocked countries have navies). The charter concept takes this a step further, suggesting the creation in the international sphere of a set of templates for how developing countries can deal with certain problems. Often, developing states simply lack the technical expertise for dealing with a sudden resource boom such as the discovery of oil; a charter would lay out a path for how the government could pursue policies that minimize risk and maximize reward. The post-conflict charter would develop guidelines for how international society would deal with states coming out of civil wars, coups, and other conflict situations. The idea is to turn the passive process of socialization into an active one, and lay out appropriate paths for governments in uncertain situations to follow. It’s fair to acknowledge that such charters have a quasi-imperialistic character to them, but such an acknowledgement doesn’t mean that they’re a bad idea.

Perhaps the most worrisome part of the book is Collier’s suggestion that the window for development may have closed. Although he doesn’t fully work it out, he suggests that East and South Asian development was capable of taking advantage of opportunities provided by the international market in the 1980s and 1990s, but that many of the opportunities are no longer available. This means that the not-developing world will have trouble following the same path as not just the developed, but the recently developing world. That a new path remains uncharted is worrisome for hopes of growth in Africa, and in other areas of extreme destitution.

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