The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries Are Failing and What Can Be Done about It

By Mueller, Susanne | The International Journal of African Historical Studies, September 1, 2007 | Go to article overview

The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries Are Failing and What Can Be Done about It


Mueller, Susanne, The International Journal of African Historical Studies


The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries Are Failing and What Can Be Done About It. By Paul Collier. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. Pp. xiii, 205. $28.00.

This is an elegantly written book buttressed by sound statistical analysis. It asks why a host of countries with the "bottom billion" still are poor and what to do about it. Collier argues that unlike most of the developing world, the bottom billion live in countries stuck in four traps: the conflict trap, the natural resource trap, the trap of being landlocked with bad neighbors, and the trap of poor governance in small countries. The book discusses the world of the bottom billion (70 percent of which is in Africa), analyzes each of the conflict traps, and suggests policy initiatives. It also grapples with a host of issues raised by academics and practitioners in ongoing conversations about aid and development found in works by Joe Stiglitz, Bill Easterly, Robert Caladerisi, Jeffrey Sachs, Arvind Subramanian, Jagdish Bhagwati, various NGOs, the "left," and the "right." Readers familiar with their arguments will recognize well directed rebukes to those who see money as the panacea, growth and trade as the enemy, governance as a non-issue, aid and donor policies as inelevant, and populist initiatives (such as fair trade in coffee) as solutions.

Life has vastly improved in most of the developing world since the 1970s. Life expectancy has increased to age seventy-seven, malnutrition has declined to 20 percent, and infant mortality to 4 percent. Comparable figures in countries of the bottom billion are 55 percent, 36 percent, and 14 percent respectively (pp. 78). These countries have not only not grown in the last thirty years, but their growth rates have declined by 5 percent, a figure likely to increase exponentially. In a stinging attack on influential NGOs such as Christian Aid, Collier insists the main problem for the bottom billion is not "free trade" (pp. 157-59) or that their countries have not had the "right kind of growth," but that "they have not had any growth" (p. 11). The result: an increasing divergence between 80 percent of the world's population and the remaining 20 percent living in "14th century" (p. 3) conditions. Collier insists this is of concern for ethical reasons, but also because the bottom billion impinge on the rest of the world through disease, intractable and costly civil wars, outgrowths of violence from failed states, floods of homeless refugees, and a dependence on the natural resources of mostly autocratic states.

China, India, and others were once as poor, if not poorer than the countries of the bottom billion. Collier argues they escaped for two reasons. First, they were not mired in conflict traps. Second, India and China developed in time to embrace the booming markets of the "critical" 1990s. This is in contrast to the countries of the bottom billion, which "missed the economic boat" (p. 80), thereby failing to grow, attract foreign capital, and develop export led growth.

Collier's very readable discussion of the four conflict traps demonstrates why everyone should take a basic course in statistics. His sophisticated analysis allows one to test competing hypotheses and to separate fact from fiction, while still offering his readers good illustrative stories based on his own work.

Collier's presentation of the "conflict trap" provides a compelling counter intuitive analysis, albeit one challenged by some economists. Using statistical rigor, he shows that conflicts, particularly civil wars, are driven by greed rather than grievance. They also bear no relation to colonialism, repression, and only to ethnicity when there are a few large rather than many small groups. Collier finds most civil wars occur in low-income countries with slow growth and natural resources. Fighters, who are poor, uneducated and without dependents, are driven by the prospect of amassing wealth, not by ideology. This also makes them unreliable, forcing leaders to find ways to pay off their followers, thereby further fueling the syndrome of war while destroying any prospect of growth. …

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