a blog

by Josh Nicholas

The Bottom Billion

The Bottom Billion is a couple of years old now, and some of the numbers and names are starting to look a little tired. But the debate over the necessity, role, effectiveness, and method of assistance to less developed countries has trudged on in the meantime. What’s more, the popular  media and debate have all but ignored Collier’s jumping off point - that the incredible rise of the BRICS (among others) has not only masked the lack of development of a billion people that live in other countries, it may even prove a hinderance to their development in the near future. In recent weeks we have seen the annual Gates Foundation Letter - which focused on “debunking” the idea that aid doesn't work, as well as op-eds by Jeffrey Sachs, William Easterly and other prominent academics in the field. But while none of these authors push simplistic for-or-against aid arguments in their books and academic publications, their forays into popular media was quite the opposite. Which brings us to the crowning achievement of Collier’s book - a comprehensive breakdown (more than we normally see) of the for the lack of development of the bottom billion, and a corresponding argument that our ‘solutions’ need to be just as nuanced.

Collier never explicitly states who the ‘bottom billion’ are, but he begins by defining four ‘traps’ that have caused them to be left behind while other countries race ahead. These are (not in any particular order) conflict -  which he has found can largely be attributed to poverty and is not simply the cause of it, being landlocked - countries like Switzerland are exceptional in that they are creative and have access to their neighbours stellar infrastructure and big markets, resource abundance - an over reliance on primary goods can crowd out other economic activity (also known as dutch disease), and bad governance - pretty self explanatory. According to Collier all of the countries of the Bottom Billion have fallen into one or more of these traps, and this claim comes with a healthy dose of name dropping from when Collier was at the World Bank, and the minatue of research projects he has done with various assistances.

Such painstaking research and explanation has a couple of benefits. It brings new nuance to the debate about why some countries have been left behind. It’s not, as some would contend, that those that have developed are (necessarily) more willing to work or more productive, or that colonial exploitation is (necessarily) the big bogeyman it is sometimes made out to be. Rather, there are a congruence of individual factors in each situation. As a result, the one-size fits all, easy to sell, ideologically driven fixes are not adequate. In some cases it may only make matters worse -  for example giving aid money directly to countries with “bad governance” may further entrench corruption. Likewise, free trade alone is unlikely to help a landlocked country. In this situation we may need to spend money ensuring that infrastructure in neighbouring countries is adequate and accessible, we may even need to provide military intervention. This is the most contentious argument that Collier puts forward - that it is favourable or even necessary for outside powers to provide military intervention. Looking at the problem strictly actuarially, this may make sense. But this is a suggestion that requires a book all of its own, weighing up the positive benefits of military intervention with the world’s recent experience of war - war weariness, huge expense, and all the complexities of power vacuums (I don’t really see any Germany-esque, decades long occupations in the future).

I am not quite sure how to summarise my thoughts on the book itself. As I have already noted, it adds vital context and detail to a debate often controlled by those eager to ‘save’ the Bottom Billion - either by coddling them or forcing them to take their medicine. But it is also a tough book to read. It’s only about 200 pages, but it still took me a good week and a half to finish. So easy was it to put down. It often reads like a summary of the authors research, or the famous people he has met or worked with (I count notable academics as famous people). At times he is a little overbearing, up on his high horse looking down at those of us not as academically rigorous as himself. And there is a little too much data and accounts of the minutae of his studies. But the overarching messages are too important. As Collier frequently points out throughout the book, this isn’t an abstract problem. Those of us fortunate enough to live in prosperous societies are not isolated from the Bottom Billion. Their challenges are also our challenges. And we simply need more nuance in this vital debate.