Thursday, July 19, 2007

[Book Review] Escaping the poverty trap

from The New Statesman

Carolyn O'Hara

The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries Are Falling Behind and What Can Be Done About It
Paul Collier Oxford University Press, 224pp, £16.99
ISBN 0195311450

There are, according to the economist Paul Collier, one billion people around the world today who, while living in the 21st century, suffer a 14th-century reality of war, disease and ignorance. They are the world's bottom billion, residing in 50 of the globe's most vulnerable places, and they are swiftly falling behind, perhaps irretrievably if decisive action isn't taken soon.

Three-quarters of them live in Africa, and two years after the leaders of the G8 stood together at Gleneagles and promised to double aid for Africa, it is unsurprising to hear that nearly every G8 country is behind on its targets. Too often, it seems, just getting Africa on the agenda suffices, meaning the world's weakest states and those who advocate for them are placated for yet another year by mere pledges. But as Collier, director of the Centre for African Economies at Oxford, explains in his important new book, The Bottom Billion, aid isn't helping the people at the very bottom of the global pecking order. Notably, Collier breaks the mould by suggesting practical solutions for alleviating the plight of the world's most vulnerable.

First, the good news: 80 per cent of people in the developing world live in countries experiencing growth and, for them, life is improving. But other states continue to fail, leaving a billion people in "a ghetto of misery and discontent", their countries just as poor as they were decades ago. Collier warns ominously that they will remain dirt poor decades hence unless the world acts. "This book is about that 'unless'," he writes. Given Collier's impressive track record of approaching seemingly intractable poverty issues with novel analysis - he pioneered the belief that civil wars in the developing world might be fuelled as much by greed as by grievance - his contribution bears weight.

In a manner that is both persuasive and far more compelling than your typical development treatise, Collier systematically tracks the ills that plague the world's weakest states, demonstrating how they fall into traps from which escape is nearly impossible - conflict and coups, the curse of natural resources, the misfortune of being landlocked with bad neighbours and dreadful governance. The effects of these traps - and many of the bottom billion reside in states that have fallen into several at once - are deadly: those in the rest of the developing world can expect to live to around 67; for the bottom billion, average life expectancy hovers around 50.

Diagnosing the problems would be enough for most development experts. Collier puts forward solutions, all with their own degree of plausibility, but with credible statistical evidence all the same. That alone is commendable. Demonstrating that aid is not - and never will be - the single, magic-bullet solution for the bottom billion is one of his major conclusions. He argues, instead, that while aid is an important instrument capable of doing some good, it should be accompanied by three other tools: military interventions (to keep the peace or prevent coups in weak states); international standards (to give global charters teeth and prevent Swiss banks from facilitating the looting of a country's accounts); and trade reform (to rethink subsidies in the rich world, as well as trade barriers in the developing world).

Getting the international community, or even just the G8, to agree on any of those measures will be a Herculean task. As Collier admits, when it comes to military interventions, we now think of Iraq. On international standards, you need only consider Kyoto. And as regards trade, look no further than the common agricultural policy.

Those current hurdles, he contends, can no longer be excuses. The failures of the bottom billion matter to us all, not simply because of the promises made at Gleneagles, but because, in the years to come, these weak states will be at greater risk of the effects of climate change and they will pose economic and security hazards to everyone. In other words, their fate matters to ours. Allowing the debate over solutions to be polarised (globalisation versus protection, empire versus sovereignty) is no longer good enough. As we debate these philosophical nuances, a billion people continue to suffer.

Collier is at his best when he illustrates his sermon with personal anecdotes from his 30 years of studying African economies in conjunction with such organisations as the World Bank and the Commission on Africa. You feel his exasperation when, as an adviser to dirt-poor Central African Republic, he asks the government's ministers which country they'd like their own to be like in 20 years and, after some deliberation, they respond with the equally dirt-poor Burkina Faso.

We may not be able single-handedly to rescue the bottom billion - we can, after all, only do so much until these countries are truly reformed from within - but the very least should be to banish such desperation.

No comments: