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Paul Collier, The Bottom Billion; Why the Poorest Countries Are Failing and What Can Be Done About It (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 205pp.Paul Collier, The Bottom Billion; Why the Poorest Countries Are Failing and What Can Be Done About It (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 205pp.

           All societies were once poor, says the Oxford economist Paul Collier, but now most countries are either wealthy or at least lifting themselves out of poverty. In his view, about a billion people in the developed world are wealthy, and about four billion people live in countries that are, in fact, experiencing significant economic growth (cf. China and India). His book focuses on the one billion people badly stuck at the very bottom who live in countries that are not only horribly poor but not growing. These sixty countries are not merely "falling behind, they are falling apart." About 70% of these countries are in Africa, and, unlike the middle four billion people, they are poorer today than they were in 1970. "Picture this," writes Collier, "as a billion people stuck in a train that is slowly rolling backward downhill."

           How and why has this happened? Collier and his colleagues identify "four distinct traps" that plague the bottom billion. They experience a disproportionate amount of conflict in civil wars and coups ("development in reverse"). They're caught in a natural resources paradox where what looks like a blessing (the presence of a significant natural resource) turns out to be a curse, because the natural resource tends to slow economic growth, inhibit diversification, and encourage autocracy. To some extent geography dictates economics; the bottom billion live in countries that are landlocked with bad neighbors, which means that transport corridors and nearby markets are bad or non-existent. Finally, and Collier is unsparing on this point, these countries experience horrible governance, massive corruption and breath-taking incompetence. In an interlude chapter he explains how and why globalization hasn't helped these countries like it has the middle four billion people — trade problems, the lack of private capital flowing into the countries, and the flow of human and private financial capital out of the country.

           Collier is a realist but not a pessimist. He views these problems as "serious but fixable." These countries must rescue themselves, but they can't and won't do it without help from the outside. There are powerful forces that resist change. In the last half of the book Collier explains how four policy instruments can make a difference. Aid to these countries is highly politicized, bureaucratized, and badly abused; it has severe problems and limitations, but it's still necessary. Second, Collier explains how military intervention can restore order, maintain peace, and prevent coups. In a chapter on laws and charters he argues for wealthy countries to change their own laws in ways to favor the bottom billion, and for international norms. The fourth instrument is better trade policy.

           Collier wants to move beyond the left, exemplified in Jeffrey Sachs' book The End of Poverty that argues that more aid is the answer, and the right, exemplified in The White Man's Burden by William Easterly that suggests that more aid is the problem. We need a new sort of thinking that grapples with what he calls "three central propositions." First, we now face a development problem that is different than what we've had over the last forty years — not the one billion rich and the five billion poor, but the one billion people stuck at the very bottom. Second, this is not a contest between rich nations romanticizing poverty out of white guilt, but rather a titantic struggle within the bottom billion countries between genuine heroes who are working for change and powerful forces determined to preserve the status quo. Third, "we do not need to be bystanders. Our support for change can be decisive." In sum, Collier argues that we need to "narrow the target and broaden the instruments."

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