'Development in reverse'

Interview | Global capitalism is working well for most developing societies, but a billion people live in countries that are going backward. Economist Paul Collier says these countries can be helped, but both givers and recipients need to change

Issue: "Effective Compassion," Sept. 1, 2007

A university course on helping the poorest of the poor abroad could now have a book reading list much more interesting than one possible five years ago. Then, my list could have included any number of boring books on foreign aid as savior of the world, some scholarly essays by Britain's P.T. Bauer, and two scintillating books by Hernando de Soto (The Other Path and The Mystery of Capital), an economist worthy of bearing a famous explorer's name.

Now, my list could include Timothy Monsma's biblically thoughtful Hope for the Southern World, Jeffrey Sachs' liberally unctuous The End of Poverty, and William Easterly's curmudgeonly conservative The Elusive Quest for Growth and The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good.

And let's add one more: Paul Collier's The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries Are Failing and What Can Be Done About It (Oxford University Press, 2007). Collier is particularly interesting to read because he combines an establishment resumé with some nonestablishment views. A professor of economics at Oxford and the director of the Centre for the Study of African Economies, he has addressed the General Assembly of the UN, been a senior advisor to Tony Blair's Commission on Africa, completed a review of International Monetary Fund operations commissioned by the board of the IMF, and directed the Development Research Group at the World Bank.

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Collier is a good economist because he pays attention to matters beyond economics, such as the causes and consequences of civil war, and the problems of democracy in low-income and natural-resource-rich societies. He begins The Bottom Billion by explaining that our common bifurcation of the world's countries as "developed" (1 billion people) and "developing" (5 billion) hides the real problem: 4 of those 5 billion "live in countries that are indeed developing, often at amazing speed," but the bottom billion live in countries that are going backward.

Collier expresses his concern vividly: "The average person in the societies of the bottom billion now has an income only around one-fifth that of the typical person in the other developing countries. . . . Picture this as a billion people stuck in a train that is slowly rolling backward downhill. By 2050 the development gulf will no longer be between a rich billion in the most developed countries and 5 billion in the developing countries; rather, it will be between the trapped billion and the rest." Collier then stresses that "giving those [bottom] countries our money" won't help them unless deep changes occur.

WORLD: Why do we commonly talk about the development problem as encompassing all 5 billion people, instead of concentrating on the great needs at the bottom?

COLLIER: It's a mixture of inertia and self-interest. Inertia because even 10 years ago a 5 billion view of the developing world was still reasonable and perceptions are slow to catch up with reality. Self-interest because the two main groups that draw attention to development issues each like it that way. The aid agencies like to operate globally rather than to have to concentrate on the toughest countries. For example, until very recently the World Bank had 134 of its staff resident in Indonesia but not a single one resident in the Central African Republic. For quite different reasons the left-leaning NGOs [non-governmental organizations] end up with the same bias. They like to critique "global capitalism" and so the news that it is working rather well in most developing societies is unpalatable.

WORLD: It also seems unpalatable to discuss the role civil war plays in the societies of the bottom billion, but you do that, and you also go beyond blaming income inequality and ethnic diversity.

COLLIER: Civil war is disturbingly common in the poverty-stricken, small societies of the bottom billion. It is development in reverse: Without peace these societies cannot even get started on the difficult road of economic development. Income inequality and ethnic tensions are routinely trotted out as the explanations, but I find that they are overemphasized. The major risk factors seem to be poverty itself, stagnation, dependence upon natural resource exports such as oil in the Nigerian Delta, and simply being too small, as Timor Leste. Small is not beautiful, it is dangerous. Ethnic differences compound these other problems but are seldom themselves the key difficulty: Most diverse societies are safe, some ethnically unified societies such as Somalia are a mess, and ethnicity tends to be used by politicians in situations which are already dangerous for other reasons.


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