Book Review: The Bottom Billion

A Book Review of Paul Collier's The Bottom Billion from Oxford University Press.

By Klevisa Kovaci
Contributing Writer
April 7th, 2017

Paul Collier’s book The Bottom Billion convincingly explains why the poorest countries are seemingly stuck at low levels of development, and prescribes policies to tackle this stagnation. In a straightforward manner, Collier argues that countries where the poorest billion people live struggle because of four traps: conflict, natural resources, being landlocked, and bad governance. In proposing policy, Collier takes a middle-of-the-road approach between those who support aid, free trade, military intervention, and international norms. Overall, his book makes for a broad and strong piece. However, Collier’s main shortcomings emerge in neglecting the historical context, the role of Western states in the traps and solutions, and methodological gaps in statistics. Unlike others, like Diamond and Acemoglu, who consider geography and institutional context over time, Collier’s neglect of the past may be the biggest weakness in The Bottom Billion.

Methodologically Collier’s book has been criticized for representing solely the “voices” of Anglophone economists like Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz, whereas the book would have benefited from including the perspectives of scholars from developing countries like Amartya Sen (Mittelman 2007; Lipton 2008, 754). Collier is transparent about his data and studies, but his findings are mainly correlation, not causation. Moreover, much of his data was new or unpublished. Finally, Collier illustrates points through describing discussions he had with African officials rather than using broader observations or speaking with people on the ground about their experiences (Chabal 2008).

Traps

Collier cites conflict as the first trap impeding developing countries from economic growth. On average, civil war costs a country and its neighbors $64 billion. This is especially significant as 73 percent of bottom billion citizens have experienced civil war. In response, Collier recommends military intervention to restore order and maintain post-conflict peace. Rapid reaction forces must pre-empt conflict escalation. Then post-conflict states should minimize military spending to prevent another military takeover.

While Collier describes the conflict trap well, he misses the point that many conflicts are directly or indirectly financed by Western nations. Arms control and illegal trade involve developed states as key players. Even some rebel groups, like the Taliban, were initially supported by Western nations. In response to theories urging military intervention, Opoku points out that Western officials and troops themselves have a dubious moral record, citing as an example UN troops who commit sexual violence (2009, 135).

The second trap is the presence of natural resources like oil and diamonds, all of which encourage rent seeking and corruption. They prevent goods diversification because the market organizes itself mainly around those exports rather than developing other industries. Furthemore, natural resources undermine democracy by reducing the need for taxation, thus making the government less accountable to its citizens.

Collier’s description of the natural resource trap is robust, but it omits the fact that lack of diversification and the natural resource exploitation came initially from colonists who forced specialization of exports in Sub-Saharan African colonies, many of which were water-intensive crops. This precipitated land degradation and market vulnerability.

The third trap according to Collier is being landlocked with “bad neighbors.” 38 percent of bottom billion countries are landlocked and have poor infrastructure, which hampers trade. Collier then recommends regional development to support growth spillover through improving economic policies of neighbors and rural development. However, he does not address where development will start if an entire block of neighboring countries is trapped.

The fourth trap is bad governance. Appropriate policies can change the failing trajectory of states, as in the case of China (through its economic zones). “Turnaround” of failing states is more likely assuming high income, large population, majority educated population.

But Collier does not address political culture, which develops over decades, even though this is the setting in which policies take shape. Post-conflict good governance relies on transitional justice and social reintegration of fighters, processes which are very difficult for affected populations. Political culture influences citizens, reform leaders, and innovators who emerge out of that context.

Meanwhile, Opoku and Chabal believe that Collier should include neocolonialism as a trap to consider history during colonialism, and self-interested intervention of wealthy states into former colonies (2009). Such scholars feel that Collier attributes blame for current development problems mostly on poor states even though many problems originated from foreign intervention.

Policy Tools

Collier asserts that more aid must go to bottom billion countries as results-based disbursement and capacity building (102, 110, 116). Yet, Collier does not adequately address the fact that developed countries sometimes do not keep promises to fulfill unmet need (Mittleman 2007).

Collier recognizes the need for international cooperation in addressing the four traps. Least developed countries must negotiate lower trade barriers with the World Trade Organization. Meanwhile, bodies like the UN are weak and resolutions are subject to veto, so Collier favors small groups of ambitious like-minded nations to push progress and pressure other nations to join, like the European Union. Next, Collier supports the use of norms to pressure countries into good behavior by international standards. He proposes international charters for natural resource revenues management, for democracy, for post-conflict situations, and for investment.

While admirable, Collier’s ideas may be overly ambitious because these charters touch on state sovereignty. For instance, regarding the proposed charter for democracy, the UN already avoids stating “democratic governance” in its resolutions for fear of alienating countries of different political systems. With over 190 states, consensus to form such grand charters necessitates extraordinary collaboration.

In The Bottom Billion, Collier ambitiously addresses factors preventing development in the poorest countries, as well as ways to overcome them. But he does not give historical insights that help show what led to the current situations. In supporting foreign aid, trade policy, and norms as remedies, as well as daringly proposing military intervention, he makes several assumptions, which fail to take into account historical legacies. Collier’s broad and encompassing discussion would benefit from situating the current problems and remedies in the circumstances that led to the low levels of development. This would provide greater understanding of the root causes of issues, and following, plausible solutions.

Klevisa Kovaci is a graduate student of International Affairs at Columbia University and Sciences Po Paris, specializing in democratization, development, and gender. Her work experience includes UN Women and the Permanent Mission of Albania to the UN. She has studied and worked in the US, France, Albania, Kosovo, Canada and conducted additional projects in Indonesia and India.

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