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The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries are Failing and What Can Be Done About It

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This description may be from another edition of this product. In the universally acclaimed and award-winning The Bottom Billion, Paul Collier reveals that fifty failed states--home to the poorest one billion people on Earth--pose the central challenge of the...

Customer Reviews

5 ratings

Delightful and mostly intelligent

This very eloquent and mostly thoughtful book about the world's poorest countries will offend ideologues of all stripes. Collier's four different explanations for poverty traps (war, presence of natural resources, bad neighbors blocking trade routes, and corruption) clearly place him as a fox rather than a hedgehog without being complex enough that they can rationalize any result (although they can probably rationalize more results than an ideal set of explanations would). He blames both villains in poor countries and thoughtless voters in wealthy countries. Collier sees that globalization has benefited most nations, but provides plausible mechanisms by which globalization can harm some (e.g. through enabling capital flight). Collier mostly thinks like a good economist, but his prior work for the World Bank biases him to be overly optimistic about improving such institutions. He recognizes the incentives that cause bureaucrats to be too risk averse, but then makes a cryptic claim that the British government understands the problem and is spending money to fix it. He vaguely implies that this is a venture capital-like fund, but fails to say whether they replicated the key venture capital feature of providing unusually large rewards to employees who produce unusually good results. His silence on this subject leads me to suspect that he's asking us to blindly trust institutions that have a long track record of avoiding results-oriented incentives. He also shows misplaced faith in authority when he tries to calculate the value to the world of rescuing a failed state by using George Bush's calculation that the benefits of installing a good government in Iraq exceeded the expected $100 billion cost. That might be a good argument if Bush had been spending his own money to help Iraq, but his willingness to spend other peoples' money doesn't say much. Collier says it is "surely irresponsible" to leave Somalia with no government. Yet most evidence I've seen (http://www.peterleeson.com/Better_Off_Stateless.pdf) says Somalia improved by most standard criteria such as life expectancy when it had no government. I don't know how reliable that evidence is, but Collier's apparent assumption that we don't need to look at the evidence makes his opinion suspect. The book's biggest shortcoming is the absence of anything resembling footnotes. Collier implies this is too make the book more readable, but he could have put a section of notes at the end referencing individual pages without altering the main text in any way. Instead he only gives a fairly large list of papers he's written. But I can't tell without tracking down and reading a large fraction of them which of them if any support his controversial claims (e.g. that giving money to the poorest countries helps them a bit but that doubling it would reach a limit beyond which further money would be wasted). But his advice is good enough that its value doesn't depend much on those controversial claims being right.

Objectivity + Readability = Must Read

The previous reviews have done a solid job explaining the concepts. I will agree that the lack of citations is annoying, but with some unnecessary effort, you can find the citations you want from his website. This book is not only fascinating and thought-provoking, but very easy to read. Collier distills concepts that are broad, deep and complicated like few writers I have come across. He is probably an excellent teacher because he can translate his knowledge into language I can understand. The big reason to buy this book is that he does a great job explaining exactly why being resource-rich is a curse. Others have alluded to this phenomenon, but Collier is the first to really impact my understanding of the issue. He also explains why electoral democracies with poor checks and balances are actually worse at dealing with this curse than autocracies. The good news is that full-fledged liberal democracies with strong checks on executive spending are able to out-compete them both. This book is refreshing because he is not a polemic loud-mouth like so many writers on politics, aid and development. He is very conscious of over-reach and he is very measured in his praise and condemnation. He seems like a reasonable guy with a ton of experience and some very good ideas about helping make the world a better place. The book is only 188 pages, just buy it already. You won't regret it.

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Developing countries are quite unlike Tolstoi's characterization of happy and unhappy families. Each happy country looks different from the other, and there are vast differences between China, India, Brazil, and other developing success stories, but there is a similarity between unhappy countries--countries that are not only failing to develop, but also going downward and falling apart. Together, these countries have a combined population of about one billion people, and what happen to this bottom billion has important consequences for the whole world. Paul Collier pioneered the burgeoning research on the economic causes of conflicts, and his work on civil wars has proved quite controversial among political science experts. Those experts tend to interpret civil wars in terms of heroic struggles motivated by grievances or ethnic strifes reflecting deeply-rooted hatreds. The author's research shows that rebel groups are usually doing well out of war, and that greed often trumps grievance as the underlying cause of conflict. He proves this by statistical analysis, showing for instance that there is basically no relationship between political repression and the risk of civil war, or between ethnic fragmentation and conflict (although ethnic polarization does play a part). Conflict is not the only trap. The author also goes through the natural resource trap, the trap of being landlocked with bad neighbors, and the trap of bad governance in a small country. Those traps often reinforce each other, and their combined effects condemn the bottom countries to the slow lane. In each case, Paul Collier not only successfully reviews the existing literature, but also offers original insights drawn from his own research. For instance, he demonstrates that far from being immune from the resource curse, democracies may create additional risks by inducing a phenomenon of "survival of the fattest". He is, to my knowledge, the first expert to point out that diversification of resource providers away from the Middle East in the name of energy security may actually increase the risk of disruption on world markets by creating new zones of instability: "Shifting our source of supply simply will not work as a security measure if the resource curse shifts with it." This research has direct policy relevance. By putting a price tag on the cost of a typical civil war (about 64 billion) or the gain of a sustained turnaround placing a formerly failed state on a secure path (about 100 billion), the author allows decision-makers to base their decisions on cost-benefit analysis. He shows that some interventions have a very large pay-off: the British Operation Palliser in Sierra Leone was a huge success, worth perhaps thirty times its cost. The protection offered by the French against military coups in Africa, now tempered by a hesitation to intervene, was perhaps also worthwhile. The European Union's new rapid reaction force may play a similar role in the future by offering a

finally, a compelling, nuanced, evidence-based treatise on how to help the very poorest

Collier has two recommendations for helping the poor: "narrow the target and broaden the instruments." Narrowing the target means focusing not on the five billion people in the "developing world," for four billion of those people live in countries that are already growing, many of them very quickly. One billion of the world's people (70% of whom are in Africa) are in countries that are going nowhere fast, except - in some cases - down. Broadening the instruments means shifting focus from aid to an array of policy instruments: better delivery of aid, occasional military intervention, international charters, and smarter trade policy. The most frustrating element of recent books on economic development is that they wildly overstate. Jeffrey Sachs, in The End of Poverty, promises that we can eradicate poverty with a few simple (if not easy) steps; and William Easterly, in The White Man's Burden, tells us aid is a disaster (with some tiny caveats at the end). Collier offers the nuanced voice that has been missing. He draws on decades of his and others' careful research to explain four traps that keep most of the bottom billion in captivity and why globalization as it is currently configured will do little for these poorest nations. He goes on to explore how each of a whole array of policy instruments (including but not limited to aid) can play a key role in helping the bottom billion get on track towards growth. He explains what kinds of aid are most likely to help post-conflict societies and corrupt societies, how the WTO could actually play a useful role in helping the poorest, how to credibly increase private investment, and where military intervention might actually work. Collier's recommendations feel the most plausible of any out there. Collier brings credibility to the table with non-technical descriptions of many of his studies as well as anecdotes of challenging Kenya's ex-President Moi on his corrupt agricultural policies or asking Nigeria's finance minister about obstacles to reform. The research is not unassailable (for example, when he calculates the cost of a failing state), but he has spent years using the best data and methods available to get at answers to completely intractable questions: the results are at the very least worth weighing carefully. The book has no notes except a heavily abridged list of Collier's studies at the end. Some endnotes with better references for those who would like to examine the research more carefully would improve the volume. Despite that minor critique, this is a readable volume (under 200 pages) with some of the best analysis on economic development that I have read. Nicholas Kristof, the New York Times columnist, calls The Bottom Billion "the best book on international affairs so far this year." He's right. [The Kristof quote is from "Africa's World War," New York Times, June 14, 2007. If I haven't convinced you to read the book, then read Niall Ferguson's review in the New York Times ("The Le

Indispensable Reading

The Bottom Billion by Paul Collier is the most important book to appear in many years on the challenge of raising the world's poorest peoples, many of whom live in Africa, from persistent poverty. Although based on substantial primary research, it is a highly readable volume. It is certain to change the way many development practitioners, and concerned individuals, think about globalization and underdevelopment. Richard Joseph, Northwestern University, Illinois, USA
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