Oxford University economist Paul Collier in 2007 released his highly acclaimed book, ‘The Bottom Billion: Why the poorest countries are failing and what can be done about it.’ Having just finished reading the book, it is indeed a very riveting attempt to explain the dire conditions of the poorest people in the world today, or his bottom billion.
The book never explicitly names the countries that are the bottom billion, but by using simple geography and demographic statistics, one can imagine with some accuracy who is in the bottom billion. One of the traps/circumstances for being in the bottom billion is being landlocked, Africa has 17 landlocked countries, or countries without access to the coast, the most in the world across the continents.
Another indicator Africa features highly in the Bottom Billion is the existence of vast natural resources and civil conflicts, again Africa has a contemporary history where this applies. There are many named country examples in the book such as Angola, Chad, Central African Republic, Nigeria and Zimbabwe, all part of the bottom billion.
The angles and explanations of why the bottom billion are trapped where they are are easily accessible to anyone without a thorough background in economics or politics, so one understands why Nigeria has lost dynamism in agriculture from a Dutch Disease induced by oil revenues, or on bad governance and corruption in Kenya that prevents aid and tax revenues reaching their destination. This is among the clearest explanations of the African malaise that prevents it from breaking out of the cycle of underachievement.
The book also analyses the role that richer countries, the OECD play in the continuation of this malaise. Be it from pumping in aid that prevents local economies maturing and keeping incumbent governments in power and unaccountable, or schemes like fair trade initiatives that stop producers from diversifying production, or through protectionism of their markets to keep out bottom billion exports, the West doesn’t escape retribution.
The proposals to rectify this is probably the most contentious of the book, but also very important as it starts a valid agenda on how to help the bottom billion out of poverty. Collier is a firm advocate for military intervention, however acknowledges that the misadventures in Iraq make this a very difficult proposition. Personally, it is hard to imagine any foreign forces being welcomed even in the direst places in Africa, after a while, people stop being rational and are ruled by emotions, which will call for the expulsion of foreign deployments and next on the chopping block will be any puppet government installed, most likely in a violent fashion. Collier also calls for a change in global trade policy and negotiations that benefit the bottom billion, a key component of development is trade.
The book isn’t left leaning or right leaning, but offers a clear perspective on the problems of the bottom billion, and on some ideas to rectify it, the majority of which are feasible if the political will is there, both within the bottom billion and outside it. This is a must read however.