I was familiar with Collier’s work and those that he takes on (Bill Easterly, Jeffrey Sacks) for some time before finally picking up this highly acclaimed book. It didn’t disappoint. The Bottom Billion is an accessible summary of Collier’s work which focuses on the peculiar problem of development for the poorest countries in the world. Collier distills the volumes of technical analysis that he and his colleagues have conducted over the years and provides readers with an enjoyable narrative regarding the path forward (and backward, unfortunately) for a fifth of the world’s population.
As he eloquently demonstrates, the old terms of First World and Third World really no longer apply. Rather, the majority of the world is either highly developed or moving significantly in that direction. However, there is a portion of the world—about 1 billion people—whose countries are on the outside looking in when it comes to economic development. Collier’s work, and this book, offers an explanation as to why the countries that make up the bottom billion have failed to develop and what can be done about it. Books of this nature typically stake out a position along one of the ideological poles and hammers away at the other pole for three-hundred pages or so—Aid is bad and does nothing but fill the coffers of corrupt leaders and make the population dependent and lazy! Capitalism is the enemy! Rich countries use their power to exploit the labor and resources of these countries for profit, therefore protectionism and transfers of wealth from the developed world are needed! As it so often does, the truth can be found in the middle.
Collier lays out various “traps” that countries can find themselves in–conflict, resources, geography, and governance–all of which provide extensive barriers to economic development. All of these have been hypothesized by others, but Collier & Co. tease out the specific ways that these traps work. For example, while landlocked countries generally find themselves without realistic alternatives to growth there does appear a way out–development by their neighbors (particularly in terms of infrastructure) leads to increased growth for the landlocked country. Understanding that geography is a powerful variable, but does not equate to fate, leads to various policy prescriptions that can credibly be applied to these particular cases. It also highlights the friction that is politics. Collier acknowledges the powerful role of politics in both his explanations and his prescriptions for the least developed nations. Countries and leaders are generally self-interested, and this makes political solutions difficult to come by when dealing with the poorest countries in the world. Collier has a few ideas, some of which have been adopted by leading countries and organizations. However, it is too early to tell if they have the kind of effect he hopes they will.
My one complaint is that Collier does not provide a graphical summary of the numerous hypotheses that he confirms and nullifies. Nor does he provide a summary guide to the additional theories and mechanisms that he proposes. The book is stuffed with propositions and results that after a while it was hard to remember just what was proven and falsified, what mechanisms Collier suggested that may explain the peculiar relationship between, say, aid and coups. Now, I read the Kindle version, so maybe such graphics were available in the dead-tree version.
Overall, Collier’s book was well worth my time. I am excited to read his follow up, War, Guns and Votes, but it will have to wait as I’ve got a few others ahead of it in the queue.