Book Review: The Bottom Billion by Paul Collier

By Andrene Dabaghi, from Volume 1, Issue 1

We’ve seen the wristbands, the benefit concerts, the makeup- less celebrities holding malnourished African children in their arms.  Emerging from all these cries for help, the underlying point resonates clearly – the developing world needs our mon- ey, and we should hand it to them.  Why? Because according to these messages, a trivial donation of our wealth translates to a year’s supply of food for a child, vaccinations for an en- tire family, or some other life-saving article we believe our few dollars will provide.  However, as Paul Collier’s The Bottom Billion elucidates, the problem runs much deeper than lack of money – even with billions of dollars of aid flooding into Africa, Latin America and Asia, many of these regions show no signs of improvement with regard to economic develop- ment and political stability.   Why aren’t our efforts working, and what can we feasibly do to help these communities? Part of the solution, as suggested in Collier’s book, is potentially rooted in legal changes on the international level.

As evidenced by his clear prose and purposeful omission of footnotes, Collier aims to address the average reader on the plight of one billion people living in abject poverty across the globe.  A compelling and highly readable work, it illustrates how this “bottom billion” faces imminent danger of state col- lapse if  the international community fails to act swiftly and intelligently.  To explain the current economic stagnation of these countries, Collier asserts that four specific “traps” im- pede development of the bottom billion – conflict, high nat- ural  resource endowment,  landlocked geography  with  bad neighbors, and poor governance in small states. As a solution, he proposes modified aid strategies, foreign military interven- tions, revisions to international laws and charters, and changes in global trade policy.

The facets of Collier’s argument regarding international law and global trade policy provide a fresh perspective on the use of legal changes to alleviate poverty.  In terms of reducing political corruption, the book suggests a shift of responsibility away from foreign actors and onto domestic ones.  Even if certain governments refuse to sign new conventions that help to monitor criminal activity, Collier argues that simply creat- ing such laws provides reformers inside the state with more leverage to combat kleptocrats (Collier 179). He directs these international laws and charters at monitoring four key areas – natural resources, democracy, budget-transparency, and post- conflict investment.  For example, citizens are able to hold their leaders more accountable when laws demand that for- eign banks report deposits by dishonest politicians.  Similarly, charters monitoring the use of gold mines, oil wells and other raw materials diminish exploitation of natural resources by both state and non-state actors.  Laws implemented to ensure freedom of the press similarly aid citizens in their fight against fraudulent governments by ensuring that they possess this vi- tal tool for exposing political corruption.

This aspect of Collier’s argument proves logical and reflects an imperative transformation in the field of international development.   As of  now, Africans with the potential to cre- ate dynamic change must leave the country in order to do so as a consequence of poor education and political corrup- tion.  This hard truth is evident in the literature on solutions to African poverty – the most prominent of these authors are either American or European scholars.  Although Zambian Dambisa Moyo has climbed to fame with her groundbreak- ing work Dead Aid, she left the continent to earn degrees at Harvard and Oxford.  This fact resonates with Collier’s point on shifting responsibility back onto domestic actors – as long as power rests in the hands of individuals and states outside of Africa, there is no hope for the necessary change from within. Sadly, despite the necessity and practicality of instituting legal reforms, the rampant corruption and political inertia targeted by these changes endangers the feasibility of this plan.  With a population unwilling to challenge government leaders due to fear or indifference, African countries cannot embrace and adopt Collier’s proposed laws.

In addition to these modifications in international law, The Bottom Billion also demands a change in trade policy to pro- mote integration of developing nations into the world market. Offering sub-Saharan Africa as an example, Collier illustrates how relatively low labor wages caused manufacturing to move to Asia, thereby marginalizing African economies and forcing them to “miss the boat” (Collier 167). With protectionist poli- cies, he argues, the bottom billion can compete economically and thus successfully enter the international market.  To in- crease Africa’s ability to contend in the global business world, Collier suggests implementing protectionist policies such as imposing lower tariffs on African imports than those levied on identical Asian goods.   While this change would ideally encourage countries to import more goods from Africa than Asia, the nature of Asian versus African market systems casts doubt on the plan’s practicability.

Although Collier explains that  relatively low labor  wages caused manufacturing  to move to Asia, he fails to discuss the mistreatment of Asian laborers that enabled this to oc- cur.  In many of these East Asian “Tiger economies”, sweat- shops that promote child labor, low wages  and poor living standards are used to produce inexpensive goods for the rest of the world.  China, for example, ensures its cheap labor by disregarding workers’ rights – striking and organizing into independent unions in the PRC represents a violation of fed- eral law.   Consequently, imposing protectionist policies on African products would not necessarily compensate for the lower wages. If higher tariffs were imposed on Asian imports to make identical African ones more attractive,  many Asian economies could ensure their products remain cheaper by lowering wages even further without fear of worker strikes. Thus, given the powerful foothold of these countries in the global economy and the questionable tactics behind their in- expensive products, engaging in a price war appears to be a task much easier said than done for Africa.   Competing with Asian prices would require much more than a slew of protectionist trade policies and might entice corrupt African governments to initiate similar worker exploitation for the sake of lower prices on their goods.

Thus, as reflected in this balance between promoting eco- nomic competitiveness and ensuring labor rights, the path to poverty alleviation through new legal measures is no more clear-cut than any other course we choose. However, by in- forming readers of his theories behind basic problems and possible solutions  in  international  development,  Collier’s work provides an enlightening and useful analysis for those trying to understand poverty beyond “save Africa” T-shirts and Bono’s melodious cries for change.   While one cannot expect this book to represent a compilation of absolute fact, it would be just as foolish to brush off all of his ideas as un- founded theories. Ultimately, The Bottom Billion represents a tool – a mechanism to deepen our understanding  of the challenges we face in global development and ultimately pro- vide the groundwork to create innovative solutions of  our own.

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