|The New York Times
July 1, 2007
The Least Among Us
By NIALL FERGUSON
review of: THE BOTTOM BILLION
Why the Poorest Countries Are Failing and What Can Be Done About It.
By Paul Collier.
205 pp. Oxford University Press. $28.
IT IS PERHAPS A sign of how far sub-Saharan Africa still has to go
that the most vigorous — and certainly the best publicized — debate
about its economic future in recent years has been between two
American economists based in New York. On one side of the argument is
Jeffrey D. Sachs, the director of the Earth Institute at Columbia
University and the author of "The End of Poverty." On the other is
William Easterly of New York University, whose ironically titled
"White Man's Burden" lampoons Sachs as a modern version of a
There is indeed something faintly Victorian about Sachs's messianic
yet parsimonious conviction that Africa can be saved with $75 billion
a year in Western aid. Having spent so much of his energies in the
1990s extolling the virtues of the free market to any Eastern European
government that would listen, Sachs now argues — with equally
unshakable conviction — that the elimination of African poverty can be
achieved through state planning. All governments need do is improve
agricultural technology, provide antimalaria bed nets, treat diseases
like hookworm and distribute antiretroviral treatments to the
At times, he is rather reminiscent of Dickens's Mrs. Jellyby in "Bleak
House," "a lady of very remarkable strength of character, who ... has
devoted herself to an extensive variety of public subjects, at various
times, and is at present (until something else attracts her) devoted
to the subject of Africa; with a view to the general cultivation of
the coffee berry — and the natives." In Easterly's opinion, the
present generation of white philanthropists is no more likely than
earlier ones to succeed in a self-appointed (and at times unwittingly
imperial) mission of enlightening the Dark Continent.
Now comes another white man, ready to shoulder the burden of saving
Africa: Paul Collier, the director of the Center for the Study of
African Economies at Oxford University. A former World Bank economist
like Easterly, Collier shares his onetime colleague's aversion to what
he calls the "headless heart" syndrome — meaning the tendency of
people in rich countries to approach Africa's problems with more
emotion than empirical evidence. It was Collier who pointed out that
nearly two-fifths of Africa's private wealth is held abroad, much of
it in Swiss bank accounts. It was he who exposed the British charity
Christian Aid for commissioning dubious Marxist research on free
trade. And it was he who pioneered a new and unsentimental approach to
the study of civil wars, demonstrating that most rebels in sub-Saharan
Africa are not heroic freedom fighters but self-interested brigands.
Collier is certainly much closer to Easterly on the question of aid.
(He cites a recent survey that tracked money released by the Chad
Ministry of Finance to help rural health clinics. Less than 1 percent
reached the clinics.) Yet "The Bottom Billion" proves to be a far more
constructive work than "The White Man's Burden." Like Sachs, Collier
believes rich countries really can do something for Africa. But it
involves more — much more — than handouts.
Collier's title refers to the 980 million people living in what he
calls "trapped countries," those that are "clearly heading toward what
might be described as a black hole." Not all these people are
Africans. Some live in Bolivia, Myanmar, Cambodia, Haiti, Laos, North
Korea and Yemen. But 70 percent of the bottom billion live in Africa,
and there is good reason to expect that proportion to rise.
The notion of the bottom billion matters because most of today's
development strategies (for example, the United Nations' Millennium
Development Goals) focus much less discriminatingly on all developing
economies — what used to be called "the third world." But the world is
no longer (as it used to be) one-sixth rich and five-sixths poor.
Thanks to explosive growth in Asia, it will soon be more like
one-sixth rich, two-thirds O.K. and one-sixth poor. It is this last
group, according to Collier, that we need to worry about. Average life
expectancy for the bottom billion is just 50 years. Around one in
seven children dies before the age of 5.
Collier's is a better book than either Sachs's or Easterly's for two
reasons. First, its analysis of the causes of poverty is more
convincing. Second, its remedies are more plausible.
There are, he suggests, four traps into which really poor countries
tend to fall. The first is civil war. Nearly three-quarters of the
people in the bottom billion, Collier points out, have recently been
through, or are still in the midst of, a civil war. Such wars usually
drag on for years and have economically disastrous consequences. Congo
(formerly Zaire, formerly the Belgian Congo) would need 50 years of
peace at its present growth rate to get back to the income level it
had in 1960. Unfortunately, there is a vicious circle, because the
poorer a country becomes, the more likely it is to succumb to civil
war ("halve the ... income of the country and you double the risk of
civil war" is a characteristic Collier formulation). And once you've
had one civil war, you're likely to have more: "Half of all civil wars
are postconflict relapses."
Why, aside from their poverty, have so many sub-Saharan countries
become mired in internal conflict? Collier has spent years trying to
answer this question, and his conclusions are central to this book.
Civil war, it turns out, has nothing much to do with the legacy of
colonialism, or income inequality, or the political repression of
minorities. Three things turn out to increase the risk of conflict: a
relatively high proportion of young, uneducated men; an imbalance
between ethnic groups, with one tending to outnumber the rest; and a
supply of natural resources like diamonds or oil, which simultaneously
encourages and helps to finance rebellion.
It was in fact Collier who first came up with the line "diamonds are a
guerrilla's best friend," and a substantial part of this book concerns
itself with what economists like to call the "resource curse," his No.
2 trap. As he sees it, the real problem about being a poor country
with mineral wealth, like Nigeria, is that "resource rents make
democracy malfunction"; they give rise to "a new law of the jungle of
electoral competition ... the survival of the fattest." Resource-rich
countries don't need to levy taxes, so there is little pressure for
government accountability, and hence fewer checks and balances.
Countries don't get to choose their resource endowment, of course; nor
do they get to choose their location. Trap No. 3 is that landlocked
countries are economically handicapped, because they are dependent on
their neighbors' transportation systems if they want to trade. Yet
this is a minor handicap compared with Trap No. 4: bad governance.
Collier has no time for those who still seek to blame Africa's
problems on European imperialists. As he puts it bluntly: "President
Robert Mugabe must take responsibility for the economic collapse in
Zimbabwe since 1998, culminating in inflation of over 1,000 percent a
If these four things are the main causes of extreme poverty in Africa
and elsewhere, what can the rich countries do? Clearly we can't
relocate Chad or rid Nigeria of its oil fields. Nor, Collier argues,
can we rely on our standard remedies of aid or trade, without
significant modifications. As a general rule, aid tends to retard the
growth of the labor-intensive export industries that are a poor
country's most effective engine of growth. And much aid gets diverted
into military spending. As for emergency relief, all too often it
arrives in the wrong quantity at the wrong time, flooding into
postconflict zones when no adequate channels exist to allocate it.
Trade, too, is not a sufficient answer. The problem is that Asia has
eaten Africa's lunch when it comes to exploiting low wage costs. Once
manufacturing activity started to relocate to Asia, African economies
simply got left behind. Now, to stand any chance of survival, African
manufacturers need some temporary protection from Asian competition.
So long as rich countries retain tariffs to shelter their own
manufacturers from cut-price Asian imports, they should exempt
products from bottom billion countries.
This, however, is not the most heretical of Collier's prescriptions.
Reflecting on the tendency of postconflict countries to lapse back
into civil war, he argues trenchantly for occasional foreign
interventions in failed states. What postconflict countries need, he
says, is 10 years of peace enforced by an external military force. If
that means infringing national sovereignty, so be it.
At a time when the idea of humanitarian intervention is selling at a
considerable discount, this is a vital insight. (One recent finding by
Collier and his associates, not reproduced here, is that until
recently, former French colonies in Africa were less likely than other
comparably poor countries to experience civil war. That was because
the French effectively gave informal security guarantees to
postindependence governments.) Collier concedes that his argument is
bound to elicit accusations of neocolonialism from the usual suspects
(not least Mugabe). Yet the case he makes for more rather than less
intervention in chronically misgoverned poor countries is a powerful
one. It is easy to forget, amid the ruins of Operation Iraqi Freedom,
that effective intervention ended Sierra Leone's civil war, while
nonintervention condemned Rwanda to genocide.
[this assumes that the despotic countries that invade smaller ones to
impose order are benevolent, of course.]
Still, it would be wrong to portray Collier as a proponent of gunboat
development. In the end, he pins more hope on the growth of
international law than on global policing. Perhaps the best help we
can offer the bottom billion, he suggests, comes in the form of laws
and charters: laws requiring Western banks to report deposits by
kleptocrats, for example, or charters to regulate the exploitation of
natural resources, to uphold media freedom and to prevent fiscal
fraud. We may not be able to force corrupt governments to sign such
conventions. But simply by creating them we give reformers in Africa
some extra leverage.
Although it stands on a foundation of painstaking quantitative
research, "The Bottom Billion" is an elegant edifice: admirably
succinct and pithily written. Few economists today can match Collier
when it comes to one-liners. "A flagrant grievance is to a rebel
movement what an image is to a business." Calling the present trade
negotiations a "development round" is like calling "tomorrow's trading
on eBay a 'development round.' " And "If Iraq is allowed to become
another Somalia, with the cry 'Never intervene,' the consequences will
be as bad as Rwanda."
If Sachs seems too saintly and Easterly too cynical, then Collier is
the authentic old Africa hand: he knows the terrain and has a keen
ear. They know it's garbage, one aid official told him when he queried
Christian Aid's research, "but it sells the T-shirts."
As Collier rightly says, it is time to dispense with the false
dichotomies that bedevil the current debate on Africa: "
'Globalization will fix it' versus 'They need more protection,' 'They
need more money' versus 'Aid feeds corruption,' 'They need democracy'
versus 'They're locked in ethnic hatreds,' 'Go back to empire' versus
'Respect their sovereignty,' 'Support their armed struggles' versus
'Prop up our allies.' " If you've ever found yourself on one side or
the other of those arguments — and who hasn't? — then you simply must
read this book.
Niall Ferguson is the Laurence A. Tisch professor of history at
Harvard University and the author of "Empire: The Rise and Fall of the
British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power."