Paul Collier’s “The Bottom Billion” – Synopsis and Review

In Paul Collier’s “The Bottom Billion” (2008) Collier advertises the text as a guide on how to design the most effective G8 agenda in terms of reducing global poverty. To do this, he splits the world’s economies into three categories. Developed, Developing, and the Bottom Billion. The book is unsurprisingly aimed predominantly at helping the latter category. The Bottom Billion refers to the combined population of the worlds so called “failing states”, that are caught in a cycle of political unrest, economic stagnation, and falling levels of prosperity. From this point, the Oxford University professor highlights the causation for economic failure, the potential for globalisation as a saviour for these states, and an evaluation of the effectiveness of potential instruments that may be able to alleviate the level of poverty within these nations.

The first half of the book focuses on the reasons for why the poorest countries are failing. These reasons are split into four categories : Conflict traps, natural resource traps, landlocked with bad neighbours, and poor governance. To me, this section of the book was the least personal. Collier laid out the statistics of how much a typical civil war costs a country ($64), as well as describing the economic phenomenon of “Dutch Disease” (the negative impact of an inflow of foreign currency into a domestic market), and the importance of protecting economic reformers within failing states. However, at this point the chapters seemed more like a text book, rather than the personal plea that was so passionately argued in the preface.


The latter half of the book focuses on the plausibility of developed countries using instruments that may be able to create an economic climate more suited to growth within failing states. Unlike various other texts such as Jeffrey Sachs’ “The End of Poverty”, Collier does not take a clear political agenda that overshadows the book. He neither takes the left’s perspective of blindly throwing international aid at failing nations as a means of increasing social welfare regardless of its hinderance towards economic growth, nor the right’s perspective of aid being part of the problem of poverty as vehicle for “welfare payments to scroungers and crooks”.  Instead of choosing sides, Collier focuses on case studies of prior uses of instruments to reduce poverty, then evaluates their successes and relates these to their situation. For instance, the controversial instrument of military intervention within a failing state was analysed through two different case studies : the failure of Iraq, and the success of Sierra Leone, ultimately arguing that military intervention is an invaluable tool to maintaining post-conflict peace and therefore encouraging the economic security that is necessary to attracting private investment.

To me, the final chapter of the book was the most compelling. Here, Collier links the policy instruments described in the second half of the book, with their potential for effectiveness in alleviating the traps laid out in the first half of the book. The bringing together of the first and second halves of the book, culminated in the ultimate argument of the book – currently, governments are not fully utilising their whole arsenal of instruments that would be beneficial to encouraging development within the bottom billion. In other words, the over reliance on aid is a dangerous pit to fall into, as often blindly giving aid without conditions or targets does nothing to encourage domestic industry, as the injection is leaked out of the economy through imports. For the nations most in need of assistance such as Somalia, increased aid conditions, military and international organisation presence, and mutually beneficial trade deals will provide the ideal climate to encourage growth that will work to lift the nation out of disorder and into self-sufficiency. If governments want to see the level of change expected from the UN Millennium Development Goals, they should not measure the extent of their altruism by the GDP percentage dedicated to foreign aid, but rather measure their success by the actual progress that these countries are making. It is only then that these failing nations will begin to see true development.

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