The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries are Failing and What Can Be Done About It by Paul Collier

I love academics in the sense that they write 'non-academic' books to be easily read and shared by the common person, yet the books still scream, 'I am a genius scholar'. In this book, The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries are Failing and What Can Be Done About It, now over a decade old, Collier explores the four traps of the bottom billion, and four instruments that may help uplift them from their conditions, all based on (primarily) his own research.

The bottom billion refers to the billion poorest people in the world, located mostly, but not completely, in African countries, where their economic growth is pretty much the same as, or worse than, their growth in 1970. Collier makes the case right away for the importance of turning our attention to this population because, unlike the rest of the world, their growth is stagnant.

Collier posits that these countries fall into one or more of four poverty traps: the country is in conflict, the country is resource-rich and does not diversify its economy, the country is landlocked, or there is bad governance in the country. These traps have kept certain countries from progressing, while others, like India and China, have continued to grow. Investment in improving these countries seems daunting, but, Collier argues, not impossible. 

In the second part of the book, Collier introduces instruments for progress, though each has its nuances and pitfalls. These instruments are development aid, military intervention, laws and charters, and trade policy. Application of these instruments is tailored to the setting and the traps each setting faces, but all require mobilized change in the status quo. To end the book, Collier presents an agenda for action, encouraging the G8 to narrow and strengthen its focus, armed with the right instruments. (To note, however, in saying this, Collier does acknowledge time and time again that change must be led from within. While the international arena can help, encourage and better bolster progress in countries with the bottom billion, these countries must be accountable).

Let me be clear: we cannot rescue them. The societies of the bottom billion can only be rescued from within. In every society of the bottom billion there are people working for change, but usually they are defeated by the powerful internal forces stacked against them. We should be helping the heroes. So far, our efforts have been paltry: through inertia, ignorance, and incompetence, we have stood by and watched them lose.
— Paul Collier, The Bottom Billion

Beyond the argument that we can do something about the bottom billion, Collier stresses more how we should do something. While richer countries are not the necessary cause of these other countries' conditions, we may be at the effect of their circumstances. Beyond that, reasonable, thoughtful investments could make a huge impact on a huge proportion of the world. We do not need to be bystanders. 

Collier, of course, is no bystander. He has written much more recent books than this one, all which might refresh the positions taken here. However, this book remains foundational, and, while I am in no way ready to dive back into academia, I appreciated the challenge of facing the facts laid out in this important book.

Launching a turnaround takes courage. I cannot measure that and so it is not going to be included in my analysis, but behind the moments of change there are always a few people within these societies who have decided to try to make a difference.
— Paul Collier, The Bottom Billion