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Monday, September 03, 2007

Review: The Bottom Billion

Karl Pfleger raved about this book, and he's a pretty smart guy, so I ordered it from my library and read it. This book is essentially a response to both William Easterly's White Man's Burden and The End of Poverty, a ridiculously over-optimistic tract by Jeff Sachs.

Paul Collier examines the problems of most of the third world countries (mostly African) and looks at the causes of their continual poverty. He pins it down to a few problems: conflicts (including wars), being land-locked and unable to trade, having a lot of natural resources (like oil), and bad governance.

He also explains, as many others have recently, that China's success has actually made it harder for other emerging countries to compete by exporting manufactured objects at lower cost, since China and India both have sufficiently large numbers of people to keep wages depressed at a global level for many years.

He then examines instruments for assisting countries out of poverty. These are targeted aid (expert advise right after a revolution, and money later if a new regime is judged not to be corrupt). military intervention (using the British in Sierra Leone as a model), setting up international laws and charters (like the ones that prevent bribery in the US) so that foreign companies that exploit resources are obligated to try to use the cash in good ways, and better trade policies, much like those espoused by Joe Stiglitz's book last year, Making Globalization Work (Last year's Book of the Year) That last bit shouldn't be a surprise because Collier was one of Stiglitz's proteges at the World Bank.

What does that leave the individual? The problem with most of these solutions is that there's not a ton you can do. Targeted aid isn't something an individual (unless you're Bill Gates) can fund. Neither is military intervention or fixing international law. So while Collier spends page after page imploring the public in rich countries to understand how their governments aren't working to help out developing countries, there's ultimately not much you can do. I can't get myself worked up enough about development to lobby my congressman when I've got so many other priorities, and I'm one of the few who will care enough to read this book. I doubt if others will even bother to read this book, which while not technical is a slog at times.

Hopefully, enough technocrats in positions of power will read this book and make the world a better place for the bottom billion. But I'm not holding my breath.

I recommend this book as good reading for those who genuinely want to help the bottom billion. It should be considered a good start before heading into the specifics (like Easterly's book, and even Jeff Sach's). But I will say I am not optimistic about the outcome. There just isn't enough incentive for folks in rich countries to care about the poor in other countries when for instance, we can't even get health insurance for everyone in the US. Let's fix that first, and then the citizens might have enough largesses to fix the problems the rest of the world has.

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