Friday, 30 March 2012

The Bottom Billion (Paul Collier)

--The blurb--
"Although nearly five billion of the world's people are beginning to climb from desperate poverty and to benefit from globalization's reach to developing countries, there is a “bottom billion” of the world's poor whose countries, largely immune to the forces of global economy, are falling farther behind and are in danger of falling apart, separating permanently [...] from the rest of the world. [...] Collier identifies and explains the four traps that prevent the homelands of the world's billion poorest people from growing and joining in the benefits of globalization. [...] Collier addresses the fact that conventional aid has been unable to tackle these problems and puts forward a radical new plan of action."

--The review--
Having approached this book on the recommendation of others after finding that teaching a course on development studies may be on the cards as part of my work, it was certainly with trepidation. Even though our household takes The Economist, I mainly only look at it for the articles on books, the arts, languages and education. I never had the chance to study economics in school and am not really inclined towards business, politics, world affairs and the like in general. It's fairly safe to say, then, that I'm not too knowledgeable about such weighty subjects as world poverty. I needed to be introduced, then, to the main problems and potential solutions in a gentle yet accessible way that still hammered home all of the facts in an unemotional way.

Paul Collier's "The Bottom Billion" does all of these things and more. He recognises that the facts themselves are emotive and so is careful to not embellish them further in this regard. Setting out the basic economic concepts behind poverty and giving key statistics, he talks the reader through them patiently without being patronising. Soon even previously completely unfamiliar concepts are clear enough to the reader that they can even explain them to others without difficulty (anyone for my explanation of Dutch disease?). Once the groundwork has been done, we're able to get into the really tough stuff.

This, too, is handled sensitively yet with all the necessary details. Collier doesn't rein in the intensity of any of the examples he gives, whether they are gruesome, terrifying, tragic, or funny-if-they-weren't-based-on-real-events. Gradually a picture is built up of the complexity of the problems faced in the third world, as well as some of the solutions that have been posited in the past. The author assesses the pros and cons of each situation and solution, and suggests his own ideas based on what has and has not worked before. 

Evidently it's not as simple as one relatively slim tome; while Collier's ideas seem realistic, it's equally evident that his research (carried out with the help of several doctoral and post-doctoral researchers) is detailed, time-consumin and even at times frustrating. In light of this, it's remarkable that he has been able to distil his work into such a concise volume. Ultimately, the readability of it combined with the shock factor of the facts means its impact stays with the reader and makes them want to know more. Even though the development studies plans toted at my workplace didn't go through, the benefits of reading Collier's research are immeasurable and long-lasting. Anyone with any awareness of the world around them should look into this book - even if they don't realise that they want, and need, to know more.

Other works by Paul Collier
The Plundered Planet (2011)
Catching Up: What LDCs Can Do and How Others Can Help (2011)
Conflict, Political Accountability and Aid (2010)
Wars, Guns and Votes (2009)
Living Down The Past (1998)
Trade Shocks (1994)
Labour and Poverty in Rural Tanzania (1989)
Labour and Poverty in Kenya (1986)

Research papers by Paul Collier can also be read here.

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