Crunching numbers, saving people

Collier, Paul. The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries Are Failing and What Can Be Done About It. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Paul Collier deserves -- and has received -- great credit for developing a method of statistical comparison for identifying the very poorest countries and estimating the costs of such poverty to them and potentially to all of us (short life spans, HIV and other devastating diseases, political violence that spreads beyond their borders, etc.). He and his co-researchers are especially keen on finding correlations between such wretched conditions and various geographical, demographic and historical factors, and comparing them to countries which share many such characteristics but that have broken out of poverty -- most notably, India and China, still beset by many problems but developing.

Very briefly: Collier has identified 58 countries, together comprising about 1/6 of the world's population or nearly 1,000,000,000 people, which are not only extremely poor, but which are not developing at all -- that is, they are experiencing no economic growth whatever. He declines to provide the full list, but in the course of the book he names several: most are in Africa, others include "Haiti, Laos, Burma [Myanmar], and the Central Asian countries, of which Afghanistan has been the most spectacular" development failure.

These are all places caught in "traps" of: recurring civil conflict, an abundance of a single natural resource whose exploitation (mostly for the benefit of outside corporations and the local corrupt elite) causes neglect of all other productive areas, being "landlocked with bad neighbors," and/or suffering "bad governance in a small country."

His question: How to get these countries out of the "traps" of undevelopment and get their economies growing?

Aid doesn't work, because too much of it is eaten up in corruption and inefficiency -- though without it, people's lives would be even worse. Collier gives several woeful examples, but also singles out a few heroes who have struggled to limit or end corruption, for example in Nigeria and Uganda.

Military intervention could work very well in those places wracked by civil war and terrorism, if only the richer countries dared to use it and if they avoided the disastrous misuse in the U.S.'s spectacular and self-defeating deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. The other African countries are themselves too poor to intervene effectively in Sudan, for example, or the Congo, and would need the troops, arms and logistical support of richer countries. To be seen as legitimate, such intervention would have to come at the invitation of groups in the country or region that had wide popular support. And without raising any suspicion that the intervenors' true goal was to seize natural resources, e.g., oil. Unfortunately, in Collier's view, the U.S.'s bungling in Iraq has given intervention such a bad name that when the French, for example, send troops to a civil war zone, they are ordered to stay in barracks when the fighting breaks out. And we all remember the passivity of the Dutch UN troops in Srebrenica. UN troops in the Congo also seem to be more concerned for their own safety than that of the populace.

"By contrast, the British intervention in Sierra Leone [in 2000], Operation Palliser, has been a huge success. It has imposed security and maintained it once the RUF [rebel movement] was disposed of. The whole operation has been amazingly cheap," Collier writes (p. 127). Another example that seems to me to have been very positive (though I think Collier would disagree) was Cuban intervention in Namibia and Angola, saving both countries from far worse fates -- but of course that occurred during the Cold War, which distorted everything and made all sides' motives suspect.

"So we should intervene," says Collier, "but not necessarily everywhere. Sierra Leone rather than Iraq is the likely future of intervention opportunities in the bottom-billion countries. Look at the contrasts between the two situations. In Sierra Leone our [i.e., British] forces were invited in by the government and hugely welcomed by the local population. In Sierra Leone we could not be accused of going in for the oil, as there wasn't any." (pp. 128-9)

We also need to change laws and charters in the developed world, for example, banking secrecy regulations that permit corrupt dictators to steal their countries' wealth and hide it. (He has much more to say about laws and charters, including a proposed charter for world democracy.)

Finally, he proposes "trade policy for reversing marginalization" -- ending, for example, protective tariffs for European and U.S. agricultural interests that make it impossible for African cotton producers, etc., to compete in the only lucrative markets.

There's a lot of good stuff here, and Collier and his team keep on producing more such pointed analyses. Check out the Paul Collier home page. His statistical work is a good starting point for finding solutions, but it is only a starting point. To understand phenomena such as massive corruption, suicidal terrorism (such as in Mumbai this week), and the consequences and contradictions of rapacious global capitalism requires much more than number-crunching. The "traps" he lists are not all really comparable phenomena, though the statistical method showing only their numerical consequences make them appear so. Being landlocked with few natural resources is a geographical and historical phenomenon. As Collier sagely remarks, the reason so many such countries are in Africa is that, in other parts of the world, territories that are landlocked and have few resources don't become countries -- so that is a historical political problem, dating from the way colonial powers carved up the continent.

"The Natural Resource Trap," i.e., being "too rich" in petroleum, or diamonds, or some other valuable commodity, is not a geographical fatality at all. What makes such natural wealth a "trap" rather than an asset is obviously a problem of the way markets are organized and who has the means to exploit someone else's wealth. Bolivia under Morales, for example, is working to turn its natural gas into an asset.

But if we can think along two or more tracks at the same time, keeping in mind the statistical correlations that Collier and other investigators generate while also thinking broadly and deeply about markets and other social process in the manner of, say, Ulrich Beck, Alain Touraine and others, we may seriously address these problems.

One minor quibble: The cover declares the book a winner of the "Lionel Gelber Prize for excellence in writing on international relations." It seems to me that the writing would have been more excellent had Collier found a better metaphor than "traps" to describe those difficulties and had he not repeatedly referred, with no apparent irony, to landlocked countries as "missing the boat" (of development).