Niall Ferguson reviews
the new book by Paul Collier, The
Bottom Billion, in Sunday’s NYT Book Review, and I’m not sure what
to make of it. Ferguson explains Collier’s thesis that most of Africa’s problems
stem from civil wars, and goes on to talk about Collier’s support of "foreign
interventions in failed states". Then, however, he retreats:
It would be wrong to portray Collier as a proponent of gunboat development.
In the end, he pins more hope on the growth of international law than on global
policing. Perhaps the best help we can offer the bottom billion, he suggests,
comes in the form of laws and charters: laws requiring Western banks to report
deposits by kleptocrats, for example, or charters to regulate the exploitation
of natural resources, to uphold media freedom and to prevent fiscal fraud.
We may not be able to force corrupt governments to sign such conventions.
But simply by creating them we give reformers in Africa some extra leverage.
Laws and charters? This is what Ferguson means when he says
that Collier’s solution to the problem of African poverty "involves more
— much more — than handouts"?
I should probably read the book to learn more: after all, it has been blurbed
by an very impressive list of individuals, including Ernesto Zedillo,
Nick Stern, George Soros, Martin Wolf,
Nick Kristof, and Larry Summers. Wolf seems
to agree with Ferguson, saying
that the book shows "how far western governments and other external actors
are from currently giving the sort of help these countries desperately need."
Maybe the fact that neither Ferguson nor Wolf is capable of reducing Collier’s
book to an easy-to-understand slogan is testament to its sophistication and
importance. The problem of Africa is not an easy one, and if there are solutions,
they won’t be easy either. I just hope that somewhere in the book can be found
some kind of faith in Africa’s abilities to help itself, maybe given slightly
improved initial conditions. Ultimately, "what can be done about the poorest
countries," to quote the books subtitle, is going to have to be done by
and within the countries themselves: development, like democracy, is one of
those things which is very, very difficult to export.