How to Help the Bottom Billion

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.

(Via Thoma)

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