I went to a great talk by Paul Collier on Friday, at the Cooper Union. I blogged
book, "The Bottom Billion," in June, and I was looking forward
to hearing him in person: after all, he comes impressively blurbed by the likes
of Ernesto Zedillo, Nick Stern, George Soros, Martin Wolf, Nick Kristof, and
Larry Summers. And boy are they right. Collier is no one’s idea of a charismatic
public speaker, but he’s utterly compelling, and I can easily believe that he
managed to persuade EU trade commissioner Peter Mandelson to change Europe’s
trade policy with Africa after a single meeting.
Collier’s main plea is for people to really educate themselves on the plight
of the world’s poorest. At the moment, there’s a huge amount of goodwill, but
precious little real knowledge – a situation which lends itself to gesture
politics, where it’s more important to be seen to be Doing Something than it
is to actually do the right thing.
Collier made a lot of excellent points in his short talk, and the talk only
covered a small part of the scope of his book. But it’s worth reprising a few
of the main themes.
- Targeting global poverty sounds like a great idea, but global poverty is
going to go down substantially no matter what, thanks to the economic development
of China and India. It’s the "bottom billion" of the book’s title
who are really falling behind, not the global poor more generally.
- Aid is important, but if the rich really want to help, they need to make
efforts on much, much more than just aid. (Collier’s other main areas where
the rich can help are trade, security, and governance.) The problems of the
bottom billion are often problems caused by civil war, or resource curses,
or other problems which aid can’t solve.
- A big-picture view has to replace the country-by-country approach which
dominates now. Some 30% of Africa lives in resource-poor, landlocked countries
(compared to just 1% of the world population), and those Africans are doomed
unless the whole neighborhood improves. "The best interventions might
not be in the countries themselves," says Collier: "the only hope
for Niger is that Nigeria grows".
- Details matter, a lot. The difference between the African
Growth and Opportunity Act, in the US, and Everything
but Arms, in Europe, comes down to pretty technical differences on things
like country-of-origin rules. But it turns out that where AGOA has a waiver
on country-of-origin restrictions, African exports to the US have gone up
sevenfold; meanwhile, EbA, with no such waivers, has done no visible good
"This is what you need to get up to speed on," exhorted Collier of
the studenty crowd. Slogans aren’t enough: what’s needed is pressure on politicians
to do very specific things like extend these trade-with-Africa acts to all of
Sub-Saharan Africa and not just to the poorest countries which don’t have the
institutions to make use of the opportunities afforded to them.
If you only read or recommend one book on development issues, this is the one.
Collier is a clear-headed realist who knows that if we don’t solve the problems
of Africa now, they will spill over into the developed world sooner rather than
later. He has solutions; the task now is to start enacting legislation.