Paul Collier in New York

I went to a great talk by Paul Collier on Friday, at the Cooper Union. I blogged

his new

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

    at all.

"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.

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