“The Bottom Billion” by Paul Collier

The most basic question addressed in development economics is “Why are some people poor?” There tend to be two highly political answers to this question: “Because capitalism is unfair” or “Because poor people don’t work hard enough.” Neither’s an especially satisfying response, and neither is well supported by data. The rise of China, India and Asia has had far more to do with embrace than rejection of the principles of capitalism, and those societies have collectively pulled hundreds of millions of people out of extreme poverty. On the other hand, hard work and embrace of free market principles isn’t likely to have much impact on a rural farmer in Chad.

Most development economists avoid arguments this simplistic, but they’re subject to their own polarization. Two of the most influential popular economic books offer the contradictory advice that rich countries need to give the developing world a whole lot more aid, and that development aid is, for the most part, a near-criminal waste of money that damages as much as it helps. Collier, to his credit, references both Sachs and Easterly in “The Bottom Billion”. A warning to my Sachs-phobic readers – he’s a fan of Sachs’s economics, though he’s far more critical of his advocacy for increased aid.

While Collier’s work is significantly more nuanced than most popular books on development economics, he’s not exactly shy or soft-spoken. He’s particularly contemptous of ideological dreamers, with a special disregard for Marxists. (In describing China’s recent economic success, he notes, “Mao made his own invaluable contribution by dropping dead.”) But he’s almost as critical of free marketeers who believe that markets will solve all development problems, especially in the poorest countries of the world.

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Filed under Africa, Aid, books, Development

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