In his recent book, “The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries Are Failing and What Can Be Done About It", global economist Paul Collier puts forth the argument that perhaps poverty is not such a big problem as other social scientists and activists make it out to be. By contesting the traditional definitions of development, underdevelopment, and poverty, in the book “Bottom Billion" Collier contends that severe poverty is really only a problem in about 58 countries, where four main problems create persistent obstacles to internal and regional development (7). As this summary and analysis of “Bottom Billion" suggests, Collier further emphasizes that the solution to endemic poverty in these overlooked “third world” countries whose inhabitants constitute the bottom billion is to resolve corruption and other internal governance practices and infrastructures that are ineffective by having the Group of Eight industrialized nations impose a radical new set of strategies upon these countries in order to force change upon them.

Although Collier’s main argument and point of analysis in “Bottom Billion" takes a fresh approach in an old debate, the critical reader must question almost everything about the way in which Collier frames his defense, as well as the strategy he proposes for solving what he considers to be true poverty. Despite Collier’s vast hands-on experience as an economist specializing in the developing world in general and Africa in particular, his analysis is misguided because it is hopelessly culture-bound, a brand of neocolonialism sold as a progressive and radical new plan never attempted previously.

Collier wastes no time in delivering his thesis to the reader. On the first pages of “The Bottom Billion", the author blasts the current conceptualization of development as “outdated" (3). “Most of the five billion" people who are typically classified as constituting the world’s poorest citizens, living in countries mired in poverty and labeled as undeveloped or underdeveloped as well as being designed as “third world”, are actually, he argues, “living in countries that are indeed developing, often at amazing speed" (3). With this, Collier dismisses these five billion poor people by summary, turning his attention to the people he refers to as the “bottom billion" (3), living in a cluster of countries that are “falling behind" and “falling apart" (3). The problem with this approach is that Collier conflates the reality of hyper-accelerated development in many traditionally undeveloped countries or the third world with a substantial advance or improvement in the quality of life for those countries’ poor citizens, an argument which simply can not be substantiated with empirical evidence. The sad fact of the matter is that even as “third world” countries enter a period of unprecedented growth and economic stability, their lower classes are often left out and left behind in their poverty. With as much policy experience as Collier has, it is mind-boggling that he would overlook this truth completely, but the fact that he does makes his entire argument specious and difficult to accept.

Collier contends that the reason that the bottom billion are trapped perpetually on the lowest rungs of the world’s socioeconomic ladder is because they are victims of inept governments facing four critical and persistent problems: To offer a short summary of this aspect of “The Bottom Billion” : (1) the chaos of internal conflict and war; (2) the poor planning for and leveraging of valuable natural resources; (3) the inability to forge viable and lasting positive relationships with neighbors, thereby facilitating trade and political alliances; and (4) massive and systemic corruption (6). Despite the developed world’s awareness of these conditions in what is considered to be the third world, which Collier refers to as a “traps" (5), and despite their concern, expressed through aid, the facilitation of peace talks, and less beneficent approaches, no intervention, however carefully planned and implemented, has helped the 58 countries with the world’s bottom billion pull themselves up by their bootstraps and join the development race.

In “The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries Are Failing and What Can Be Done About It" Collier argues that the reason this is so is because the developed world’s approach has been all wrong. Instead of traditional relief programs, which he considers useless band-aid remedies (99), Collier contends that “four instruments" can—indeed, must—be used to force these unruly countries to impose some internal and regional order in order to help themselves: (1) more thoughtful aid tied to actionable goals met by the countries in need; (2) improved security—including a foreign military presence when necessary; (3) laws and charters; and (4) trade (176).

There are at least two problems with the measures that Collier proposes as instruments to break the traps that bind the 58 poorest countries. The first problem is that the four instruments are neither as novel nor as radical as Collier would like to believe that they are. Various aid strategies, security forces (both active/defensive and peacekeeping), laws (such as embargoes and threats of taking leaders to the international criminal court), and trade strategies (including sanctions and partnerships) have all been tried throughout modern history, and in most cases, they have been tried again and again, in different incarnations that have been revised based on previous failures. Thus, what Collier proposes may be articulated differently, but the author does not provide a convincing argument about how these strategies would actually be different from what has already been attempted. Second, Collier believes that it is the eight most industrialized and developed nations in the world that bear the responsibility for using these four instruments as agents of change in the third world. The problem with this part of his argument is that it fails to acknowledge and empower leaders and the general public in the countries in question. Instead, though Collier seems to fancy himself a progressive scholar, there is abundant evidence that his thinking is dangerously neocolonialist. “Clearly," he writes, “there are brave people within these societies who are struggling to achieve change" (175). Curiously, though, there is no place for these “brave people"—who might also be intelligent and more cognizant of the problems of their own countries than Collier—in the author’s ambitious agenda for change.

Collier concludes his book by saying that the polarities that characterize debates about poverty and the third world are “untenable," but his framework for change does not, in this writer’s estimation, step outside of the polarized discussion that has typified the developed world’s conceptualization about the developing world’s problems (176). Collier finger-wags at the reader, saying he has fulfilled his own responsibility to the world by writing his book, but that the reader should not “think that just because your work is unconnected with development you are off the hook" (175-176). This paternalistic tone, veiled as passionate activism, is characteristic of the entire book, and is one of the many factors that make The Bottom Billion a problematic read.

The problem of mass poverty in the third world or underdeveloped nations that Collier tackles and offers an analysis of in “The Bottom Billion” is an important one, and indeed, the reader does have a responsibility for considering how his or her actions contribute to that problem. Collier’s analysis of the problem, however, and his blueprint for its correction, are flawed by his insistence that his perspective is the right one and the only one that will create change. Not only is the claim unsubstantiated, it fails to take into account the rest of the world’s poor people left behind in the dust of development. While Collier’s efforts should be appreciated, as this summary of “The Bottom Billion” suggests, is not one that will be particularly useful for radical global economic development.

Work Cited

Collier, Paul. The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries Are Failing and What Can Be Done About It. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.