Saturday, January 19, 2008

The Bottom Billion

The London Free Press
Saturday, January 19, 2008

What’s wrong with sub-Saharan Africa? Despite billions upon billions of dollars in foreign aid over the past four decades, most of the people who reside in this region are sinking into ever more abject and pitiable poverty.
Paul Collier has addressed this tragedy in an illuminating new book, The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries Are Failing and What Can Be Done About It. As a professor of economics at Oxford University, Director of the Center for the Study of African Economies at Oxford University, and a former director of research at the World Bank, Collier is exceptionally well qualified to discuss the intransigent problems of the world’s poorest countries.
Their plight is all the more poignant in that for the first time in history, the great majority of people no longer live in dire poverty. While close to one billion live in rich countries like Canada and Hong Kong, an additional four billion populate less-developed countries like China, India and Chile that have made the transition to rapid and, for the most part, sustained economic growth.
Meanwhile, one billion are stuck at the bottom. Most of them live in Africa and Central Asia. These people “coexist with the 21st century,” writes Collier, “but their reality is the 14th century: civil war, plague, ignorance.”
Many well-meaning liberals think rich countries could quickly and easily eradicate world poverty, by agreeing to a major increase in transfers of their wealth to poor countries through higher foreign aid and more generous debt relief. But if that is true, how can one account for a deeply impoverished, oil-exporting country like Nigeria that has garnered more than $350 billion in oil revenue over the past 40 years – a sum vastly greater than any conceivable amount of foreign aid and debt relief – yet still languishes within the bottom billion?
In some pathetic cases, foreign aid can do little or no good. Consider, for example, Chad. In 2004, a survey was conducted to track money dispensed by the Chadian ministry of finance for rural health clinics. Collier reports: “Amazingly, less than one per cent of it reached the clinics -- 99 per cent failed to reach its destination.”
Within all-too-many countries in the bottom billion, the evils of corruption are compounded by the catastrophes of war. Collier points out the obvious: There can be no hope of alleviating poverty in any country or region that is ravaged by virtually perpetual armed conflict.
In this respect, Afghanistan is a sorry example. For the past two years, Canadian troops have distinguished themselves in the front lines of the battle to defeat the Taliban and clear the way for poverty-alleviating economic growth in this profoundly impoverished country.
But do the purported champions of the poor among the Liberals, New Democrats and Bloc Quebecois in the Parliament of Canada solidly back this humanitarian effort? Alas no: Most are clamouring for the early withdrawal of Canadian forces from any combat role in Afghanistan.
Collier is exasperated by economically ignorant citizens in the rich world who think they can help the poor in the bottom billion by opposing freer trade. In reality, these would-be do-gooders are playing into the hands of villains in the bottom billion who profit from import barriers to enrich themselves at the expense of the needy.
Likewise, fair trade is no panacea. To the extent that this policy increases prices for primary products like tea, coffee and cocoa, it encourages people in the bottom billion, says Collier, to go on “producing the crops that have locked them into poverty.”
What, then, can be done for the bottom billion? Collier makes a compelling case for a concerted military and political campaign led by the rich countries to help the countries of the bottom billion to terminate warfare, establish law and order and curtail corruption.
Until all of these goals are achieved, no amount of foreign aid can eliminate the dire poverty that afflicts the bottom billion. That’s the hard, but inescapable truth that no amount of wishful thinking can circumvent.

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