Thursday, August 30, 2007

Paul Collier

Paul Collier is Professor of Economics and Director of the Centre for the Study of African Economies at Oxford University. Former director of Development Research at the World Bank and advisor to the British government's Commission on Africa, he is one of the world's leading experts on African economies and is the author of Breaking the Conflict Trap, among other books.

His new book is The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries are Failing and What Can Be Done About It.

J. Tyler Dickovick, an Assistant Professor of Politics at Washington and Lee University, specializes in the politics in developing countries with a focus on Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa. Read more about his research and publications at his faculty webpage.

In this illuminating interview, Collier responds to a set of questions expertly prepared by Dickovick:

Dickovick: You argue that the poorest countries where the world’s bottom billion live are caught on one of four traps: the conflict trap, the natural resource trap, the “landlocked with bad neighbors” trap, and the “bad governance in a small country” trap. While the traps share features in common, some seem more driven than others by exogenous factors or natural endowments, such as geography. Do the different traps demand different responses from policymakers, and how so?

Collier: Yes, very much so. Indeed, the point of diagnosing these four very different traps is precisely that they will require very different remedies. People have been saying for years that a 'one size fits all' approach does not work, but I am specific in why it won't, and why on the other hand we don't have to go to the other extreme of every country being utterly unique. To give you one example, the trap of resource riches cannot be solved by 'downsizing' the state because it should indeed tax the resource revenues, the key focus needs to be on accountable government spending. In contrast, in some other situations, small and lean government might be a very effective approach to harnessing opportunities.

Dickovick: The book combines a wide-ranging review of evidence on the causes of failure with much discussion of possibilities for improving conditions the poorest countries. You have several specific proposals, including reforms in the areas of trade and market access, international law, and foreign aid. Are there key examples that show such proposals have worked in the past to help countries overcome traps? Where can we look for evidence of success in breaking traps? Do other post-war developments (such as the reconstruction of Europe or the rapid development of East Asian economies) serve as useful models?

Collier: Yes, there are examples of past success. On trade policy, Mauritius benefited considerably from its temporary privileged access to rich-country textiles markets thanks to its MFA quota. That temporary advantage was enough to get Mauritius permanently out of poverty. Currently, the US trade scheme AGOA is working a whole lot better than the European scheme, EBA, because of detailed differences in design that have had large consequences for jobs in Africa.

The reconstruction of Europe after 1945 is an excellent example of what success requires - and of what the US does when it really gets serious. In addition to its aid program, the US reversed its trade policy, opening its markets to Europe through the formation of the GATT, it addressed European security concerns through NATO and a huge presence of its troops in Europe, and it got involved in European governance through the OECD and the encouragement of what became the EU. That range of four policies is the waterfront that we have to repeat for the harder task of getting the bottom billion to catch up.

Dickovick: You have a brief chapter on military intervention, which you say was difficult for you to write, and the proposal here is one of your most provocative. Under what conditions are international commitments to military intervention appropriate?

Collier: Even democratic governments in small, impoverished societies are menaced by threats of coups and rebellions. They are in great difficulty and commonly try to secure their position by increasing their military spending - buying coups off. In these conditions an external security guarantee - the sort that Britain is currently providing to Sierra Leone - is welcome, legitimate, without other clear substitutes, complements other assistance and is highly cost-effective. It would be nice to believe that if a government of a small, poor country is democratic that would make it safe, but the evidence is solidly against this cosy belief. These countries need our robust help.

Dickovick: You say in the book that “[t]rade policy is the area of economics least well understood by the NGO world,” and use the example of Christian Aid as a well-intentioned organization whose advocacy on trade issues can be detrimental to the bottom billion. What should NGOs and international aid organizations advocate for in the arena of trade policy?

Collier: There are some obvious things - our agricultural subsidies are often detrimental to existing exports from the bottom billion. But my main concern is to get beyond these paltry existing exports to encourage diversification, especially into light manufactures such as garments. The Africa Growth and Opportunities Act (AGOA) provides a model here, though it is already under threat in Congress from proposals to extend it way beyond Africa which would inadvertently kill its beneficial effect where it is most needed. NGOs should be lobbying for AGOA to be matched by Europe, Japan and the rest of the OECD in a common and generous preference scheme.

Dickovick: The dialogue over foreign aid has moved towards the forefront of popular discourse. One visible instance is the public debate between Jeffrey Sachs and William Easterly, with Sachs a proponent of major increases in aid to the poorest countries caught in “poverty traps” and Easterly more skeptical about the aid industry. Where do you situate your book in this debate? Do you feel your argument reconciles points made by aid advocates and aid skeptics, or do you consider it to fit in one or the other camp?

Collier: I regard it as a reconciliation. Jeff Sachs has kindly written to the New York Times supporting the main tenets of The Bottom Billion, and I will be sharing a platform with Bill Easterly next week. I think that aid can be very useful, and so should be scaled up in ways that would make it much more effective, but that alone it is not enough for development. Change must come primarily from within the societies of the bottom billion, but there are many brave people in these societies who need our effective support, both through aid, which has been very prominent, and through the other approaches which have been badly neglected. Domestically-led change and our external support are jointly necessary, and together will prove to be sufficient to achieve the transformation that is so vital.

Dickovick: Your synthesis suggests the development aid “industry” and the academic study of development have both made false steps and learned major lessons in the last 60 years. What do you deem to be the key policy lessons we have learned from our past mistakes, when it comes to improving life prospects for the worst-off?

Paul Collier: That's a big question to end on. I could write a book on it - perhaps I will, (perhaps I did!). I would say there are two key lessons. One is that 'we' can't do it for 'them': societies must be instrumental to their own salvation. The second is that these societies are not going to be floated up to our level by automatic economic forces of globalization. Most of the world is, but not the countries stuck in the traps. That is why they can't do it on their own. They have to try, but we have to help. And we have to help far, far more intelligently, 'seriously' I think is the word, than we have done to date.
Visit the Oxford University Press website to learn more about The Bottom Billion, and read more about Paul Collier's research at his faculty webpage.

The Page 99 Test: The Bottom Billion.

--Marshal Zeringue