Peter's Blog

Releasing the Bottom Billion

Written by Peter Johnston on .

In this morning's service marking the end of Christian Aid Week we spent time thinking about two women that Christian Aid highlighted as part of their campaign, Loko and Adi, from Ethiopia and the struggles and possible ways of release from crippling poverty that their lives reveal to us.

I mentioned in the sermon two books by Paul Collier that speak directly to the challenges the whole world faces in dealing with the bottom billion people within the world living in the 60 most impoverished countries in the world. These are the countries that have become stuck for almost fifty years with no or little economic growth, and are becoming increasingly left behind. It is a tragedy. The rest of the world - the developed and developing world, as we call it - is in the process of developing, something a glance at India and China make abundantly clear. Collier talks about the massive problem this is going to be creating for future generations if more than a billion people are left in a situation where the best they can aspire to is a peasant life-style.

The radical inequality that exists at the moment will, inevitably, cause massive problems for the world as the divide grows. Collier argues that it is not just compassion that should drive us to making changes to the way the world functions in order to lift up the bottom billion, though that is a huge driver, it is also a sense of enlightened self-interest - we must work for a credible way to release the bottom billion because it is better for us all to do so.

The first book is "The Bottom Billion: Why the poorest counties are failing and what can be done about it" and having just recently read it (on the recommendation of Very Rev John Chalmers, no less), it is a profoundly helpful book in allowing a better grasp of some of the very complicated and difficult aspects of dealing with the poverty of whole nations and regions. The book highlights four particular "traps" that are at the root of the problems suffered by the nations caught in the bottom billion: the conflict trap, the natural resources trap, the trap of being landlocked with bad neighbours, and the trap of bad governance in a small country.

As Collier unpacks these traps and explores ways to counter them, much of what he says makes sense (and is backed up by data), but some of it runs counter to what your intuition says. For instance, you might expect the discovery of huge natural resources (oil in Uganda for instance) to be a blessing, offering the possibility for that country to break out of poverty. However there is often a resource curse that comes with such a discovery (known as Dutch disease because of the work done to understand the negative effects North Sea gas had on the Dutch economy). Exporting those wonderful resources causes a country's currency value to increase. That, in turn, makes every other export from that country uncompetitive with other countries and often the businesses that may have had the best chance of leading progress for that country through rapidly growing exports collapse. It is the same process that can work when huge amounts of aid are pumped into a country - it can have a destabilising affect on a country's economy unless it is matched with other changes to support the export of other goods. Not what you might think, but very important to understand if we are to seriously make a difference.

I cannot encourage you enough to read this book. It is truly enlightening.

Collier ends his book with these three propositions that summarise what he proposes:

The first [proposition] is that the development problem we now face is not that of the past forty years: it is not the five billion people of the developing world and the Millennium Development Goals that track their progress. It is a much more focused problem of around a billion people in countries that are stuck. This is the problem we are going to have to tackle, and if we stick with present efforts, it is likely to be intractable even as the dashboard indicators of world poverty get better and better.

The second is that within the societies of the bottom billion there is an intense struggle between brave people who are trying to achieve change and powerful groups who oppose them. The politics of the bottom billion is not the bland and sedate process of the rich democracies but rather a dangerous contest beween moral extremes. The struggle for the future of the bottom billion is not a contest between an evil rich world and a noble poor world. It is within the societies of the bottom billion, and to date we have largely been bystanders.

The third is that we do not need to be bystanders. Our support for change can be decisive. But we will need not just a more intelligent approach to aid but complementary actions using instruments that have not conventionally been part of the development armory: trade policies, security strategies, changes in our laws, and new international charters.

In short, we need to narrow the target and broaden the instruments. That should be the agenda for the G8.

Here is Paul Collier speaking back in 2008 after the publication of "The Bottom Billion" at a TED Talk.

The second of the books I mentioned deals more specifically with the challenges of balancing our use of nature's resources with continued growth. It is called "The Plundered Planet: How to Reconcile Prosperity with Nature". I am reading that book at the moment, but judging from Collier's earlier book and from what I have read already it is going to be another very helpful book.