Friday, January 9, 2009

THE BOTTOM BILLION: A Pedestrian Book Review

A few days before christmas a friend from Boston,MA brought a book along which he thought I would like.And Like it I did. In fact very much. Paul Collier's 'The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries Are Falling and What Can be Done About it' turned out to be an immensly cheerful and worthy companion during the holidays and it was for good reason.
Collier's 'Bottom Billion' has been described by 'The Economist' as 'set to become a classic' and its no idle praise. It's praise that is well earned. Reading Collier's book reminded me of Jeff Sachs''The End of Poverty' and William Easterly's 'The Elusive Quest for Growth' and'The White Man's Burden' it fits in well with them-dutiful efforts by eminent economists to diagonise the causes of African's economic malaise and the road map out of it.
Paul Collier should know. He was head of development research at the World Bank.He has worked ex-chief economist at the World Bank,Joseph Stiglizt-a Nobel Prize economist.
Collier is economics professor at Oxford university and head of their centre of the study on African economies.
'Bottom-Billion' breaks new ground in understanding African economies by introducing a new paradigm with in which to understand the roots of Africa's worsening poverty. Collier talks about 'traps' which bind Africa to the ground. The traps include the usual suspects, conflict,natural rseources(especially oil), being land locked and 'bad' governance. The 'traps' are not especially new in development economics but Collier has moved scholarship further by adducing enormous quantitative evidence to show their influence on African economies.
Collier's book is backed up by years of development research in Africa which he has done with coloborations with several other researchers and clearly his book is no arm-chair treatise but a work generated out of over twenty years of economic research on African economies. Some of the work is plain fresh, never having been presented before in the way he does in the book.His work on the economic significance of coups,military and civil conflicts is especially endearing coming as it is from an economist. He also lends to his work some political science methods and research in a way that is unprecedented marrying ecomomics and political science in the quest
for answers to African economic dysfunction.
The book is full of invaluable findings that are instructive. For example his research shows that countries that have been in the pits(economically speaking) take 59 years to turn the corner!
Collier brings to the fore, the dimension of international trade and its relation to African poverty suggesting that opening western markets to African goods and services can be a life line for the 'bottom billion'.
'Bottom Billion' pushes the frontiers of mainstream development economics and goes beyond the body of knowledge we have become accustomed to explain what afflicts Africa beyond the tools of traditional economics.
His book is really one on Africa and it is clear he has been to many African capitals and is aware of the inner workings in contemporary African state craft as well as having a slew of contacts from Nairobi to Abuja.
The title is a little misleading because his attention is especially focussed on Africa and not the wider developing world as the title may suggest. His last chapter' The struggle for the bottom billion' which is a call to arms to rescue African economies doesnt keep up with the high tempo that starts of with the earlier chapter and seems some what of an anti climax.
The prose has a poppy feel.Its very accessible to the lay reader and it is easy to follow without the arrogant diction of scholarship or the' linguistic sophistication' you will find in many other works of development economics. The book doesnt take itself too seriously and there are many light hearted moments and occassionally his diction induces hearty laughter(uncommon for an economists) although in this he reminds me of Robert Guest's'The Shackled Continent' or even William Easterly's 'The Elusive Quest for Growth'. Yes, even with all the tragic and desparate poverty in Africa it is possible to squeeze out a laugh.And they come plenty in 'Bottom Billion'.