The Bottom Billion

Development Policy28 Nov 2007Frans Bieckmann

One of the hot books in international development circles at the moment is Paul Collier’s The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries are Failing and What Can Be Done About It, by Paul Collier, formerly of the World Bank and currently director of the Centre for the Study of African Economies at the University of Oxford.

Collier focuses on about 50 failing, mainly small, states which will pose the greatest challenge for development policies in the coming decades. While the rest of the world is making progress, according to Collier, these states are continuing to decline. They are caught in four traps: armed conflict, natural resource dependence, corruption and bad governance, and geographical (‘landlocked’) isolation. Globalization is only making things worse, and standard solutions don’t work there. Collier argues for a bold new plan supported by the G8, including aid for post-conflict reconstruction and regional infrastructure development, preferential trade policies, five new international charters (on natural resources, democracy, budget transparency, post-conflict politics, and international investment), and maybe even ‘carefully calibrated military interventions’.

On what the World Bank should do, see Collier’s opinion article in the Washington Post.

Readers can also download a podcast of a lecture by Collier at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) on 11 October 2007:

The book has already triggered considerable debate. ODI director Simon Maxwell posted a draft review on the ODI blog (‘A master-class in bridging research and policy?’), and invited readers to comment. He doesn’t entirely agree with Collier, and actually adds some possible viewpoints, but thinks that a discussion at this level of generality is necessary for the development sector. According to Maxwell the book should be debated because it, like William Easterly’s The White Man’s Burden, poses questions at the level of the ‘grand narratives’.

In a review of the The Bottom Billion in the New York Times on 1 July 2007, another renowned scholar, Niall Ferguson of Harvard University, compared the book with those of Easterly and Easterly’s greatest intellectual adversary, Jeffrey Sachs. ‘Collier’s is a better book than either Sachs’s or Easterly’s for two reasons’, says Ferguson. ‘First, its analysis of the causes of poverty is more convincing. Second, its remedies are more plausible’.

Michael Clemens, research fellow at the Center for Global Development examines, in a readable essay in Foreign Affairs (‘Smart Samaritans: Is there a third way in the development debate?’, Sept./Oct. 2007, 86(5): 132–140), ‘whether or not Collier’s proposed solutions constitute a practical middle path between William Easterly’s development pessimism and Jeffrey Sachs’ development boosterism’. According to Clemens, Collier gives a little bit of both Sachs and Easterly. ‘Ultimately, Collier’s approach does not succeed in either remedying the fatal problem with Sachs’ plan or addressing the heart of Easterly’s critique’.

Clemens cautions against too much belief in short-term solutions: ‘Helping the bottom billion will be a very slow job for generations, not the product of media- or summit-friendly plans to end poverty in ten or 20 years’.


Michael Clemens (2007) Smart Samaritans: Is there a third way in the development debate? Foreign Affairs, 86(5): 132-140.

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

William Easterly (2006) The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good, New York: Penguin Books.

Jeffrey Sachs (2005) The End of Poverty: How We Can Make It Happen in Our Lifetime. New York: Penguin Books.