Paul Collier’s The Bottom Billion

[1] Famously, Jesus said, “You will always have the poor with you.” Well, not if economist Paul Collier has his way. In The Bottom Billion Collier makes the case that a research-based, carefully applied set of instruments targeting specific traps that keep the global poor in poverty could actually work to eliminate poverty as we know it.

[2] Collier points out that in 1970, when development shifted from re-building Europe to aiding the rest of the world, 5/6 of the global population was impoverished. Since then, a combination of aid and trade have worked to lift much of the desperately poor, world population out of poverty. One sixth of the population, however — approximately a billion people — haven’t enjoyed the success of the last 40 years. The countries of these bottom billion are trapped.

[3] Through fascinating analysis, Collier determines four distinct poverty traps: conflict; natural resources; landlocked with bad neighbors; and bad governance in a small country. He then describes different instruments that the international community can use to address these traps so that countries can escape quickly. Collier has a sense of urgency because every year that countries in the bottom billion diverge from the overall global trend of improved development they fall even further behind.

[4] The overall analysis is compelling, careful, and convincing. Plus, it’s readable. One of the strengths of Collier’s style is that he can explain a complex, global economic trend and make it seem like you’re reading a novel. As he quipped in a TED talk: “I wrote an economics book you could read on a beach.” Collier made it readable because his audience isn’t just other economists, it’s regular citizens in the G8 who, through the democratic process, have the power to influence policies. It’s a must read for anyone who genuinely cares at all about the poor, which Collier certainly does.

[5] Rigorous research and statistical analysis are the building blocks of Collier’s approach. From identifying the four poverty traps to designing his detailed solutions, he draws on anecdotes to make the book readable and engaging, but relies on research to drive his conclusions. He has a scientist’s trust in data, carefully wrought. By the end of the book one gets the sense that if Collier’s research is to be trusted, then this is a water tight-argument; and if we, the general public of the G8 countries, could just influence our politicians and decision-makers to implement Collier’s suggestions, the bottom billion would be lifted out of poverty.

[6] So convincing is his argument that it begs the question: why haven’t those of us who care about the poor come up with these kinds of solutions before? He has an answer. It’s because the development agencies are dominated by people with “headless hearts.” We care about the poor. But all our caring hasn’t worked to pull the poorest of the poor out of poverty because our compassionate hearts short-circuit our heads and we ignore the need for research-based decisions. The political cycles of places like the United States, with constant campaigning and the need to deliver sound-bite results, don’t help. In the end, what the public wants are short-term aid solutions that make a good photo op (think Sally Struthers or Bono) rather than the hard statistics-driven policy solutions that are complicated, nuanced and dry.

[7] I think Collier has a point, but he doesn’t give the organizations he sees as naive and ill-informed enough credit. Unfortunately, he has some telling anecdotes to discount NGOs. In one example, he writes of a charity called Christian Aid, based in England that used shoddy research to basically discount free trade entirely. It launched a marketing campaign that denigrated the very idea of capitalism as the enemy of the poor, with no good research to back up its claims. If that charity, and others like it, continue to use non-rigorous approaches to the economic aspects of development, then Collier has every right and responsibility to point it out. (To both their credit, in his postscript Collier highlights that Christian Aid has since reached out to him for help.)

[8] He’s snippy like the best of British comedy and sometimes rather funny in his criticisms. But with a wave of the pen, he belittles the stereotyped NGOs as “headless hearts” while failing to appreciate that for many NGOs, especially faith-based ones, a set of values might be at play that don’t make it on his metrics.

[9] For instance, the keystone of Collier’s entire argument is that economic growth is the most important factor for lifting a country out of poverty. He makes a compelling case. But nowhere does he allow that there might be some serious environmental downsides to unfettered economic growth; or that a Christian charity might be suspicious of economic growth as the goal because for many branches of Christianity consumption and wealth are held with some suspicion; or that the power structures in many free trade agreements do give the global poor jobs, but also tear the fabric of communities and traditional ways of life that have some intrinsic value, even given the poverty. I wish he had been as careful and nuanced in researching NGO concerns as he was in researching the rest of the book.

[10] But maybe that’s our job, not his. As I read this, I wondered about Lutheran aid organizations. What kind of economists do we employ and how do they reach their conclusions? How do we balance the need for trade and aid? Would we ever come to advocate, as Collier does, that military solutions are a necessary piece of the puzzle? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but it speaks to the success of Collier’s The Bottom Billion that I now want to find out. The Bottom Billion is an important book that will make you think in fresh and challenging ways about how to help the poorest among us.

Sarah Scherschligt

Rev. Sarah Scherschligt is a pastor at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Gaithersburg, Maryland. A former Peace Corps volunteer in Malawi, Sarah also worked for the Center for Global Education in both Minneapolis and Namibia where she taught International Development. She is a contributor to Cafe, the online magazine for young women of the ELCA, and she blogs at