Sign Up

Falling Behind: The Bottom Billion

How can the world get the planet’s poorest one billion inhabitants on the path toward economic development?

November 20, 2007

How can the world get the planet's poorest one billion inhabitants on the path toward economic development?

The Third World has shrunk. For 40 years, the development challenge has been a rich world of one billion people facing a poor world of five billion people.

The Millennium Development Goals established by the United Nations, which are designed to track development progress through 2015, encapsulate this thinking.

By 2015, however, it will be apparent that this way of conceptualizing development has become outdated. Most of the five billion, about 80%, live in countries that are indeed developing, often at amazing speed.

The real challenge of development is that there is a group of countries at the bottom that are falling behind — and often falling apart.

The countries at the bottom coexist with the 21st century, but their reality is the 14th century — civil war, plague, ignorance. They are concentrated in Africa and Central Asia, with a scattering elsewhere.

Even during the 1990s — in retrospect the golden decade between the end of the Cold War and 9/11 — incomes in this group declined by 5%. We must learn to turn the familiar numbers upside down: A total of five billion people who are already prosperous, or at least are on track to be so, and one billion who are stuck at the bottom.

This problem matters, and not just to the billion people who are living and dying in 14th century conditions. It matters to us. The 21st century world of material comfort, global travel and economic interdependence will become increasingly vulnerable to these large islands of chaos.

And it matters now. As the bottom billion diverges from an increasingly sophisticated world economy, integration will become harder, not easier.

And yet it is a problem denied, both by development biz and by development buzz. Development biz is run by the aid agencies and the companies that get the contracts for their projects. They will fight this thesis with the tenacity of bureaucracies endangered, because they like things the way they are.

A definition of development that encompasses five billion people gives them license to be everywhere, or more honestly, everywhere but the bottom billion. At the bottom, conditions are rather rough. Every development agency has difficulty getting its staff to serve in Chad and Laos. The glamour postings are for countries such as Brazil and China.

The World Bank has large offices in every major middle-income country — but not a single person resident in the Central African Republic. So don’t expect the development biz to refocus voluntarily.

Development buzz is generated by rock stars, celebrities and NGOs. To its credit, it does focus on the plight of the bottom billion. It is thanks to development buzz that Africa gets on the agenda of the G8.

But inevitably, development buzz has to keep its messages simple, driven by the need for slogans, images and anger. Unfortunately, although the plight of the bottom billion lends itself to simple moralizing, the answers do not. It is a problem that needs to be hit with several policies at the same time, some of them counterintuitive.

Don’t look to development buzz to formulate such an agenda: It is at times a headless heart.

What of the governments of the countries at the bottom? The prevailing conditions bring out extremes. Leaders are sometimes psychopaths who have shot their way to power, sometimes crooks who have bought it — and sometimes brave people who, against the odds, are trying to build a better future.

Even the appearance of modern government in these states is sometimes a façade, as if the leaders are reading from a script. They sit at the international negotiating tables, such as the World Trade Organization, but they have nothing to negotiate.

The seats stay occupied even in the face of meltdown in their societies. The government of Somalia continued to be officially “represented” in the international arena for years after Somalia ceased to have a functioning government in the country itself.

So don’t expect the governments of the bottom billion to unite in formulating a practical agenda. They are fractured between villains and heroes, and some of them are barely there.

For our future world to be livable, the heroes must win their struggle. But the villains have the guns and the money — and to date they have usually prevailed. That will continue unless we radically change our approach.

Editor’s Note: This feature is adapted from THE BOTTOM BILLION by Paul Collier. Copyright 2007 by Oxford University Press. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.