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What the West Can Do for the Bottom Billion

What power do ordinary people in the West have to alleviate the plight of the world’s poorest billion?

November 22, 2007

What power do ordinary people in the West have to alleviate the plight of the world's poorest billion?

Compared to the Cold War, the challenge of developing the bottom billion is scarcely daunting, but it does require us to get serious. That requires a change of attitude on the part of Western electorates, both left and right.

The left needs to move on from the West’s self-flagellation and idealized notions of developing countries. Poverty is not romantic.

The countries of the bottom billion are not there to pioneer experiments in socialism.

They need to be helped along the already-trodden path of building market economies. The international financial institutions are not part of a conspiracy against poor countries. Rather, they represent beleaguered efforts to help.

The left has to learn to love growth. Aid cannot just be targeted for the photogenic social priorities. Instead, it has to be used to help countries break into export markets.

At present, the clarion call for the left is Jeffrey Sachs’ book “The End of Poverty.” Much as I agree with Sachs’ passionate call to action, I think that he has overplayed the importance of aid. Aid alone will not solve the problems of the bottom billion. We need to use a wider range of policies.

The right needs to move on from the notion of aid as part of the problem — as welfare payments to scroungers and crooks. It has to disabuse itself of the belief that growth is something that is always there for the taking, if only societies would get themselves together.

It has to face up to the fact that these countries are stuck and that competing with China and India is going to be difficult. Indeed, it has to recognize that private activity in the global market can sometimes generate problems for the poorest countries that need public solutions.

And because not even the U.S. government is big enough to fix these problems by itself, these public solutions will usually have to be cooperative.

At present, the clarion call for the right is economist William Easterly’s book “The White Man’s Burden.” Easterly is right to mock the delusions of the aid lobby. But just as Sachs exaggerates the payoff to aid, Easterly exaggerates the downside and again neglects the scope for other policies. We are not as impotent and ignorant as Easterly seems to think.

So how does this involve ordinary people in rich societies?

Electorates tend to get the politicians they deserve. A classic example in the rich democracies is something called the “political business cycle.” For years, governments routinely spent money just before an election to artificially boost the economy, facing up to the consequent mess only once reelected.

Eventually, electorates wised up to what was happening, and so the ploy no longer pulled in the votes. As a result, politicians now rarely try it. That sort of learning has to happen across the range of policies needed for the bottom billion.

These shifts in thinking depend upon ordinary citizens — people who manage to read to the end of a book. Of course, in a book of this length I cannot set out all the evidence. But I hope that I have convinced you of three central propositions, each unfortunately fairly novel, that encapsulate how thinking needs to change.

The first is that the development problem we now face is not that of the past 40 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 between 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.

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.