Global poverty has been falling for decades, but a few countries which are caught in four distinct traps (such as the resource curse) are falling behind and falling apart. Aid does not work well in these places but there are things we can and should do because neglect will pose a security nightmare for the world of our children.
Four Poverty Traps
Collier argues there are The Four Traps which prevent countries from developing:
- The conflict trap
- The resource curse
- Being landlocked with poor neighbours
- Poor governance in a small country
This is a relatively new theory of underdevelopment summarised by Paul Collier in a recent book published in 2008: The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries are Failing and What Can be Done About It.
It’s worth noting that this theory is based on extensive quantitative research carried out by Collier over a 30 year period. If you read it and look at the index, you’ll find that the references mostly point to Collier’s previous research, with each prior individual study citing several pieces of research.
The rest of this post summarises the four poverty traps…
The Conflict Trap
73% of people in the bottom billion countries are in a civil war or have recently been through one. Civil war reduces income and low income increases the risk of civil war. Low income means poverty and low growth means hopelessness and available young men. When the economy is weak the state is weak and rebellion is easier. Sometimes rebel movements get finances from resource exporters in return for future deals.
“Rebels usually have something to complain about, and if they don’t they make it up. All too often the really disadvantaged are in no position to rebel: they just suffer quietly.” Little relationship has been found between the risk of civil war and political repression or intergroup hatreds or income inequality or colonial history. There is some relationship to particular patterns of ethnic diversity.
A civil war doubles the risk of another civil war. “Civil war is development in reverse.” “Both economic losses and disease are highly persistent: they do not stop once the fighting stops.” Usually there is a further deterioration in political rights. “A rebellion is an extremely unreliable way of bringing about positive change.” “The foot soldiers of rebellion, often do not have much choice about joining the rebel movement.” “Gradually the composition of the rebel group will shift from idealists to opportunists and sadists.” The kind of people most likely to engage in political violence are the young, the uneducated, and those without dependents.
95% of global production of hard drugs comes from conflict countries. Conflict provides territory outside government control for illegal activities to operate.
Three economic characteristics make a country prone to civil war: low income, slow growth, and dependence upon primary commodity exports. “Civil war leaves a legacy of organized killing that is hard to live down. Violence and extortion have proved profitable for the perpetrators. Killing is the only way they know to earn a living. And what else to do with all those guns?”
The Natural Resource Trap
Paradoxically, the discovery of valuable natural resources in the context of poverty constitutes a trap. It often results in misuse of its opportunities in ways that make it fail to grow and results in stagnation.
Societies at the bottom are frequently in resource-rich poverty. “The heart of the resource curse is that resource rents [rents = excess of revenues over all costs] make democracy malfunction.” “Oil and other surpluses from natural resources are particularly unsuited to the pressures generated by electoral competition.” In the presence of large surpluses from natural resources autocracies produce much more growth than do democracies. When there is plenty of money, leaders tend to embezzle funds, spend on large, pet projects and buy votes through contracts. The corrupt win the elections. Resources reduce the need to tax, undercut public scrutiny, erode checks and balances, and leave electoral competition unconstrained where parties compete for votes by patronage. Alternatively restraints raise the return on investment.
Autocracies work with little ethnic diversity. Diversity tends to narrow the support base of the autocrat and requires greater income distribution to the autocrat’s group. “Becoming reliant upon the bottom billion for natural resources sounds to me like Middle East 2.”
Landlocked with Bad Neighbours
Geography matters. Landlocked countries must export to neighbouring countries or through their infrastructures to the coast. Uganda is poor and Switzerland is rich because they are dependent upon their neighbours. All countries benefit from the growth of their neighbours but resource-scarce landlocked countries must depend on their neighbours for growth. This includes about 30% of Africa.
Bad Governance in a Small Country
Terrible governance and policies can destroy an economy with alarming speed. Note President Robert Mugabe. Governance matters, conditional upon opportunities. Differences in opportunities can make a big difference. Countries who have done better since 1980 have generally exported labour-intensive manufactures and services. The government simply has to avoid doing harm. Exporters need an environment of moderate taxation, macroeconomic stability, and a few transport facilities.
Why is bad governance sometimes so persistent? Because some benefit. The leaders of many of the poorest countries in the world are themselves among the global superrich. They like it that way. Many of them are simply villains. But beyond villainy, there is a shortage of people with the requisite knowledge, brave reformers get overwhelmed by the resistance, and there is often not much popular enthusiasm for reforms.
Recent failing states include Angola, the Central African Republic, Haiti, Liberia, Sudan, the Solomon Islands, Somalia, and Zimbabwe. The Democratic Republic of the Congo is borderline. Turnarounds are rare because reformers are often suppressed and in danger.
Three characteristics encourage a turnaround: larger populations, higher proportion of people with a secondary education, and recent emergence from a civil war. Whether the state was a democracy or granted political rights did not seem to matter. The impetus for change must come from the heroes in the society. The probability for a turnaround in any given year is 1.6%, so they are likely to stay as failing states for a long time.
This content is usually taught as part of the Global Development module, part of second year A-level sociology.
Paul Collier’s Bottom Billion Theory can be used to criticise all previous grand-theories of development – modernisation theory, dependency theory and neoliberalism.
Sources/ Find out More
You might like this TED talk by Paul Collier on the Bottom Billion…
You can buy a copy of the Bottom Billion at Waterstones
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