Developing countries are quite unlike Tolstoi's characterization of happy and unhappy families. Each happy country looks different from the other, and there are vast differences between China, India, Brazil, and other developing success stories, but there is a similarity between unhappy countries--countries that are not only failing to develop, but also going downward and falling apart. Together, these countries have a combined population of about one billion people, and what happen to this bottom billion has important consequences for the whole world.
Paul Collier pioneered the burgeoning research on the economic causes of conflicts, and his work on civil wars has proved quite controversial among political science experts. Those experts tend to interpret civil wars in terms of heroic struggles motivated by grievances or ethnic strifes reflecting deeply-rooted hatreds. The author's research shows that rebel groups are usually doing well out of war, and that greed often trumps grievance as the underlying cause of conflict. He proves this by statistical analysis, showing for instance that there is basically no relationship between political repression and the risk of civil war, or between ethnic fragmentation and conflict (although ethnic polarization does play a part).
Conflict is not the only trap. The author also goes through the natural resource trap, the trap of being landlocked with bad neighbors, and the trap of bad governance in a small country. Those traps often reinforce each other, and their combined effects condemn the bottom countries to the slow lane. In each case, Paul Collier not only successfully reviews the existing literature, but also offers original insights drawn from his own research. For instance, he demonstrates that far from being immune from the resource curse, democracies may create additional risks by inducing a phenomenon of "survival of the fattest". He is, to my knowledge, the first expert to point out that diversification of resource providers away from the Middle East in the name of energy security may actually increase the risk of disruption on world markets by creating new zones of instability: "Shifting our source of supply simply will not work as a security measure if the resource curse shifts with it."
This research has direct policy relevance. By putting a price tag on the cost of a typical civil war (about 64 billion) or the gain of a sustained turnaround placing a formerly failed state on a secure path (about 100 billion), the author allows decision-makers to base their decisions on cost-benefit analysis. He shows that some interventions have a very large pay-off: the British Operation Palliser in Sierra Leone was a huge success, worth perhaps thirty times its cost. The protection offered by the French against military coups in Africa, now tempered by a hesitation to intervene, was perhaps also worthwhile. The European Union's new rapid reaction force may play a similar role in the future by offering a guarantee to democratic governments conditional upon internationally certified free and fair elections. "Making coups history" is certainly more controversial than the global rally against poverty, but may in the end contribute more to the plight of the bottom billion than the doubling of aid flows.
Indeed, the author shows that aid offers only part of the solution, and the way it is currently managed makes it in certain cases part of the problem. Rich countries and development agencies need to narrow the target by focusing more on the bottom billion, while at the same time broadening the instruments in order to consider policy tools other than aid. This process also characterizes the author's own research, which increases the focus of economic analysis by using cutting-edge statistical tools, while broadening the scope of relevant issues, in order to inform the decisions of policy makers. To give an example, people often wonder how much of Africa's wealth has fled the continent, or how much aid leaks into military spending. Paul Collier not only addresses these issues, he answers them by giving numerical estimates (respectively 38% and 11%).
The book also contributes to the broader debate on globalization. The author has little tolerance for the protest crowds of anti-globalizers who besiege international financial institutions and G8 summits. He calls them by their name: they are anti-capitalists, and they have little interest in helping poor countries benefit from the system that they are fighting against. He also challenge people who care about global poverty but are driven by slogans, images, and anger, instead of rational analysis. But he is no rosy optimist either, and he offers a sobering view on global economic integration. Although globalization has worked wonders to lift a vast portion of humanity out of poverty, it is now making things harder for latecomers, who now face formidable competitors in China or in India. In his own words: "When Mauritius escaped the traps in the 1980s it rocketed to middle-income levels; when neighboring Madagascar finally escaped the traps two decades later, there was no rocket."
The Bottom Billion therefore opens horizons across political divides. To quote from the introduction: "The left will find that approaches it has discounted, such as military interventions, trade, and encouraging growth, are critical means to the end it has long embraced. The right will find that, unlike the challenge of global poverty reduction, the problem of the bottom billion will not be fixed automatically by global growth, and that neglect now will become a security nightmare for the world of our children."