In the October issue of First Things (which hits newsstands today), I draw attention to the powerfully persuasive new book by Paul Collier, The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries Are Failing and What Can Be Done About It (Oxford). One billion of the world’s population are rich; four billion are, albeit at varying pace, on the way to becoming rich; the real challenge is the "bottom billion." They are caught in a number of "traps" that keep them poor and almost guarantee that they will be poorer in the years ahead, a ghetto of misery, disease, and discontent on an otherwise flourishing planet. The bottom billion are the radically marginalized . Seventy percent of them are in Africa. Although Collier does not discuss Catholic social doctrine, his analysis is remarkably similar to that of John Paul II’s 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus : The really poor are poor because they are excluded, or exclude themselves, from the global circle of productivity and exchange.

The bottom billion are caught in four traps: the conflict trap , the natural resource trap, the trap of being landlocked with bad neighbors , and the trap of corrupt government in a small country . Among Collier’s proposed remedies, perhaps the most controversial is the need for limited but firm military interventions, mainly by American and European forces. Collier writes:

Change in the societies at the very bottom must come predominantly from within; we cannot impose it on them. In all these societies there are struggles between brave people wanting change and entrenched interests opposing it. To date, we have largely been bystanders in this struggle. We can do much more to strengthen the hand of reformers. But to do so we will need to draw upon tools¯such as military interventions, international standard-setting, and trade policy¯that to date have been used for other purposes. The agencies that control these instruments have neither knowledge of nor interest in the problems of the bottom billion.

Like William Easterly in The White Man’s Burden , Collier is withering in his criticism of international development agencies such as the World Bank whose bureaucrats would much rather work in more pleasant "developing" countries from which they can report on the "success" of projects that are often not needed, since such countries are already moving toward prosperity on their own. As the former director of research at the World Bank, Collier knows whereof he speaks.

It is the bottom billion that is his concern, and should be ours. Collier illustrates the conflict trap and the natural resource trap by reference to the rebel leader Laurent Kabila, who, leading his troops across Zaire to seize the government, explained to a journalist that all you need for a successful coup is $10,000 and a satellite phone. With the money, you can buy yourself an army; and with the phone you can, as Kabila did, arrange $500 million worth of deals with corporations that are willing to bet on your winning. This is what Collier calls the natural resource trap, when a country’s possession of oil or diamonds or gold is a curse rather than a blessing, making corruption and conflict more profitable than development. China, which has few qualms about democratic niceties, is busily buying up whoever can be bought in Africa.

Throughout the continent, the military is an engine of devastation. The infamous Idi Amin of Uganda, chillingly portrayed in the movie The Last King of Scotland , shared a passion for military trappings. Before being deposed and sent into exile, he styled himself "His Excellency, President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Dr. Idi Amin, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of all the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea, and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular." Brutal buffoonery aside, Collier reports that in Africa around 40 percent of development aid money inadvertently ends up supporting the military, and that in some cases only 1 percent of funds designated for health care, for instance, are used for that purpose.

In the shadow of the opposition to the Iraq War, Collier says the "hardest chapter" to write was on the need for military intervention. Nonetheless, he persuasively contends, such intervention is needed to restore order, maintain post-conflict peace, and prevent coups. Sometimes such interventions work well¯as, for example, in liberating Kuwait in the first Gulf War. At other times they are a disaster¯as, for example, when eighteen Americans soldiers were killed in Somalia and the Clinton administration beat a hasty retreat. Collier writes:

Don’t get me wrong: it is terrible when peacekeeping troops get killed, and it is magnificent of a nation to send its troops into a dangerous situation. But that is what modern armies are for: to supply the global public good of peace in territories that otherwise have the potential for nightmare . . . . Armies cannot operate at zero risk . . . . [P]ost-Iraq, the fact that the United States pulled out of Somalia as a result of a mere eighteen deaths looks even more bizarre. The consequence for Somalia were miserable: more than twelve years later it still has no functioning national government. By 1991 around 300,000 people had died, and beyond that there are no estimates of the deaths from continuing conflict and the failure of health systems. But the biggest killer consequent upon the withdrawal was not what happened in Somalia but the lesson that was learned: never intervene . . . . Remember that 1994 was the year of Rwanda. We didn’t want a second Somalia, with another eighteen American soldiers killed, so we got Rwanda, in which half a million people were butchered, entirely avoidably, because international intervention was inadequate.

International intervention means intervention mainly by America and Europe. African militaries are the problem, not the solution. As for U.N. peacekeeping forces, various countries are paid a thousand dollars per month for each soldier they send. These soldiers are for their governments a valuable asset to be kept carefully out of harm’s way. They are ineffectual because they and their governments have every interest in not resisting the makers of coups and revolutions, which is the whole point of peacekeeping. In this way, the U.N. contributes to "the conflict trap." The alternative, Collier says, is for Europe and the United States to develop "rapid reaction forces" that will, in some cases, be required to maintain the peace for years until the dynamics of the rule of law and of economic and social development can gain a measure of traction. Note that Collier is not advocating military intervention to advance grand geopolitical goals but simply to give development a chance among the bottom billion.

The rich countries need to be similarly assertive in imposing international standards on everything from human rights to trade policy. "The international community has so much at stake in these situations that it has to learn to be comfortable with infringing upon sovereignty." Africans who have a stake in perpetuating the conflict trap will complain about this new "colonialism," but we will just have to learn to live with that, says Collier. "If Iraq is allowed to become another Somalia, with the cry ‘Never intervene,’ the consequences will be as bad as Rwanda."

The phrase "policeman of the world" was presumably discredited during the Vietnam era. But even the best neighborhoods have policemen, and the worst cannot survive without them. Policemen operate under the law to prevent the depredations of the lawless. The really poor live in a large and lawless neighborhood, and, if the United States, Britain, and France¯and, increasingly, Germany and Japan¯do not police the neighborhood, who will? This is among the questions raised and arguments advanced by one of the most important books on world poverty in a very long time, Paul Collier’s The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries Are Failing and What Can Be Done About It .

Articles by Richard John Neuhaus


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