Waylaid Dialectic

December 5, 2010

Baring one’s bottom (billion)

I haven’t listened to it yet (I’m saving it for Tuesday’s trip home, or driving over the Wairarapa somewhere) but Owen Barder’s got a new Development Drums up (the series consistently keeps churning the best available development podcasts – it’s a must follow). This time they’ve got Andy Sumner on discussing his New Bottom Billion thesis (this paper). Which reminds me, also worth listening to is the IDS podcast of the debate between Sumner and Paul Collier.

Collier doesn’t exactly come across as gracious, and the debate is made more complicated than it needs to be by discussions of discounting (which, when we’re talking about inter-generational issues, are something best left to political philosophers not economists), nevertheless  the argument is informative.

Sumner argues that the majority of the world’s extremely poor don’t actually live in the world’s least developed (and slowest developing) countries, rather they’re to be found in parts of the world such as China and India. Which is hardly surprising given their size. From this he concludes that development thought and work shouldn’t just focus on the LDCs, and that we need to remember that poverty is also a distributional issue as well as a developmental one.

For Collier this is poppycock. He argues we needn’t concern ourselves with the poor in states such as India and China because the rapid growth of these countries means that extreme poverty will be eliminated within a generation or two by force of their development trajectories alone.  To Collier the focus needs to be firmly on countries where development has stalled, or gone backwards, for significant periods of time. This is where the real development need is. Because if something doesn’t change in these countries, extreme poverty will continue for the foreseeable future.

If one was so inclined, one could, I think, quibble with Collier on three points. First, his argument is predicated on China and India’s (and Indonesia, and etc’s ) development trajectories of today continuing into the future. This seems likely but not guaranteed. Second, it aggregates to the state level, which may be mistaken: I think it’s plausible to argue that somewhere like Bihar, while being set amongst growing India, has most of the problems to be found in Collier’s Bottom Billion states. Third, it’s possibly too pessimistic about the countries of the Bottom Billion (see for example: Africa’s Turn?)

Still, I think case is fairly persuasive. Although, importantly, if we limit our thinking for the time being to aid, it doesn’t necessarily follow from Collier’s argument that aid should flow to the Bottom Billion countries instead of, for example, places like India. This would only be the case if we were certain that aid could actually help spark development. And this is still far from clear. A far safer conclusion about aid is that, given well, it can improve people’s welfare — provide them with health care, and education and the like. Even if it can’t transform countries or dramatically alter their growth trajectories this is still a worthwhile outcome. And if this is the case, then really where you focus aid doesn’t depend on Bottom Billion arguments at all. Instead it depends on need (where people are, today, most poor) and efficacy (where it’s likely to work). This might be in Bihar or Bogota or Burkina Faso, or where ever. The point is Bottom Billion Debates won’t help us figure out where. Which isn’t to dismiss them — they are important for issues other than aid. But in aid’s case we’re far better not to let ourselves be guided by global arguments du jour but rather by careful assessment of context and the possible.



  1. Good points, especially the last paragraph.

    Comment by Lee — December 7, 2010 @ 9:01 am

  2. Thanks!

    Comment by terence — December 7, 2010 @ 10:25 am

  3. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Rachel Strohm, Lee Crawfurd. Lee Crawfurd said: Great points by Waylaid Dialectic on @andypsumner vs Collier & the "Bottom Billion" debate http://bit.ly/hXLPYG […]

    Pingback by Tweets that mention Baring one’s bottom (billion) « Waylaid Dialectic -- Topsy.com — December 7, 2010 @ 3:47 pm

  4. I think you sum this up really eloquently.

    I too was a bit surprised it became all about aid – presumably because if aid is about poverty reduction then where the poor live becomes quite an important question to those working in aid (allocation/efficiency) land.

    The key thing, as you highlight, is yes we should worry about the poor in low income fragile states countries (who are 12% of the world’s poor) but shouldn’t we also worry a lower caste woman in Bihar?

    Further, Collier’s Bottom Billion was published in 2007. It uses data from around 2000, but the world has changed since then. Some of his 58 countries are no longer fragile, some are even now classified as MICs.

    The Collier ‘bottom billion’ is the total population (not the poor population) of the 58 countries, which show weak economic growth or are classified as fragile states (they are listed at the back of Collier’s second book). Donors have channelled a great deal of aid to these countries, assuming they were helping the poor. Actually, at best maybe 23% of the world’s poor live in fragile states. As you elude to one could well ask what’s the evidence that a $ spent in these environments is any more poverty reducing that a $ spent in a non-Collier country?

    And about 70% of today’s poor people are not in Collier’s ‘bottom billion’ at all. Collier believes that these poor will be helped by growth and their own governments. However, the most recent poverty data suggests there’s no guarantee of this. In half of the new MICs (post-2000) with poverty data – the actual number of poor people is static or slightly rising if one looks at US$1.25 poverty 1990 vs 2007-8.

    This does not invalidate Collier’s point that his ‘bottom billion’ are trapped and without hope, so development does need attention there. But one might ask whether all or some of the new ‘bottom billion’ are trapped too.

    Imagine a lower caste woman in one of India’s poorest states – is she not ‘trapped’ in poverty, just like someone in Collier’s fragile, low-income countries?

    These are good questions to discuss (and great blog by the way)…

    Comment by Andy Sumner — December 8, 2010 @ 6:49 pm

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