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.

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