Paul Collier — Improving Aid with Smarter Compassion

Oxford Economist, UK

The world is complicated, and so with the actions we take, we must be confident that that they’re going to help and not make things worse.

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Paul Collier—Oxford Development Economist

Paul Collier is Professor of Economics at Oxford University, a professorial fellow of St Antony’s College and Director of the Centre for the Study of African Economies. From 1998 to 2003 he directed the Development Research Group of the World Bank. He is widely known for three books: The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries are Failing and What Can Be Done About It; Wars, Guns and Votes: Democracy in Dangerous Places; and The Plundered Planet: Why We Must—and How We Can—Manage Nature for Global Prosperity.

Collier grew up in Sheffield, England and holds a Distinction Award from Oxford University. In 1988 he won the Edgar Graham Book Prize as co-author of Labour and Poverty in Rural Tanzania. His academic work has focused on economic growth in Africa, the economics of civil war, foreign aid, globalization and governance in low-income countries, particularly among democracies.

Paul Collier—The Aid Industry Neglects the Bottom Billion

Collier’s best known book, The Bottom Billion, focuses on the planet’s poorest billion people, concentrated largely in about sixty countries that have missed the global economic boom of the past half century. Collier argues that the foreign aid industry has by largely been ineffective when it comes to these countries, in part because helping the poorest countries is apparently far from their highest priority:

“Development biz is run by the aid agencies and the companies that get the contracts for their projects. They will fight this thesis with the tenacity of bureaucrats endangered, because they like things the way they are. A definition of development that encompasses five billion people gives them license to be everywhere, or more honestly, everywhere but the bottom billion. At the bottom, conditions are rather rough. Every development agency has difficulty getting its staff to serve in Chad or Laos; the glamour postings are for countries such as Brazil and China. The World Bank has large offices in every major middle-income country but not a single person resident in the Central African Republic. So don’t expect the development biz to refocus voluntarily.” (P. 4)

Paul Collier—Four Poverty Traps for Poor Countries

In The Bottom Billion, Collier describes four traps that stall development in the countries of the bottom billion:

  • The Conflict Trap—War Breeds Poverty Breeds War Breeds …
  • The Natural Resource Trap—Resource Wealth Can Actually Stunt Growth.
  • Landlocked with Bad Neighbors—Location, location, location
  • Bad Governance—Corrupt and incompetent political leaders can cripple an economy with alarming speed.
  • Smart Compassion

    Christians have a natural commitment to fighting poverty. That comes from the foundation of Christian beliefs, but that motivation must be allied with getting smart, being smart. The world is complicated, and so the actions we take, we must be confident that that they’re going to help and not make things worse. In The Bottom Billion, I criticized one Christian charity, Christian Aid, for an ill-researched campaign against trade, and in the book I explain why that really was ill researched. And I’m happy to say that Christian Aid has moved on. A lot of the NGOs have moved on. Christian Aid is now working with me to develop what’s called a Financial Integrity Index because they recognize that building financial integrity in the poorest countries is the ally of the poor, that there are plunderers within these societies, as well as plunderers outside them.

  • Environmental Stewardship, Not Environmental Abstinence

    The environmental abstinence lobby sees mankind as the curators of natural artifacts. We put them in the museum in the glass case and we just keep the glass case clean, right? That’s not a Christian perspective at all. Christian ethics is not about being curators of nature. In Christian ethics, we’re stewards and that means we’re custodians of value. We convert value, and we hand that value onto the future, but it’s not that we’re passing on a set of artifacts; we’re passing on value. Where do you find that in Christian ethics? In the parable of the talents in the Gospel of Luke … the rich man goes away, he leaves resources with his stewards, and he comes back, and one of the stewards comes up proudly and says, ‘Here you are, I’ve preserved the talents,’ and he’s literally wrapped them up, and he unwraps them, right? And the master doesn’t praise him…. ‘I didn’t leave these talents for you to preserve them. You were there to use them, to make them fructify.’ And of course the stewards that are praised are the ones that did just that.… That’s harnessing natural assets to get out of poverty. That’s where Christians should be aligned, not on these environmental abstinence sidelines.

  • Romanticizing Rural Poverty

    Our wrong, careless, romantic vision of the poor is that they’re being so exploited that they should just be left to retreat into self-sufficiency, you know, the organic, holistic peasant, uncontaminated by the dirty business of a market economy. And of course that is just romantic nonsense.