Bono and the Bottom Billion

With Africa filling the pages as the celebrity pet cause, Paul Collier takes a hard look at what’s really going on.

Paul Collier, The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries Are Failing and What Can Be Done About It (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 224 pp., $28.00.

Fifty years ago this year, delegations from fifty-six countries arrived in Accra to witness the independence of the British crown colony of the Gold Coast as the new state of Ghana, the firstborn of what would soon be a veritable wave of nearly four dozen Sub-Saharan African nations which would achieve political independence in the coming years. The Duchess of Kent represented her niece, Queen Elizabeth II, while Vice President Richard Nixon stood in for President Dwight Eisenhower who broadcasted a special radio message to the Ghanaians on the birth date of their new country expressing his "particular admiration [for] the manner in which you attained your independence" and emphasizing that he spoke "for a people that cherishes independence, which we deeply believe is the right of all people who are able to discharge its responsibilities."

On March 6, 1957, few doubted that Ghana and the states which would follow in its wake would be able to discharge the responsibilities they assumed on taking their place among the world's sovereigns. As historian Martin Meredith has noted in his monumental history of post-colonial Africa, rarely are states launched with as much promise as the West African country:

Ghana embarked on independence as one of the richest tropical countries in the world, with an efficient civil service, an impartial judiciary and a prosperous middle class. Its parliament was well established, with able politicians in both government and opposition. The prime minister, himself, then only forty-seven years old, was regarded as a leader of outstanding ability, popularly elected, with six years of experience running a government. The country's economic prospects were equally propitious. Not only was Ghana the world's leading producer of cocoa, with huge foreign currency reserves built up during the 1950s cocoa boom, but it possessed gold, timber and bauxite.

Were one to have examined Ghana's economic indicators in comparison with those of, say, South Korea, the African nation evinced better prospects hands down. While the departing British governor, Sir Charles Arden-Clarke, bequeathed Ghana's Kwame Nkrumah an unprecedented $481 million in foreign reserves, South Korea's Syngman Rhee was presiding over a nearly bankrupt country eking out an existence on U.S. aid having not only endured the thirty-five years of brutal Japanese occupation, but subsequently suffered a devastating conventional war fought in its cities and countryside which concluded in a stalemate and armistice just four years earlier. In both aggregate and per capita terms, the gross domestic product of the Republic of Korea was lower than that of Ghana in 1957. Yet half a century later, South Korea boasts the world's 13th largest economy and is considered "highly developed," ranking 26th on the Human Development Index of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), while Ghana barely made the cut to qualify as a "medium developed" nation, ranking 136th out of 177 countries surveyed. And even with its underwhelming economic performance, Ghana is far from the worst off among African nations


Paul Collier, director of the Center for the Study of African Economies at Oxford University, author of The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries Are Failing and What Can Be Done About It, tries to provide an answer.

Collier's subtitle points to the object of his interest, the combined population of fifty-eight countries, most of whom are African, characterized by both low per capita incomes and lack of growth over the long term. His argument is that while for decades the question of development has been posed as one of "a rich world of one billion  people facing a poor world of five billion people," that conceptualization is now outdated because "most of the five billion, about 80 percent, live in countries that are indeed developing, often at amazing speed." In contrast, the ones who are falling behind and, Collier adds, "often falling apart"-for want of a convenient geographic label, he refers to the group as "Africa+," with the plus-sign referring to "places such as Haiti, Bolivia, the Central Asian countries, Laos, Cambodia, Yemen, Burma and North Korea"-require immediate attention because "as the bottom billion diverges from an increasingly sophisticated world economy, integration will become harder, not easier." Like many developing countries, the "Africa+" countries are poor. What distinguishes them is that they caught in one or more of four "traps."