Nicholas Kristof

In This Review

The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries are Failing and What Can Be Done About It
By Paul Collier
Oxford University Press, USA, 2008
224 pp. $15.95

The challenges of global poverty are getting more attention lately, but helping people is far harder than it looks. For example, humanitarian aid is often used in effect to finance military spending, so that about 40 percent of African arms spending may inadvertently be paid for by aid donors. Still, people are getting better at addressing the challenges of global poverty, and one of the most lucid guides to this terrain is Collier's landmark book, The Bottom Billion. Collier, a former World Bank chief economist who is now at Oxford University, is a believer in foreign aid while acknowledging all the attendant difficulties. He notes that one billion people or so have been stuck in poverty and have not found an escalator out; he focuses on why that is and what everyone else may be able to do about it.

Collier is relentlessly empirical, acknowledging the many failures of aid (in 2004, a study found that only one percent of the money intended for rural health clinics in Chad reached its destination) but pointing the way to achieving more successes. He emphasizes that conflict is lethal to growth and notes that the typical civil war imposes costs to the relevant country and its neighbors of some $64 billion. Modest sums invested early on might reduce the risk that such conflicts get out of hand, he argues, and can be among the most cost-effective forms of foreign aid. The Bottom Billion is one of those short, sparkling books that had so many people in the development field gnashing their teeth, muttering, "I wish I'd written this!"

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