Thursday, June 12, 2008

Can we help the truly poor?

Town Meeting finished early last night, so I had time to finish reading Paul Collier's book The Bottom Billion. I like reading books by people who really know a subject. Professor Collier is an expert on African economies who used to work for the World Bank, not a starry-eyed do-gooder who thinks if we all just tried harder (and donated more money) we could solve all the world's problems. And he's not a hard-hearted Social Darwinist who thinks foreign aid spending is always counterproductive.

He makes a lot of concrete recommendations that, unfortunately, are unlikely to be followed. For example, he points out that most aid organizations are helping out developing countries that probably don't need the help. Most of the world is doing just fine, thank you very much, with economies and standards of living rising.

They should be working on helping the bottom billion-- the countries that are going nowhere (or going backwards). But aid organizations aren't likely to do that, because:
  • They are likely to fail
  • It's dangerous and difficult to work in those countries
  • Some of the policies that will help (free trade, military intervention in certain cases) are politically unpopular
The good news is that our government might be listening; the African Growth and Opportunity Act (passed by Congress and signed into law in 2000) is an example of the type of policy that should help the Bottom Billion. More good news: part of the solution is to make systems more transparent; it's hard to maintain high levels of government corruption in countries that have freedom of the press and freedom of speech. Despite the best efforts of despotic governments around the world, I believe technological innovation will help drive development and freedom, too.

1 comment:

Joseph said...

I've recently gotten to know Paul Polak--who has been inspiring to me as I think about this bottom billion issue--and have enjoyed his recently published book, "Out of Poverty: What Works When Traditional Approaches Fail" (LINK). Market and entrepreneurship oriented approach.