Talking cents

Economists have a duty to speak directly to the public about global poverty, Paul Collier insists. Melanie Newman reports

April 3, 2008

The world's best book on international affairs was written to be read on the beach, according to its author.

This week, Paul Collier, professor of economics at the University of Oxford, will collect the Lionel Gelber Prize - the most important international award for non-fiction, according to The Economist magazine. The accolade is for The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries Are Failing and What Can Be Done About It, a prescription for ending world poverty. "I wanted it to be read with pleasure," Professor Collier said.

He wants to help create a "critical mass of informed citizens" that will force international development policy to become more sophisticated. "We suffer from gesture politics - we get politicians flying to Africa and kissing babies. They do that because ordinary citizens are not well informed." The average Briton has become much better educated about domestic policy since the 1970s, he notes. "Getting a critical mass of people who were well informed about macro-economic policy helped us overcome inflation ... If we want to shift policy on international development, the same thing has to happen."

Part of an academic economist's job is to communicate, he insisted. "Academics have come to see speaking to their peer group as more important than communicating with citizens."

In his book, Professor Collier sets out in simple language the problems afflicting the "bottom billion" of the world's population who languish in 58 economically stagnant countries. He lists the "traps" in which these states are stuck: conflict, abundant natural resources that cause battles for power, land-locking with poor neighbours and bad governance. The traps require a tailored combination of four policy remedies, he argues: trade policy, security policy, governance support and aid.

Professor Collier's book is full of anecdotes dating from his time as adviser to the British Commission on Africa and director of development research at the World Bank. He illustrates his criticism of "policy conditionality" - making aid contingent on governments adopting certain policies - with a story about the Kenyans selling the same agricultural reforms to the World Bank five times in 15 years. He advocates "governance conditionality" - aid being conditional on governments becoming more accountable. As an example, he cites international intervention in Kenya, where rival leaders agreed in February to form a coalition government and so end the political crisis. "(President) Kibaki probably agreed to share power because donors told him there would be no money unless he did so."

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