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The Bottom Billion by Paul Collier: Clear, concise, informative & evidence-based

- By: John P Sykes
Posted in: Blog, Book Reviews, Exploration, Mineral Economics, Mining


I’m currently teaching, with Allan Trench, on the International Mining for Development Centre’s (IM4DC) Minerals Policy and Economics course. For our sessions we use Prof. Paul Collier’s work as a framework for how to develop an economy using mineral resources. I recently posted the review below on Amazon and Goodreads about his book “The Bottom Billion”. I thought I’d share it here too:

“Working in the mining sector as a geologist and mineral economist, I had previously read Paul Collier’s Plundered Planet looking specifically at resources related economic development, so I was looking forward to reading The Bottom Billion to broaden my understanding of economic development more generally. Prof. (and knight!) Paul Collier is no doubt one of the most qualified people globally to write on this issue, as a professor of economics and public policy at Oxford University with a lifetime of experience looking at development issues in Africa. I listened to this book using the Kindle Audible Narration and was transfixed from the start.

As the sub-title suggests the book effectively explains “Why the poorest countries are failing and what can be done about it”.

The Bottom Billion presents a very clear framework for understanding and acting upon the problems facing the most severely poor countries. Prof. Collier describes four kinds of poverty trap: conflict, natural resources, landlocked and bad governance. He then discusses four tools which can be used for resolving these issues and importantly the limits of each: aid, military intervention, laws & charters and trade policy, before highlighting in combination the areas of most fruitful action. In particularly he makes a stand for the brave ‘heroes’ of economic development and reform in the developing world and how Western institutions and the electorate (that’s us) need to stand by and support them. I found his framework and arguments very convincing. This is in part due to the concise, lively and personal way he writes. The book is amazingly short for the breadth of material covered. However, it is clear that the book sits atop a tower of research, and thus is in no way lightweight in this respect. In this sense, Prof. Collier is very careful to highlight the sources of his information, and what has and has not been peer reviewed.

One of the things I particularly like about this book is its balanced nature. For example, there is careful, nuanced but persuasive discussion of why globalisation has worked for the developed West, and is working for Asia, and will work for most other developing countries, but that for a few countries (the ‘bottom billion’) it will not work. He tackles this issue and other politically charged issues, such as aid, military intervention and international trade, carefully, and in my opinion in a balanced manner, neither leaning too left, or too right; whilst trying to use data rather than ideology in his arguments. I previously held strong (and perhaps ill informed) views on some of these issues and have found that his arguments have at least begun to change my mind and thinking about them.

The mineral economist in me also found the sections on natural resources very interesting, and it is relieving to see economists moving beyond simple resource curse theory and onto more constructive arguments about how to develop countries with abundant natural resources. He expands on the subject greatly in The Plundered Planet, which would be a fine accompaniment to this book. For readers more generally interested in economic development, reading the Bottom Billion and then The Plundered Planet is probably the most fruitful order, starting broadly and then focusing on the particularly tricky issue of the resource curse. For those in the minerals or petroleum sectors, starting with the Plundered Planet covering these industries, and then taking a broader look at economic development in general via The Bottom Billion, as I have done, would be recommended.

In general, whilst I am still somewhat new to the field of development economics, and I’m sure Prof. Collier is not right on everything, I would be surprised if there were many better starting points for understanding economic development in the poorest countries than this book.”