Interview with Gelber Prize Winner Paul Collier

Monday, March 31, 2008

LONDON – “I think that economists have a responsibility to write in such a way to be read by ordinary people and by political leaders,” the bearded and bespectacled Oxford professor says, in a quiet and careful tone, from his home in France. “So I wrote a book that’s very readable.”

That may not sound like a humble claim, but then Paul Collier has very clearly been read by a lot of people lately. His book, The Bottom Billion, argues plainly and often rudely that a dramatic change is needed in the way we deal with the world’s poorest nations. It stands out from the pile of angry manifestos written by former aid-agency gurus during the past year for one important reason: It has become part of our language.

In January, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon declared that 2008 should be “the year of the bottom billion,” citing Mr. Collier’s ideas, and then invited him to spend a day lecturing to the members of the UN Security Council. In the weeks that followed, he was invited by the cabinets of Britain, Norway, the Netherlands and Japan to deliver seminars in foreign aid.

On Tuesday in Toronto, Mr. Collier will be presented with the $60,000 Lionel Gelber Prize, the top honour in non-fiction book writing. While this prize has often gone to books that are elegantly written (Eric Hobsbawm’s Age of Extremes) or meticulously researched (Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars), in this case the judges have plainly gone for sheer clout: Wherever you find yourself these days, somebody seems to be citing Paul Collier.

He is part of a new class of expert: The embittered veteran of the foreign-aid industry bent on denouncing his former colleagues. As a former head of the World Bank’s development-research arm, he developed a reputation for putting noses out of joint. It was he who showed, with his characteristic statistical zeal, that 38 per cent of Africa’s earnings were stored in overseas bank accounts, and that 40 per cent of military expenditures in Africa were paid from foreign aid.

Most contentiously, he argued that a majority of aid money from countries such as Canada was going not to the very poor, who needed the help, but to the middle-income countries such as India and Brazil, which very much didn’t.

Thus the title of this much-read book. The billion poorest people in the world ? 70 per cent of whom live in Africa ? are a completely different group from the four billion who are merely very poor, he argues. In “places such as Haiti, Bolivia, the Central Asian countries, Laos, Cambodia, Yemen, Burma and North Korea,” the 58 least-wealthy countries, life expectancy is only 50 years, compared with 67 for merely poor countries; among the poorest, one in seven children dies by the age of 5, compared with one in 50.

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Source: Globe and Mail (link opens in a new window)