“The idea that the World Bank is some sort of right-wing American institution set to serve the Western policy to crash Africa is a fantasy that collides against the reality of the people actually making these policies…It’s sort of a convenient whipping boy for people’s fantasies.”
When it comes to academics and authors who command an authority on Africa, and global poverty, there are few as respected and renowned as Oxford economist Paul Collier.
To understand why Collier has developed such a prestigious place in the political, and academic world one must only glance briefly over his impressive resume. A few highlights include:
- A five year stint (1998-2003) as the Director of the Research Development Department of the World Bank.
- A current posting as the Director for the Study of African Economies at Oxford University.
- An appointment as a Commander of the British Empire (CBE) in 2008.
- The publication of three highly influential, and successful books: The Bottom Billion (2008), Wars, Guns, and Votes: Democracy in Dangerous Places (2009), and The Plundered Planet (2010)
- A role as an economic advisor to governments around the world, including the UK.
A Brit by birth, but a citizen of the world by choice, Collier has made it his life’s mission to research, write, and teach the world about the complexities of poverty, and what can be done about it. In doing so, he has worked to develop several theories on how best to do this, and why.
Collier’s most successful work to date has been The Bottom Billion. It was through this book that I was first introduced to Collier during my 4th year at Trent University.
This book proposes that the bulk of our poverty reduction efforts should be focused towards the poorest people on earth. Collier claims that the poorest of the poor make up about 1 billion people and can be located in a select amount of countries, most being in Africa, but others residing in Asia and Latin America.
The bottom billion need our help so desperately because they are oppressed by four select problems: 1) The Conflict Trap, 2) The Natural Resource Trap, 3) Being landlocked with bad neighbours, and 4) Bad Governance. In the smallest nutshell ever, this implies that countries are poor and remain poor because they are either constantly fighting, relying too heavily on primary commodities, have no access to the sea and are surrounded by other poor unsuitable trading partners, or have a terrible political system. The worst off (i.e. the DRC) have a combination of all of these factors.
The work that Collier does is highly influential, and is widely read across many humanities programs throughout the world. However, like anyone who puts his heart and soul into the public eye, Collier is not without his critics. All of his work is heavily scrutinized and critiqued, particularly by a Professor from NYU named William Easterly.
In attempts to address some of the controversy around Paul’s work, and to utilize his expertise on some of the issues that fascinate me most, it only made sense that I would seek out an interview with him.
Thanks to the help of his great assistant, Martina Siertsema, I had the pleasure of speaking with Paul from his home in England.
There is much I WANNA KNOW from Paul Collier, and he was gracious to take time from his extremely hectic schedule to speak with me.
From the World Bank, to Robert Mugabe, to religion, to the critics of his work, to U2’s Bono, we cover it all.
Ryan Kohls: In War, Guns, and Votes you wrote a detailed history of the mismanagement of politics in the Ivory Coast (Cote D’Ivoire). Your book was written prior to the explosion of violence this past November. Did the escalated violence in Ivory Coast come as a surprise to you or had you seen this coming?
Paul Collier: I hate saying foresight for what’s unfolded, but actually the book was close. It’s a good job that former President Gbagbo didn’t read it because one of the things that I argued in that book was that he had very little legitimacy, and wouldn’t have won a free and fair election that was properly contested. His only hope was to keep the serious contestants out of an election. What happened was that he postponed having an election for as long as possible, and then finally he built a big army. He surrounded himself with a lot of sycophants, and asked these sycophants, “If I hold an election, will I win?,” and the sycophants said, what sycophants tend to do, “your people love you.” He got overconfident.
He actually asked Ban-Ki Moon, the UN Secretary General, to monitor and certify the elections, which was a case of hubris. He held the elections, and the UN promptly certified he’d lost, which of course he had. Then he did what he’d done previously and fell back on force. This time counting on the fact that he’d built up a very big army. What he didn’t count on was really how relatively easy it is to undermine the loyalty of an army, which of course has no loyalty other than money. Nobody actually believed in Gbagbo, they were paid to support him.
President Ouattara, once elected, very sensibly went for the money. As the legitimate President he closed off the international payments to Gbagbo and his regime. So, Gbagbo’s army just very largely refused to fight, so a much smaller force, the rebel force, was able to march into the capital Abidjan and capture Gbagbo. It wasn’t in his army’s interest to fight.
It’s actually very close to the themes of Wars, Guns, and Votes. First of all, the electoral process being usurped by incumbents, and then the reliance upon force, but then the internal fragility within that force, which were all themes in Wars, Guns, and Votes. It’s ironic that I chose Ivory Coast as the chapter’s case study, and it’s now become such an important case subsequently. Now, it’s very much a beacon of good because it’s set down a benchmark which says incumbents can not go this far without losing international recognition, and without force being used against them.
RK: It’s interesting you mentioned “beacon of good” because my next question was about Ghana. What is it that makes Ghana different to its neighbours like the Ivory Coast? It’s my impression that Ghana is a very peaceful, and stable country politically, and doing quite well as far as the region is concerned.
PC: Well I think it wasn’t always like that. It was the first of the British colonies to get independence. It was the most developed. There were a lot of educated Ghanaians. So, it started independence from a rather prosperous position: a gold exporting economy with big gold reserves. Then, its political class led it to ruin pretty rapidly.
By the end of the 1970s Ghana was in really serious disarray. Then it became pretty well the first of the African economies to turnaround through a process of internal political struggle; reformers winning the argument, coming to power and then leading the struggle for better economic policies. From there, leading the struggle for democratic institutions.
So, Ghanian success is grounded on a memory of failure, which is actually very common. If we look at the most successful economy in Europe at the moment, Germany, we take that for granted and think that it has always been successful. But actually, if you go back three generations Germany went through hyper-inflation and was a disaster. The population learnt from that. Failure immunized the society from repeated economic disasters. The same has happened in Ghana. Extreme failure leaves a legacy of a burning sense of never again, and that’s a very valuable thing for a society to have.
RK: You mentioned inflation, and Zimbabwe always comes to mind when I think of that. I was wondering if you could briefly explain inflation, and explain how Zimbabwe developed its currency to become one of most hyper inflated of all time.
PC: First of all, thank goodness that phase is over.
What happened was that President Mugabe, probably because he was an old man under pressure, decided to hold a referendum, which he lost. That was a wakeup call to him, that at the next election if held free and fair, he’d lose that too. So, he started to basically dismantle the checks and balances of a proper society with the rule of law. He knew it was either that the rule of law persist and he lose power, or if he dismantled the rule of law he needed money, and corrupt money. So, he looted the public purse.
As the whole corruption mounted, regular tax revenues started to decline, and he shifted to using inflation. So the central bank prints a lot of money, and that catches people by surprise. They except the money, but there’s no more goods in the economy, there’s just more money. That drives prices up. The higher prices mean that the money in people’s pockets is worth less. That declined the value of the money that people were holding; just like a tax. Indeed, economists call it the “inflation tax.”
I don’t know how much money is in your pocket, but typically people might be holding, should we say a tenth of their annual income in banks or cash. If the price levels double in a year, half of that disappears, it’s like a tax of five percent of people’s income. In Zimbabwe, the prices were not doubling in a year, they were doubling in a week. It started to generate a lot of revenue. In response of course, people started to hold less money, relative to their income, and that’s why government’s around the world use the inflation tax because it’s a road to ruin. It works until people wise up. As people wise up, money becomes useless, and people retreat into a barter economy where they use cigarettes or something else instead of money.
It’s a very destructive, short term policy, so very few government’s resort to it. The only government’s that resort to it are the truly desperate, short sighted government’s, and that described an elderly Mugabe facing the knowledge that he was about to lose an election.
RK: You worked at the World Bank for several years and still support its work. Many people criticize the World Bank as an institution that has done more harm than good for Africa. As someone who works primarily to better the future of Africa through poverty reduction solutions, how do you justify your support of the controversial work of the World Bank?
PC: I think a lot of the criticism nowadays is pretty ill judged really. First of all, the World Bank’s Africa policies are set by Africans, pretty fiesty Africans. The vice-President in charge of Africa, Obiageli Ezekwesili, is a very strong Nigerian. She has served in the Nigerian government as the Minister of Education, and most famously she set up the public procurement office to fight corruption. There’s so much corruption in Nigeria, and she came in and closed that by forcing all public purchases to go through a public process. She brought the costs down by 40% overnight by doing that. It takes a lot guts to do that because a lot of people get very angry that they’re no longer able to make money.
So, she’s in charge of Africa policy, and she’s not just an African, she’s an African leader. She reports to a managing director who’s also a Nigerian woman, Ngozie Oknojo-Iweala, who was the Nigerian finance minister during the reform period, and she’s an absolute world figure.
The idea that the World Bank is some sort of right-wing American institution set to serve the Western policy to crash Africa is a fantasy that collides against the reality of the people actually making these policies. If you go down from the vice-Presidents to the directors of country level a lot of those are African. A lot of them. The World Bank, I would also say, has a lot less power than people imagine. It’s sort of a convenient whipping boy for people’s fantasies.
RK: As an undergrad I became aware of the “triad of aid debate” between yourself, William Easterly, and Jeffrey Sachs. It seems like there’s been a built up feud in the press between the three of you. How serious is that feud, or is it just embellished by the press?
PC: Well, I guess I don’t feud. I don’t think you’ll find any sort of remarks by me that are entered into these rather theatrical disputes. I tend to occupy politically a centre ground, and in economic policy terms a rather pragmatic approach. I try to avoid sort of theatrical ideologies. The ideologies of polarized positions make the best publicity because they are just that: theatrical. It turns economic discussion into kind of a football match. I find that dysfunctional. In a polarized world you can’t get policy changed. Policy change works by building up a broad consensus. That has to be basically building a strong central ground. When I reflect on this, that’s what I see myself trying to do, building a strong central position, rather than going for this theatrical stuff.
RK: Recently, a researcher at Sussex University, Andy Sumner, released an article called “The New Bottom Billion.” His thesis completely counters your argument in The Bottom Billion, as he believes that the world’s poorest people actually live in large middle income countries like China, and India. How do you respond to this argument?
PC: I did actually do some sort of interview with him, I think. It’s a really foolish position. It comes down to this. If you compare a family that is poor in China, and one that is equally poor in Chad, in his headcount they would be the same. They are not the same at all though. The single word that best describes the difference is hope, or using two words: credible hope. That family in China, the adults may stay poor for the rest of their lives, but they have credible hope that their children will grow up into a world of greatly enlarged opportunities. That family in Chad doesn’t have such a credible hope. The best forecast for Chad is that the future will look much like the past.
Now, if we get out of numbers to how human beings think, and what they care about, the future prospects of their children are enormously important for poor people. As soon as you start talking to ordinary people then of course everybody accepts that. Suffering poverty now is a misfortune. Having that as the only credible prospect for your children is the nightmare that I find intolerable.
In China and India there are still a lot of poor families. Come the next generation, there won’t be nearly as much poverty. Once a society is middle income it has actually got the capacity within its own society, should it choose to do so, to redistribute to those that are poor. International action against poverty is a very, very scarce resource. International money to fight poverty is acutely scarce, so it should be used only in those societies which could not help themselves through the strategy of redistribution. If Chad redistributed all its income perfectly equally everybody would be poor. If China redistributed its income perfectly equally nobody would be poor.
So, this position that the poor are everywhere, and let’s shift the attention away from those poor people who don’t have hope for their children, and who cannot be helped by distribution within their society is a really stupid position. Fortunately, it’s not a position that the British government is listening to. The British government has a very commendable, and substantially increasing aid budget that is focusing it down on to the poorest people. China is being cut out completely.
RK: In contrast to the bottom billion, there is a group that needs to be discussed: the top ten million. These are the people who control most of the world’s resources, and could hypothetically eradicate poverty together. In your opinion, what is their role in fighting poverty? How can we utilize the top ten million?
PC: There are some magnificent examples out there. If we turn to some of the top ten, never mind the top ten million, they’ve set an example. Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, they are doing astounding things. They have an enormous amount of money, and are using it quite intelligently. They really are setting a new standard for what the truly wealthy can do. I think that standard will start to be seen as the responsibility and privilege of being wealthy. It’s in your power to do a huge amount of good, so we are seeing the rediscovery of what in the 19th century was done by the great philanthropists.
RK: What do you say to those people that say that white people don’t have the right, or legitimacy to write on Africa?
PC: I actually have a bit of sympathy with them. To be honest that is why I didn’t write the Bottom Billion earlier. For a long time I thought that space should be empty until it was filled with an African, rather than be filled by me. It was only once I felt the debate was getting out of hand, and dysfunctional, that I thought better me than leaving it unoccupied. So, I am sympathetic to that criticism.
I would also say against it that I think a lot of Africans would say that Africa is not some sort of peculiar separate planet, it’s part of the world. As ordinary human beings, just as an African can comment on other places, so other people can comment on Africa. Dambisa Moyo, my former student, has just written a book about the challenge of China for America. It’s a critique of America called How the West was Lost. One of the things I told her was how pleased I was that this was an African not writing about Africa. Just as an African perfectly legitimaley can write about what’s going on in America, so can Brits like myself write about global issues.
It is a fair comment, and something that concerned me for a long time. I work in Africa a lot. This year alone I’ve been thirteen times, and I’ve never heard that criticism. I would have some sympathy if it were made.
RK: Are you a religious man? You quote scripture several times in your books.
PC: First, I think an ethical perspective is enormously important both in public policy, and in economic issues. In The Plundered Plant, the first chapter is about ethics because I think understanding the ethics of natural assets is really important.
I think the Christian perspective on ethics is hugely valuable. After all, it’s been the dominant ethic framework in Western society for two millenia, and behind that perspective is a huge amount of compassion and intellectual enquiry. The Church is a unique institution in being grounded in both the bottom of society, living with the poorest, most disadvantaged people of society, and also having an international organization organized so it can think. It’s a uniquely impressive organization with this immense history. I think there’s a huge amount of value there, which we’d be very foolish to be sort of resistant to. Irrespective of personal belief, I think this is a set of organizations, and thinking, which can contribute hugely. For example, in The Plundered Planet I turn to the parable of the talents in the Gospel of Luke as a really valuable set of insights into responsibility of custody. I think a glib secularism which is more common in Europe than America, loses a lot.
RK: I’ve always been curious to know how many countries you’ve travelled to, and if you have any particular places you like the best.
PC: (laughs) I don’t count. It’s not a competition to go to countries. I have some of my favourites, and I have some places I’m not so keen on. Some of the places I really enjoy are kind of unlikely. So let me name one that is not often found at the top of people’s lists: Nigeria. I think it’s a really exuberant society. It has a huge amount of vitality, energy, and humor. So I enjoy being there. People are confident, articulate, and say what they mean. I think Nigeria is an underestimated place.
RK: You live in the country with arguably the greatest music history in the world. Are you a fan of British rock music, and if so, who are you into?
PC: (laughs) I’m going to say, Bono. Not because of his music, but because of his contribution to development. Bono knows a lot more than he sings. He’s a guy who’s really taken the trouble to get up to speed on a lot of issues. Of course, he can’t sing it, so in one sense he’s his own worst enemy. In his popular communication his knowledge is crunched down into simple slogans, that’s the nature of pop, but he’s actually done his homework.