Friday, May 30, 2008

Is Bénin Among the “Bottom Billion?”

I am reading The Bottom Billion by Oxford Economist Paul Collier. It is a book that for me probably ranks as one of the most insightful works among the last several years’ worth of writings and arguments that I’ve happened to digest on the theme of “development.”

In reality, “development” and the bloc of nations constituting the most “undeveloped” part of the world are ideas which have very much outlived the definitions that might have been pinned to them 60 years ago, as well as the periodic adjustments that have been made to these categories thereafter. Collier states that most of what was the developing world is now very much on its way, and what remains is a group of 58 nations—constituting about a billion people—who are “stuck,” not just in low income and poverty, but in a worse way: without growth, which translates to pandemic paucities of hope within these nations, and a new “diverging” world without.

Collier attributes the condition of a nation’s being stuck to 4 “development traps,” each Bottom Billion nation essentially being snagged by at least of these traps. 73% nations have recently experienced civil war or coups. 29% suffer from the drags of natural resource-dominated economies. 30% fit the profile of being landlocked, resource-scare and with bad neighbors. And 76% have been through a prolonged period of bad governance and poor economic policy. While each of these realities themselves slow or deplete growth, Collier labels them as traps because the conditions are self and inter-perpetuating.

Is Bénin Trapped?

Africa happens to be the epicenter of the Bottom Billion—not exclusively (there are others outside Africa) but enough such that Collier can rename the Bottom Billion “Africa +,” meaning a lot of African and some others. I myself read Bottom Billion with the continual curiosity of whether Bénin has in fact made Collier’s list of 58 nations. Collier doesn’t list the Bottom Billion countries by name, though he uses many as case examples throughout, including Nigeria, Niger Burkina Faso, and perhaps also Togo, all of whom are Bénin’s only neighbors.

According to the UN’s Human Development Index (a composite ranking that seeks to quantify the quality of life for the average citizen in a given country, then to compare this level of life with that of other countries) it is evident that Bénin is among the world’s poorest nations, in 2005 it was ranked the 163rd most poor of 177 nations. But what about in terms of growth or development traps? That is, the average Béninese may very well be poor, but is Bénin as a whole free of development traps such that the average Béninese can in good faithharbor hope that things will get better?

It’s clear that Bénin has never been snagged by two traps: Bénin it is not land-locked, nor has it discovered any lucrative natural resources within its national bounderies (“yet” one might add…an estimated million barrels of oil was recently just found off nearby Ghana’s coast).

However, Bénin did suffer from some of Africa’s worst Economic Policy during 1970s and 1980s which earned it the nickname the “Cuba of Africa.” In the end the economic fallout of these policies were so horribly evident to both citizens and leadership alike that they prompted in 1990 what I think might be the region’s only “peaceful revolution” to democracy. Bénin has, however, seen prolonged armed conflict and instability: before its shift to Marxism, Bénin's government was subjected to 5 coups d’etats in less than a decade. So it looks like two traps have snagged Bénin at some point in the past. But, depending on what kind of time parameters Collier’s trap categories assume, perhaps Bénin has successfully “escaped” one or both of these: Is two decades of attempted reform and over 35 years of internal peace long enough?

It may be worth noting—as Collier does—that other development traps have been proffered by other economists, most notably the “health” trap by Economist Jeffrey Sachs (put forward in The End of Poverty) a category of snares that Bénin would most likely fit into.

A Realist’s Insights

At the end of the day, I don’t think Collier’s book is meant to be read this way, as interesting as it may be to try to deduce the technical preconditions of the Bottom Billion and the exhaustive list of its constituent’s names. Rather, Collier makes many new insights on economic development, particularly for the African countries that are the materially “poorest” and proposes that Industrial Nation leaders must complement aid with certain trade policies, international laws and charters, and even military interventions in order to set the stage for escape from these growth traps. Though ultimately a conservative himself, (at the end of the day, enduring reform and change can only come from bold reformers within the nation itself), Collier acts as an alternative voice of realism between the rivaling opinion camps of economists Jeffrey Sachs (more Foreign Aid is the solution) and William Easterly (development through markets).

No matter the reader’s political-economic predisposition, even taking Collier’s claims only as suggestions has the potential to refresh the ongoing conversation on “development”…a subject whose research very much needs honest and constructive refreshment, given its complex nature and high stakes.