The Bottom Billion: Trap #1

A book I borrowed, which continues a theme in a book I read and reviewed a few summers back The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries are Failing and What Can Be Done About It, by Paul Collier is about the very poor on our globe. The title comes from the notion that of the 6 1/2 billion on our planet, 1 billion are very rich, about 4 1/2 billion are getting rich very quickly, and that leaves the bottom billion. The bottom billion is treading water at the poor as dirt level. The question Mr Collier addresses is to look at the reasons they are staying poor and haven’t hopped on the modern wealth treadmill like the rest of the world and what might be done about it. He identifies four traps holding them there. A trap isn’t fatal, it’s just a trap you have to get out of … before you’re hopelessly left behind (more on that point later).

One of the more interesting things about this, is Mr Collier pretty clearly has spent a lot of time, with open mind and eyes looking at data. And he has some conclusions and inferences which are likely both true and not in agreement with the “conventional” wisdom (as held by left or right).

Trap #1 is the conflict trap, i.e., civil wars (and coups). What can we learn about that? … below the fold.

There is a direct relationship between wealth and civil wars. The richer a country the less likely it is to have a civil war (or coup). It has been said, that all it takes in many of the bottom billion to have a civil war is $10,000 and a satellite phone. $10,000 buys you arms to equip your troops … and the phone gets you in contact with the right multi-nationals corporations to make the necessary promises to line things all up. Some (frightening) factoids:

  • A typical (0% growth) bottom billion country faces a 14% chance of a civil war statistically speaking in any five year period. Every percentage point of growth knocks a percentage point off this chance of revolt.
  • It is likely slow growth and poverty leads to hopelessness. Life becomes cheap. As an example,

    In 2002 a little gang of rebels in the Philippines managed to kidnap some foreign tourists. A French woman among the kidnapped later described how she wrote down their demands for transmission to the authorities. “What do you want me to write?” she asked. “A million dollars per tourist” was what they wanted. She wrote it down, then asked, “Anything else?” A long pause, then a political thought, “Sack the mayor of Jolo.” The last demand, “Two divers’ wristwatches.” That was the list of ‘totally justified” grievances …

  • Three things are not (this bears repeating) are not among the statistically significant causes for civil war. Neither income inequality, colonial history, or racial oppression and ethnic strife are correlated with outbreaks civil war. Look in history for example, in 1066 a group of Norman invaders killed the English elite and took over subjecting the people to two centuries of servitude. During this time there were a number of civil wars … but alas those wars were Norman vs Norman and not Norman masters vs English serfs.
  • Ethnic diversity is correlated (weakly) with a small increased tendency to strife. However, this effect is not huge.
  • The lower the income of the country involved, the longer the conflict lasts. In the bottom billion this comes out to about 7 years.
  • Each year of conflict “costs” on average about 2.3 percent growth per year, so the survivors of an average 7 year conflict are 15% poorer than they were when they started out.
  • Recruitment is usually at the point of a gun. An unfortunately (apparently) common recruitment tactic is as follows:

    In Uganda the Lord’s Resistance Army, whose stated goal is to establish government according to the Ten Commandments, recruits members by surrounding a remote school with troops and setting fire to the school. The boys who manage to run out are given the choice of being shot or joining up. Those who join are then required to commit an atrocity in their home district, such as raping an old woman, which makes it harder for the boys to go back home. This style of recruitment is less exceptional than you might think. [emphasis mine]

  • Grievances are not, as a result, typically on the forefront of those participating in the revolution. One study found that asking people to classify their sense of grievance and list and quantify their feelings about a particular list of grievances held in a particular conflict. It was found that “those people with a sense of grievance were no more likely to take part in violent protest than those not aggrieved.” (emphasis mine) Who takes part? The young, single, uneducated without dependents.

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