News & CommentaryArchive
Feb 13, 2008
The Bottom Billion in the News
Recent news events from some of the world’s poorer regions are providing more real-life examples of Paul Collier’s main theories from The Bottom Billion. In his book, and illuminated in our recent interview, Collier argues that there are four under-researched “traps” that lock a handful of the world’s countries, with a total population of close to one billion, in a cycle of despair. The traps he identifies are the resource trap, the conflict trap, the trap of being landlocked with bad neighbors and the trap of having poor governance in a small country.
Dr. Collier never lists the bottom billion, but inarguably one of its members is Chad. Bordered by Sudan to the east and Libya to the North, Chad has made news in the last few years for being the temporary home of millions of refugees from the neighboring region of Darfur in Sudan. Yet Chad itself has its own history of civil conflict and rebel activity, one which it has clearly not escaped. Two weeks ago one of several rebel movements in Chad made a daring raid on the capital, N’Djamena, and by many accounts came close to toppling the current government of Gen. Idriss Deby. Mr. Deby survived in no small part because of the explicit support of the French government and other European nations, but hundreds of thousands of people fled the fighting, many becoming refugees in Cameroon. Prior to the Darfur crises, Chad was also known for being the first country required by the World Bank to provide complete transparency of its revenues from oil extraction in return for loans, aid and other assistance. Chad cancelled those agreements close to eighteen months ago when oil prices spiked, without serious consequences. Chad, then, is the poster child for a country struggling with all four of Collier’s traps, each of which serves to strengthen and reinforce the other.
Latin America also possesses a share of the bottom billion, most notably in Bolivia and to a lesser extent in Colombia. Though technically a middle-income country, Colombia has struggled beneath a strange amalgam of political, civil and criminal violence for nearly half a century. The largest and longest-standing group perpetuating violence in the country is known as the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia or FARC. Originally founded as a political movement, the FARC has since lost any real attachment to political goals, sustaining itself through kidnappings for ransom (it currently holds more than 800 hostages) and drug trafficking. Both the US and the EU classify the FARC as a terrorist organization. The persistence of the FARC and other like groups who maintain insurgencies despite little or no popular support seen in many less developed countries can in part be traced to the mountainous, inaccessible terrain of the countries in which they reside, according to this study by James Fearon and David Laitin of Stanford University. One important point that Collier makes in our interview is that outside observers often make the mistake of assuming that rebels are good where governments are bad. Colombia has had a long succession of bad governments in the past, which created a legacy of foreign groups that supported FARC as grass-roots ‘freedom fighters’. Although it is true that countries with active rebel movements often have very flawed central governments, it is important not to mistake genuine ideological belief with rhetoric: many rebel leaders use the grievances they profess solely for their PR value. Colombians in any event are on to the ruse, and went out en masse around the world in protests denouncing the FARC’s continued reign of violence (the common chant was “No more kidnappings, no more lies, no more murders, no more FARC.“). These protests hopefully will help end the perception among some in the West of the FARC as a popular movement in opposition to the legitimate (and currently quite good) Colombian government.
In the case of Bolivia, which is both landlocked and a victim of the resource trap, the possibility of a slip into conflict has recently increased with little attention from the international media. The democratically-elected government of Evo Morales has been attempting to rewrite the constitution to redress the economic disenfranchisement of the northwestern part of the country. Understandably, the wealthier southeastern states are nonplussed. Morales, stymied at a constitutional convention, arranged an end-run around agreed convention processes to get his preferred constitution passed. In retaliation, leaders of the southeastern states are declaring autonomy from the central government and claiming a willingness to secede from the country entirely. The Morales government is now threatening to use force to impose its will. Given that Bolivia is the poorest country in Latin America, this is a conflict Bolivians can ill afford.