In his essay (and two recent books) Paul Collier lays out a detailed vision for how foreign aid and intervention might promote economic progress in the worldâ€™s poorest regions, areas populated by what he has called the â€œbottom billion.â€ The key problem, as Collier describes it here, is that: "A group of about 60 small, impoverished, post-colonial countries . . . . are structurally unable to provide the public goods . . . that are critical for decent quality of life and imperative for economic development. They have diverged from the rest of mankind." This diagnosis leads him to the following prescription: "If countries of the bottom billion are structurally unable to supply security and accountability, then some form of international supply is required."
For reasons I will discuss later, international provision of national public goods may be neither desirable nor even possible. But first things first. Collierâ€™s argument rests on the claim that dozens of the worldâ€™s poorest countries, mainly in Africa, â€œhave diverged from the rest of mankindâ€ and are â€œstructurally unableâ€ to develop economically. This is a claim worth considering carefully. Are the worldâ€™s poorest, and overwhelmingly African, countries a lost cause?