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 world’s poorest regions, areas populated by what he has called the “bottom billion.” 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. Collier’s argument rests on the claim that dozens of the world’s poorest countries, mainly in Africa, “have diverged from the rest of mankind” and are “structurally unable” to develop economically. This is a claim worth considering carefully. Are the world’s poorest, and overwhelmingly African, countries a lost cause?