The Bottom Billion was explicitly about explaining the problems of Africa. It was Collier's description of the problem. In that analysis, many of the challenges were constants. A country without a port is forever consigned to some economic vulnerability. Bad neighbors are also a problem. Others are transitory. A corrupt government enables poverty. Abundant non-renewable natural resources (the "resource curse") is another problem. The last issue is at the heart of most of this book. In the global economy, natural resources (oil, coltan, copper, diamonds, et al) are sought after by China and the West. That is where the Bottom Billion finished.
This is his prescription for the problem. Collier is much more pragmatic. He's asking, 'if Africa is poor but it does have natural resources, then how should the extraction of those resources be engineered to actually help people out of poverty?" Plunder is when bad leaders put their own greed in front of the needs of their nations, often with the facilitation of a world power or a global corporation. Too frequently, abundant resources mix with a lack of transparency in institutions, no rule of law, a poor and poorly educated population. It might be coincidental, or it might be that one breeds the other. No difference. It is the problem that Africa faces today.
Here is how it goes: a relatively undeveloped but somewhat orderly third world country wakes up to the news that (diamonds, oil, copper, uranium...) a vast mine of resources is located inside it borders. Global corporations move into town. They would like to explore, perhaps to find more reserves. Those corporations are not alone - they are soon side by side with the ministries of several nations. They want the goods, and they are willing to pay. The country has a government, albeit it unacquainted with geology or with international law. A deal is struck. The money goes into an account. No one sees the dollars in the country, though. It is siphoned off through "facilitation payments" or by ouright theft. The people are worse off than before, because demand for currency drives up the export price of the other economic products of the country. This is Dutch Disease.
There are better ways for a resource-blessed country to proceed. The model is Norway, where oil wealth was invested into safe US Treasuries. The gradual enrichment of the country took time, but now Norway has excellent roads, clean water, and good schools. That investment has in turn fostered an educated labor force that creates its own value. The dark path is that of Zaire or Equitorial Guinea - where resources have wrecked civil society. Collier thinks there ought to be a balance. Norway's path is generally preferable, although Collier takes exception to the idea of putting off spending. He feels like you cannot give everything to future generations at the expense of today.
The first interesting thing that Collier has to say is that Africa is not actually as well endowed with resources as if often though. With a few of his graduate students, he attempted to monetize known resource assets. The answer was intriguing: across 3/4s of the world, there were about 192,000 pounds per acre in resources. In Africa, there was just 23,000. He doubts that the land is so barren, but only that the continent' lack of development has meant that it is still largely unexplored. Nonetheless, most of those countries are dependent upon commodity exports. They have fewer resources on a relative level, but they have even fewer non-resource assets.
The second interesting thing: he's not so black-and-white about Chinese expansion into the resource game. He likes two things. For one, the Chinese will provide the funds for a country to get its own survey of its geology. That means that these countries are negotiating with more certainty. Second, the Chinese pay in a way that prevents plunder. Whereas the West likes to offer dollars through transparent agreements, the Chinese prefer to build infrastructure but not to provide any details about their deals. There is value to that approach. It guarantees that those oil or copper dollars won't go into the Swiss accounts of the Prime Minister.
A third interesting thing: Collier believes that "pastoralism," his term for the rose-colored view of village life and local agriculture, is a short-sighted and potentially harmful concept. Prince Charles has apparently developed a working village community in England, with artisan trade workers and small farming. Development organizations have lately taken to supporting micro-finance projects and small scale farming. The problem with that, he says, is that we already have about one billion people that cannot eat. Population is only going to expand. Moreover, with climate change it is likely that there will be fewer places that are suitable for farming. The world is going to have more starving people, unless we accept large scale agronomy and the opportunities afforded by fertilizers and GMO crops. I think he understands why people love going to their farmer's market: the food just tastes better. And it does, but there is a cost. While all of those farmer's markets probably don't take many acres away from Cargill or ADM, the idea is the problem. If the World Food Programme decides that it is going to fund projects that support small peasant plots, then Africa will never be able to feed its mega-cities.
I imagined that this would be a book about the destruction of our natural environment. It was the title, "Plundered Planet," as well as its subhead about nature and prosperity, that made me think Collier would be skip to a discussion about stewardship of nature. Ah, but that is what this book is not about. Collier even singles out the idea of "stewardship" as misguided. How can we put the interest of nature first if it means consigning more nations to poverty, and more people to lives without sanitation, education, and adequate food? The problem is that many environmental aims are met by holding development in place. He wants clean forests, stocks of fish, and fresh air. He also wants economic growth. This book is about satisfying both of those aims. The success or failure will be witnessed in Africa, where people are already poor but will also be among the most vulnerable to climate change.
I enjoyed this book because it is so thorough, and also because I feel like I have been listening to someone who is not afraid to contradict a popular opinion. These are the thoughts of someone that has spent his life thinking about how we can actually make a difference for the Wretched of the Earth. Although it is written by a world-class academic, it is still written in a way that it can be understood by the average reader.