Christmas reading: The Bottom Billion

This Christmas, I finally got around to reading a book that shook the world of international development almost ten years ago: The Bottom Billion, based on research by Paul Collier plus a host of collaborators.

Paul Collier argues that instead of seeing poverty as the problem of the 5 billion people who live in developing countries, that is, countries that are substantially poorer than for instance the United Stated, South Korea or Luxembourg, we should focus on the 1 billion people living in the poorest countries in the world.

The book offers a number of strategies that the international community can follow to tighten the growing gap between the 5 billion that will be ok, and the 1 billion than might not be. These strategies are designed to curb the existing problems the bottom-billion countries suffer from: unceasing military conflict; the possession of natural resources, such as oil, which profits are spoiling the reliability of their politicians and the soundness of their economical investments; the absence of infrastructures through which they can reach potential markets for their products; and bad economic policies and bad governance.

Much of the book’s research was convincing to me. An important limitation, however, seems to be its exclusive focus on countries-as-a-whole. Problems are identified as residing in national governments; solutions in the relations between those national governments (‘international relations’), and especially in interventions by the wealthiest states, e.g. the G8 or, nowadays, the G20.

To be fair, this book is aimed at readers living in those wealthy countries (referred to in the book as ‘we’). So the focus on international relations is not altogether surprising. Still, the book makes the assumption that as soon as the economies of the bottom-billion countries will take off, everyone in those countries will sufficiently benefit from this. In other words: as soon as state-level statistics will be all right, everyone in those states will be all right.

Collier leaves you curious about the dynamics within the countries at risk of ‘falling behind’. What happens between their citizens and their national and local governments? Can we feel reassured, once the national government of a bottom-billion country has secured a good tax income? How will the grown wealth of the country as a whole, reach all parts of the population? This bottom billion that we should be concerned about – is that the entire populations of the 58 (mostly small) countries that he mentions? Or is it, rather, large chunks of a far greater number of countries, including huge countries like India and Mexico?

One of the global game-changers over the past years has been the fact that wealth disparities between countries have for the first time since many centuries been falling. At the same time, however, inequality among citizens within countries has in many countries been on the rise since the 1980s, and especially since the crisis of 2008. For this reason, I would have liked to hear more about intra-national politics in Collier’s book.

Another question raised by the book’s emphasis on economic growth is the question whether the economy of a country can ever be big enough, or whether it will always need to grow further. Will the bottom-billion countries have to grow until the people in them will have reached a certain living standard? Or until they have reached a nominal income comparable to the wealthier countries? Will it help if the growth of the wealthy countries slows down (which has happened after 2008)? Or is the global aim everlasting growth? But then again, is this even theoretically possible, considering the limited amount of soil and other natural resources on the planet? Without giving his readers a rough idea about where these issues fit in with his development theory, some important parts of his story remain unconvincing.

Still, I was pleased to see that Collier’s ideas have not been standing still since the publication of The Bottom Billion. Whereas in the book he writes a little derisively about ‘sustainable’ or ‘pro-poor growth’, in his later popular publications he is not afraid to speak of ‘inclusive’ and even ‘sustainable growth’.dsc04609 One cruel irony that I cannot resist sharing: have a look at the banner which the publisher has placed right across the cover image of a child soldier.

Two critiques of Collier’s book that raise similar points as I have tried to do here, and which come from specialists in the field, are by A. Sumner and Michael Lipton.


Dead Russian visits London

I find it impossible sometimes not to view the historical period I investigate through the lens of current affairs. The current debates about the place of Britain in the world, and foreigners’ place in Britain, inevitably resonate in my research, which is about European travel in the nineteenth century.

Alexey Bogolyubov, Fregat Pallada (1847), now in the Central Naval Museum, Saint Petersburg; image from Wikimedia Commons.

Goncharov’s ship on which he circumnavigated the world: Alexey Bogolyubov, Fregat Pallada (1847), now in the Central Naval Museum, Saint Petersburg; image from Wikimedia Commons.

At the moment, I am reading Ivan Goncharov’s report of his journey around the world in the 1850s. He writes a lot about his experiences in the south of England. His observations on the languages spoken by the English still apply today. To understand the following, it is good to know that French was the language spoken throughout Europe by travellers, diplomats, merchants and other people who wanted to communicate across borders. French, not English, was the European lingua franca. And yet, Goncharov writes:

everyone who wants to go to England must willy-nilly acquaint himself [with the English language]: whoever doesn’t know it, better not go to England. Here, like something rare, they hang a sign saying, in large letters, Ici on parle français.

Like a nineteenth-century equivalent of the signs you see on hotels in some countries nowadays – ‘we speak your language’, touristic shops and hotels in Goncharov’s London could distinguish themselves by speaking the common European language. Speaking this common language was not self-understood, let alone speaking further languages.

The isolationist views that many Britons today hold are still related to the low proportion of people who understand a foreign language. To make things worse, if the UK leaves the EU it may lose access to the Erasmus programme which allows European students to spend a semester abroad and improve their linguistic skills. If we don’t pay attention, Goncharov’s observation might therefore only win in poignancy the coming years.

The reason for both those isolationist views and the relative lack of interest in foreign languages has a lot to do with the economic history of Britain. A second episode in Goncharov’s visit sheds light on this. This episode, too, may sound familiar to travellers of the present day. As Goncharov landed in England, the famous Duke of Wellington had just died. He had fought Napoleon in the Battle of Waterloo and in terms of popularity could be termed the Churchill of the nineteenth century. Not surprisingly therefore, Wellington merchandise was selling like hot cakes. Goncharov could not resist buying something, and so he bought

a medallion of some sort from a boy. I wanted to give him fourpence for it, but by mistake I took from my purse a ten-kopeck piece. The little boy caught up with me, threw the money at my back, screaming like a stuck pig: “No use, no use!”

Paying euro-cents instead of pennies: it is a mistake I have made myself many a time when returning to Britain after a short trip abroad… and every time there was the suspicion with the person I was paying, that I was trying to play a nasty trick on them. The reason they thought so, was of course that the British economy and the pound sterling are among the strongest of the world. And they were so in Goncharov’s days as well as our own. For instance, because of their relative wealth, the British elite of the nineteenth century could easily travel around Europe and settle down cheaply in Italy or Spain.

However, it will depend on the coming British-European negotiations for the movement of people and goods, and on the strength of British industry, whether this comfortable position will stay the same. Ironically, the very possibility to keep an isolationist outlook will depend on the intercultural communication skills of British negotiators


I have quoted from Klaus Goetze’s (!) English translation of The Frigate Pallada with St. Martin’s Press (New York, 1987), pp. 32 and 37.


Dirt or development?

British air is too dirty, the newspapers reported this week.

But who decides what is dirty? As a historian, I see norms of cleanliness shift over the centuries. What is more, I see some of the roots of current norms going back to the nineteenth century or beyond.

According to anthropologist Mary Douglas, dirt is ‘matter out of place’.

In the case of British air, that matter is nitrogen dioxide. And it is out of place because it should not leave car exhausts in such great quantities as it does, building up in our cities. At least, that is the opinion of the European Commissioner for the Environment, who is about to sue Britain for breaching EU legislation. Environmental NGOs like Client Earth agree. They even have the UK Supreme Court on their side.

Yet local and national governments are failing to implement the legislation. Clearly, their norms and priorities differ from those who want to see British cities cleaned up immediately.

Charles Marville, Parisian rue des Francs-bourgeois-Saint-Marcel, mid-19th-century. Digital version from Paris Secret et Insolite

Picturesque or dirty? Charles Marville photographed the Parisian rue des Francs-bourgeois-Saint-Marcel in the course of Haussmann’s improvement project of the mid-19th-century. Digital version from Paris Secret et Insolite

In my work, I find similar conflicts over what matter is ‘out of place’. Take the case of early-nineteenth-century Dutch travellers. The place where they lived contained hardly any steam engines as yet, and little industry that might blow out polluting particles, when compared to Belgium or Britain in the same period. The Dutch economy ran largely on cows and sailing ships: two things which, although involving a certain amount of smelliness, did not usually concentrate in the streets of their cities.

So when Dutch travellers visited foreign towns, they were not so concerned with smoking chimneys. What they found dirty instead were unpaved roads, dust and mud. Indoors, matters were even worse as they encountered stuffy rooms which occupants kept the windows shut while smoking pipes or even keeping animals in the same space. Where other people felt snug and homy, these travellers felt sick.

On a typical stroll through an Italian city, they complained about streets being ‘[n]arrow, close, irregular, steep and crooked […] The heat […] was unbearable […] The smell, fuming towards me from the black, dirty, six-story high houses, I found insufferable [and I found] grimy rags [hung out] to dry’.

All in all, these travellers associated dirt with a lack of civilisation. In the undeveloped state in which much of Europe remained, according to these Netherlanders, matter had not yet found its way to the right places. Medieval alleys had not yet been straightened out, gutters not been cleared, ventilation shafts in houses not yet constructed. Nothing moved, everything was stuck.

This nineteenth-century ideal of movement and progress is oddly reminiscent of the behaviour of many governments today. Still thinking in eighteenth- or nineteenth-century terms, they like to see things move. They focus narrowly on economic growth, but do not invest in infrastructures that would make this growth a (literally) healthy one.

Of course, this has also much to do with the historical growth of an energy and transport sector that depends heavily on internal-combustion engines. This sector, and those parts of western governments that rely on it financially, have become entrenched: they resist the investments necessary for a shift towards different forms of energy storage (such as water reservoirs) and more efficient forms of releasing this energy (such as public rail transport).

Their public expressions of what is dirty and what is not have by now become pretty old-fashioned. If we follow their norms, the nitrogen dioxide in our streets is not matter out of place at all. It is precisely where it should be, and the sign of a roaring economy.

This text was published earlier on University of Sheffield’s History Matters, in slightly altered form.