Skip to main content

In 2007, I read a book by Paul Collier that had a profound impact on me. It’s called “The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries are Failing and What Can Be Done About It.

Paul Collier is a Professor of Economics at Oxford University, and he explores why impoverished countries fail to progress despite international aid and support.  In the book, Professor Collier argues that there are many countries whose residents have experienced little, if any, income growth.  He concluded that just under 60 such economies are home to almost 1 billion people.

However, I believe he does not spend much time answering the question of why we should care.

Why should we care? 

After all, we have enough problems here at home – a potential banking crisis, a catastrophic pandemic, a poorly functioning and affordable healthcare system, wage inequality, declining test scores in our schools, racism, and gun violence.  Oh, yes, and now we need to worry about artificial intelligence.  The list is endless.

But I submit to you that caring about the “bottom billion” will enrich our lives here at home.  Caring about the bottom billion has significant economic, humanitarian, and global implications, and addressing their needs can contribute to a more stable, prosperous, and just world.

The neighborhood effect

Consider three reasons to support the bottom billion: increased migration, the spread of disease, and its effect on mortality in the affected countries.

In 1987, William Julius Wilson introduced the term “the neighborhood effect” through his book “The Truly Disadvantaged,” which examines the relationship between race and poverty in the United States, and the history of American inner-city ghettos.  Professor Wilson was a professor at Harvard University and author of works on urban sociology, race and class issues, and a Laureate of the National Medal of Science.  Wilson’s theory suggests that living in a neighborhood seriously affected by poverty affects a wide range of individual outcomes, such as economic self-sufficiency, violence, drug use, low birthweight, and cognitive ability.  The neighborhood effect is an economic and social science concept that posits that neighborhoods have either a direct or indirect effect on individual behaviors.   The neighborhood effect happens, not just in the United States, but throughout the world.

When a civil war breaks out or a pandemic occurs, or people simply lack the ability to feed themselves, migration occurs and often this results in the spread of disease.  That spread of disease significantly impacts mortality rates in the affected countries where the immigrants have migrated.  A good example is the spread of malaria.  In other words, a powerful neighborhood effect.  The disease vectors are highly persistent even when conflicts end, and economies recover and reform.  Most of the cost of civil war occurs after the war has ended.    But we have only just looked at the effect on a particular nation.  There are considerable costs that come across the Atlantic and arrive on our doorstep.

Significant issues to consider. 

First are the health costs.  Disease has no boundaries.  Germs and viruses don’t need a passport.  There is strong evidence, for example, that the global AIDS pandemic came out of Africa because of a civil war.  There are two reasons for this: mass rape and mass population movement.  And that “cocktail” spreads sexually transmitted diseases.  So, think of what could have been averted if we could have eliminated just one civil war.

The second area is that of “hard drugs.” Illegal drug use is an enormous problem to both North America and Europe.  The costs associated with Illegal drug use are astounding.  Largely because of the link between drugs and criminality.  Something like 95% of the production of hard drugs is in civil war environments or post-civil war environments.  There is a simple reason for this – in order to produce hard drugs, you need an environment outside the control of a recognized government.  This becomes one of the inadvertent results of a civil war.  They evolve into drug baronies.

The third consideration is that these areas become safe havens for terrorism.  It is no accident that al-Qaeda used Afghanistan as a “friendly environment” to recruit, train, and fundraise. Let’s remember, the 9/11 terrorists were not actually Afghani.  They moved to Afghanistan because it offered them a safe haven.  A safe haven, outside the control of a recognized government.

There was even evidence of financing for al-Qaeda to civil wars in West Africa.  Diamonds are a good example.  So, there is a security dimension to this as well, along with disease, economic costs, and crime.  Today, financial scams are continuing to be an issue for us and are getting worse.  Criminals, terrorists, and germs want territory outside the control of an effective State.

There aren’t many of these safe havens today.  It would be a realistic goal for us to say, “let’s work to eliminate them over the next twenty years.”

The instrument for that does not have to be military.  There are must more cost-effective ways of transforming States, than invading them.  Nonprofits like Rotary are great examples of effective tools.

Food Insecurity

According to the World Food Program, more than 1 in 10 people go to bed hungry each night. “Three hundred and forty-five million people are marching toward starvation,” according to David Beasley, Executive Director of the United Nations World Food Program. He goes on to say that this will worsen because of inflation, currency devaluation, war, and corruption.

If that sounds like too much to handle, let’s remember that through food security, we bring peace around the world.  If we don’t invest the money and commit the time, the cost will be a thousand times more, not just because of starvation but also the destabilization of entire nations.  So, money well-spent brings people hope in times of hopelessness.  We can’t back down now because if we do, we will pay a lot more.

The problems we face today are pretty extraordinary, but let’s put this into perspective – we are putting rockets in space and creating powerful computers, and that technology is doing remarkable things. Let’s use that ingenuity to end starvation and hunger around the planet.  There is $400 trillion worth of wealth on the planet today.  Charity is not the long-term solution, but we are in a crisis now and need everyone’s help.  More importantly, we need your engagement.  We need engagement, not just money, because if we work together, we can solve this problem.

The story of the United States is a story about the combined efforts of business, nonprofits, religious organizations, and government coming together to create the incredible country we have today.  We are not alone in our struggles.

There are many examples of success.  The World Food Bank is creating an impact model that joins small-hold farmers with the education, tools, financing, and marketplace they need for success to make a real and permanent change.  According to CEO and chairman, Richard Lackey, “The World Food Bank is a unique model to cure food insecurity.  We are a for-profit company for one, and we’ve designed a system across multiple connected geographies, typically a country or countries, in order to create a suitably diversified system.  We connect farmers with everything needed to build an integrated agricultural system,”

“By teaching farmer’s best practices to share with others, and providing access to the tools, marketplace, and the financing- it all creates a sustainable business model for small-hold farmers to find success, relieving poverty, and leading to sustained food availability.”

The African Example

The United Nations says there are There are 54 countries in Africa today.  Botswana is already a great model for other African countries to follow.  Botswana is an African democracy that has managed to build a system of checks and balances that has made their resource wealth really valuable for its population.  For many years, Botswana was not only the fastest economy in Africa – it was the fastest growing economy on earth.  It moved from “dirt poor” to middle income status quickly.  This is the model that Nigeria is trying implement.  Ghana, Senegal, Madagascar, and Tanzania are examples of coastal countries that could make a thrust into global markets.  It is not easy to break out of poverty.  Leaders in those countries receive death threats from the “rent seekers” who want to stop that reform.  However, when we see those kinds of successes, they create the power of example, the power of protests, the power of international standards, and those examples will continue to spread across Africa.

Making it happen

Caring about the “bottom billion” is not only a matter of morality but also has significant economic, humanitarian, and global implications.  Addressing their needs can create a more stable, prosperous, and just world.

With $400 trillion worth of wealth in this world, no child needs to die from hunger.