Don’t say colonialism! the debate on Paul Collier

collier_34_4_soldier2.gif Boston Review has a special issue on Paul Collier’s ideas about how the international community can help “the Bottom Billion,” with some commentators including myself. For the first time, Professor Collier responds to some of the criticisms I have made of his arguments, so this is a good opportunity to see if we can advance the debate.

First, I have to remind those who don’t like debates that they do play a constructive role. Psychologists have documented the phenomenon of “groupthink,” in which every member of a group believes something becauses every other member of the group believes it, often prodded by an authority figure. A dissenter is very useful even if the dissenter is WRONG and the group is RIGHT as a challenge to make them independently justify their arguments, not just echo each other. Of course, when groupthink is WRONG, then you need dissenters far more. Dissenters can even prevent plane crashes when “groupthink” in the cockpit goes in a bad direction! (see the discussion in the great book Sway)

Second, I congratulate Prof. Collier on his success in convincing many influential people of his arguments. However, such success does make it even more essential that his dissenters are answered. It is understandable that Prof. C is a bit impatient with the few remaining dissenters after his success at persuading Downing Street and Beltway think tanks; he keeps citing eminent authorities who agree with him; he classifies the two dissenters in this Boston Review issue – Berkeley Professor Edward Miguel and myself – as outside “the core of the serious range for policy discussion.”

It is also understandable that the busy professor has not had enough time to fully read up on the arguments against him, the more serious of which he ignores and the less serious of which he misunderstands. He ignores the evidence against his image of catastrophic economic growth lasting forever – so central to his Bottom Billion concept – instead, movement back towards world averages is characteristic of previously poor growth performers on average. And as Miguel pointed out, and Collier acknowledges, Africa has already moved back to average world economic growth since the new millennium.

Collier is also upset that I “grossly misrepresented” him by saying he had a “poverty trap” theory of the Bottom Billion. The usual notion of a poverty trap is that poverty causes something bad to happen, and then that something bad prevents growth out of poverty, so you are trapped. Prof. Collier says that “poverty” is one of the factors that makes “rebellion easy,” as well as military coups. And “even the possibility of war is enough to deter investment and stunt growth,” and the same with unpredictable coups. So the “something bad” is war or coups, which makes growth impossible. Collier’s argument actually fits perfectly the definition of “poverty trap.” However, let’s honor his wish to call it something else, perhaps a “an income deficiency snare.”

I have for too long been harping on how unreliable is the “data mining” apparently used by Collier. Collier knows that few outside academia care about these statistical problems, so he plays to his audience by asserting hidden motives: “behind expressions of statistical fastidiousness lurks a recognizable philosophical hostility to public action.” Once again the harried Prof. Collier did not have the time to read my “New Data, New Doubts” paper that he cites (which partially applied to Collier’s own earlier work on aid and growth), so he missed the point – if an old result disappears with new data, that is consistent with the original result coming from “data mining” on the old sample of data.

I was foolish enough to refer to Collier’s recommended policies as “colonialism,” which he deems “coarse thought, not statistical rigor.” Collier understandably paints me as the wild-eyed extremist, while he is the reasonable advocate for democratically sanctioned international peacekeepers. Let’s double check, just to be sure. The UN Security Council decides on military intervention (“peacekeepers”) or a Great Power does it on their own. Two of the Council’s permanent members are authoritarian, most of the Great Powers follow their own geo-strategic interests most of the time, and none of them have any democratic rights for Bottom Billion citizens to make Security Council or Great Power foreign policy decisions. (Small caveat: There never has existed or will exist a benevolent and politically neutral international force that will rapidly deploy to surgically solve Bottom Billion problems.) Yet the Great Powers will decide according to Collier’s proposals whether an “area or people” are allowed to have elections, whether the elections are legitimate when allowed, and when to send in the military (which, despite the nice “peacekeepers” label, are in a purely technical sense made up of soldiers carrying guns that are aimed at people.)

The dictionary definition of “colonialism” is “Control by one power over a dependent area or people.” I agree that permanent colonies are a thing of the past, but the above description sure sounded a lot like “control” of “a dependent area” by outside powers. Many may indeed think me way out of line to call Collier’s proposals by the inflammatory word “colonialism” just because of the technicality that they actually fit the definition of “colonialism.” But us dissenters will persist anyway because the Bottom Billion deserve better than control by a development expert with an army, they deserve democratic rights just as much as all the other Billions.