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Falling Behind and Falling Apart

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Falling Behind and Falling Apart

Owing to the ramifications of Covid-19 pandemic, poverty has been on the rise. In his marvellous book “The Bottom Billion,” Paul Collier has aptly pointed out that the development challenge has been a rich world of one billion people facing a poor world of five billion. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set by the United Nations to track development progress through 2030 encapsulate this thinking. Out of these five billion people, about 80 percent live in countries that are developing, often at an amazing speed. The real challenge of development is that there is a group of countries at the bottom that are falling behind, and often falling apart.
Although the countries at the bottom are in the 21st century, yet, in reality, they seem to be in the 14th as they are mired in civil wars, plagues and ignorance. They are concentrated in Africa and Central Asia, with a scattering elsewhere. Even during the 1990s – the golden decade between the end of the Cold War and 9/11 – incomes in this group declined by five percent. We must learn to turn the familiar numbers upside down: a total of five billion people who are already prosperous, or, at least, are on track to be so, and one billion who are stuck at the bottom.
This problem matters, and not just to a billion people who are living and dying in 14th-century conditions; it rather matters to all of us. The 21st-century world of material comfort, global travel and economic interdependence will become increasingly vulnerable to these large islands of chaos. And it matters now. As the yawning gap between the rich and the poor is complicated, the integration will not be easier.
And yet it is a problem denied, both by development biz and by development buzz. Development biz is run by the aid agencies and the companies that get the contracts for projects. They will fight this thesis with the tenacity of bureaucracies endangered, because they like things the way they are. A definition of development that encompasses five billion people gives them license to be everywhere, or more honestly, everywhere but the bottom billion. At the bottom, conditions are rather rough. Every development agency has difficulty getting its staff to serve in Chad and Laos; the glamour postings are for countries such as Brazil and China. The World Bank has large offices in every major middle-income country but not a single person is living in the Central African Republic. So don’t expect the development biz to refocus voluntarily.
Development buzz is generated by rock stars, celebrities and NGOs. To its credit, it does focus on the plight of the bottom billion. It is thanks to development buzz that Africa gets on the agenda of the G7. But inevitably, development buzz has to keep its messages simple, driven by the need for slogans, images and anger. Unfortunately, although the plight of the bottom billion lends itself to simple moralizing, the answers do not. It is a problem that needs to be hit with several policies at the same time, some of them counterintuitive. Don’t look to development buzz to formulate such an agenda.
What about the governments of the countries at the bottom? The prevailing conditions bring out extremes. Leaders are sometimes psychopaths who have shot their way to power; sometimes crooks who have bought it, and sometimes brave people who, against all odds, are trying to build a better future. Even the appearance of modern government in these states is sometimes a facade as if the leaders are reading from a script. They sit at the international negotiating tables but they have nothing to negotiate. The government of Somalia, for example, continued to be officially “represented” in the international arena for years after Somalia ceased to have a functioning government in the country itself. So don’t expect the governments of the bottom billion to unite in formulating a practical agenda: they are fractured between villains and heroes, and some of them are barely there. For our future world to be liveable, the heroes must win their struggle. But the villains have the guns and the money, and, to date, they have usually prevailed. That will continue unless we radically change our approach. Unfortunately, this is a daunting challenge for the countries where majority of the poor live.
All societies used to be poor. Most are now lifting out of poverty. Why are others still stuck? The answer is traps. Poverty is not intrinsically a trap; otherwise we would all still be poor. Think for a moment, of development as chutes and ladders. In the modern world of globalization, there are some fabulous ladders; most societies are using them. But there are also some chutes, and some societies have hit them. The countries at the bottom are an unlucky minority, but they are stuck. The villains rule the hapless minority.
The writer is a Chevening Scholar and studied International Development at the University of Manchester

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