A Look at Paul Collier’s Routes out of Poverty

In case you missed it, economic expert Paul Collier recently came to Northwestern to deliver a speech entitled “Routes out of Poverty: What are the Expressways”. Sponsored by the Buffett Center for International and Comparative Studies and the Center for Global Engagement Global Development Series, and co-sponsored by One Book One Northwestern, Kellogg Global Programs, the Program of African Studies and the Center for Global Health, the event drew a crowd of students and Evanston residents to McCormick Auditorium. Collier got a rousing introduction from Brian Hanson, interim director of the Buffet Center for International and Comparative Studies.

What if there was a simple solution to poverty? Can it be possible that such a contested and tragic dilemma has a more simple solution than has ever occurred to us? As economist Paul Collier began to speak about the routes necessary to take to escape poverty, he offered a startling remark: we do, in fact, know the path; we just haven’t been able to access it.

It’s hard not to be impressed by Collier’s resume as an economist. He is the co-director of the Center for African Economies, has worked as the Director of the Research Development Department of the World Bank, and is the author of many books about poverty, foreign aid, and global prosperity.

In Hanson’s introduction, he mentioned that Collier’s books are famous for their understandable writing style, making it possible for the public to really understand economic principles that are often buried in scholarly prose. In a similar way, Collier’s speech ran from economic claims, to political examples, and on to cultural ideas, all without losing the interest or understanding of the audience.

The concept can be broken into three pieces: economic, political, and cultural. In the hour-long speech, Collier gave explanations of each portion, ending with a call to action – but we’ll get to that in a little bit.

Collier began with what he claimed would be a “two minute detour into econ.” In twice as many minutes, the audience learned that the expressway out of poverty is, simply, an industrial and global services economy. Africa hasn’t been able to reach that point, however, because as Collier puts it, “they need a cluster and connectivity to global markets.” Coastal nations may have access to markets, but without nearby production of similar goods, an isolated manufacturer cannot thrive. (Side note – At this point, Collier gave the example of a place called Buttonopoly; check out his book The Bottom Billion.)

We then journeyed into Collier’s explanation of the importance of natural resources to Africa’s future. This is the “decade of discovery,” and the huge amount of natural resources found in the continent offers Africa its best opportunity to growth in upcoming years.

“The challenge is to harness the opportunity,” he said, “rather than repeat history [past wars].”

It would be easy to write pages about the economic insight Collier provided, but in the interest of time, we’ll let you pick up one of his many books and move on to the second aspect of his talk: politics – both in Africa and around the world.

Most importantly, “we need to recognize that this is their struggle – not ours,” Collier said. “We cannot save them.” It may sound harsh – but it’s the raw reality. Collier knows what he’s talking about – David Cameron, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, read Collier’s book and took the advice to heart to make changes as one of the G8 nations, said Collier. Collier advised Cameron to, “avoid preaching and put your own house in order,” allowing Africa to harness their own opportunities. In his talk, Collier also had time to mention the importance of transparency, tax laws, and tackling corruption, all important aspects of the political category.

When Collier moved on to the cultural section of his talk, he acknowledged it as the most uncomfortable of the three aspects. “The reality is, poor countries have dysfunctional cultures,” he said.

What does he mean by that? Well, as he explained it, culture relies on characteristics such as trust, tolerance, and cooperation for a strong identity. Poor countries have low levels of all of these. These nations lack strong senses of identity, which is directly related to unproductivity of their firms. Because, Collier asserted, firms can be highly productive, but if they don’t internalize their objectives, their progress is counteracted.

Here’s an example: In a study of Ugandan schoolteachers, only 4% of English teachers got an 80% or higher on a test of their own curriculum; 30% of math teachers passed theirs. These teachers are paid for 7.5-hour days, said Collier, but they’ll only spend two hours with their students. What does this mean? Their lack of motivation causes a gap in passing skills on to students. The younger generation is then growing up guaranteed to add to the problem of a weak identity in their nation, all because their teachers didn’t internalize their objectives.

But how does this relate to health? When Paul mentioned this example of education, he brought up health as well. The same concept applies; if nations don’t internalize their goals for health services and education, it adds to the identity problem.

This is all well and good, but how do these three concepts (economics, politics, and culture) help us understand the routes out of poverty? Because of migration, said Collier. Now we’ve reached the grand idea of his lecture.

When students from poor countries come to America and acquire a functional culture, a powerful transfer occurs. “If they go back, there is solid evidence that students who return as catalysts of political and cultural change,” Collier said.

That does, of course, rely on the students’ return. The flow of students is highly beneficial, but only if they go back home. This brings up all sorts of discussion about immigration policy, which Collier only briefly touched on. In fact, his conclusion in general was brief. After giving such a thorough overview of the three sectors, Collier offered his solution in few sentences. He called upon every student in the audience to take his message to heart.

So I’ll do the same and leave you with Collier’s conclusion.

Is migration a simple solution to poverty made complicated, or a complicated solution defined simply?

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