Important insights marred by irritating writing style: Paul Collier’s The Bottom Billion

A street in Roque Santeiro market, Luanda, Angola

A street in Roque Santeiro market, Luanda, Angola

The Bottom Billion is well worth reading for presenting some very powerful insights into the causes of conflict and poverty from some imaginative economic analysis. However Prof Collier does rather overegg his argument with the tiresome use of straw men: assigning to his imagined opponents views which almost no one holds. For example how many leftist political scientists would regard the Lord’s Resistance Army as anything other than a manifestation of murderous craziness? Prof Collier suggests at one point that there is some latent sympathy for them in vast swathes of academia.

He also asserts support for his analysis from some dubious historical examples: for example he argues that UNITA’s welcome demise in Angola arose from the imposition of effective measures against blood diamonds, which reduced UNITA’s natural resource wealth.

I worked in Angola when some of these measures were put in place and certainly was a vocal supporter of such sanctions as a means of reducing UNITA’s capacity to kill. But I think most people who know a little of the Angolan conflict would feel that the provision of American intelligence to the Angolan Armed Forces had more of an impact on the destruction of UNITA’s armed insurrection, leading ultimately to the killing of their psychotic leader Jonas Savimbi.

So overall a book worth reading for the important insights drawn from fine research, but requiring of something of a strong stomach to get over Prof Collier’s irritating tendency in this book to suggest that he is the only wise thinker on conflict in the world.

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