Since its publication a couple of years ago, Paul Collier’s excellent The Bottom Billion has helped to reshape the development debate. Collier argues that although many poor countries have made impressive strides in recent years, a hard core of about 50 countries – home to some of the world’s “bottom billion” poorest people – seem to be trapped, and are being left ever further behind.
Ideas such as these have proved persuasive in development circles, fuelling an increasing focus on what needs to be done to help these 50 or so “bottom billion” countries (although this hasn’t always been reflected in actual aid disbursements).
Some of the concern is humanitarian, but some also is driven by security worries: In many cases, these are so-called fragile states that are – or risk becoming – breeding grounds for terror and conflict.
Now, however, there are signs of a bit of a backlash, notably in the form of a paper from researcher Andy Sumner. He argues that if we focus on the poorest countries, we’ll actually miss most of the world’s poor.
According to his research, about three-quarters of the world’s 1.3 billion poorest people live today in what the World Bank classes as middle-income countries (MICs), for example India. Against that, only 370 million of them live in the 39 so-called low-income countries (LICs), mostly in sub-Saharan Africa. The contrast with the situation 20 years ago is striking: Back in 1990, Sumner estimates, about 93% of the world’s poorest people lived in low-income countries.
In short: Most of the world’s poor no longer live in what are regarded as poor countries.
Sumner’s paper has been grabbing attention – and generating debate – in development circles. As Duncan Green notes, the findings are “to some extent an artifice of country classification … poor people live in roughly the same countries as in 1990, but those countries have got a little bit richer.” In effect, most Indians who were poor when India was classed as a low-income country were still poor when India was reclassified as a middle-income country.
Nevertheless, the findings do raise some interesting issues. As Owen Barder suggests, they may lead us to see poverty in a new way – not the result of insufficient development but rather of inequality. “The figures suggest that the biggest causes of poverty are not lack of development in the country as a whole, but political, economic and social marginalisation of particular groups in countries that are otherwise doing quite well,” he writes.
For Jonathan Glennie, that raises questions over who should take the lead in tackling poverty: “It is one thing transferring money to very poor countries,” he writes. “But to transfer cash to countries like China and India that not only have nuclear power and space programmes, but also have their own multi-billion dollar aid programmes, is quite another. Aid money is irrelevant to them – should the traditional donors therefore just leave them to it?”
Perspectives on Global Development from the OECD Development Centre