Skip to content

Don’t say colonialism! the debate on Paul Collier


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.

This entry was posted in Aid policies and approaches. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.


  1. E Aboyeji wrote:

    This is good work. I actually agree with you on this one. But one thing you must give to Collier is that he does shed proper light in this debate…but maybe his solutions to the problems are not as well thought out. In fact, I think his emphasis on the political is a tad misguided. Politics may be a reason the poor are poor but it is far from a major reason or in fact the only reason

    Posted July 8, 2009 at 12:33 am | Permalink
  2. Yi wrote:

    Finally comes to debate with Collier, it’s gonna be a big dinner for me, thanks, Easterly.

    Just as the “success” of Collier’s work has been accomplished on massive, fancy, under-table data and models–every problem he seems able to present a single value–the Achille’s heel of his work will also be attacked through challenging the data and the models he employed. Like what Edward brought up, concerning the economic growth of sub-Saharan Africa during the past ten years, is a fatal hit on Collier’s framework: they are not trapped, even if they were trapped, they might have got out of the traps without applying any of the proposals in Collier’s framework. If so, his book is shaded.

    One of the other things is that seems Collier is also on the side of Sachs, conceiving the poor of being naturally flawed, whom, without external aid, are unable to be de-flawed. What i was clear before is that Easterly stands against them as he disagrees with “developmentalism” at all, but after reading more recently about his Who/What theory i become confused. Seems to me he has turned to support such outsider interventions. Seems with responsibility, with transparency and with aid reaching the neediest persons, the poorest of the poor will be saved? Isn’t Easterly on the same side with them now?

    Posted July 8, 2009 at 3:43 am | Permalink
  3. Stephen Jones wrote:

    I noticed this comment of Collier’s in his reply.

    But it should be said that in 2008 this work was assessed by a panel of Nobel-laureate economists who found it a sufficiently solid basis for their policy recommendation: peacekeeping was a good use of public money.

    What Collier seems to have completely forgotten is that most of those mathematically-oh-so-literate Nobel Economics laureates were responsible for the present economic crisis because they provided the academic legitimacy for a large number of highly dubious financial instruments.

    It is his obsession with ‘peacekeeping’ that I find most absurd. The only way to deploy a successful peacekeeping force is to deploy them in a zone where there is no conflict. The Peace Keeping force in the Sinai is the prime example of this.

    I live in Sri Lanka four months a year, and in 1987 there was what must surely have been the most justified peace-keeping intervention ever, that of the IPKF, Indian Peace Keeping Force. It had a totally justifiable cause, the support of the International Community, provided a sensible framework (which will probably be what is going to be applied now), and gained the forced support of the Lankan government, as well as that of the Tamils it was coming to protect, and was the nearest neighbour in the region which minimized cultural and linguistic difficulties. The result was a disaster. I have no reason to believe other ‘peace keeping’ efforts are going to be any more successful.

    Posted July 8, 2009 at 5:27 am | Permalink
  4. I’m not going to sit here and make a blanket defence of Collier, but it’s worth noting that while the use of Peacekeepers might make ‘colonialism’ a vivid phrase with which to denounce his work, the definition you provide (“Control by one power over a dependent area or people”) can by and large fit the broad category of ‘aid’. Most bilateral and multilateral providers of aid exert tremendous policy influence. If they have broad agreement on a set of interventions/policies, then they can be said to be acting as one, to some extent (and on some policies they do). They then use their support as leverage with which to direct the host Government’s policy mix to something more palatable to their own tastes.

    Posted July 8, 2009 at 5:48 am | Permalink
  5. David Roodman wrote:

    Bill, I don’t think “New Data, New Doubts” looks at Collier’s work, it being about Burnside & Dollar only. But after I did that paper with and under you, I went on to test half a dozen other aid-growth studies in my “Anarchy of Numbers” paper. The key results in Collier & Dollar, Collier & Hoeffler, and Collier & Dehn all disappeared when more years of data were added and/or outliers removed. Collier & Hoeffler also has a serious multicollinearity problem involving the key term of interest. I quite agree that his econometric style produces mined just-so stories.

    Posted July 8, 2009 at 10:24 am | Permalink
  6. It the preferred approaches to development work poorly what is to be done?

    I see three broad schools of thought (I’m grossly oversimplifying).

    1. Sachs school – “benign” paternalism

    2. Collier (Ha-Jook Chang?) school – let states alone to do their own thing

    3. Easterly school – bottom up aid

    1. Top down fails because donors don’t understand local conditions, give aid to things they favor and have their own bureaucratic goals. They may also have ulterior motives which are to promote the economic interests of the donors.

    2. Hands off fails because many states lack the intellectual infrastructure and honest government needed to keep projects focused on real needs. Even developed states are prone to boondoggles – Star Wars, anyone?

    3. Bottom up fails because the such aid doesn’t scale well to big projects. The Grameen bank doesn’t attempt to build wind farms or hydro-dams and a country can’t live on handicrafts alone.

    It seems that all approaches have value in some situations, but the various camps try to fit their preferred ideology to every situation. Perhaps the best approach would be to research which approach is best for a given circumstance. One size doesn’t fit all and a mixed economy can change emphasis when needed since it has experience with many types of organization.

    Even the US has a mix of direct government aid (say Social Security), donor aid – food banks, and indirect aid – federal payments to state Medicare programs. So why not in the development area?

    Posted July 8, 2009 at 10:58 am | Permalink
  7. Present at the Creation wrote:


    I’m one of Dr. Collier’s former students in development economics, and a former government economic adviser in Africa, and I can’t tell you how much I admire your work on this.

    It’s amazing to me how the concepts Paul is pushing are based on a small number of endlessly recycled narrow bits of statistical analysis he was doing thirty years ago, but I guess that’s how academic careers are often constructed. Back then some of the criticisms you advance were even more prima facie obvious than they are today, because now he comes armed with the prestige of decades of publications and work at the World Bank. Personally though I’m not seeing any more ‘Imperial clothing’ than I did in the 1970’s.

    You are also right that the big ‘inconvenient truth’ about efforts to aid poor countries (in ways that go beyond putting the vanity of the givers on display and finding exotic jobs for their clueless young graduates) is that there is no way to avoid the neo-colonial dilemma. It is sheer self-indulgence (there’s never been any shortage of that in the aid industry) to pretend otherwise.

    As soon as you get involved enough in the affairs of a poor country to make a substantial difference, you become partly responsible for what happens next, which usually includes a lot of bad things, and a lot of things Western publics have no stomach for/become hysterical about. Note that the bad things and the things Western ‘do-gooder’ voters can’t stand are often not the same (probably the most glaring and lethal example: DDT).

    You are then on the horns of the colonial dilemma, as many of our ancestors were at different times. You can stay where you are and be criticized for not doing enough by people like Paul Collier, or you can intervene more.

    Every step towards taking more control of public affairs in poor countries though necessarily becomes more paternalistic, and as the effort and resources involved become larger it quickly gets taken out of the hands of well-meaning nerds like Paul Collier and is transferred our own politicians and careerists, and since humanity, politicians and poor countries are what they are some more bad things happen.

    At this point a new generation of people exactly like Paul Collier comes along and start criticizing the colonial behavior of rich country governments, and the cycle rotates again.

    One can perceive in this account the appeal of his argument to a man like Paul Collier:

    (1) He imagines that he or someone like him will play a decisive role in the operation he proposes (true, as pointed out above, only in the most ephemeral sense)

    (2) His argument that aid intervention is not interventionist enough (because we typically don’t send in troops alongside the aid) sets him up in a superior position somehow well above current practices on the ground, thus insulating him from association with all of the daily fiascos those of us with practical experience of the ‘aid industry’ have both seen and participated in.

    The joke about Paul 30 years ago was that, commuting permanently between Oxford and the Plaza Hotel in New York consulting for the World Bank, his real home was at 30,000 feet. I see that he’s still up there, looking down on us lesser mortals who actually do practical things at ground level.

    Posted July 8, 2009 at 11:20 am | Permalink
  8. Kareen El Beyrouty wrote:

    I agree with your complaints against Dr. Collier. I’m just reading his book on the Bottom Billion and I believe he grossly oversimplifies the problems of the these countries.

    With regard to his denial of using a poverty traps approach, he has a whole section of the book called “Traps”. In this section, he identifies 4 traps and in another section he identifies 4 solutions. Seems way too simple.

    Although simplicity is great for conveying policy ideas, the real world is high dimensional and I don’t believe you can solve the problems of the bottom billion with just 4 ideas (none of which involve actions by citizens of these countries).

    Posted July 8, 2009 at 11:33 am | Permalink
  9. Posted July 8, 2009 at 12:15 pm | Permalink
  10. Ronan L wrote:

    Random aside, of which this post reminded me:

    In the computer game Civilization 2, once you got past a certain point, you no longer invaded other countries, you “engaged in peacekeeping missions”.

    Prof. Easterly, are you Sid Meier in disguise?! :)

    Posted July 8, 2009 at 1:08 pm | Permalink
  11. Menahem Prywes wrote:

    I find Collier’s attack on Ed Miguel uncolleagial and unprofessional. Miguel and his students at Berkely are the leaders in high quality econometric work on behavior of populations in conflict. Miguel’s work, using micro data and panels, is more persuasive than Collier’s macro-econometric equations. Moreover Collier claims that he can demonstrate causation through use of instrumental variable methods, when he is probably just introducting errors.

    Posted July 8, 2009 at 2:22 pm | Permalink
  12. Menahem wrote:

    Collier’s dismissal of Ed Miguel in unprofessional. Miguel and his former students are the leaders in high quality econometric work on the behavior of populations in conflict. Their use of micro-data and panels gives insights into how conflict form and how populatins respond.

    In contract, Collier’s use of macro-econometric equations, ‘adjusted’ using instrumental variables (IV) is unconvincing. Collier claims that IV allows him to demonstrate causation; I say he’s just instroducing error.

    Posted July 8, 2009 at 2:27 pm | Permalink
  13. Jeff Barnes wrote:

    I tend to agree with all of the above criticisms of Collier’s view. However, I do want to believe that there is a good case to be made for better peace keeping efforts. I am haunted by the UN Peacekeeper in charge of Rwanda who made a convincing case that he could have saved hundreds of thousands of lives if he had been given the resources to secure a few football stadiums. Collier’s solution may be wrong, but he is right to think about the problem. More often than not doing nothing may be the right solution, but we ought to have an understanding of when doing something is the right course of action and what that “something” is.

    Posted July 8, 2009 at 4:04 pm | Permalink
  14. Jascha Derr wrote:

    I agree, that the word colonialism is not appropriate in that context. However, paternalism seems appropriate.

    Posted July 8, 2009 at 6:25 pm | Permalink
  15. Matt wrote:

    “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.”

    If I remember correctly from reading Wars, Guns and Votes, the security guarantees are completely and absolutely voluntary: countries sign up to them. How on earth could that ever be construed as colonialism? You can’t infringe on sovereignty that was willingly given up.

    Of course the bottom billion deserve democratic rights – this is the whole point of finding methods to enforce electoral accountability – currently it does not exist in most countries in the bottom billion.

    I agree that Collier’s proposal needs more discussion before implementation, but you’re really going out of your way to portray this as some absurd, epic battle between evil neocolonialism and the disenfranchised bottom billion, with the brave dissenters standing in the way! This issue deserves more nuance than this.

    Posted July 8, 2009 at 6:46 pm | Permalink
  16. Stephen Jones wrote:

    the security guarantees are completely and absolutely voluntary: countries sign up to them. How on earth could that ever be construed as colonialism? You can’t infringe on sovereignty that was willingly given up.


    Cuba ‘voluntarily’ gave up Guatánamo to the US. Parliament was clearly told the alternative was annexation.

    The Lankan government ‘voluntarily’ signed the Indo-Lanka accord. It was under no illusion the alternative was invasion.

    Posted July 9, 2009 at 6:56 am | Permalink
  17. Matt wrote:


    You are citing cases of bilateral interventions by neighbors, which is a different game altogether than what is being suggested here.

    Not letting neighbors get involved in peacekeeping is peacekeeping 101 (although sadly, often ignored).

    The whole point of having an international security guarantee is to avoid this kind of conflict of interest. Sure, it’s still a bit of a minefield, but that’s not enough say the idea isn’t worth looking at.

    Posted July 9, 2009 at 7:43 am | Permalink
  18. Adam Jackson wrote:

    “If I remember correctly from reading Wars, Guns and Votes, the security guarantees are completely and absolutely voluntary: countries sign up to them. How on earth could that ever be construed as colonialism? You can’t infringe on sovereignty that was willingly given up.”

    Yes, that’s right, because a country’s government never does anything that’s against the long-term people’s interest? Er…

    Posted July 9, 2009 at 1:28 pm | Permalink
  19. Matt wrote:


    Fair point, but then on those grounds why should a country ever sign a treaty that holds beyond a term limit?

    And do you honestly think that we’d have a problem at the sign-up office with African presidents rushing in to sign up, to the detriment of their citizens? I always figured that it would be *pretty difficult* to get them to sign up.

    Posted July 9, 2009 at 2:37 pm | Permalink
  20. Menahem wrote:

    Dissmisng your opponents is George Bush’s tactic. It’s a shame to see Paul Collier apply this to you and to Ed Miguel.

    Ed Miguel and his former students are producing some of the most interesting econometric work on the behavior of people in conflict and in recovery from conflict. These are micro and panel based studies, and are therefore more convincing that Collier’s macro-econometric regressions.

    I am uncomfortable with Collier’s use of instrumental variables as a basis for inferring causation from his macro regressions. Perhaps his use of instrumental variables is just inroducing error.

    Posted July 9, 2009 at 5:04 pm | Permalink
  21. Joe S. wrote:

    Your imperialism masked as humanitarianism is pointless to argue over, as the US Empire has run out of money. You’ll be pulling out of Iraq and calling it a victory soon enough.

    Posted July 13, 2009 at 7:18 pm | Permalink
  22. Gyude wrote:

    Professor Easterly,

    I do not have the training in either economics or statistics to refute your refutation of Collier, I’m assuming the professor can handle his own.

    I am, however,concerned with the almost cavalier manner in which you present his nuanced arguments as crude generalizations. He advocates “invad[ing] poor countries, run[ning] poor people’s societies for them and deny[ing] poor people their democratic rights”? This borders on academic criminal negligence. Stephen Krasner does an appreciable job [in this same series] negotiating the conventions and traditions of sovereignty in any application of Collier’s recommendations.

    Do you disagree with Collier’s conclusion that institutional capacity and accountability are two of the most debilitating short-comings that poor countries have to deal with? Are the incentives to create an endogenous response properly aligned or do the resources exist locally?

    I agree with Collier’s assessment up to a point, except I would rather ECOWAS or the AU stand-by force enforcing security. But there isn’t enough space to discuss that. Were it not for other reasons, one would be tempted to think you do this stuff for the attention.

    Posted July 15, 2009 at 2:06 pm | Permalink
  23. Irene wrote:

    Our (people living in ‘developed’ Countries) problems will start when poor people will start to rebel to this conditions..but till now I have experienced that the poorer the population, the more manipulable by politicians and interest groups (or both) which move them to fight for their cause (not for rebellion to poverty) with the arms given by some quite well ‘developed’ and influential Countries.. but of course I am just a researcher to say it, not part of the cabinets which like Collier’s idea so much (but I think for other reasons..).

    Thanks Prof. Easterly to make our minds work!

    Posted August 4, 2009 at 7:42 am | Permalink
  • About Aid Watch

    The Aid Watch blog is a project of New York University's Development Research Institute (DRI). This blog is principally written by William Easterly, author of "The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists' Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics" and "The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good," and Professor of Economics at NYU. It is co-written by Laura Freschi and by occasional guest bloggers. Our work is based on the idea that more aid will reach the poor the more people are watching aid.

    "Conscience is the inner voice that warns us somebody may be looking." - H.L. Mencken

  • Archives