Economist Paul Collier, of Oxford Univesity in England, has examined what went wrong with these “trapped countries.” Based on decades of research, he identifies some poverty traps. About 750 million people of the bottom billion have recently lived through, or are still in the midst of, a civil war. Such wars can drag on for years with economically disastrous consequences. For example, the ethnic conflict in Burundi between the Hutus and the Tutsis has lasted three decades, which helps explain that country’s poorest-in-the-world ranking. Unfortunately, the poorer a country becomes, the more likely it is to succumb to civil war. And once a country goes through one civil war, more are likely. Ethnic conflict, or civil war, is Collier’s first poverty trap.
But why, aside from poverty itself, are so many sub-Saharan countries mired in civil war? He finds that three factors heighten the risk of such conflicts: (1) a relatively high proportion of young, uneducated men with few job prospects (who, thus, have a low opportunity cost); (2) an imbalance between ethnic groups, with one tending to outnumber the rest; and (3) a supply of natural resources like diamonds or oil, which both creates an incentive to rebel and helps finance that rebellion. The presence of mineral wealth in an otherwise poor country can also undermine democracy itself. Government revenue from mineral sales reduces taxes, which dampens public debate about how taxes should be spent. For example, because of oil revenue, the Nigerian government relies less on taxes, so there is less pressure for government accountability, and hence fewer checks and balances on a corrupt government. Thus, misuse of resource wealth is Collier’s second poverty trap. About 300 million of the poorest billion live in countries that have fallen into this trap.
This leads us to the third poverty trap: a dysfunctional or corrupt government. Government