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Thinking beyond ideologies - Paul Collier

Foto: Blavatnik School of Government

“Reading this should be fun.” It takes self-confidence to write a sentence like that in the foreword of a book about the poorest countries in the world. Paul Collier has this self-confidence—and he has a mission: The economist wants to contribute to solving the most pressing global problems and reach a broad public. Because at some point, in light of the collapse of the poorest countries, his son will ask him what he as a scientist did to prevent it.

This year’s A.SK Social Science Award goes to a researcher and communicator. Paul Collier is Professor of Economics and Public Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government and Director at the Centre for the Study of African Economies at Oxford University. And he is a sought-after political consultant. From 1998 to 2003, he was Director of the Research Department at the World Bank. In 2008, he was honored with the Order of the British Empire for his achievements in British development policy. Foreign Policy magazine included him twice in the list “Top Global Thinkers.”

Paul Collier became internationally well-known through his book published in 2007, The Bottom Billion, in which he examines the vicious circle of violence and poverty in the world’s poorest countries. Why do around 60 countries get stuck in their development in spite of international aid? Collier identified a series of possible reasons like civil war, conflict over raw materials, no access to a coastline or bad governance. While considering counterstrategies, Collier does not shy away from provocation. He criticizes the usual practice of developmental aid, sees neither democracy per se as the best form of government nor national sovereignty as the highest value. In particular cases, he pleads for military intervention. He expands on these theses two years later in his main work about democracy, Wars, Guns and Votes: Democracy in Dangerous Places. Instead of supporting elections and thus only building democratic facades, Collier demands that wealthy industrial nations offer the poorest countries more international security and that they fundamentally rethink their humanitarian and military intervention.

Paul Collier addresses the fight over resources in his book The Plundered Planet: Why We Must - and How We Can - Manage Nature for Global Prosperity. Collier is not only examining questions of local and international peacekeeping, but the dangers of climate change as well. And again, he ventures to step between lines of fire. He considers the green vision of ecological self-sufficiency romantically naïve. His formula is the commercialization of agriculture and expansion of genetic technology: a calculated balancing act between technical innovation and protecting resources, possible only with the help of international regulations like, for example, global collective incentives for individuals, companies and states for CO2 reduction.

“Collier’s strength is that he deduces his theses from empirical data—without taking into consideration whether the data suits him or not,” wrote the Handelsblatt. Indeed, Collier is a professed fan of numbers: “Statistics refute the coarse images that often lead us to believe that we know and understand the world.” In addressing Paul Collier’s theses, the known ideological and disciplinary grid does not go very far. The political economist encourages thinking for oneself. By his own admission, he wants to awaken a connection based in “sympathy and enlightened self-interest.” The scholar is certain that in order to save the world, we need a critical mass of informed citizens.

Shortened version of an article by Gabriele Kammerer for the WZB-Mitteilungen141(September 2013)