Men of Imperial- How To Talk About Gender

Most students at Imperial are men. While this gender imbalance is obvious from the first day of Freshers Week, what it means and how to talk about it can be more challenging. Whispered remarks about “The Ratio” can be heard on most courses and jokes abound about the sexual frustration of Imperial’s males; the straight ones at least. But beyond this, any serious discussion of gender among students can often be dismissed. We can be pretty poor at talking gender and it’s we men who seem to do it worst. 

The low proportion of women students at Imperial is not the College’s fault and in fact when compared to the science, engineering and medicine departments in the rest of the UK, we have slightly more equal gender ratio than average. This does not mean, however, that there is nothing to be discussed. When posters went up last year in the chemistry department showing the proportion of female researchers in the different groups, it was graffitied with “So? Problem?” Posters inviting female physics students to a female-only event were graffitied with comments calling the event “sexist”. These comments are massively unhelpful and entirely miss the point. It can be tempting to think that simply removing legal barriers to female academics is sufficient to right historic wrongs. A glance at the progress of African Americans since the end of legal segregation in 1954 suggests otherwise. It is quite right that we make a particular effort to encourage schoolgirls to be interested in science and for women undergraduates to pursue their subjects further. When we men are dismissive of the idea, we serve the status quo.

Last week a mini Twitter storm broke out over an upcoming science event in the Excel Arena of Olympic fame. The event features 6 panelists including Richard Dawkins and Bill Bailey, which is a very cool and original combination. Less original is the gender makeup of the panel, all 6 speakers are men. As with Imperial, it is not the fault of the organisers if these were genuinely the best candidates. Where they messed up was with the FAQ on their website, which addressed lack of women. They said; “I am a fanatical, misandristic ‘feminist’. May I drone on about the lack of women in the line-up and despatch bigoted, mis-spelt, ungrammatical missives to the organisers and presenters?” “No. Please save your talents for Twitter and Facebook, that’s what they’re for. We’re actually very disappointed that none of our female invitees accepted, but that is just how it was. As scientists we have no choice but to accept reality. Wanting something to be otherwise does not make it so.”

Yes, this is supposed to be comically exaggerated language but even ignoring the labelling of those who complain of the lack of women speakers as “bigoted” and “misandristic”, the FAQ’s message is quite clear; put up and shut up. We should do neither. It is quite right and reasonable to wonder why the organisers failed to find a single woman panelist. It may indeed be the case that they really did try, but this is hardly the first panel event on science to be all male, and maintaining the status quo allows a self fulfilling prophesy whereby men gain higher profiles from speaking at events which leads them to be invited to more events. It may not be up to this particular event to “fix” this, but to brush it away as a non-issue is wilful ignorance.

Men of Imperial, we can do better than this. To question why the gender imbalance is as it  is not to question whether any one of us deserves to be here or to suggest that College discriminate in favour of women students and employees. Students are right to challenge the status quo and make active efforts to encourage women scientists in College and further afield. Dismissing these efforts as “sexist” is lazy. The Excel event told us that “as scientists we have no choice but to accept reality.” This is a strange definition of science. Rather, as scientists we examine reality, come to understand how it works and find out how to change it. Scientists do not simply accept reality.

Choosing Our Non Prophet Week Charity

If our decisions are not to be based on faith then what should guide us? Most people, I hope, would answer, “evidence” but most of the time, other factors get in the way. It can be easy to simply follow the crowd or opt just for what “feels” right. This is especially common when it comes to supporting charities; the heart wins out over the head. Investing in condoms and sex-education can be as many as 250 times more affective at preventing HIV/ AIDS deaths as investing in drugs to treat those who already have it, yet this goes relatively underfunded against the emotional instinct to help those who are already sick.

So when it came to choosing a charity for our annual Non Prophet Week, we wanted to keep things as rational and evidence based as possible. We chose to focus on getting the most bang for your bucks; making sure that if your money could make a bigger difference elsewhere, that’s exactly where it went. We also needed to choose just what we wanted the charity to be up to. This is a more emotional question- can we really compare side-by-side the work done by a charity that provides free books for children to one that helps sick hedgehogs to one that helps refugees? We went for the simplest, bluntest measure we could; who saves the most lives for the least money? This doesn’t make charity that isn’t aimed at saving lives a waste of time; the BHA, after all, is a charity that doesn’t go out saving babies from burning buildings and yet we are proud to be partnered with them. But the BHA can be helped in many non-financial ways; saving lives, on the other hand, is a costly business. In fact the US government, when investing in road works, sets a maximum cost of around $2 million per America life. So if a new set of traffic lights will save 4 lives in its lifetime, they’ll spend up to $8 million on them.

Luckily for the AHS, although depressingly in terms of global inequality, some lives are much cheaper to save than others. Working out just how much it costs to save a life is a difficult and painstaking process but there are organisations out there doing it such as GiveWell, the charity evaluators. With cost-per-life-saved as our guide, the best charity for NPW was clear- the Against Malaria Foundation. Keep in mind that $2 million price tag for saving an American life. The AMF save one life for every $2,500. Not only do they save lives, in preventing malaria (by distributing mosquito nets), they prevent a great deal of suffering for those who would have caught the disease but survived. They also boost local economies by keeping people in work rather than off, ill. They boost education by keeping children and teachers in school. Each net is delivered at a total cost of $5.50. You can see more of the GiveWell evaluation here

So that’s why we chose them. I hope you’re as excited about their work as we are- judging by the money we’ve raised in the past, we stand to save quite a few lives in this week of fundraising. The big question remaining is just how will you do it? The next few weeks are your chance to get thinking about raising dollah. The exec will be too- I’ve already ended up agreeing to a Creme Egg eating competition with the BHA’s webmaster. Let us know your ideas and we’ll get them on Twitter with #NonProphetWeek and Facebook. Let’s save some lives.

The Atheist in the Room

On Wednesday I attended the World Muslim Leadership Forum’s annual conference. That’s probably the last place you’d expect to find an atheist and yet there I was, my little BHA pin badge proudly on display, to listen to a varied collection of Muslim speakers from around the world discussing issues facing the “Islamic world” today.
The conference couldn’t have been more timely. With riots across the Muslim world in response to an inflammatory YouTube video and the Arab Spring still unfolding, what these guys have to say matters.
The first speaker, and probably my favourite, was Anwar Choudhury, director of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the first Muslim to represent the UK as a diplomat. Choudhury spoke passionately of his identity as both a proud Muslim and proud UK citizen. He argued, quite rightly, that it takes more courage to be a moderate than an extremist; that to choose the extremes betrays a lack, not abundance, of faith. He himself was a victim of a terrorist attack when working as the UK ambassador to his country of birth, Bangladesh, when a grenade was thrown at him when leaving prayer at a mosque, leaving him in hospital and killing his bodyguard. However, he said, the abiding memory for him of the attack was not the grenade but the 100s of Bangladeshi civilians who surrounded his hospital that night to protect him from further attack.
We had talks from 9:30 to 5 covering a wide range of Muslim voices from the self declared “eco Jihadi” imploring her listeners to go veggie to Ugandan born Lord Sheikh of Cornhill, chairman of the Conservative Muslim Forum, giving business advice. The Muslim Council of Britain, representing over 500 Muslim groups, was represented by its director who chaired one of the panels. Something that stood out was the lack of calls for any explicitly “Islamic” style of government or political movement. Instead speakers focussed on the need for more Islamic voices within current systems- Islamic financial products competing along side conventional products and more Muslims taking their place in the public sphere.
For all the panic in Britain about the lack of Muslim integration in the UK, the suggestion that British Muslims are seeking special laws and exemptions, this event showed those who seek the exact opposite; Muslims seeking to practice their faith freely and work with others on building common ground. This was, after all, their reason for inviting someone from the BHA. Anwar Choundry finished his speech by highlighting his view that there is no war between Islam and “The Other”, instead the fight is between extremist and moderate. There is no doubt in my mind that the passionate “moderates” who spoke on Wednesday have a great deal of good to bring to the country, a necessary reminder that the tempting narrative of “crash of civilisations” gives too simplistic a world view, a message that now more than ever we need to hear. It is up to us to decide which narrative to believe- from personal experience working with Muslims, I believe much more in the narrative of the Muslim Leadership Forum than the divisive narrative of extremists. It needs to be heard.

Secular Humanism and Life After Death

Just what is there to say about secular humanism and the afterlife? Humanists don’t believe in any such thing, after all and yet I’ve been asked to talk about just that at the London Interfaith Centre this November. It might seem as sensible as discussing the Christian view of Mohammad or vegetarian recipes for roast pork. 

But stuck for ideas I ain’t after a tweet for help (and a helpful retweet from the BHA) was answered with over 30 thoughtful 160 character gobbets to get me started. There were new ideas and ones I’d thought of, ideas I liked and those I wasn’t so sure of. Here, for your reading pleasure, are my thoughts on these tweets.

You want a physicist to speak at your funeral

A few people quoted a nice piece from NPR about what a physicist might say to your bereaved. Some also suggested quoting Sagan about how we’ll end up in stars. I can certainly see the poetry in this. It’s a pretty nice thought that the stuff we’re made of will one day undergo a nuclear reaction in the belly of a star or that our matter never really dies; it just takes another form. But I’m not sure this can provide true comfort. After all, the blood in my veins may well one day play its part in the celestial boogie, but so will the atoms in this keyboard and Julius Cesar’s dandruff. In fact, this version of “afterlife” is open for us all, regardless of how we live, as if it doesn’t matter how we treat people, the risks we take, where we stand on the Mac/ PC debate, none of it. For a humanist who believes that there is such a thing as a good life, this concept of afterlife kinda sucks compared with the wrath/ reward structure found in most religions. What’s more, it requires a pretty selective reading of science. Yes we could become stars but then those stars will burn out and spacetime will continue expanding until all is isolated and cold (I suspect this sentence explains why I haven’t been invited to speak at any funerals). Also, stars are only cool because we humans say they’re cool, they ain’t objectively, scientifically so. You just can’t have meaning without humans. So selective science provides for some nice poetry, but we’re going to have to get more humany…

Humany woomany

Most tweets spoke of the need to focus on the here and now over any hope of afterlife. These were much more in line with my own thinking. Here are a few of the tweets I got;

For me, as an atheist, the “afterlife” is how we are remembered: how we have influenced others and the world around us.


Make the most of this life. Its all the more precious because its brief.


Important to try and make this world better, in this life, because there probably isn’t a second chance.

Celebrating the life & using this life to do good?


You could go with the old (but true) cliche that the fear of death is really fear of a life half-lived.



I like ’em all! One thing you’ll notice is that unlike Sagan and religion, these human-ier approach offers no immortality. Reproducing won’t make you last for ever- your genes get watered down with the generations and your children are individuals, not you reincarnated. Memories can’t last forever, either. But is that so bad a thing? I guess firstly, if that’s how it is then that’s how it is. There’s no competition on for who can create the loveliest vision of the world. 

But is eternal life even all that lovely? It’s certainly unfathomable. Would I still be the same person without my body? If a big part of my personality is playing golf, how can I still be myself without arms? But I don’t really see how it’s desirable to simply never expire. It seems that the sensible statement “I don’t want to die tomorrow” has been madly extended ad infinitum without too much thought. 

Looking at the world around us all we can guess is- this is it. There are no second chances. Lost opportunities will remain just that; lost. This was the theme in many of Tuesday’s tweets and what I would say is the essence of the humanist approach to death. We are born without purpose and die without going anywhere, all that matters is what happens in between. Whom we meet, how we live, what we leave behind. 

This doesn’t mean religious ideas of afterlife have no use. Nietzsche made good use of the concept of reincarnation to express neatly his view of life. He invites the reader to imagine being forced to repeat her life over and over for ever. Every mistake, triumph, wasted evening, friendship gained and lover lost. Now, he said, how would you live your life differently knowing this? I’d say that’s the acid test for a life well lived. It may only be a metaphor but there is still some use, at least, for the afterlife for a secular humanist. So, as the cool kids say, YOLO.

A million thanks for the tweets! I’ve still a while to go before this talk, will be sure to write more about it.

Jersy Shore and More

Two weeks of blog silence and American madness- Jersey shore, NYC (twice), charismatic churches and generally being awesome in Philadelphia.
I spent the second last weekend of July with the lovely Angud family in New Jersey, the idea being to let me experience a proper American family. The Saturday was the hottest day in 7 years, an impressive 110 Fahrenheit, which meant that going outdoors with Irish skin (which I happened to have on at the time) was a no no. So the afternoon was spent on XBox Kinect, which is amazing, followed much later in the afternoon by a go in the outdoor swimming pool with my abs glistening in the hot Jersey sun. James, Jarren and their family were incredibly welcoming and took me out for a chinese afterwards- the first American sized portions I’ve managed to get through so far. I went with them to Pentecostal church that Sunday and the next Sunday went to a Baptist church. Those will get their own blog post. 
The idea of the family stay was to introduce as a bit more to American culture and introduce me they did- I’ve now finally seen Jersey Shore and the South Park episode on N. Jersey. Many of the trials and tribulations of Snookie, “The Situation”, Pauly D and friends touched my heart and moved me to my very core. Also, I wanna hot tub.
Next weekend was a busy one. Friday saw us head to NYC for a tour of the UN (with a lecture from an indigenous rights guy) followed by roaming around the city, walking from Times Square to the Brooklyn Bridge. Dem buildings is tall. One important lesson was learnt: don’t wear a thin white shirt when there might be rain acomin’. Its crazy how easily things get transparent and how much of New York has now seen my nipples. 
Saturday was a chance to hang out chez Snookie- a trip to the Jersey shore itself, albeit the wrong end. Definite highlight was the giant inflatable pretzel which bore us many dozens of metres out to sea. I think we managed to fit 6 peeps on it at one stage. Amazingly, I didn’t get sunburnt. A small victory for Gringos everywhere. 
Then this weekend was spent in NYC again! This time outside of the program so were free to do as we wished, staying from Friday through Sunday in an awesome apartment just 15 minutes from the Empire State building and 20 minutes from Time Square. Spent all of Saturday in Central Park having seen the main sites during the last two visits. The park is HUGE with musicians, artists and rollerbladers all over the place. Then back to Philly on Sunday morn’ to go the a bbq chez Anguds, with the best bbq pork I’ve ever had plus more swimming and the annual intra family volleyball match with the rest of the clan. Then I got my very own Phillies baseball tshirt. Awesomes.
Just one full day left in Philly! Then a couple of days in DC, giving a presentation on the program at the State Department, no less. What a terribly gangster lifestyle I lead.

Science Be Praised!

Today I felt very much the scientist of the group following our first presentations in the public speaking class. The presentations (mine, of course, humbly excluded) were great both in content and delivery. The topics covered were anarchy (= good), the purpose of law, terrorism in literature, activism in cinema and Catalan independence. My own topic was intended as a middle finger of sorts to these kinds of areas. That middle finger served to shout, “You’re messing up, socially minded emotional people. Lend me your ears that I might fill them with science.” (What do you mean fingers can’t talk? Derrick’s helped me through some tough times…) Because while I focussed on the failings of international aid, the speech could just have easily been about any other area of policy; scientific reasoning makes the difference.
Much as I respect political ideas, they just won’t make the same difference as those of science. Will any of the other speakers’ proposed solutions (anarchy, strong laws, free Catalans and Al Qaeda does Pride and Prejudice) ever make the same difference to people’s lives as the discovery of penicillin? If we could pass on just one idea to a post- apocalyptic society (and ideally not one destroyed by nukes, point taken) I should chose the scientific method over any of the other stuff, even free speech and equality. Before you assault me with organic beans, remember that a man in West Philadelphia can expect today to live longer than a king did 300 years ago. I don’t remember reading that in any constitution. I don’t recall seeing that in any revolutionary text. It was science wot done it.
This isn’t to say that the other stuff isn’t important, but scientists probably deserve a tad more recognition than presently received. “We murder to dissect”? Just you say that to my face, Mr Wordsworth.

PS why not have a looksie at my article on Slugger O’ Toole?

Rockin Rocky

Wowz so a lot’s happened since last we spoke. Sorrys for the lateness.
We’ve started working for a few hours on a Wed morning at the West Philadelphia YMCA, lending a hand at a summer scheme there and nearly drowning in the process. Every single child there is black except for one, (on closer inspection he’s actually albino). This stands in sharp contrast to Drexel University, our hosts, where most students are white. From first impressions, America really does seem much more racially divided than Europe and the fact that West Philly is the poorest part of the city doesn’t help.
On a more upbeat note, we went to New York City on Saturday which was HellaBallsToTheWallsAwesome (I think that’s a French word) and definitely an improvement on the original York. Touristy sightseeing was the order of the day, taking in Liberty, Wall Street and Ground Zero. We’ve a couple more trips up there to come. Good times.
Trips to the National Constitution Center, Independence Hall and Liberty Bell on Friday were also pretty cool, along with a visit to the Philadelphia Museum of Art on Sunday, of Rocky fame. Every American history museum we’ve seen so far has been incredibly patriotic in its presentation of the facts, which makes things more interesting but a bucket load of salt is also required (or saline equivalent: the average US pretzel). The ‘Freedom Rising’ presentation at the Constitution Center especially is just tear- jerkingly patriotic. The Constitution for Americans was presented like the Resurrection for Christians- a woman bounces about the stage expounding American Colonial history (following the subtle historical philosophy of TheBritsAteBabies-ism) as four giant screens descended from the roof to completely surround her with flames followed by images of the Apollo Moon landings, fall of the Berlin Wall and the Civil Rights movement. How much of that is contained within the Constitution I’ll leave to you to decide…  But the patriotism was still sweetly endearing and if you can’t be proud of your country at a museum dedicated to its founding, something’s clearly up. I’d certainly like to have bits of the US Constitution in the UK I s’pose.
Otherwise, the work’s heating up, as is the weather. We’re in for 105 degrees tomorrow. Somehow three hours of class today was spent scaling a climbing wall and last night we were round a professor’s house for a screening of Rocky in his back yard. Surreal but awesome. Staying with an American family for the weekend, they have a swimming pool and XBox Kinect. So many levels of win.
Stay tuned.

Diffusing the Population Bomb

(This blog was also posted on Slugger O’ Toole)

There was an article in today’s Guardian which struck me. Actually, it annoyed the hell out of me. The article was announcing a recent UN report that world population will hit 7 Billion on Halloween this year. But rather than simply report this fact, the article insisted on propagating a tired, disproved and altogether ignorant message: there are too many of us on this planet.

The obsession with population found its most popular spokesperson in the form of Rev. Thomas Robert Malthus who, in the late 18th Century, argued that if the poor of the world kept reproducing at a high rate (and the poorest tend to have the highest birth rates) then the only possible result in a world of limited resources will be mass starvation. It was in part due to such ideas that the Irish famine was allowed to run its terrible course. There is indeed some evidence to suggest that nature provides mass population reduction as a way of benefiting those left behind: incomes rose significantly in Britain following the devastation of the Black Death, leaving one person in three dead.
World population has skyrocketed since the days of the Plague and Famine, leading academics to postulate that the next Big Disaster could well eclipse all those that went before it. The 20th Century anti population movement reached its zenith in 1968 with the publication of Stanford Professor Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb. The book brought home to non academic readers the potential horrors of overpopulation with the prediction that hundreds of millions of people in developing countries would perish to hunger in the coming decades. Its front cover loudly proclaimed “While you are reading these words four people will have died from hunger”.
Well, those decades have passed and 2.8 billion extra people now walk this Earth, an increase greater than that anticipated by Ehrlich. And the result? In the last 50 years, world population may have doubled but agricultural production tripled. Daily food supply per person has increased by around 25%. But the news is even more positive; population growth is beginning to tail off. As people get richer, despite being more able to afford more children, they by and large choose to have fewer. Better job opportunities cause people to focus more on their careers and improved child mortality means fewer children need be born in the first place. The average world birth rate declined from 5.3 births per woman in 1960 to 3.0 in 2006. It is true that these are just averages and some regions have gotten significantly worse. But these are countries such as North Korea and Zimbabwe and clearly due to political circumstances. The data paint a clear picture- increasing global population is not leaving people worse off and is anyway reaching equilibrium, not exploding.
But while Ehrich’s theory seems disproved, many modern environmentalists point to Malthusianism in a new form- global warming. The increased emission of CO2 that growing population creates is endangering the very people who, by being born, create it. This was certainly the message of the Guardian article: more people= more warming. Nonsense. More consumption= more warming, regardless of the number of people creating it. I fail to see how a moral person can worry about the existence of a child in a large family in rural Africa who burns a little wood for cooking while we enjoy CO2 intensive Western lifestyles over here.
Here’s a statistic that every such person should read: doubling the incomes of the world’s poorest 650 million people would take the same resources as a bit less than 1%  of those of the world’s richest 650 million and income means carbon. Concerned about global warming? Great, hand out condoms to bankers, not Bangladeshis. It’s time to put the population myth to rest.

Full of Philly

A jet- lagged hello from Philadelphia! Arrived on Sunday and staying in dorms over looking the city giving an amazing view from my 9th floor room. Excitement, excitement EXCITEMENT.
These Fulbright guys really don’t want us to pay for anything. Two days into Philadelphia we’ve already been given mobile phones, loaded with $30 credit, transport passes and all our meals covered. And next week we get a cheque for $750 for whatever other expenses we might have. This is good.
I don’t normally like to start the day with an offensive self- stereotype but having Lucky Charms for breakfast was too hard to resist, especially when someone actually tracked me down to show me them. Food here is all you can eat, which so far has entailed ‘more than you really should’, which I understand is an ancient American tradition.
Classes started today, general introductions all round. Worryingly for a physics student, it seems I’ll have to talk about my ‘feelings’ and other awful, unquantifiable stuff. We’ve essay and research based classes on American society which entail reading Why We Can’t Wait by MLK, Dreams From My Father by Obama and The Soloist by Steve Lopez plus going on cultural trips for ‘research’. This weekend that means heading up to New York to see the Statue of Liberty and Ground Zero on Saturday, followed by the Philadelphia Museum of Art on Sunday. This is also good.
We also have classes on ‘Social Issues in America’ which are part sociology, part service projects. Today we had a talk from the service head of the Penn Charter School who seems to have founded a hundred NGOs and tomorrow morning we’ll be helping out at a summer camp for disadvantaged youth at a YMCA in West Philadelphia (born and raised…). Most interestingly, we also have classes on public speaking by the most enthusiastic professor I’ve ever met. We’ll suffer the indignity of having our speaking filmed and played back to us. I tend to move my hands like a puppet on speed, so this should make for painful viewing.
Otherwise, this city is hot (with a capital HOT). I really don’t see how the first Irish immigrants coped without AC. Perhaps that explains the alcoholism (and, btw, I haven’t touched a drop of the stuff, despite spotting 5 Irish pubs so far). It’ll be very interesting to see the contrasts between the European and American outlooks. When in Sociology we Europeans were asked to state our religious beliefs, only two out of 17 were religious so it’ll be interesting to see how the YMCA find that.
Over and out.
Rory

The Bottom Billion: A Review

International development is, as I said below, a rather murkier business than the rock concerts and emotional advertising would suggest. Eager to understand more I’ve been reading up on the issue and hope to use the summer to fully drown myself in development data and books. Last week I read Poor Economics, which was so good I want to read it again before reviewing it. Over the weekend I got through Paul Collier’s The Bottom Billion; billed as an explanation as to ‘Why the poorest countries are failing and what can be done about it’. That’s one helluva promise. But it really does (broadly) deliver.
What I love about this book is that it manages to be utterly devoid of ideology. It doesn’t even argue that fighting poverty is a moral issue, rather pointing out that the practical benefits more than pay for themselves. This absence of ideology is achieved through a technique after my own scientific heart; statistical evidence. Debate around development tends to be focussed on ‘poverty traps’. The Left believe that being poor to start with keeps you poor; you can’t afford anti- malaria medicine so you get sick which means you can’t work which keeps you poor which means you can’t afford the malaria medicine next time either. All the poor need, say the Left, is one Big Push to get them onto their feet, to buy medicine for them, to educate their children etc. The Right, on the other hand, deny the very existence of such traps with all the passion of Dawkins and his New Atheists. It is aid, they say, which keeps people poor by making them dependent on handouts and putting money in the hands of unpleasant politicians.
Collier, on the other hand, sits betwixt these positions, shaking his scarily educated head. Just look at the evidence, he implores. The Bottom Billion is just that; the evidence. And having been head of development research at the World Bank and now director of the Centre for the Study of African Economies at Oxford, he’s accrued quite a bit of evidence in his time, all of which has lead him to believe that yes there are some poverty traps. But they come in different forms and may be affecting a given country in different ways. These traps are; conflict, natural resources, being landlocked and poor governance.
Conflict

It’s pretty obvious that a country in the midst of a civil war is not going to develop very well economically but what Collier does is to quantify this truism. From the stats, a given failing state has about a 14% chance of civil war within a 5 year period. He finds that each percentage point knocks a percentage point off that risk. So a poor country growing at 2% will have the risk of civil war reduced to 12% whereas a country declining at 2% each year will have the risk increase to 16%. Of course you might think that the prospect of peace leads to greater spending and so peace causes growth and not the other way around but even when growth is caused by a rain shock (a flood, drought of very good rainy season), the same effect is found on the risk of conflict.
This might be hard for many to accept, as it is tempting to believe that rebels are fighting for some kind of cause, not simply because of a low growth rate and besides, isn’t much of Africa’s civil strife simply a result of the horrors of colonialism? But when Collier compared countries with varying levels of economic inequality and oppression of minorities as well as whether or not they had been colonised, he could find no clear evidence that these made countries any more conflict prone.
Never mind the human misery caused by civil war, the impact is economically devastating. Collier puts the economic damage due to civil war at $64 billion to both the country itself and its neighbours. Given that two civil wars on average start every year, that’s about $100 billion lost- more than the entire global aid budget.
So the poorer a country is, the more likely it is the fall into the very conflict that keeps it poor.
Natural Resources

Natural resources should be an easy route out of poverty and yet some of the world’s poorest countries have an abundance of the stuff, just think of Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Natural resources feed into the conflict trap since they provide something clearly worth fighting over, as seen in the movie Blood Diamond set in Sierra Leone. But natural resources can damage any country because they reduce the treasury’s reliance on taxes, thus making politicians less accountable to their people. It is also much easier for politicians to embezzle money from natural resources and spend the money on simply bribing community leaders for their people’s votes.
What can be done?

Simply giving poor countries money is the obvious answer. But when used unwisely, aid can be counterproductive. When money flows into a country in the form of foreign currency (such as with aid) it needs to be converted into local currency to be useful. However, aid isn’t the only foreign currency that needs to become local; money generated from exporting goods also needs to be converted into local cash. So aid money actively competes with exports, reducing the value of engaging in the kind of trade which could pull the country out of poverty. Added to this, many poor countries place high tariffs on imported goods which makes it even less likely that citizens will want to purchase foreign currency; they have nothing to buy with it, reducing the exchange value of the aid.
It also isn’t clear that aid necessarily brings growth (as argued most strongly by NYU’s William Easterly, whose book The White Man’s Burden I roughly summarised here). Collier points out that a good natural experiment for an increase in aid money can be seen by the increases in the Nigerian governments revenues due to record oil prices; no additional growth followed. Not only can direct financial aid have this effect, so can the debt relief so loudly trumpeted by the Live 8 concerts. This doesn’t mean that aid is doomed to failure, rather that it can’t be seen as a magic bullet.
And aid money doesn’t necessarily go where the West might want it to go. Collier estimates that about 11% of aid is actually spent on the country’s army, representing 40% of military spending. Interestingly, Collier finds that the influx of aid increases the probability of a coup; to the victors, the spoils. Aid also reduces the need for economic reform, as it removes its urgency.
Given this, Collier’s conclusion is not that we should give up on aid, rather that it should be given when the time is right. Corrupt governments will only waste the stuff, but once a genuine reformer gets in they should received all the help they can get.
Military Intervention

This is undoubtedly the most controversial section in The Bottom Billion. Remember the $64 billion lost by each civil war? Collier argues that military intervention can prove to be one of the most successful forms of aid, provided intervening forces are prepared to take real risks unlike the infamous peacekeepers in Rwanda, who would only fire when fired upon, not when civilians were at risk. This seems to be an issue away from the main interests of this blog so detail can perhaps wait for another post, but I broadly agree with him here. The economic arguments make a novel addition to the tired (but compelling) moral ones.
Conclusion

Collier, in all, seems convinced that we can chip in. International regulation is his weapon of choice to tackle companies that pay bribes and provide a bench mark for reform minded politicians. His case for military intervention is definitely the most daring of his proposals and in a post Iraq world, the least likely to take place. Aid can make a difference when directed at the right time and at the right kind of investment (like infrastructure). The book is certainly very ‘big picture’ and a proper review of how aid works at the local level will have to wait for my rereading of Poor Economics. All in all, a worthwhile, interesting read.
Oh and the title of the book? Perhaps the most successful criticism contained within the book is contained within that title. It is time, Collier argues, to move away from seeing a world of 1 billion rich people and 5 billion poor when so many of those poor are pulling themselves out of poverty. The Millennium Development Goals make this mistake by bunching the world’s poor together. A new development strategy focussed less on booming China, India and Brazil could achieve a lot more the poorest billion who, so far, seem stuck at the bottom rung.