Why Some Countries are “Trapped” in Poverty

On earth, billions of humans are stricken by poverty. They don’t have access to a steady, if any, income, no access to running water, plumbing, proper living arrangements, etc. Of this group there are a little over one billion individuals that are literally stuck in poverty, meaning no matter how much aid organizations can try and help them, they will most likely stay insurmountably poor until the day they die. In his book entitled “The Bottom Billion”, Paul Collier talks about four different poverty traps, four different reasons why societies in this bottom billion are stuck in poverty. Two of them that go hand-in-hand are being in an area engaged in war, as well as having bad governance. There is a large amount of overlap between these two traps, and together account for a heavy majority of people in the bottom billion. If aid organizations worked to improve these two circumstances when providing support, it might just be possible to significantly improve the lives of citizens that are part of the bottom billion.

A poorly governed nation will never be able to reach its full economic potential. Even in areas where there is a large portion of wealthy people, poverty will always stay constant throughout a society without effective local government(s). One of the major problems in providing aid to countries is that a large central government won’t know how to properly distribute everything given to them, “local governments, often neglected or nonexistent in the developing world, must play a crucial role in poverty reduction” (Crossette).

In areas with a nonexistent local government large portions of the population lack any sort of political voice, especially those who are chronically poor. Governments that are supposed to oversee all parts of the region they’re in charge of end up ineffectively recognizing the most basic needs and rights of the citizens they govern (Chronic Poverty Report). As a result, many citizens stuck in poverty are discriminated against. They will be denied access to many goods and services because of where they are located on the social ladder.

Circumstances only become worse when the population of a third-world country realizes how weak an ineffective their government, and wants to take matters into their own hands. This was precisely the case with the start of the Second Sudanese Civil War. South Sudanese rebel leader, John Garang de Mabior, led the Sudan People’s Liberation Army from 1983 to 2005. His main goal was to fight for “New Sudan”; he advocated that minorities should come together and rule Sudan, having not been properly represented in the past under Islamic Law (Wikipedia contributors). The Second Sudanese Civil War resulted in the deaths of over two million people, leaving the country ravaged by famine and disease. It effectively created a lost generation of Sudanese citizens because of a lack of investment in the South during and after the war.

The events that took place in Sudan represent another one of Collier’s poverty traps “conflict.” An area engaged in civil conflict will suffer in a variety of different ways. War causes poverty and ruins the economy of surrounding area. This is a huge problem for organizations trying to provide support to citizens. Another example of this is present throughout Liberia, “Warlords try to siphon off as large a proportion of the value of aid supplies as they can […] The Liberian war victims weren’t the only ones who had to eat, after all” (Polman 89). Around 75% of people part of the bottom billion are parts of nations stricken by civil war. In the end, more of the aid support ends up helping the soldiers fighting than the civilians who actually need it. One of the first steps to fighting poverty is the spread of peace.

Conflict and bad governance is a vicious cycle; both feed each other and ruin the economy of a region. A poorly governed country will habitually result in uprisings and possibly civil war. A civil war, after devastating the surrounding region and dragging in a handful of the surrounding countries, usually ends in the establishment of a government that only half the population is content with. Many policymakers believe conflict to be a result of poverty, but need to realize that very often, it’s the other way around. War is expensive; “Why would those living under precarious economic conditions participate in and support civil wars? Traditional political science literature attributes participation in violence to the presence of material incentives” (Justino). A country with some wealth will much more likely be able to fuel a civil war for some time than a country whose economy is almost nonexistent.

Collier points out that there are two things key to providing aid to the bottom billion: “compassion and enlightened self-interest.” Once these are seriously implemented, then we can begin to change the world. Aid isn’t the only part of the solution. Providing money to a country trapped in civil war will often help those fighting more so than the citizens it should be going to, as presented in chapter five of “War Games”, entitled “Aid as a weapon of war”. This is also evident when considering the natural resources the trade. The amount of revenue that, say Uganda receives from drilling for oil dwarfs the amount of money received through aid programs, yet they are still stuck in poverty (Collier). Large amounts of money are virtually useless if a country doesn’t understand how to properly spend it effectively.

The key to helping countries in the bottom billion is providing aid that will help develop a country in the long term, and in a variety of different ways. Many times an organization will throw money at a central government and expect it to trickle down to those who need it the most. Unfortunately this is not the case. If an organization wants to get serious about bringing a country out of poverty, the first step is to attempt to end any existing conflict in the region(s). The next step is to establish a lasting government that doesn’t ignore the needs of huge portions of society. These two steps are crucial in providing a proper effort in development assistance. Only after this, developing a country’s economy proves much more beneficial in the long term and will have more lasting positive effects on the population as a whole.


Chronic Poverty Research Centre. The Chronic Poverty Report 2008-09: Escaping Poverty Traps. Rep. Chronic Poverty Research Centre, 2009. Web.

Collier, Paul. 4 Ways to Improve the Lives of the Bottom Billion. TEDTalks, 2008. Video.

Crossette, Barbara. “U.N. Says Bad Government Is Often the Cause of Poverty.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 05 Apr. 2000. Web.

Justino, Patricia. “Conflict Traps: How Does Poverty Cause War, and How Does War Cause poverty?” MICROCON. WordPress, 27 Apr. 2011. Web.

Polman, Linda. War Games. London: Penguin, 2010. Print.

Wikipedia Contributors. “Second Sudanese Civil War.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 25 June 2013. Web.

Williams, Jeremy. “Why Some Countries Remain Poor: Paul Collier’s Four Poverty traps.” Make Wealth History. Creative Commons, 8 Dec. 2008. Web.


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