How Each of Us Can Change the World

Paul Collier

Buy the book »

How Each of Us Can Change the World

By Bill Clinton

256 pages (Knopf, 2007)

Bill Clinton’s unrivaled ability to communicate relies on the technique of bringing home important abstract arguments through potent human illustrations. The former president’s book, Giving, abounds in such stories, many so uplifting as to be profoundly moving. Indeed, I defy any normal person to read this book and not be awed and humbled by the power of energy and goodness conjoined. But so numerous are the stories, readers could easily overlook Clinton’s abstract argument. Indeed, cynical readers will consider this book merely a sustained ego trip wherein Clinton only seems compassionate. Such a judgment would, however, miss something of real importance.

Clinton launches off from the brute fact that many people at the bottom of society are not sufficiently sharing our unprecedented prosperity. This is the case both within America, where stagnant wages coexist with exploding profits, and internationally, where the standard of living of the bottom billion has, over the last four decades, diverged even further from the developed world’s.

Clinton’s main points are that ordinary citizens are already doing much to right this inequity and that there is scope to do even more. The range of individual contributions is truly extraordinary. Beauty salon owner Diane Stevens, for instance, finds funding and enlists a group of colleagues to train 300 beauticians in post-conflict Sierra Leone. John Wood, having witnessed a need for books in Nepalese schools, builds an organization that in its first five years provides 1.5 million books, builds 287 schools, and establishes 3,600 libraries.

It is no longer a matter of waiting for the government to do something: The United States alone has more than 10 million people employed in charities. Indeed, in many fields nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are now bigger than government. The splendid Christian development charity World Vision employs far more people than the World Bank and has a seven-figure e-mail membership that the external relations department of the World Bank would die for. Whereas the weighting of votes on the World Bank’s board gives donor governments most of the decision power and the bank’s interventions are top-down, World Vision’s board is globally representative and its mass membership enables it to have a bottom-up approach to assistance.

But we should not get carried away: Government still matters, as Clinton knows better than anyone. In his long political career he was the ultimate “policy wonk,” and he slips into the book his belief that time devoted to getting policy changed is also a way of giving. Obviously, what poor people and poor countries often need most is that we in rich countries change our policies. But here’s the rub. Direct citizen power over financial assistance and policies is analogous to government by referendum; professionalism is bypassed. If priorities are to be set directly by citizens, they will likely be reduced to those that are either evident from common sense or merely photogenic.

Common sense is not a bad guide to public action, but it will leave gaping lacunae. Is AIDS going to be overfunded while unpopular approaches such as opening our markets to the poor’s agricultural products fall by the wayside? Leadership is now passing from the technocratic public institutions of the 20th century, such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, to the citizen organizations of the 21st century. In the process, we risk losing the baby with the bathwater.

The bathwater is, of course, clunking bureaucracy, which is being replaced by energy, commitment, and flexibility. But the baby is the dispassionate analysis that the professional technocrats of the international organizations were able to bring to complex problems. That is why we have economics: It goes where common sense alone cannot reach. Thousands of poverty-focused interventions will help, but they are not a substitute for an effective growth strategy. The World Bank may be a creaking bureaucracy, but it does have the world’s largest research department on development. This enables the World Bank to generate its own research, to absorb the research of universities, and to feed the synthesis to the governments of impoverished countries. Strategies informed by research may sometimes be wrong, but they stand a better chance than those that are not.

As might be expected, Clinton himself seems remarkably up to speed in the underlying analysis. But his analytics is so lightly done that the drumbeat of compassionate action often drowns it out. He designed this book to motivate rather than inform. Clinton the policy wonk is as necessary as Clinton the communicator: He needs to write another book.

Paul Collier is a professor of economics at Oxford University and the author of The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries Are Failing and What Can Be Done About It.