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Guilt-edged Insecurity


To date, policy towards the bottom billion has been driven predominantly by guilt: America's guilt about slavery, Europe's guilt about colonialism. Unfortunately, guilt is an appallingly bad basis for action. It leads into the headless heart: the belief that we should 'atone' by charity. But its worst effects are within the bottom billion: these small societies lack the intellectual scale to free themselves from our mental models. Europe in particular is where their elites have been educated for two generations. If the rich countries are guilty, then this 'explains' the failure of the bottom billion.

But it is an explanation which disempowers at the same time as it comforts. If the stagnation of the bottom billion is due to Europe and America then there is little that their own societies can do about it but articulate grievance. This is the litany that we usually hear on the relatively rare occasions when elites of the bottom billion gain a voice on our airwaves. Routinely, our interviewers listen with an air of pious self-flagellation: 'indeed, we are guilty.' On both sides this is indulgence. It is a costly indulgence because it blocks out serious analysis. Guilt has seldom been an effective driver of change: in the rich countries we are likely to get far more impetus from the tried and tested psychology of enlightened self-interest.

A world in which the bottom billion continue to diverge from the rest of mankind bequeaths to our children a legacy of insecurity for which their pampered lives will make them ill-prepared. And in the societies of the bottom billion themselves, from which change must come if it is to be sustained, only a recognition of past mistakes will lay the foundations for reform.

This post first appeared on the Oxford University Press blog.