books development globalisation

The planet’s four quadrants

Last week I reviewed Paul Collier’s book The Plundered Planet, and I mentioned that he often has useful shorthand ways of explaining things. One of them that appears in the book is the four quadrants. The world has just short of 200 nation states, but Collier suggests you can divide them into four rough quarters:

  • The bottom billion – the countries that are home to the billion poorest people.
  • Russia and China
  • Emerging market economies, including India and Brazil
  • The rich countries of the OECD

Obviously this is one of many ways to divide up the world, but if you consider some of the alternatives, it’s clear that we lack satisfactory terms. ‘Developed’ and ‘developing’ are false categories since everyone is pursuing further economic growth. ‘The West’ is a nonsense term when you remember that the world is round. ‘Global north’ and ‘global south’ are at least fixed on the compass, but you have awkward countries like Australia that insist on being in the wrong hemisphere.

‘Third world’ and ‘first world’ has always sounded derogatory, and those delineations are complicated by the fact that ‘second world’ never made it into the lexicon. As historical divisions from the Cold War, we really should have left them behind by now. The fact that we still fall back on them as shorthand kind of makes the point that we lack intelligent categories for discussing geopolitics.

Can Collier’s quadrants help? I suspect not. The ‘bottom billion’ refers to population numbers, the OECD to membership of an organisation, and the others are nation states, so we’re not comparing like with like. Russia and China are nations with very different roles in the world too, and don’t sit together very naturally.

To be fair to Collier, he isn’t proposing his four quarters as a comprehensive new way of describing the world. He divides them up that way to talk about natural resources. Each of those four groups “occupies around a quarter of the planet’s land surface area”. Not evenly sized slices of course, but four categories of country that are at different points with their natural resources. The OECD has got to its resources earlier and many of them have been extracted already. Russia and China are in full swing, and emerging economies are beginning to harness their value. In the bottom billion, many of the resources are untapped or even undiscovered.

To elaborate a little beyond Collier’s own comments, I think that each of those quarters has slightly different priorities when it comes to resources. The bottom billion can work on discovery, and Collier argues for government investment in prospecting. Emerging economies need to focus on good governance, ensuring that all of society benefits from those assets. Russia and China need to plan ahead for the eventual exhaustion of their one-off natural resources. Since the countries of the OECD are now benefiting from imports, we should make sure that we are supporting best practice, and that our extraction industry corporations are doing business responsibly. We can also be helping other countries to learn from our social and environmental mistakes.

Climate change adds a further complication, because we now know that some resources can’t be exploited. Discoveries that look like assets locally are actually liabilities from a global perspective. Oil and coal in particular need to be left in the ground. Many of the OECD countries have already mined theirs, and have substantial historical emissions to their name. Countries like India are quick to point out how hypocritical it is for those nations to lecture others on their carbon emissions.

African nations are discovering fossil fuels later in the day. The best thing for their economies is to exploit them, make sure the benefits are shared, and lift people out of poverty. But the best thing for the world more generally is for them to be left alone, safely underground. But how can we ask poor and marginalised countries to forgo that income?

Climate financing arrangements are intended to address it to a certain degree. More radical solutions haven’t flown. You may remember Ecuador’s request for the international community to compensate it for not drilling in the Yasuni national park. They didn’t get enough offers, and oil production began this year. There’s no easy solution, and reconciling the various responsibilities of the world’s four quarters is one of the conundrums of our age.


  1. ” The best thing for their economies is to exploit them” – i’m not sure that’s true any longer. Concentrated resources have always tended to be a curse as much as a blessing in developing countries at least (see Paul Collier’s comments in The Bottom Billion and google ‘Dutch Disease’, for example. And even if you can ensure equitable distribution of wealth, they require large long term investments to develop, and renewables are rapidly moving to the point where they can undercut traditional energy sources (as explained in Chris Goodall’s ‘The Switch’). And don’t renewables have more employment potential too?

    1. Much of Collier’s The Plundered Planet is dedicated to the resource curse and how governments can capture value from resources, share them widely and invest for the future. It doesn’t need to be inevitable.

      I think the dynamics are different depending on the resource. If you have tar sands or offshore oil, the huge up-front cost of exploiting them may be impossible to raise right now with the low oil price and rising renewables. You’re probably right that the moment may have passed for those. Minerals and metals would be different, and there is going to be demand for the foreseeable future. Somewhere in the middle you have ‘easier’ fossil fuels that can be started smaller and scaled up.

  2. Jeremy, Do you have any links please to ‘Ecuador’s request for the international community to compensate it for not drilling in the Yasuni national park.’

      1. ‘reconciling the various responsibilities of the world’s four quarters is one of the conundrums of our age.’

        I think it’s not merely ‘one’ of the conundrums of our age but the utmost priority from which any hope can arise. The Yasuni National Park story is a massive indictment on mankind and, it seems to be the writing on the wall in bold, underlined, capital letters.
        (George Monbiot’s latest Guardian article ‘Unlucky Number’ shows it well).

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