When the Oxonian Review sat down with Paul Collier in his office at Oxford’s Centre for the Study of African Economies, he had just returned from a visit with the US State Department, where he had briefed top American policy makers on his rescue plan for the world’s poorest countries. With the publication of his first book, The Bottom Billion (2007), Paul Collier established himself as a premier authority on international development, presenting aid solutions for the world’s poorest billion inhabitants. In his newest book, Wars, Guns and Votes, Collier moves into the contentious realm of policymaking. Collier anticipates controversy. He writes in Wars, Guns and Votes: “I am aware that I walk on a tightrope.” And he is. Wars, Guns and Votes came out in the UK last week.
A major theme of your book is that democracy can be dangerous if elections are installed without providing the critical public good of security. You propose a game plan that involves installing peacekeepers to the bottom billion countries for at least a decade. This calls for long term intervention by the international community. Could you clarify your criteria for when national sovereignty should be breached?
I think national sovereignty being breached is a melodramatic way of putting it, but there are two distinct contexts that concern us. One is post-conflict situations. Obviously, in conflict situations, when they begin, something has gone terribly wrong with the poverty; you’ve had a civil war. The record of these post-conflict periods is not very happy… about 40 percent of these countries go back into conflict within a decade, and they are responsible for about half of the civil wars that have happened. So we should be able to, as an international community, do much better than that record.
The international community has a big responsibility to the whole neighbourhood because if these situations go wrong, it is the whole neighbourhood that bears the responsibility, not just the country itself. This is one reason why there is a case for limiting sovereignty or sharing sovereignty on behalf of the legitimate interest of the neighbourhood. The international community is providing peace through the peacekeepers and the money for reconstruction and that gives it both the power and the legitimacy to make sure that the recovery works. […]
There are three key actors and there are no quick fixes. There is the Security Council which is providing the peacekeepers. There are the donors who are providing the money. And there’s the post-conflict government which is setting the policies and also determining how accountable they are to the people. So what I propose is a contract between these three parties and to recognise the interdependence.
But what about the third actor? The local government? Don’t you think that your game plan gives Mugabe the exact propaganda he needs to say: “Look, Western policemen are taking over Africa?”
Of course he will. You can hear him say it. You have to use your brain and say who has actually got the interest of these societies? Is it Mugabe with his fine record or is it mine? The truth is that there is no appetite for a new bout of colonialism. On the contrary, the main problem is that the appetite for concern is so low, and the prevailing sentiment is: “Just wash your hands of it and do things that are decorative.” So, the difficulty is not trying to restrain a voraciously powerful West that wants to restore colonialism, it’s trying to persuade a West that is [complacent]. I was on Capitol Hill just recently and the sentiment that was expressed to me, in the case of Somalia, was: “Build a fence around it and walk by.”
And what a lot of the bottom billion countries have is not national sovereignty; it’s presidential sovereignty. Presidents won’t share power with their own citizens. It’s grotesque that Mugabe is still in power, and certainly not thanks to the endorsement of [Zimbabwe’s] people. Nor will they pool power with their neighbouring government. […]
Presidents are clinging onto power vis-a-vis their own populations and vis-a-vis their neighbours. The result is that their states are not capable of supplying key public goods, so they’ll have to be supplied internationally.
Just now, you mentioned that you went to Washington to convince people to buy into your plan. And in the book, you put yourself in the shoes of a rational dictator weighing pros and cons of allowing international intervention. If you were in front of Mugabe now and had the ear of Obama, how would you persuade them both to sign onto your plan?
I was in the State Department on Monday and talking through these issues. Clearly, the Administration has a lot of legitimacy in Africa. If there were a fair election in Zimbabwe between Mugabe and Obama, Obama would win it easily. So in terms of who is the most legitimate actor, it is clearly Obama. So the issue with America is not legitimacy but overload. It’s whether they see sufficient interest to move. And the argument has to be a combination of an ethical argument based on compassion (here are people socially integrated into the world but economically completely marginalised; they cannot provide the key public goods themselves, so we have to help them to back out of the cul-de-sac they’re in), and a degree of enlightened self-interest—that it is actually foolish to leave societies so precarious that some of them become Somalias. The strategy of building a fence around Somalia and hoping that it disappears seems to me, really, an ostrich-line strategy.
The muddle over American intervention or non-intervention has been so extreme, ranging from total non-intervention (Somalia) to total intervention (Iraq), and a new discourse coming out of Hilary Clinton is “smart power”. That’s a hopeful discourse because what she means is a minimal use of hard power aligned with an intelligent use of soft power. And that seems to me to be the right approach because we haven’t got much appetite for hard power, but […] we can show that the minimum of hard power aligned with an intelligent use of soft power (money, international standards, legitimacy of Obama) can make a difference.
How was your dual argument for ethical compassion and enlightened self-interest received when you actually talked about this to Washington? Did they buy it?
Oh, absolutely. There’s a lot of buy in. I’ve been amazed ever since the publication of The Bottom Billion, there’s been a huge interest on the part of government to align with the agenda. Obviously, not people like Mugabe… they’re a part of the problem.
So the State Department got on board with this?
Well, you have to ask the State Department. But they invited me, and yes, I think there’s a lot of interest both in Europe and in America.
What were their objections?
I think… one strand of opinion would be basically pessimistic and say we’ve failed and failed, there is no point in trying anymore. So there’s a lot of fatigue and despair. And the other sentiment is the sort of, “build a fence and ignore it”…
So the White House didn’t object to your plan based on shortage of resources?
No. And of course, my approach is not just saying that all we need is twice as much money as you’d ever thought of. It’s a matter of marrying money with other policy interventions such as trade, governance, security. For example, I am having a discourse with the American administration on Haiti at the moment. They’ve already done the trade deal with Haiti. So now, the thing to do is to provide the rather modest amount of money that would make it feasible to export on the basis of that trade deal.
The US government has been involved in several coups of democratically elected leaders. Given that track record, do you think it’s really plausible for African dictators to buy into your proposed bait of offering to help them put down possible coups?
What I would like to see military intervention to be used for is to discourage coup d’états. There have been three coups in West Africa in this past week. I’m sure at this very moment, African presidents really are lying awake at night worrying about coup d’états. And the tragedy of coup d’états is that they displace democratic governments just as much as bad governments. Now, I don’t think we should try and prevent all coup d’états… the international community should use its military force to restore democratically elected governments—I don’t see any ethical issue in that. It would actually be disgraceful to do anything else. We already did it in Sierra Leone and nobody accused the international community of neo-colonialism in doing that. So there is a legitimate role for force, serious force in protecting democratic governments.
Now, the neat twist to that is that once you’ve got an undertaking to protect democratic governments, there has to be one condition at least, which is that the government conducts a democratic election. If it cheats, it should not be protected. So I propose an international standard that governments could undertake to adopt on the conduct of elections. And if they adopted that standard, they would be protected, as long as they conducted the election properly. If they then subsequently cheated on an election, that cover against the coup would be withdrawn, and the withdrawal would be a signal. Knowing that, presidents would be much more weary of cheating on elections…
What I was asking was not a normative question of whether or not the US and the international community should intervene to install democratic elections. I am saying that sometimes, the US government actually intervenes to put down democratically governments. Given this track record, how can they be trusted to safeguard democracy?
That’s why it is so important to have clear rules of engagement. When is it legitimate to use military force and when is it not? America’s got a force AFRICOM and that force needs clear rules of engagement because otherwise, as you say, it is going to be treated with a lot of suspicion. But the right rule of engagement is not “never intervene”. If there were a coup in Ghana tomorrow, the right rule of engagement would be to fly in and restore the legitimate government. If there were a coup in Zimbabwe tomorrow, the right rule of engagement would not be to fly in and restore Mugabe—and so we need clear rules to delineate that.
You propose a ten-year period of peacekeeping, during which the economy of the [post-conflict] country is supposed to double. If the economy doesn’t double, what do you propose then?
First of all, there’s already a lot of peacekeepers in there, there are over 100,000 of them now, so this is the future, like it or not. So, the question is really complementary strategies to peacekeeping. Precisely because these economies go so far down during the conflict, it’s relatively easy to get strong growth post-conflict, as long as you’ve got some restoration of reasonable policies, a guarantee of security and flows of aid. So it’s not difficult to get rapid growth. If you don’t get growth, then it’s true, quite possibly you haven’t got a viable exit strategy. Then you’ve got some hard choices, but the world doesn’t come in nice easy boxes.
What are some of those choices?
Well, do you pull the troops out anyway? Or, do you say: “This is harder than we thought, this is longer than we thought.” So, take a country like Liberia or Sierra Leone, or Haiti. So far, economic recovery hasn’t been that great. So does the international community just say: “Time’s up, bye-bye?”
Personally, I think that would be very foolish. Post-conflict is often messy, so the right thing to do is to do what it takes to get recovery… the US left over 100,000 troops in Europe for 40 years to get recovery, and it was a good strategy…it was the right thing to do.
Diana Fu is reading for a DPhil in Politics at Linacre College, Oxford, and is Politics Editor of the Oxonian Review. Amreeta Mathai  is reading for an MPhil in Development Studies at St. Anne’s College, Oxford.
Photograph courtesy of Paul Collier