9 March, 2009Issue 8.7AfricaEconomicsPolitics & SocietySocial PolicyWorld Politics

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Illusions of Sovereignty

Amreeta Mathai

Wars, Guns, and VotesPaul Collier
Wars, Guns and Votes: Democracy in Dangerous Places
The Bodley Head, 2009
272 pages
ISBN 978-1847920218

When development economics guru Paul Collier released his bestselling book The Bottom Billion (2007), Niall Ferguson welcomed him into the fold of the African development debate with a punch: “Now comes another white man, ready to shoulder the burden of saving Africa.” Despite the jab, however, Ferguson went on to praise Collier’s approach, which focused on four “traps” that maintain extreme poverty among the world’s poorest billion inhabitants. Ferguson called Collier’s analysis “more convincing” and his remedies “more plausible” than those offered by the other popular giants of development economics, William Easterly and Jeffrey Sachs.

In his newest book Wars, Guns and Votes, Collier has shifted his discussion to the failing democracies that govern many of the world’s poorest “bottom billion”. He argues that elections often create the façade of democracy in bottom billion countries rather than democracy itself. Lacking the enforcement and balance-of-power mechanisms of real democracy, these countries remain on the brink of instability and vulnerable to the sort of violence that stalls development. The post-election violence and controversy surrounding the Kenyan and Zimbabwean elections, the most recent and vivid examples of democracy gone wrong in bottom billion countries, seemed to prove Collier’s point.

Collier offers a nuanced and compelling diagnosis of the driving factors behind post-election violence and persistent bad governance in Africa’s bottom billion democracies. One such factor is inadequate information dispersal, which leaves voters in bottom billion countries in the dark about candidates’ political positions and personal histories. Suspicious of the information they do receive, voters start to make decisions based on who they think is most likely to forward their own interests, often voting divisively along ethnic or religious lines. When honesty and a record of competence fail to offer an advantage in elections, the result, Collier argues, is that “the crooks will replace the honest as candidates”. Wars, Guns and Votes drives to the root of the illiberal democracy that governs many of the world’s poorest; Collier perceptively describes how democracy in its malformed varieties promotes instability and poverty rather than peace and development.

But the analytical rigour that Collier applies to his diagnosis of bad governance in the first part of his book is then absent in his book’s final section of proposed solutions. This becomes particularly troubling when he arrives at his more provocative suggestions. For example, Collier asserts that the West, cognizant of colonialism’s sins, pays “excessive respect” to the “notion of national sovereignty”. What Western donor countries have failed to realise, he says, is that “in reality the typical society of the bottom billion does not have national sovereignty”. Rather, because they lack the ability to constrain the power of an election’s winner, “they have presidential sovereignty”, which can come in the form of democracy-backed dictatorship. We should not, Collier argues, be so ready to revere this sort of sovereignty.

For Collier, sovereignty is defined by a country’s ability and imperative to govern for the people. When bottom billion governments fail to provide key public goods like security, accountability and transparency, he posits that the “international community”—a term that he fails to define in any consistent or plausible fashion—bears responsibility to intervene and supply them. He proposes a number of methods of intervention: most notable are long-term peacekeeping and a system of shared sovereignty (the bottom billion nation would agree to “share” its sovereignty with the international community). In a post-Iraq, post-colonial world, such controversial “remedies” require great clarity of method and purpose. Collier fumbles in answering the question of when, exactly, intervention is warranted and how, exactly, it should be carried out—and confused prescriptions for intervention are, as they always have been, particularly dangerous.

Once the “international community” intervenes in a post-conflict country, how long do they stay and to what end? Collier says the international community should stay for the long haul: “Aid-assisted economic recovery is the true exit strategy for peace-keepers.” But debates on the effectiveness of long-term peacekeeping and aid are particularly contentious for good reason. To propose such measures as if their validity is obvious is to ignore studies that suggest how long-term peacekeeping and aid actually can exacerbate, rather than mitigate, unstable situations.

Collier sidesteps these issues by comparing his suggested intervention to the Marshall Plan. The vague historical comparison brushes over one of many extremely relevant differences: George C. Marshall did not doubt the sovereignty of post-war European nations in the way that Collier does in Sub-Saharan Africa. In fact, in a speech delivered at Harvard University in 1947, Marshall made it clear that the aid package was to be directed to the needs of Europe as stated by Europeans. He declared: “This is the business of the Europeans. The initiative, I think, must come from Europe.”

While Marshall, in forwarding his comprehensive plan for aid, was confident in Europe’s ability to guide its own development, Collier clearly suggests that bottom billion governments cannot do the same. Post-war Europe was re-building its institutions, national infrastructure and informed electorate; that project was entirely different from the building project Collier envisions for the bottom billion.

While we might agree that intervention to quell genocide or to help a sovereign government avert disaster is justified or morally imperative, the grounds for Collier’s suggested intervention are muddled. It seems apt to compare Collier’s proposals to the Bush administration’s nation-building project in Iraq, where the strategy was to enforce peace in a post-election nation and at the same time funnel resources that would promote economic development. By most accounts, the strategy was a disaster.

While Collier does make a valuable contribution by furthering an understanding of the pragmatics of democracy’s failures in bottom billion nations, his lack of clarity on intervention treads on territory that blurs the line between aid and occupation, assistance and intervention. A respected scholar, Collier has won the confidence and audience of several world leaders; it would be irresponsible to use this influence to forward confused plans for intervention, something that, particularly in light of recent history, raises eyebrows the world over.

Amreeta Mathai is reading for an MPhil in Development Studies at St. Anne’s College, Oxford.