Modeling Democracy

Democracy Review War and Peace

Wars, Guns and Votes: Democracy in Dangerous Places
by Paul Collier
Harper, 2009

Scientists–particularly, but not exclusively, at the undergraduate level–love to denigrate the contributions made to humankind by the academic entreaties of students of the arts. Studying Shakespeare, the argument goes, adds nothing to humanity’s search for truth, wisdom, and the general improvement of life. By contrast, medical physics, for example, makes progress in all three. Social sciences, however, toe a grey line, often examining areas which might be impervious to rigorous scientific investigation. Against all odds, Paul Collier, former head of research at the World Bank, manages to carefully combine all of these elements, as one would expect from someone of his background.

Along with named and credited colleagues, Collier has crunched numbers surrounding democracy and governments, showing how the world actually works and–more importantly–how it is likely to work given similar situations in the future. Thanks to Collier, we now know, for example, that increasing foreign aid to a poor state is likely to increase the chances of a coup taking place in that country; jumping straight to the conclusions, we can plan for this accordingly. Or consider his findings on the cost-benefit of international peacekeeping. This proposal–that the cost of international peacekeeping pays for itself through the savings made from the reduction in violence–was selected by the 2008 Copenhagen Consensus (think fantasy football but for economists–eminent adherents of the discipline assessing the most useful ways to spend aid and development money) as a worthwhile international expenditure. To satisfy those judges, you can be sure that the results are of the highest possible standard.

Thankfully, all these details are available on Collier’s website;1 mercifully they are not reproduced in full within Wars, Guns and Votes, which distills its core findings to the nuts and bolts of a political situation. Take for example Nigeria’s 2007 election, where bribery and vote miscounting were high, violence was low, and “violence was predominantly a strategy of the politically weak, perhaps somewhat analogous to terrorism.” This insight sits comfortably alongside his later blame of Kenyan presidential candidate Raila Odinga for the 2007 post-election violence in that country. As the challenger, Odinga had to rely on (fiscally) cheap election strategies of ethnic politics and violence. Other key points made on post-conflict situations include factoids like: autocracies are less likely to revert to violence than democracies are, as well as a list of factors that increase the likelihood of a poor country entering a civil war or experiencing a coup.

On coups, Collier begins with the provocative declaration, “The challenge posed by coups is not to eliminate them but to harness them.” Coups, in short, can be a force for good in removing a dictator in order to hold elections (such as the case of Mauritania in 2005), or a case for bad in installing corrupt totalitarian governments (such as Saddam Hussein in Iraq in 1979). In teasing out what makes a coup more likely, Collier focuses on financial incentives rather than ideological or class-based struggles as the root enabler (rather than cause) of conflict between governments and their domestic enemies. Consequently, he has entered the “greed versus grievance” debate ongoing in the academic community, bringing peer reviewed evidence to the table in support of his side.

On other charges, more emotive in nature, this may not help: criticism has clearly been anticipated for his lack of discussion or respect for state sovereignty, or for failing to blame colonialism for much of Africa’s current problems. But this is hardly surprising, as Collier’s book focuses on factors which reduce the risk of violence whether it is by, against, or within the state, as well as examining some factors which might increase economic growth, and factors increasing the chances of a state being a peaceful, lasting democracy. The emphasis is how states can improve from their current situation, not how they reached it. As he notes, “...we have underestimated the degree of difficulty and promoted the wrong features of democracy: the facade rather than the essential infrastructure.” In other words, Wars, Guns and Votes avoids the blame game.  

Nor does Colliers book focus on democracy as an ultimate goal, or focus on a defined set of human rights. The reader gets the impression that, given the right economic conditions, a relatively benign autocracy would be preferable to a Western-style constitutional democracy, potentially a case of “better fed than properly led” to paraphrase one of his own questions.

This leaves many grey areas still open. What would Collier think, for example, of General Augusto Pinochet’s Chile or Park Chung-hee’s South Korea, both of which saw great economic development, were devoid of mass Soviet-style gulags, but were nonetheless odious dictatorships with appalling records of state terror? But they are both outside the bottom billion, the sixty or so nations–home to one billion people–which saw little if any growth in income in the nineteen eighties and nineties, and so outside the scope of this volume.

Furthermore, Collier recommends international intervention in certain cases, or at least the explicit provision of international guarantees that coups will not be tolerated against democratic governments, or at the least against those willing to adopt democratic norms. This can alternately be seen as a threat against potential coup leaders. It would be interesting to know how he would feel about coups against autocratic governments which are nonetheless relatively free from violence. Collier’s intervention proposal is based on existing French security guarantees to former colonies. Many of these are as corrupt as can be.

Collier also fails to address any benefits of national or ethnic pride, although he does cite work showing that merely voting for sectarian parties is a satisfying way for some people to express their identity. He then separately focuses on the attributes in favor of large countries, such as that they benefit from more experiences of peacetime. At no point does Collier properly tackle the dilemma inherent in these two viewpoints–does either factor outweigh the other? This despite his advocacy that nation-states like Tanzania, which manages to transcend this schism, and putting forth convincing arguments in favor of pooling sovereignty (à la European Union) without, unfortunately examining how this could begin to be put in place.

This is where some of Collier’s arguments are most vulnerable. We learn here what is statistically likely to reduce the risk of conflict in any particular situation. We do not learn, however, what will reduce conflict in any specific situation. There is little examination of factors particular to any of the conflicts within his dataset.

This can best be seen when considering the composition of the bottom billion, which Collier has helpfully provided in an appendix. Up until then, Collier is silent about those bottom billion countries outside of Africa: are the findings equally applicable for countries like North Korea, Kazakhstan and Guyana, each of which have their own histories that differ from each other and potentially from much of the data? In short–does work on the bottom billion apply across the entire bottom billion? Thus, when it comes to constructing a better understanding of the larger socio-political, historical landscape, historians, political scientists, and foreign policy analysts, who often employ a narrower focus, are clearly not obsolete.

Ironically, Collier is at his most interesting in the final section of his book, where he abandons scientific enquiry and embarks upon a brief history of how states came to be responsible to their citizens. He also opens up discussion of proposed solutions which provides an interesting and a good basis from which to debate international aid and development, but will no doubt rest upon many individual assumptions with which many will disagree. His belief that the international community would be willing to use force to intervene in a state in which they have little or no strategic interest, to uphold a democratic government, is not convincing, no matter how flawless the logic behind it. What if the country was Somalia, for example? After all, the problem with many countries of the bottom billion is not just violence from or against the center, but the control that the center can exert over its periphery, which no amount of good intentions in the capital will change.

December 2, 2009

frontispiece/illustration by Sarah D. Schulman