When Paul Collier, professor of economics at Oxford, publishes something, it invariably contains some very important ideas. I realised this when I first encountered his paper about civil war and insurgency, “Greed and Grievance”. Collier co-wrote it when head of research at the World Bank, where he developed a rare ability to merge his deep understanding of economics with sober analyses of a rapidly changing political landscape. Put simply, in “Greed and Grievance” he argued that armed rebellion had more to do with access to financial resources than with any deep commitment to ideology.
mong political scientists that particular paper was greeted by murmurs of approval and harrumphing in equal measure. Here was an economist treading on the keenly defended turf of political wonks, and many took umbrage. A few wonks, however, recognised the valuable contribution Collier’s research had to make to the struggle against poverty and political violence.I think some of the harrumphing that followed the publication of that paper might also be ascribed to Collier’s liberal use of baffling mathematical formulae to prove his point. I confess I had to skip a raft of calculus in his earlier work. But I am pleased to report that since he started writing bestselling books, he has dumped the equations in favour of clear prose.
This strategy paid real dividends just under two years ago when he published The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries are Failing and What Can be Done About It, a fresh and inventive look at chronic underdevelopment, its victims and its winners (the latter being few in number but abnormally powerful). The book was showered with praise as it offered many cogent explanations for the persistence of grinding poverty in a world which was until last September indecently rich. Wars, Guns & Votes carries on from where The Bottom Billion left off.
Apart from the fact that its author is not American, Collier’s work is distinguished from the books of Tom Friedman, Bob Kagan, Fareed Zakaria and several other gurus of globalisation in that it is based on extremely thorough empirical research. This puts him in the same camp as real heavyweights such as the Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz. When Collier asserts that the bottom billion are much more prone to insurgency and civil war than the rest of the world, you can be confident this is not observational anecdote. The chances are that he and his indefatigable team of student minions will have exhaustively examined the data from every civil war since the dawn of time to back his thesis.
This aspect of Collier’s books is powerful, making it hard to refute many of his conclusions, some of which are disturbing, iconoclastic or both. He is destined to upset a lot of people when he asserts at the outset that democracy is bad news for the countries of the bottom billion – it usually ends in tears, not to mention grand larceny, murder and even genocide. On closer examination, he argues that elections alone do not amount to a strong democracy. Without institutions that promote accountability, they are too easily exploited by cynical, greedy elites.
Unfortunately, the “kumbaya” politics of the 1990s held that voting was an end in itself. Western institutions became involved in an electoral circus which often absorbed huge sums. Self-selecting election “monitors” from America and Europe would travel to Armenia one week and the Ivory Coast the next to pass judgment on the validity of the process. By contrast, there was little or no investment in dealing with the consequences of the elections or building the institutions essential to ensuring that the resulting government did not abuse its power. In the former Yugoslavia, unscrupulous populists exploited the plebiscitary democracy in 1990 and 1991 to rip the place apart. And Collier saw this repeated in many countries in Africa, the continent where the great majority of the bottom billion states are found.
It is a brave scholar who asserts that democracy equals bloodshed, but Collier is not afraid of going against the grain. He gives very short shrift to the fashionable cause of self-determination or special status for minorities espoused by the Kosovo Albanians, the Luo in Kenya or the rebels in Darfur. He casts Raila Odinga, the Kenyan prime minister, and not President Kibaki as the provocateur in the country’s last elections (in contrast to most foreign media covering the story).But he mounts a very heartening defence of peace-keeping operations which, using hard facts, he is able to prove unambiguously are extremely good value for money. He then comes close to creating what on the surface looks like a surefire formula for stabilising the countries of the bottom billion, enabling them to begin economic development in earnest.
And this is where the problems arise with his thesis. He proposes a reduction of sales in weapons to governments and rebels in these areas – so far so good, although he skips over the issue of how to police such a regime a little too lightly. It is in his central assertion, however – that fragile democracies in Africa must be allowed to flower under the military guarantee of the United States, France and Britain – that the optimism of his economic modelling clouds the reality of global geopolitics. The “command centre” that the Americans are trying to establish in West Africa is motivated by a need to secure oil supplies, not by an altruistic project to nurture democracy. And his faith in the military strategies of the French in West Africa overlooks much of Paris’s cynical manoeuvring in the region (including the promotion of arms sales and mineral exploitation).
One might argue that British, French and American motives may change; however, after Iraq, Rwanda and Afghanistan (to name but three), the political and moral space for intervention is extremely limited. But it is to Collier’s great credit that he has really opened up a debate that we need to conduct with some urgency. Even as we dither about military strategies and aid for West Africa, for example, the entire region is being captured by Colombian and Venezuelan cartels who are turning Guinea-Bissau, Sierra Leone, Liberia and even Senegal and Ghana into the new Mexico. In economic terms, even after the crash, the world still has more than enough money to raise the bottom billion out of the swamp they are forced to inhabit. As in so many challenges we face, it is political vision and political will that is lacking.
By Misha Glenny