War, Guns and Votes: what to make of Paul Collier’s latest book?

June 25, 2009

     By Duncan Green     

War, Guns and Votes builds on the strongest section of Collier’s best selling ‘Bottom Billion’ – his investigation of the ‘conflict trap’ that afflicts a disproportionate number of the poorest counties, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa (Collier’s real passion). The book is in equal measure hugely stimulating and deeply exasperating. Stimulating because he is an original thinker and a brilliant communicator, as well as a policy entrepreneur who always tries to get back to the ‘so what’ on any issue. He defies easy left/right pigeon-holing – he is a free trader, yet admires Julius Nyerere (if not his economic policies) and is a fan of UN peacekeeping.

Frustrating because of his eccentric attitude to evidence: he looks for statistical relationships, runs dozens of cross country regressions, establishes correlations between different variables (income, conflict, geography etc) and plausible directions of causation, but then blithely ignores other disciplines or qualititative research methods and as he freely admits, ‘guesses’ about the explanations for them. You could sum up his method as ‘correlate, then speculate’. To be fair, he may be doing all sorts of reading in other disciplines and just keeping it to himself, but the absence of footnotes makes it impossible to say.

So what’s his basic argument? That the international community has got overly obsessed with elections, which can actually set back the process of post-conflict reconstruction (he wanted to call the book ‘Democracy in Dangerous Places’, but for some reason the publishers vetoed it), and that a new approach to international intervention is required to drag bottom billion countries, most of them in Sub-Saharan Africa, out of their various traps (poverty, conflict, commodity dependence etc).

Here’s some of the detail:

Above a per capita GDP of $2700 per annum, democracy systematically reduces the risk of politial violence (riots, political strikes, assassinations, guerrilla insurgencies, civil war and coups). But below that level, democracy makes the society more dangerous. ‘Democracies get safer as income rises, whereas autocracies get more dangerous.’

Elections don’t necessarily lead to democracy, not least because autocratic leaders in the bottom billion countries are increasingly adept at playing the system: ‘In the typical election in one of the developed (OECD) countries, the incumbent government has a chance of reelection of about 45%. In the average election held in a society of the Bottom Billion, despite the fact that voters usuallly have many more grounds for complaint, it is 74%. In the worst governed BB countries, it is 88%.’

Small and ethnically diverse countries are most at risk from conflict: ‘elections tend to work better in societies that have larger populations and fewer ethnic divisions. They also tend to work better in polities with checks and balances on the power of government, and in particular where the elections are properly conducted. Elections without properly enforced rules of conduct in small, ethnically divided societies, typically retard reform rather than accelerate it.’

Aid donors and others should pay particular attention to the months and years after a conflict ends: ‘the post-conflict decade is dangerous and there seems to be no clear political quick fix. In particular, elections and democracy, at least in the form found in the typical post-conflict situation, do not bring risks down. Economic recovery works, but it takes a long time. The one thing that seems to work quickly is international peacekeeping for the length of time needed for the economy to recover…..Post-conflict aid is significantly more effective than aid at other times.’

He’s a big fan of peace-keeping by the UN and other organizations: ‘An annual expenditure of $100m on peacekeepers reduces the cumulative ten-year risk of reversion to conflict very substantially from about 38% to 17%. The ratio of benefits to costs is better than four to one. Peacekeeping looks to be very good value.’

He’s particularly impressed by what he calls ‘over the horizon guarantees’ such as Britain’s role in Sierra Leone, or the old French ‘informal security guarantee’ to its former colonies. The French guarantee reduced the risk of conflict by about 75%.

Coups are a much cheaper and preferable alternative to war (he’s long abandoned his youthful fascination with ‘armed struggle’) – they cost on average about 7% of GDP before the economy reverts to normal, whereas wars cost far more. ‘Unless the rebels are unquestionably a whole lot better than the government, then the cost inflicted on the society for the one-in-five chance that the rebellion will lead to the government being overthrown is far too high, and so the rebellion should be discouraged. But coups are a different matter: they have to be judged predominantly by whether they improve governance.’

He has a fascinating historical essay on the rise of European states (which suggests he does in fact read pretty widely), arguing that hundreds of microstates came together through war. The only way to fund wars was through taxation + borrowing. The only way to raise that money was by conceding successful greater levels of political accountability to tax payers or lenders – ‘the consequence of warfare was the spread of fiscal accountability.’ So the evolution of the modern state was driven by the twin logic of violence and fund-raising. ‘Step by step, the predatory ruler of the mini-state had evolved into the desperate-to-please, service-promising, modern vote –seeking politician.’

Contrast this with Africa’s post-colonial proliferation of ministates, with fragmentation more common than amalgamation. Why have they not followed the Europe’s path of integration through war and accountability? Perhaps easy access to natural resources and aid has obviated the need to raise taxes and concede accountability. Even when Mobutu or Mugabe run out of cash, they prefer the printing press to taxation, for that very reason.

But these days, following the European war-driven route to state building with modern military technology would be a bloodbath. ‘So what are the realistic options? Surely the best is the route taken by President Nyerere of Tanzania: political leadership that builds a sense of national identity. Astonishingly, Nyerere achieved this without resorting to the notion of a neighbouring enemy: indeed, he emphasized a Pan-African as well as a national identity.’ But ‘unless the states of the Bottom Billion can forge themselves into nations, they will need some deus ex machina that introduces accountability.’

And so we come to Collier’s proposals for what should be done about all this:

1. Smart external intervention: For countries below the $2,700 per capita threshold, ‘key members of the international community [US, UK, France] would make a common commitment that should a government that has committed itself to international standards be ousted by a coupe d’etat, they would ensure that the government was reinstated, by military intervention if necessary.’ [comparing with post-war Europe, the proposal is more NATO than Marshall Plan].

And conversely, if the government reneges on its promises, the international community would rescind its promise, essentially sanctioning a coup against the government.

2. Privatization of essential services by separating overall policy (which stays with government), the allocation of money to specific activities (by a new independent agency bringing together donors, government and civil society), and the actual supply of activities (open to churches, NGOs, local communities, philanthropists and presumably – though he doesn’t specify – the private sector).

3. Donors should tax military spending by bottom billion governments ‘each dollar of increase would be taxed by a 40% reduction in aid, which would be redistributed to other countries, and each cut in spending would be correspondingly rewarded.’

Of the three proposals, (1) has been rubbished as ‘deeply dotty’ by Peter Preston in the Observer and worries the boss of Human Rights Watch too, but I think is at least worth thinking about. Option 3 is interesting but surely there’s a level of military spending which is legitimate for any government? (See this recent Oxfam paper on what this might be). But I’m very concerned at number 2, simply because history shows that in the end universal essential services have to be steered, but also largely provided by, the state, and there seems no plausible exit strategy for folding Collier’s proposed ‘independent services authorities’ back into the relevant ministries. Instead the proposal would create honeypots for the powerful and corrupt, and create new constituencies that would then lobby like mad to prevent that happening (look at the opposition President Obama currently faces on his health care reform proposals from the US health industry).

Paul gave a great talk at Oxfam last night, which touched on some of these issues. I’ll return to that tomorrow.