Book of the week: Wars, Guns and Votes

Joanna Lewis gets to grip with the workings of African democracies

March 26, 2009

"Oops, I did it again." By quickly publishing another book for a general audience that will delight as many readers as it will outrage - footnote-free, with a cheeky three-page bibliography - Oxford's professor of development economics has become the Britney Spears of the poverty industry. Last year, his award-winning book The Bottom Billion (or a billion bottoms, as detractors prefer) was praised for its expose of the scandalous level of world poverty, while drawing criticism for neoconservative solutions. Now he launches a second offensive in asking why democracy isn't delivering for those he places at the bottom.

Paul Collier has specialised in Africa, and it is Africa that this new book is really about. Not that this matters. Seventy per cent of his bottoms live there. It has some of the world's dodgiest democratically elected leaders, plus lots of young men waving Kalashnikovs. And as the world watches a youthful African-American US President - his father a Kenyan - talk up responsible government and moral leadership, and at the same time an African President tucks into his 85th birthday cake as millions starve and die needlessly under his misrule, some may say it's a pretty good moment to be debating what the current shifting global political order might do for Africa's beleaguered citizens.

Collier's book is an argument for dismantling the sovereignty of African states and instigating a new type of international intervention (including military intervention) in states that fail to live up to clear rules on the exercise of power. At the time of writing, significantly before the global recession, Collier assures us that the UN was considering a Right to Protect legal mandate for intervention; the US was looking for a base in Africa to establish a rapid military reaction force; and Britain had intervened militarily in Sierra Leone in 2000.

It may sound like the Jeremy Clarkson approach to African diplomacy, but Collier insists that he's no neo-imperialist, nor would he go so far as the UN's proposal. "Externally imposed regime change tramples on the unhealed wound of colonialism and so is unrealistic", while "the international community is about as dysfunctional as any community can get". So he says "no" to military intervention in Zimbabwe and Darfur, these cases being evidently too mad to be redeemed in his view. His solution is a package of compromises to break the cycle of violence, instability and poverty.

To appreciate his solutions, one first has to grasp what he thinks are the problems. Collier has quantified real and imagined scenarios. He paints a Dante's inferno picture of Africa, plotting the shallow benefits from the wave of democratisation since the end of the Cold War. Rulers have mostly remained unaccountable to electorates. Able to rely on vast sums of aid while taxation remains low, presidents and their cronies have merrily kept domestic military expenditure ludicrously high; squirrelled away large personal fortunes overseas; and rewarded their ethnic-based supporters. Most failing states, he insists, are too small to deliver security and public goods. Yet they hide their failings and get away with murder, protected by extravagant notions of national sovereignty.

As is well understood, the colonial legacy acts as a clamp, particularly the historical struggle for the right of self-determination against white minority rule. Yet a bigger factor is the attitude of African leaders to power, often viewing it as a lifetime membership of a regional club. Bent on enriching themselves, they rarely interfere in what their generous definitions of what constitutes the so-called internal affairs of their fellow club members.

So if Collier still has the ear of Western governments, the World Bank and the UN, what's he advising them? To take the post-conflict reconstruction of Europe in 1945, Nato, the Marshall Plan and the European Union as a model. A federal system of African states or regional blocs should "share sovereignty" and dismantle barriers to flows of trade, interconnect infrastructure and pool security by mutual guarantees. To improve governance and accountability, the international community should invite leaders to sign up to a code of good practice, including arms reduction and transparent accounting. In return they would be guaranteed against military overthrows: "a guidance system that transforms the missile of the coup d'etat into an effective domestic restraint", ie, Western military intervention. In post-conflict situations, sovereignty would be temporarily farmed out to others as peacekeepers, providers of public goods and project managers of basic, unsexy but vital reconstruction work - essentially, "Bricklayers without Borders".

Professors of economics who write popular books are like Marmite. You either love their style or it drives you insane. Collier's output is certainly a no-nonsense, jargon-free zone and very readable. As he name-drops his way through some of Africa's recent presidents, Wars, Guns and Votes has the feel of a post-prandial talk with a glass of port. He brings in his many assistants in a heroic Magnificent Seven kind of way, offering up their latest problem-solving derring-do. It's also a fascinating (or disturbing) insight into the economists' world of simulators and game trees - even Collier acknowledges the "eccentric" nature of some of the projects, such as reorganising Africa into giant ethnic blocs. Yet there is something endearing about the way they set about, for example, working out the amount of African capital held outside the continent, in the same casual way the rest of us find out the number of an Indian takeaway.

The book often feels rushed. More time on the writing might have weeded out some blindingly obvious points such as "wars and coups are not tea parties" (who knew?!). And an Oxford don role-playing as African dictator may be too unsettling for those of a more nervous disposition.

Undoubtedly, both ends of the political spectrum will take strong issue with Collier's recipe for the apparent failures of democracy. An interventionist strategy that lets the likes of Robert Mugabe get away with it shows others how they can, too. Why try more of the same things that haven't worked? If there is an international law against genocide, doesn't the suffering of Africans matter more than good accounting? Don't they deserve an equivalent legal protection in these times of democide, when a government turns against its own people? Alternatively, many political scientists would insist that civil war and violence, or the threat of, is the only route to significant improvements in the life chances of the structurally oppressed, not the antithesis of development as Collier believes. To legislate against it stifles the prospect of economic reforms.

Last year, the refusal of South African dockworkers to unload a shipment of arms from China bound for the military in Zimbabwe shamed its complicit government and showed the power of ordinary protest. Africans now need liberating from their leaders as much as they did from colonial rule. They, too, can look back to the post-1945 period, as Collier does, for their blueprint for change. Then, popular protest - violent and sometimes not - unleashed the greatest political upheaval in the 20th century, the end of European empires. Africa has the fastest-growing and most youthful population in the world, never more interconnected through new communications technology. Its ancien regime needs to face what it fears more than the grey men in the suits: a continental revolutionary movement speaking again the language of liberation.


Paul Collier, professor of economics at the University of Oxford, is something of a rarity among contemporary economists. While others consider how to alleviate the effects of recession in the developed world, Collier is focused on the bottom billion: the poorest countries and their inhabitants.

A former director of the development research group at the World Bank, Collier's work has led to his addressing the General Assembly of the UN, giving a seminar at 10 Downing Street and being invited to meet Condoleezza Rice when she was US Secretary of State.

This attention may not be solely the result of his research. Collier claims to have "magnetic powers of personal attraction". Potential companions will therefore be saddened to learn that he considers one of his more "unusual characteristics" to be that he is "very happily married".

Wars, Guns and Votes: Democracy in Dangerous Places

By Paul Collier

Bodley Head, 2pp, £20.00

ISBN 9781847920218

Published 5 March 2009

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