Wars, Guns, and Votes
Why democracy is slow to take root in the Third World.
(Page 2 of 2)
The picture that emerges is a familiar one. Chaos breeds poverty and distrust and into the void step all manner of connivers. Patronage, corruption, and violence become the tools that sustain power, and the poorest suffer most, further degrading the country’s ability to demand more from its leaders.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
All of this we’ve heard before, although Collier’s efforts to quantify, for example, the conditions that spawn coups, are revealing. (Foreign aid might have the effect of encouraging one.)
The danger of rushing elections
More novel, however, is Collier’s central contention that given the state of affairs in Bottom Billion countries, the international community often errs by pushing headlong for elections.
Recall the first time Iraqis voted, in 2005. The election was heralded as a turning point, but stands in retrospect as a prologue to the worst sectarian violence of the war.
In post-conflict societies like Iraq, Collier writes “The net effect of [an] election is to make the society more dangerous.”
It’s a strong statement, but one Collier supports convincingly. He catalogues the tools of disenfranchisement available to the opportunistic in immature democracies – bribery, violence, miscounting votes – and argues that even when votes are cast freely, they tend to be cast blindly, along ethnic lines.
Under such conditions, the defeated should not or will not respect the outcome of an election, and the country finds itself even more destabilized than it had been. The recently stolen election in Zimbabwe is only the most glaring example of a trend that has weighed on sub-Saharan countries for the past half century.
At the end of his dispiriting, if also clear-eyed, analysis, Collier dutifully appends several solutions. He calls on the developed world to provide political, economic, and security incentives to Bottom Billion governments that conduct themselves with probity.
Some of his ideas are innovative – such as internationally underwritten coup insurance – though also a little too neat when set against all the countervailing forces that Collier previously described.
Progress over time
There is cause for hope, or pessimism, depending on how you look at it, in one of the most interesting parts of “Wars, Guns, and Votes.” Collier describes the historical processes that brought legitimate government to Europe, under conditions at least as abject as those facing the Bottom Billion today.
After the departure of the Roman Empire in AD 403, it was 1,000 years before England stabilized to the point where it can today worry about such small things as smoking bans and traffic congestion. The US achieved the same in just a couple centuries, and with only one civil war, so perhaps the broader trend lines are promising.
At the same time, there is a startling asymmetry between the magnitude of suffering and the small measure of progress that might accrue in a decade. If there’s a visceral lesson in this book, it is that it’s much easier to tear a nation apart than to build one up.
Kevin Hartnett is a freelance writer living in Philadelphia.