IN THE poor world, elections often seem to be accompanied by violence, civil war or worse. Over the past two years, in Africa alone, Nigeria, Zimbabwe and Kenya have all experienced widespread unrest during and immediately after general elections. These ballots not only precipitated killing and maiming; the violence also seemed to discredit democracy itself. It allowed critics, such as China, to lecture the West on the inherent divisiveness of democracy; best not to bother, is the verdict from the East. And if your family has been incinerated in a church in Kenya in a bout of ethnic cleansing triggered by an election, who is to say that the Chinese are so wrong?
That is an uncomfortable question for Americans and Europeans. So Paul Collier’s new book on democracy and conflict in poor countries is timely. As in his earlier book, “The Bottom Billion”, which came out in 2007 and in which he coined the phrase to describe the world’s poorest people, the author challenges a lot of lazy Western thinking about the trajectory that poor countries should take to improve their lot. Mr Collier is an academic economist, and applies quantitative research to democracy and government in the countries he looks at. His teams of researchers use data from household surveys, election results and the like to give statistical substance to some broad assertions. The results sometimes restate the obvious, but just as often they are new and provocative.
Most important, he shows unambiguously what observers of elections in poor countries have long suspected: that on their own, unless they are held in the context of a functioning democracy, elections can retard rather than advance a country’s progress. “If democracy means little more than elections, it is damaging to the reform process,” he writes.
Nigeria is a case in point. Its immense oil wealth, which should be used to help the country develop, makes politicians particularly anxious to hold onto office. They employ ever fouler means to do so, and elections thus become little more than organised gangsterism. The violent methods the politicians use become the modus operandi of their period in office, and the whole political system is corrupted.
Mr Collier observes that elections begin to pay dividends to society only when they occur in a system of checks and balances, with a functioning rule of law: “As with elections and reform, democracy is a force for good as long as it is more than a façade.” That thought alone should make all Western donors and United Nations officials pause long and hard before doling out more millions of dollars to support so-called democratic elections in Congo, Nigeria or, maybe this year, Sudan.
Mr Collier also analyses the other factors that militate against the successful functioning of democracy and which cause violence in poor countries. Ethnic identity is one; the presence of a large pool of underemployed, testosterone-charged youths is another. Economic development is “a key remedy to violence”, he argues; you may not be able to take the testosterone out of young thugs, but creating jobs gives them something to do other than take up machetes. Rapid development, his research shows, is probably the most important determinant for maintaining peace. Aid alone does not achieve this; encouraging a flourishing private sector does.
Likewise, creating a national identity helps to trump the politics of ethnic divisiveness by persuading people not to vote blindly for the party of their ethnic group, as happened in Kenya at the end of 2007. Mr Collier dwells on the example of Tanzania, where Julius Nyerere, the country’s first president, succeeded in building a strong sense of nationhood. The result is a relatively long-standing peace, despite the historic differences that still prevail between the mainland and Zanzibar.
Rwanda is another country where the president, Paul Kagame, is determined to eradicate ethnic identity in the name of a greater national one. But in Rwanda’s case, is this necessarily such a good idea? It was not the mere fact of ethnicity that caused the genocide of 1994, but rather the ideology of “Hutu Power” promoted by one ethnic group against another, the Tutsi. Human rights and basic freedoms of expression are all suffering in Mr Kagame’s authoritarian rush to end ethnic self-identification in Rwanda. But will there be a price to pay for this further down the line?
Mr Collier devotes the last section of his book to a few big-picture solutions to some of the problems he talks about. Here he is less convincing. These amount to a more aggressive form of liberal interventionism, with all the usual drawbacks. He is a big fan of the sort of military commitments that enabled Britain, for example, to restore peace to Sierra Leone in early 2002. This leads him to propose that poor countries sign up to an international standard of democracy with the West, in return for which the West will intervene militarily if elected leaders are threatened by a coup. But this is exactly the sort of heavy-handedness that can rally a divided and fractious people behind an awful ruler.
Never mind. At least Mr Collier is thinking about these urgent and very difficult issues, something not many people are willing to tackle head-on. He has kicked off a debate that should be raging inside the development agencies and chancelleries of every Western capital, and in Africa and Asia too. The effort is surely worth it. This book was written before the recent knife-edge election in Ghana, a successful exercise in democracy, conducted in the most strained of circumstances. The rule of law prevailed. That will reassure outside investors and create a sound environment for the private sector. This is the sort of public good that elections and democracy should deliver, but so often don’t. When it works, a good election can be a turning-point.
Wars, Guns, and Votes: Democracy in Dangerous Places.
Harper Collins; 272 pages; $26.99. The Bodley Head; £20