Thursday, 19 August 2010

Book Review: Wars, Guns and Votes by Paul Collier

Wars Guns and Votes Paul Collier begins his book Wars, Guns and Votes: Democracy in Dangerous Places by noting that the next generation might live see the eradication of war or they might die in one.  Each is a distinct possibility but he states that the face of warfare has changed.  The wars of the future, he asserts, will no longer be about invasions, values and the movement of international borders; wars will be on a much smaller scale and are likely to be civil wars that affect the poorest countries on earth.  It is a chilling prediction and far from believing that the atrocities of Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia are firmly in the past, Collier predicts more genocides and ethnic warfare as the governments of what he calls the “bottom billion” remain unaccountable and illegitimate.

In Wars, Guns and Votes, Paul Collier seeks to challenge some of the more popular and enduring beliefs about the politics of the “bottom billion”.  He begins by dissecting the role of democracy and the effects of ethnicity and then follows this with a section dedicated to guns, wars and coups with a case study of Cote d’Ivoire.  The final section of the book focuses on Collier’s recommendations for policy changes and his suggestions for steps that the developed world can take to ensure the development of proper governance and accountability in the countries of the bottom billion in the future. 

Part 1: Denying Reality: Democrazy

In the first part of the book “Denying Reality: Democrazy” Collier debunks the notion that the revered democratic election should be the end point in the political process.  Citing research and case history, he asserts that democracy does not enhance prospects of internal peace but rather increases political violence.  This is because democracy has not produced accountable and legitimate governments and the way that elections are won means that bad governance and a lack of accountability is inevitable.  Quite simply, it is too easy to rig elections, pick on scapegoats and minorities or lie to voters in order to win elections and once elections have been won on that basis, what incentive is there to govern properly?  A government would need to continue these tactics in order to stay in power as long as possible. 

Collier continues with a look at the effects of ethnicity in developing countries and observes that public services tend to be worse in ethnically diverse countries where politicians plundered the economy and transferred the proceeds to their own ethnic groups.  Citing the case of Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, Collier notes how the construction of a national identity can help to overcome such effects of ethnicity.

In the final section of part one, Collier notes that peacekeeping does in fact work and that while it is expensive, it costs a mere fraction of the cost of conflict.  He asserts that there is a level at which the benefits of peacekeeping missions seem to even out (approximately $100 million a year) and that the aim should be to pull out eventually and phase in an over-the-horizon guarantee with the promise of a rapid response.  He cites the British ten-year undertaking to fly troops into Sierra Leone should the need arise as an example. 

Part 2: Facing Reality: Nasty, Brutish and Long

Part two of the book is entitled “Facing Reality: Nasty, Brutish and Long”.  In a discussion on guns, Collier notes that aid is leaking into military spending.  As post-conflict military spending increases, there is a risk of reversion to war and thus aid is a two-edged sword.  Collier states that the developed nations have a responsibility to police arms embargoes and make them more effective or that they need to be more responsible with the provision of aid and to link aid allocations to a chosen level of military spending.

In “Wars”, Collier quite succinctly notes that armed struggle is development in reverse.  He expands on his claim in the opening paragraphs of the book and notes that we are moving away from invasions towards an increase in rebels, insurgents and civil wars.  Collier discusses several issues such as the economy, history, structure, geography and politics of a country and notes that all of these factors might be correlated with warfare but that it might be inaccurate to talk of causality.  Collier warns of the dangers of reverse causality and states that it is perhaps not relevant to look at why wars happen in the developed countries but how they are allowed to happen at all.  Recognising that the legacy of a civil war is another civil war, Collier states simply that we need to make civil wars more difficult.

The section entitled “Coups” is difficult in that the author obviously has a point of view that he would like to express but in the end, it is supported neither by case histories nor research data.  Collier states that coups might be the only method of removing a troublesome dictator and that perhaps they should be harnessed, not eliminated.  He notes that a coup is a surgical strike and is not nearly as devastating as a civil war.  The problem is that coup leaders often get a taste for power and don’t deliver election as promised or they may be greedy and power hungry and not necessarily seeking better governance.  In fact, Collier notes, from a statistical point of view, coups are at least as likely to occur in democracies as they are in autocracies and therefore, they are less likely to throw out a truly bad government than they are to oust an acceptable, functioning regime.  Despite this grim outlook, Collier maintains that the threat of a coup can keep a government in check and that coups do have a role in maintaining good governance.

Collier then presents a case study of Cote D’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) which encountered a severe economic shock which lead to the development of anti-immigrant sentiment and identity polarization in the country.  In a very short period of time, the country experienced two military coups, a sham election and a rebel uprising which saw civil war erupt to devastating consequences.  Collier asks the question as to whether this catastrophe could have been averted.

Part 3: Changing Reality: Accountability and Security

The final part of the book is entitled “Changing Reality: Accountability and Security”.  Collier insists that the answer lies in nation building and the adoption of global norms of accountability.  Once again he refers to the case of President Nyerere of Tanzania and how he built a strong national identity in a previously fractured country.  Collier asserts once again that only once petty ethnic divisions are neutralised within a country, can public goods be supplied on a national scale.  Embarking on elections before national identity and accountability are in place is and will remain to be disastrous.

In “Better Dead Than Fed” Collier lists his three-part manifesto for ensuring accountability and security in the developing world.  He states that sovereignty has been shown to be disastrous in the past (when America refused to join the League of Nations) and he argues that the time has come to join together in assisting the developing world rather than leaving such countries to their own devices.  Collier states that we need to harness the threat of violence in order to ensure democracy.  This means that a voluntary international standard for the conduct of elections must be developed whereby the international community will assist countries in ensuring free and fair elections but will leave a country to the threat of a coup if the elections are not fair.  This must be complemented by enforcing probity in public spending.  Collier argues that donor countries have an obligation to their own tax payers to ensure that money is used in the manner in which it was intended.  Therefore, Collier calls for “governance conditionality” which would be based on capacity and verification.  It might be the least favourable kind of aid but Collier calls for technical assistance whereby donor countries supplied skilled people to verify that the capacity they are providing is actually being used to enforce probity in public spending.

Finally, Collier calls for an international supply of security.  Collier insists once again that donor countries have an obligation to link aid to the level of military spending to ensure that they are not subsidising the provision of guns and arms in countries at risk of civil war.  In addition, Collier suggests that sovereignty be shared and that the international community rise to provide security to post-conflict countries.  Collier states that “Some governments should provide or finance peacekeepers; some governments should provide aid; and the post-conflict government should reform economic policy, cut its military spending, and, if it chooses to hold elections, let them be free and fair”.  In order to be effective, these provisions need to be in place for about a decade to ensure that there is no reversion to civil war.

Wars Guns and Votes It is clear that Collier’s views will not be welcome or popular amongst the people that already think that developed countries are already doing too much in the developing world and that taxpayers’ money would be better used in domestic arenas.  In the classic parlance of the economist, Collier reminds us that ignoring our responsibilities at this stage will lead to greater devastation in the future and indeed, a greater financial outlay.  At times his arguments seem so simple that it is surprising that they have not been implemented previously; how is it possible, for example, that donors supplied aid without ensuring that it was not used to fuel greater war and suffering?  At other times his arguments seem impossibly liberal and idealistic but the point is this: we fought two major world wars to protect freedom, sovereignty and values; why are we not prepared to act in order to ensure this for the countries of the “bottom billion”?  

There does seem to be some movement in the direction that Paul Collier proposes.  Collier is a professor of economics at Oxford University and is quite respected in his field.  He certainly has an expanding sphere of influence and has talked at the Aspen Institute and the TED Conference.  In addition, there are several organisations and initiatives hard at work to introduce notions of governance and accountability to the governments of developing countries through, for example, the Public Expenditure & Financial Accountability (PEFA) programme. 

The ideas that Collier proposes in Wars, Guns and Votes are not simply theories but are based on research conducted by his own academic team and by other researchers.  Collier has made a fine effort in attempting to bring complex economic issues to a mass market through books such as this and The Bottom Billion but his references to data collection and analysis might prove too technical for much of this market.  There is also the ever present problem of reverse causality and a lack of reliable data to test.  Collier notes that the application of statistical research is a pretty new addition in the field of economics which means that as impressive as some of the hypotheses in this book might be, they may be somewhat limited until a greater body of research can be analysed and compared.   The problem is that this issue is far more urgent than that and requires decisive action.

Nevertheless, Collier has raised some intriguing points in this book and I am sure he will continue to champion the plight of the “bottom billion”.  It will be interesting to see how international relations and policies shift in the future and whether any of his ideas do come to fruition.  This book is certainly recommended for anyone seeking an introduction to democracy and post-conflict development in developing countries and such readers would benefit from reading his previous work The Bottom Billion too.

Buy Wars Guns and Votes at ¦
Buy The Bottom Billion at ¦

This article was written by me and first published as Book Review: Wars, Guns and Votes by Paul Collier on Blogcritics.



  1. I certainly agree that too much emphasis is placed on the electoral aspect of democracy. Elections alone won't work when there is no sense of national civic mindedness. But how you nuture that is the big problem. I agree with Collier that we shouldn't simply sit back and wait for disastrous wars to happen, we have to take the initiative, but the problem is not to become a further part of the problem, and not to become neo-imperialists through "humanitarian" interventions. You have written a brillaint review - thanks for taking the time.

  2. Excellent review, Emm. I certainly agree that imperialistic behavior through what we deem humanitarian interventions does not work. Unless there is a ground-swell from the people within, it is not going to happen. There needs to be a common mind-set within the people themselves and it should not be forced from the outside.

  3. @ P M Doolan: Thank you! It was not an easy book to review as i first had to ensure that I got my mind around some of the concepts.

    @ Cher: Agreed. And the case studies in the book show that it can be done, to an extent.


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