A few days ago, I had the privilege of attending a lecture at LSE by Professor Paul Collier, author of The Bottom Billion. He talked about the topics in his new book: Wars, Guns, and Votes: Democracy in Dangerous Places. I haven’t read it yet, but am itching to get my hands on a copy as soon as possible – especially after hearing his amazing lecture.

In his talk, he spoke about the rampant poverty and instability of the “bottom billion” countries, and the links between this economic stagnation and political conflict. Essentially, he believes that governance in Africa is one of the main obstacles to economic development, and if Africa is to develop anytime soon we have to focus on helping African countries develop stable democracies elected through regular, free, and fair elections. This is political science 101: economic development and political stability are deeply intertwined.

He started off by stating the two essential functions of the state: to provide security and to be accountable to the people. These are essential public goods that foster economic growth and are necessary for the development of any society. In Europe, states emerged first as a solution to the problem of security. And due to the constant external warfare amongst countries, European states needed more money to fund war, and thus turend to taxation as a means of getting this money. Taxation leads to representation: these states had to become more accountable to the people in order to gain their tax money and support. Thus, war became a rallying point for accountability and national unity. The reason African states are in such dire condition right now, Collier asserts, is because they developed via a very different process that did not allow for security and accountability. African states didn’t emerge autonomously. Their boundaries were drawn arbitrarily by the colonial powers, and there was no sense of common national identity. Some states were too large to maintain internal unity, while some were too small to be effective. There was no external warfare, but lots of fighting amongst various groups within individual states. The countries had no way to mobilize taxation. Most African countries do not have truly free and fair elections, and even if they do the presidents are often overthrown by military coups. So these countries have ended up not providing security nor accountability to their people.

So what can we actually do about this? The way forward, he says, is to work towards both these things: security and accountability. There are regional solutions: African countries can come together to provide security for one another. This hasn’t really worked in the past, though, because many countries may have illegitimate interests and may use these opportunities to exploit one another. In addition, the regional effort for accountability has not been successful — even if many African leaders say they want to unite, they would never give up or share sovereignty themselves. For example, recently Libyan leader Muammar Gadaffi has called for a pan-African state and a single African government. But if he had to do so, he would likely never actually give up power in favor of a federal solution. Thus, regional efforts are not likely to make much progress.

And so, Collier turns to international solutions, which he believes are most effective. For security, he cites that post-conflict peacekeeping is highly effective in reducing recurrence of conflict in a particular country; sure, we have to continue aid, but we definitely have to dedicate more resources to ramping up peacekeeping in many post-conflict situations. Collier also supports more robust budget systems with increased governance conditionalities imposed by donors. I certainly see the merit in these suggestions.

But perhaps his most controversial suggestion is international intervention to ensure the accountability of African governments. He proposes the establishment of an international standard for free and fair elections. If a government holds a free and fair election fulfilling these standards, then the resulting winner should be guaranteed “protection” against any coup by powerful international actors, like the US. So essentially, an African president who is elected through free and fair elections, and then continue to rule in a democratic manner with good governance, then the US would help them to stay in power against any party who might try to overthrow him. This would give an incentive for an African leader to help establish free and fair elections with the hope that he would be granted protection, and this would also discourage coups because the threat of US intervention would be too great for any party to attempt a coup.

Although the idea is appealing, I have to say I’m not completely convinced. Is the only solution to stability, economic development, and democracy in Africa related to military intervention? There have to be ways in which economic development and bottom-up approaches can also help these societies: it seems pessimistic to assume that international intervention is the only solution to these problems – even in the long run. Where do NGOs and businesses come into play? And how would this work out politically – what happens if the US guarantees against a coup but then has to actually intervene? Would the US, UK, UN, etc actually agree to such a plan? Sure, his solution might work out, but suggesting politically unfeasible solutions isn’t all that effective.

Overall, I have some reservations, but still hope to read the book because I am sure it’ll provide valuable insights into the state of democracy and governance in Africa. What do you think: is military intervention a good idea to ensure security and accountability in the countries of the bottom billion?

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