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4.0 out of 5 stars Bullets and Ballot Boxes, 27 Nov. 2011
This review is from: Wars, Guns and Votes: Democracy in Dangerous Places (Paperback)
Political power is a fact of life. It can be wielded for good or for ill. It is much likely to serve better purposes if it can be shown that those wielding it deserve to have and it and can be trusted with it - political legitimacy, in other words. Twenty years ago, in the aftermath of communism's collapse, the answer seemed obvious. If power were taken from the ballot box rather than the bullet, this would secure peace because supposedly by definition elections are a better measure of legitimacy than armed coups.

But unfortunately, it isn't as simple as that. As Collier shows, here is no simple relationship between democracy and peace. Below a certain income level ($2,700 gross national income a year) democracies are more violent than autocracies. The societies of the bottom billion, which have experience a degree of democratisation, fall into this bracket.

What is about these societies that makes electoral competition so destabilising?

First there is strong ethnic loyalty in ethnically diverse societies. Membership of an ethnic group in a subsistence economy has strong advantages. The group will look after you when times are tough. But to ensure that this happens, you must be seen to be loyal. If there is an election, you are expected to vote for your man. These groups compete over scare resources that are allocated by oversized state sectors. Elections therefore become zero-sum games to control the source of patronage, the state. In the absence of checks and balances, governments and their opponents have every incentive to fight dirty, including resorting to violence, because the stakes are high. Once in power, the victorious group has no incentive to provide public goods like roads, railways etc. as this will benefit other groups. But ends up stunting the development of the entire country.

Elections without checks and balances, such as a culture of the rule of law and properly developed institutions to check the power of elected majorities, exacerbate violence. What we end up is an anocracy, something that is not as decisive as an autocracy but also without the accountability of an advanced democracy, a muddle of a half way house which has the worst of both worlds.

So the international community's fixation on elections to resolve the question of political legitimacy is mistaken, according to Collier. The stress should be on what works. Peacekeeping works, funding post-conflict reconstruction and basic skills like bricklaying works. Collier is interested in the nuts and bolts stuff and he is to be commended for it. Much of the analysis seems to be solidly empirical and he argues persuasively as to what the root causes of the problems of political instability and violence in the societies of the bottom billion are.

Collier moves to an analysis of how these problems might be resolved. Controversially, he argues that the problem of the provision of public goods can only be provided internationally, and not within the societies of the bottom. This means that sovereignty will have to be compromised. This of course is jealously guarded by the elites in the bottom billion. But what good does it do them? He compares Germany, which has less sovereignty on account of its EU membership than Burundi but the German economy is 3200 times the size of Burundi's.

The proposals he offers to resolve the problem of public goods provision (including military intervention) may be disputable, naïve or even unattainable but Collier wants to try and find answers and challenge lazy thinking and this he does admirably well in this book. Certainly he offers a convincing case that the logic of electoral competition in the societies of the bottom billion pretty much guarantees violence. Anyone interested in the relationship between development and conflict issues should read this book.
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