People like you are needed on this continent to take us to where we should be. Keep it up man!
Hate or love Paul Collier, the Oxford University gadfly with provocative ideas about development in the poorest countries of the world, but you can count on him to come up with astonishing analysis every time he gets to it. That is precisely what he has done in his latest book War, Guns and Votes: Democracy in Dangerous Places.
Collier is not a heterodox thinker of big ideas distilled from opaque philosophies. He bases his analysis squarely on the results of state-of-the-art quantitative analysis. The thrust of Collier’s argument is that poor countries are hobbled by so many challenges, most of them self-inflicted, that it would be unrealistic to expect them to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, although an attempt to do so would help. Left to their own devices, these countries will continue to stew in their misery. This may be fine by the rest of the world; however, the conditions in these countries impose global public bad on the rest of the international community that cannot be ignore, thus the donor community must act in self-interest, if nothing else, to minimize the costs to themselves.
Take the matter of nation building, for example. According to Collier, few of the countries at the bottom of the world economy are nations; they may be states, and even so barely, but they are not nations in the modern sense of the term. Collier maintains that a nation must have some internal identity and cohesion. Most of these countries lack both. Why is that a problem? According to him, many of the countries are too big to be nations in the sense that they are an amalgam of various competing, often ethnic, identities; they are also too small to be states because their size does not allow much in the way of economies of scale in the provision of public goods. That is his punch line. Bad consequences proceed from this fact. The politics in these places is ethno-centred because national cohesion is nonexistent. Bad governance further exacerbates the problem because its modus operandi is ethnic manipulation that sets the stage for perpetual ethnic rivalries over the control of public goods without consideration for the whole society.
In these circumstances, observes Collier, increased democracy simply ups the scale of rivalry and that very often results in violence and the weakening of already weak societies. Does Collier therefore think that democracy is bad for fragile societies? In the short-term yes, but the alternative, dictatorship, is not a viable option because it merely suppresses pressures without attempting to address their root causes. The reason increased freedom becomes disruptive is because rulers and their supporting elites have not internalized democratic and accountability values. This leads to a fundamental contradiction between form and content.
Collier dwells to a great extent on Kenya as an exemplar of what could go wrong in democratizing poor countries. The book is dedicated to John Githongo, the whistleblower on grand corruption in Kenya and the subject of a recently published book on governance, It’s Our Turn to Eat, by Michela Wrong. It did not surprise Collier in the least that the last election in Kenya, held in 2007, was followed by mayhem of frightening proportions. The tragedy, according to him, is that the lessons of that experience are not being learned and, therefore, episodes like those are likely to be repeated in Kenya as well as in other countries.
As far as internal solutions go, Collier pins his hopes on enlightened and visionary leadership such as Julius Nyerere of Tanzania and South Africa’s Nelson Mandela. Collier’s acknowledged friends, Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni and Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, do not make the cut although Collier says the latter is the most effective state builder in Africa. Notice the use of the word "state" rather than "nation". Kagame is building an effective but largely authoritarian state that militates against nation building because of its ethno-based ideologies.
Since the emergence of visionary leaders is chancy, Collier focuses on the international donor community as a potential source of correction. International aid is the lifeline of poor countries but, says Collier, aid has not been strategically and effectively deployed. This leads to disillusionment on both sides, particularly among the donors, who keep doling out money anyway for a variety of reasons, guilt among them. This nonsense should stop, declares Collier, who would go a step further and advocate for even stricter conditions to ensure that aid reaches those for whom it is intended.
Sovereignty should not be an issue, Collier claims boldly. Poor countries do not have much national sovereignty to begin with, since few of them are true nations. They might have state sovereignty but even that has been converted to presidential sovereignty. By framing the issue thusly, Collier carefully isolates what he sees as the main obstacle, leadership or lack of it, and then proceeds to propose remedies that target this major link in the chain. His conclusion: the international community should design carrots and sticks to influence leaders in poor countries to move towards better governance systems. The sticks – including threats of military intervention in certain instances - should be credible. After all, observes Collier, the international community owes this to their fellow human beings who bear the brunt of suffering in poor countries.
A return to colonialism or trusteeship of a sort? Collier is unapologetic. If that is what it takes to heave the benighted places into the 21st century, so be it. Already, he says, it is underway in several places. Liberia has virtually ceded the sovereignty of its financial management to international donors. All checks cut by the country’s ministry of finance have to be countersigned by donors.
Collier may have found unlikely allies in certain parts of Africa. During a recent demonstration to protest the suspicious killing of two activists, university students in Kenya carried placards calling for a return of foreign rule in Kenya. That was not much different from a comment by a bewildered character in Chinua Achebe’s book, The Anthills of the Savannah, who wondered perplexedly when independence would end. Is it possible that a Berlin Conference II may not be too far off?
Dr. John Mulaa is a policy analyst and development communication practitioner. Currently, he is a consultant at the World Bank and also a columnist for the Nairobi based regional newspaper, the East African Standard.