Poor nations will remain trapped until their bad leaders shape up. Letting a few topple would helpby Paul Collier / April 26, 2009 / Leave a comment
In my book The Bottom Billion (2007), I argued that a number of traps had caught 1bn people in some 60 countries in extreme poverty. One trap was violent conflict, especially civil wars. Another was poor governance: in many of these countries, government was not performing the essential functions of the state. But both are about political power.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, many of these 60 countries have adopted democracy. Autocratic leaders such as Zambia’s President Kaunda and, later, Daniel arap Moi in Kenya and Robert Mugabe in Zimbawe, were forced to introduce competitive elections, a move expected to defuse conflicts and so make societies more peaceful. Elections were also meant to discipline governments: accountability to voters would force them to promote economic and social wellbeing. But the results have been disappointing.
Peace, in particular, has proved elusive. In researching my book, I examined whether the coming of democracy changes the incidence of political violence. The results were surprising and disturbing. Below a threshold of around $2,700 per capita, democracies are significantly more prone to political violence than autocracies. All the bottom billion countries were far below this, so while democracy might be desirable for other reasons, it was not, for them, the royal road to peace.
Nor were elections the road to accountability. Faced with the need to win them, rulers have learned to cheat. Perhaps unsurprisingly, illicit methods—such as bribery, intimidation and ballot fraud—utterly trump conventional methods of appealing to voters. An autocrat forced to face election can roughly triple his remaining time in power by using such illegitimate methods. What’s more, armed with intimidation techniques, you don’t need to fuss about economic or social wellbeing.
The difficulties such countries face are almost certainly structural, not just teething troubles. With their fragmented societies and tiny economies, they are typically too heterogeneous to be nations yet too small to be states. Their core identities and loyalties are usually ethnic and sub-national, a barrier to nationhood. The public purse is a resource to be plundered by whichever groups have power, rather than a treasury for public goods. Such rivalries are captured in both the title and substance of Michela Wrong’s new book on Kenya: It’s Our Turn to Eat (4th Estate).
There are economies of scale in the production of public goods—like the eradication of…