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  • Escaping the Development Impasse
  • Larry Diamond (bio)
War, Guns, and Votes: Democracy in Dangerous Places. By Paul Collier. HarperCollins, 2009. 255 pp.

The most intractable problems of development in the world are not really global. They are, as Paul Collier demonstrated in his previous pathbreaking book The Bottom Billion (2007), concentrated in some 58 countries—39 of them in sub-Saharan Africa—that suffer from a chronic deficit of public goods. As Collier explains in War, Guns, and Votes, not all public goods are equal in priority or in their logical sequence for development. Two are foundational and indispensable: security and accountability. Unless countries can control violence and restrain their leaders' greed for power and wealth, they cannot generate the other public goods (functional roads, markets, courts, schools, public-health systems) that foster human development. Instead, they remain trapped in the chronic Hobbesian plight of countries such as Burma, Chad, the Congos (both of them), Haiti, and such recently failed states as Afghanistan, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Somalia.

There is no international policy challenge more intellectually vexing and more morally urgent than how to lift these failed states out of perpetual poverty, misery, and violence. And there is no social scientist more relentless and ingenious in the empirical study of this nexus of problems than Oxford economist Paul Collier. Witty, pithy, colorful, and hard-headed, War, Guns, and Votes is a splendid (and easily accessible) read. But its conversational tone can be deceiving. Though lacking footnotes, it is based on more than a dozen academic papers by Collier and several young coauthors (whom he repeatedly and generously acknowledges) that utilize [End Page 167] quantitative data and econometric methods to try to establish the interrelationships among the central variables that occupy the book—violent conflict (mainly civil wars), ethnic diversity, economic performance, aid flows, arms races, the extent of democracy, and the overall quality of governance. Leaving the rigorous scholarship to these papers (available on his website,, Collier is free to summarize a wealth of research findings in brisk, nontechnical terms, and to ponder their policy implications with the (implicitly) rational-choice mindset of a leading economist.

I must confess that I came to War, Guns, and Votes with a somewhat jaundiced view because of its seemingly nutty proposal that Europe and the United States should be ready to accept a military coup in a country that has committed itself to follow international best practices for the conduct of elections and then violated them. Inviting a military coup carries many risks: the possibility that, despite Collier's game-theoretic models, military intervention will not be short-lived; that it will trigger wider ethnic and political violence; that the intervention will not be merely corrective; and that, as is the common tendency of military coups, it will heighten repression and retard political development. But posed as part of a larger deal to guarantee international intervention to reverse coups against governments that do follow the electoral rules, the proposal is less silly (if still implausible). And it is reflective of the pragmatic, principled imagination—informed by a treasure trove of statistical analyses and many years of experience on the African continent—that Collier brings to bear.

If there is a leitmotif to War, Guns, and Votes, it is the need to return to the fundamental dynamics of state- and nation-building and then to think creatively in order to find new ways of addressing the developmental cul-de-sac that has so often been surmounted in human history only through war. As Collier knows, the root of intractable poverty in the "bottom billion" is not—as Jeffrey Sachs asserts in The End of Poverty—a shortage of capital. Rather, it is a shortage of good governance (which Collier summarizes with the term "accountability").

Collier's work captures the fundamental insight—so common in work on political development in the 1950s and 1960s, but then somehow misplaced—that "well-functioning states are built not just on shared interests but on shared identity" (p. 9). In the absence of a sense of common national identity that founding leaders such as Sukarno and Julius Nyerere managed to construct (though not...


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