Top positive review
An insightful and provocative analysis of Third World elections
Reviewed in the United States on April 26, 2010
It seems natural that introducing democracy should be a key step along the way to better governance and more prosperity in the Third World. But is this true in practice?
Collier is a Professor of Economics at Oxford who has performed detailed statistical analysis on the practical consequences of elections. He asserts that introducing elections in poor nations tends to leads to increased political violence and misgovernance. The opposite is true for wealthier countries: there democracy tends to lead to more responsive and honest governance. This difference in outcomes is rather dismal news for the Third World, but as Collier carefully points out, we need to understand what is actually happening, which may be very different from what we would like.
His analysis is that when a poor autocratic government decides to hold elections it is heavily motivated to win them. In countries without adequate checks and balances, elections tend to be winner-takes-all affairs, with few constraints on the victors. The autocratic incumbents reluctantly realize they are not popular and will need to "adjust" the electoral balance. To do so, they resort to a variety of techniques, including various forms of bribery, electoral fraud, coercion, elimination of opponents (by dubious legal trickery, or worse) and last but not least, by playing the ethnic identity card to rally the majority ethnicity against its "enemies".
Unfortunately the net effect of these maneuvers is to make a bad situation worse. The regime retains power, but their tactics reinforce popular skepticism and distrust, and increase internal tensions.
After a civil war, the international community typically insists on post-conflict elections to put the seal on the new settlement. Unfortunately such elections suffer from all the issues above and risk inflaming the situation. Typically the situation improves ahead of the elections, as they provide a temporary focus for orderly conflict, but the elections themselves tend to reflect the same issues that drove the civil war. So the losers do not accept the legitimacy of the winners.
Collier reports that a variety of factors influence the likelihood of political violence. Bad elections are one. But so is poverty and small country size. (Smaller countries have more trouble meeting security goals.) Unfortunately a prior civil war makes a subsequent one more likely. Similarly with coups.
Collier observes that one of the key vehicles for introducing true democracy seems to be increased prosperity. As countries become wealthier they seem to accept more of the package of legal norms that allows for more honest elections and eventually for regime change. Collier also argues that investing in building a strong sense of national identity (as Nyerere did successfully in Tanzania) can help diminish regional and ethnic tensions.
However Collier's core analysis is extremely disheartening for the poorest countries. In an effort to end on a positive note, Collier suggest three solutions. Unfortunately all three seem rather speculative. First, he proposes international guarantees to defend governments against coups in countries which hold fair elections. He argues that coups are an even greater threat to most Third World Presidents than elections. I'm sorry, but I can't see a corrupt regime accepting imminent electoral defeat in order to obtain such a future guarantee. Collier also proposes an elaborate scheme for managing government spending, to avoid corruption and redirection. Finally he proposes a complex scheme for collective security. Perhaps all three should be tried, but they seem optimistic at best.
Overall, while I found Collier solutions very weak, his statistical crunching and subsequent analysis are extremely useful and provocative. Collier writes well in a very lucid style, and leavens his bad news with occasional rueful wit. We may not like his conclusions, but they are useful to understand, and strongly suggest that the West needs to be much more thoughtful about how and when to force elections on a recalcitrant regime.