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Book Review: Wars, Guns and Votes by Paul Collier

Paul Collier begins his book Wars, Guns and Votes: Democracy in Dangerous Places by noting that the next generation might live to see the eradication of war or they might die in one.  Each is a distinct possibility, but he states that the face of warfare has changed.  The wars of the future, he asserts, will no longer be about invasions, values and the movement of international borders; wars will be on a much smaller scale and are likely to be civil wars that affect the poorest countries on earth.  It is a chilling prediction, and far from believing that the atrocities of Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia are firmly in the past, Collier predicts more genocides and ethnic warfare as the governments of what he calls the “bottom billion” remain unaccountable and illegitimate.

In Wars, Guns and Votes, Paul Collier seeks to challenge some of the more popular and enduring beliefs about the politics of the “bottom billion.”  He begins by dissecting the role of democracy and the effects of ethnicity and then follows this with a section dedicated to guns, wars and coups with a case study of Cote d’Ivoire.  The final section of the book focuses on Collier’s recommendations for policy changes and his suggestions for steps that the developed world can take to ensure the development of proper governance and accountability in the countries of the bottom billion in the future. 

In the first part of the book, “Denying Reality: Democrazy,” Collier debunks the notion that the revered democratic election should be the end point in the political process.  Citing research and case history, he asserts that democracy does not enhance prospects of internal peace but rather increases political violence.  This is because democracy has not produced accountable and legitimate governments and the way that elections are won means that bad governance and a lack of accountability is inevitable.  Quite simply, it is too easy to rig elections, pick on scapegoats and minorities or lie to voters in order to win elections, and once elections have been won on that basis, what incentive is there to govern properly?  A government would need to continue these tactics in order to stay in power as long as possible. 

Collier continues with a look at the effects of ethnicity in developing countries and observes that public services tend to be worse in ethnically diverse countries where politicians plundered the economy and transferred the proceeds to their own ethnic groups.  Citing the case of Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, Collier notes how the construction of a national identity can help to overcome such effects of ethnicity.

In the final section of part one, Collier notes that peacekeeping does, in fact, work and that, while it is expensive, it costs a mere fraction of the cost of conflict.  He asserts that there is a level at which the benefits of peacekeeping missions seem to even out (approximately $100 million a year) and that the aim should be to pull out eventually and phase in an over-the-horizon guarantee with the promise of a rapid response.  He cites the British ten-year undertaking to fly troops into Sierra Leone should the need arise as an example. 

Part two of the book is entitled “Facing Reality: Nasty, Brutish and Long.”  In a discussion on guns, Collier notes that aid is leaking into military spending.  As post-conflict military spending increases, there is a risk of reversion to war, and thus aid is a two-edged sword.  Collier states that the developed nations have a responsibility to police arms embargoes and make them more effective or that they need to be more responsible with the provision of aid and to link aid allocations to a chosen level of military spending.

In “Wars,” Collier quite succinctly notes that armed struggle is development in reverse.  He expands on his claim in the opening paragraphs of the book and notes that we are moving away from invasions towards an increase in rebels, insurgents and civil wars.  Collier discusses several issues such as the economy, history, structure, geography and politics of a country and notes that all of these factors might be correlated with warfare but that it might be inaccurate to talk of causality.  Collier warns of the dangers of reverse causality and states that it is perhaps not relevant to look at why wars happen in the developed countries but how they are allowed to happen at all.  Recognising that the legacy of a civil war is another civil war, Collier states simply that we need to make civil wars more difficult.

About Mandy Southgate

Mandy Southgate is a blogger, serial expat and eternal tourist living and working in London. Aside from writing at Blogcritics, she blogs about travel and London at Emm in London, entertainment and media at Addicted to Media and war crimes, genocide and social justice over at A Passion to Understand. Mandy has continued to write for Blogcritics under the new profile Mandy Southgate.