Get our latest essays, archival selections, reading lists, and exclusive content delivered straight to your inbox.
In 2001 the United Nations announced the Millennium Development Goals, pledging to end global poverty by 2015. I argued then that it needed to focus its concern on a much smaller group of countries than it had identified. There is, as I argued in The Bottom Billion, an essential difference between a poor family in China and an equally poor family in Chad. Although both enter into the global headcount of families living in extreme poverty, the poor family in China has credible hope that its children will grow up in a society of transformed opportunities: China will be part of the future global economy. Credible hope for the future of one’s children makes poverty bearable; that was the condition accepted by millions of immigrants to America. In contrast, Chad has not offered its population a credible basis for hope.
Chad is not alone. It is one of a group of about 60 small, impoverished, post-colonial countries that “came unnatural into the world.” With neither the social unity needed for cooperation, nor the size to reap the benefits of larger scale, they are structurally unable to provide the public goods—such as security—that are critical for decent quality of life and imperative for economic development. They have diverged from the rest of mankind. They will never tap their vast reservoir of frustrated human potential unless the international community, at least for a time, supplies basic public goods that go beyond the typical aid agenda. This, stated baldly, is the thesis of my new book, Wars, Guns, and Votes. It is a troubling thesis. I have come to it reluctantly, and the international community has shied away from it, as have the societies of the bottom billion themselves.
Why is outside intervention necessary? The countries of the bottom billion are, paradoxically, too large to be nations, yet too small to be states. They are too large to be nations because, with rare exceptions, too many different peoples, with too many distinct ethnic and religious identities, live in them. This is not because they have large populations: on the contrary, the typical bottom-billion country has only a few million people. But these populations have yet to forge a strong sense of national identity that overrides older sub-national ethnic and religious identities. Considerable research shows that where sub-national identities predominate, it is more difficult for people to cooperate in providing public goods.
These countries are also mostly too small to be viable states, both when measured in terms of population—for example, the 49 nations of sub-Saharan Africa have a combined population barely half that of India—and, importantly, in terms of economic activity. As economies, the countries of the bottom billion are tiny, far smaller than most U.S. states, smaller even than the miniature European state of Luxembourg. Size matters: the production of public goods, by nature, is characterized by economies of scale.
Security and accountability are two public goods that make economic development possible. Security is the textbook example of a public good provided by the state. Indeed, the standard account of the organic evolution of states in Europe places the provision of security at center stage. The rulers, or more accurately, thugs, who ran the tiny proto-states of medieval Europe provided protection for their inhabitants in return for taxation. Military rivalries between neighboring rulers led to arms races, which favored those able to raise the most in taxation and afford the largest armies. A Darwinian struggle crunched the many proto-states into a few more-viable states. For example, in Germany more than 350 states coalesced into one, the highly militarized kingdom of Prussia.
Over time these larger political entities forged a common identity, not through an organic process, but as a result of political leadership: Bretons were persuaded to think of themselves as Frenchmen, Scots were persuaded to think of themselves as British, and so forth. External military threats made forging common identity easier; often people defined themselves in terms of their common external enemies. However, the formation of common identity moves at a much slower pace than the conquering of new territories. And this lag between identity and control creates a phase of empire. The Roman Empire is a classic instance of an empire gradually turning itself into a nation. Famously, in 212 C.E. all freemen in the entire Empire became Roman citizens, able to proclaim civis Romanus sum.
In contrast, the nineteenth-century empires that briefly colonized the pre-state societies of the bottom billion failed to evolve into inclusive states. Culture never caught up with control, and, in a final decade of irresponsibility, the empires turned the formerly stateless territories they had governed into small, impoverished, artificial states.
Unlike the states of Europe, these “unnatural” states had not evolved as solutions to two key security challenges: protection from neighboring states and protection from internal rebellion. In the climate of the Cold War, the need for protection from neighboring states was relatively low: because escalation was so dangerous, international warfare was largely avoided. But internal security was a different matter. Poverty, stagnation, abundance of valuable natural resources, and ethnic diversity made rebellion easy. Further, governments faced a dilemma: a large and well-equipped military might help to discourage rebellion, but it might also increase the risk of a coup d’état. Many more governments have been toppled by coups than by rebellions. Hence, weak governments have often preferred to keep weak armies, an example being President Mobutu’s policy of undermining and dividing the military in Zaire. His reign was safe against coups, but was toppled in the end by rebellion.
A typical country of the bottom billion was likely to face civil war or a coup during its first decades of independence. Once started, civil wars proved difficult to stop: on average they lasted more than ten times longer than international wars, and their legacy heightens the risk of further war. Similarly, coups tend to beget more coups.
The costs of civil war are, as Hobbes observed, enormous: life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short, and even the possibility of war is enough to deter investment and stunt growth. Thus, without security, economic development is extremely difficult. The fortunate newly independent countries’ societies managed to grow without war long enough for their economies to stabilize. They escaped the fate of the bottom billion. The unfortunate societies fell into violent conflict before they reached this stage: countries such as Côte d’Ivoire and Kenya were long regarded as being secure, but both eventually erupted into costly violence.
For the bottom billion the accountability of government to citizens may be more than a nice bonus: it may substantially improve the chances of development.
Another basic good, accountability, is not always recognized as key for development, much less as a public good. Unlike other public goods, it cannot be supplied by government alone. Accountability is about restraints on government power and so depends upon the institutions conceded by government under pressure from citizens. The same process that evolved Europe’s myriad fragile proto-states into a few secure states also built accountability. Rulers needed revenue for their armies and taxation provoked pressure for accountability: in other words, no security without taxation, and “no taxation without representation.”
Accountability—let alone democracy—is not absolutely necessary for development; China’s economy has managed spectacularly well with neither. But China is not a good guide to power relations in the bottom billion. In large societies it is more difficult for power to remain personalized: institutions are required, and these tend to limit abuses. Further, compared with the societies of the bottom billion, China is cohesive: the vast majority of its people have a long history of common identity. Elites are therefore likely to align their interests, at least approximately, with those of ordinary people. By contrast, in the small and fragmented societies of the bottom billion, power is personalized, and elites often have a distinct identity. In such societies autocracy is profoundly damaging, sometimes grotesquely so, rather than fairly benign, as in China. Had autocracy been the solution to development, the bottom billion would now be developed; most of them have suffered long periods of rule by dictatorship. Hence, for the bottom billion the accountability of government to citizens may be more than a nice bonus: it may substantially improve the chances of development.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, elections have become the de rigeur marker of democratic accountability: donors wanted them, and during the 1990s they became almost emblematic of modernity. However, elections only achieve accountability and deliver improved economic policy if they are properly conducted. Using illicit tactics—bribery, intimidation, and ballot fraud—has proved disturbingly easy and effective for incumbents. Such tactics increase the chances of electoral victory so much that they triple the expected duration of a ruler’s term. So, where they are feasible, incumbent politicians are likely to resort to them.
What makes them feasible? As far as we know, and such questions are often statistically tricky, a few structural characteristics greatly increase the likelihood that an incumbent will employ illicit electoral tactics. The most exposed are those countries with large resource rents (very high returns to control over natural resources), small populations, and low income—the structural features of the bottom billion. Compare India, for example, to one of the African countries of the bottom billion. India, which has been better able to provide security and accountability to citizens, has a population many times larger than the typical African country and this difference in scale is reinforced by the difference in resource rents, which are far larger in Africa.
• • •
If countries of the bottom billion are structurally unable to supply security and accountability, then some form of international supply is required.
Yet the international community has singularly failed to face reality: development policies have been increasingly designed to meet the marketing needs of the NGO lobby, which wields the only voting bloc that cares about such policies, rather than by a dispassionate assessment of what is likely to be effective in transforming the bottom billion. The NGO lobby is not irresponsible, but its need to generate donations makes it image-conscious. What it advocates is predominantly a larger aid budget, allocated (understandably enough) to the immediate social needs of children.
Furthermore, international aid skimps on support for security. The international strengthening of accountability is likely to be seen as more legitimate than the international provision of security; it is hard to argue that efforts to make stealing elections more difficult represent fundamental infringements on sovereignty. Those concerned to help the societies of the bottom billion may conclude that if only governments could be made properly accountable to their citizens at election time, then the problem of insecurity would also be taken care of. A legitimate and accountable government would not face a threat of political violence. Unfortunately, such a hopeful view looks to be unfounded. Below a threshold per-capita income of around $2,700, democracy actually appears to increase the risks of many forms of political violence, including rebellion. The societies of the bottom billion are way below this threshold. This is not an argument against the pursuit of democracy, but it does imply that security and accountability are distinct needs.
What might an effective set of policies look like? Recall what the United States did last time it got serious about developing another insecure region. Its agenda was radically more ambitious then. The time was 60 years ago, and the insecure region was post-war Europe. The United States got serious because the consequences of Europe falling apart, given the neighboring nuclear Soviet Union, were so alarming. Washington brought the full range of pertinent policies to bear. There was a large aid program, the Marshall Plan. But aid was only a part of the solution. A massive security program, NATO, complemented the aid; more than one hundred thousand American soldiers were stationed in Europe for more than 40 years. In turn, a robust concern with European governance complemented aid and security. The United States reversed its previous policy of non-intervention in the affairs of other countries (exemplified by its 1919 refusal to join the League of Nations). Post-war, it helped found the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), and it encouraged the formation of the European Community.
The package of aid, security, and governance was topped off by another total reversal—of American trade policy toward Europe. A commitment to open markets, initially not necessarily reciprocal, replaced protectionism. Getting serious worked. In fact it worked so well that almost everyone has forgotten that the Europe of the late 1940s was a fragile mess. The problems faced by the bottom billion are different and probably more daunting, but the good news is that the group of countries that can help with solutions has expanded enormously. The United States is no longer alone. The notion that the challenge is too vast and hopeless regardless of what wealthy nations do is simply ridiculous.
Yet there are large hurdles to overcoming entrenched ideas on all fronts. The past ineffectiveness of the international community has suited the elites within the societies of the bottom billion. They often do well out of social failure. Occasionally, their victims appeal for international action. Archbishop Desmond Tutu has bravely spoken out for international intervention in Zimbabwe. In 2008 Raila Odinga, the Kenyan opposition leader, asked for international intervention when he concluded that the government had stolen the election. But more commonly, ordinary people are still befuddled by an outdated rhetoric: international pressure for accountability is presented by threatened elites as a return to colonialism. Protected by this conveniently emotive assertion, presidents grandly claim that they are defending national sovereignty. However, since they are usually not accountable to citizens, what they are really defending is presidential sovereignty.
Rather than pooling sovereignty, the tendency among the states of the bottom billion has been toward further political fragmentation.
A commonly posed question among intellectuals within the societies of the bottom billion is why, if the United States is not willing to subject itself to decisions by international bodies, should the bottom billion be subject to them? These critics have a point: the United States ought to be more engaged in building global governance and show greater willingness to subject itself to more international rules. However, the true answer to the question is that the asymmetry is part of the price the societies of the bottom billion must pay for the refusal of their elites to pool political power into larger units that could reap scale economies.
The cleavage of the future will no longer be between America and the rest, or between the G8 and the rest, but between the bulk of mankind and the bottom billion. So what look like unjust imbalances of power actually reflect the huge differences in the capacity of states to supply security and accountability to their own citizens. The United States pioneered the neighborhood pooling of sovereignty: individual states chose to pool many of their rights federally. The American example was followed by the states of Australia, and then by the states of Europe. California, New South Wales, and Germany each have far larger economies than the typical society of the bottom billion, but their governments have chosen to cede some sovereignty. As a result these mega-states have little need for the provision of public goods at the international level; such goods can largely be supplied at the level of the confederation.
In contrast, since independence the governments of the bottom billion have jealously preserved their power, refusing to pool it with neighbors. For example, the African Union, for all its rhetoric and high-level meetings, has virtually no powers. I can think of no decision that a member government has been prevented from taking as a result of the Union’s existence. Quite the opposite, rather than pooling sovereignty, the tendency has been toward further political fragmentation: Eritrea has split from Ethiopia, East Timor has split from Indonesia, there is a mosaic of new “Stans” in central Asia, and quite probably in 2011 Southern Sudan will split from Northern Sudan. There is currently a queue of some 70 impoverished little territories seeking international recognition as nations.
Given the reluctance to pool sovereignty within neighborhoods, the only alternative is a phase of international assistance in the provision of vital public goods. International supply need not be permanent because the economic development that it would facilitate would gradually make domestic provision more feasible. And the temporary external supply of public goods to the bottom billion raises no issue of principle; it is already fully accepted. For example, many poor countries need a malaria vaccine, but its development requires the big-science available only in the countries of the OECD. As public goods, security and accountability are like that malaria vaccine: those who need them cannot adequately supply them.
• • •
Security and accountability are not just public goods. They are expressions of power. Their international provision is sure to raise the specter of a return to colonialism. Such fears are misplaced. Former colonial powers have no appetite for a return to empire: they are democracies, and their citizens would not countenance it. Moreover, international provision need not rely upon the former colonial powers. Recall that the group of countries that are part of the solution has expanded enormously. In Haiti, a classic representative of the bottom billion, security has been ably maintained for the past five years by 9,000 Brazilian peacekeeping troops serving under the authority of the United Nations and with the support of the Haitian government. Decades of global economic growth have allowed many countries, such as Brazil, to move to the other side of the international-assistance ledger: now they are providers rather than recipients. India and China are also now powerful players on the world political stage and are already net contributors of the public goods that the international community will need to supply to the bottom billion.
In view of the recent experience of Iraq, another important concern alongside the legitimacy of international intervention is feasibility. Any international intervention should be acceptable both to the citizens of the recipient society and to citizens of the providing societies, and most suggestions for action fail this test. Most, but by no means all.
Consider first the international provision of security for small, impoverished, violence-prone societies. Peacekeeping and “over-the-horizon guarantees” (a promise of military intervention if it becomes necessary) are effective ways to provide security. In post-conflict situations, which tend to revert to conflict, peacekeeping succeeds in reducing risks. Again the statistical research is beset by difficulties, but a reasonable judgment (based on available statistical analyses) is that the reductions are substantial. Despite its high financial costs, peacekeeping still looks to be a good value. This was the determination of the international panel of Nobel-laureate economists who assessed a study of the costs and benefits of peacekeeping as part of the Copenhagen Consensus 2 program. They might be wrong, but at some point doubt becomes an excuse for inaction, while the problems of insecurity remain real enough. Fortunately for Europeans, American policymakers in the post-war era did not say: “let’s wait for a couple of decades until we feel fully confident that a security intervention in Europe would be cost-effective.” Very likely, the decision not to dither was also fortunate for Americans.
Even under adverse circumstances, the success rate of international peacekeeping is impressive, and a more serious effort would likely improve its cost-effectiveness.
It is more difficult to assess over-the-horizon guarantees than on-the-ground peacekeeping. The British are currently providing such a guarantee for Sierra Leone, and it has so far been successful in deterring violence, but that is just one case. The Australian government found itself providing emergency cover in East Timor three years ago following a coup. Two thousand troops of the Australian army were flown in overnight at the request of the president to put down the coup and restore the legitimate government. I think it likely that the Australian intervention averted a return to civil war. I also believe that the Australian intervention was both legitimate and effective, but indignant defenders of “national sovereignty” and professional skeptics doubtless dispute this view. I further suspect that if the Australian government had explicitly committed itself in advance to flying in troops in the event of a coup, it would not have needed to do so. The commitment alone would have deterred the plotters.
Could over-the-horizon protection be internationalized? That is, could it be taken out of the realm of bilateral negotiations and implemented on a large scale? To my knowledge there has been only one recent, fairly explicit, over-the-horizon guarantee provided to a large area. That was the French commitment to Francophone West Africa that started after decolonization in the early 1960s and ended in the mid-1990s following French embarrassment in Rwanda. The guarantee was made credible by a chain of military bases. Because this guarantee applied to a large group of countries for over three decades it is at least somewhat amenable to statistical analysis. Such analysis indicates that Francophone Africa was significantly and substantially safer than might otherwise have been expected. Few people, perhaps least of all the French, want France to continue in this role, although as recently as 2008 it used the threat of its airpower to protect the government of Chad from a rebel incursion.
Quietly, over the past two decades, the role of international peacekeeping has grown substantially. Yet the international community has been dragged into peacekeeping by crises, while never making a real attempt to institutionalize these efforts. Operations continue to be run on a shoestring. The administration of UN military operations grew out of the office that administered UN conferences and is still periodically hamstrung by procedures more appropriate for conferences than wars. Still, even under those circumstances, the success rate is impressive, and a more serious effort would likely improve the cost-effectiveness of peacekeeping.
At present, international resources spent on peacekeeping do not count as development assistance. Nor is there any coherent budgetary framework in which its value is compared to that of aid. Establishing metrics for the cost-effectiveness of different kinds of interventions is just one example of how a range of policies—aid, security, governance, and trade—might be better coordinated.
• • •
If the international community can provide security, so too might it be able to enhance accountability. For one, the international community can develop voluntary standards and codes, which governments can then choose to follow. An example is the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, which many governments are now accepting as a reasonable benchmark. The initiative requires transparency in payments by extractives companies to the governments of the natural resource-rich nations where they operate. Making aid conditional on government actions can also help. But those actions should relate to the accountability of government to citizens rather than to the adoption of economic policies, which was the past practice of donors. Policy conditionality detracts from the accountability of government to citizens because it relieves government of responsibility for some economic decisions.
Measures to improve accountability can be especially effective when paired with efforts to combat illicit election tactics—bribery, voter intimidation, and ballot fraud. Clean elections are the key to accountability. Recall that quite apart from their intrinsic wrongness, illicit tactics retard development by freeing governments from the need to implement good economic policies. Recall, also, that illicit tactics are highly effective in enabling incumbents to remain in power and that the societies of the bottom billion are structurally prone to them. Can we say that if an incumbent steals an election there is no legitimate basis for international action? Such a view would surely be taking the sanctity of presidential sovereignty too far. Yet sometimes nothing can be done: if a future Russian president steals an election, we can disapprove, but that is about all. Fortunately the same problem in Guinea-Bissau would be easier to address.
This raises the issue of double standards: why do in Guinea-Bissau what we would not do in Russia? The answer is obvious: where wrong is within our power to right, the fact that it is not always in our power to right is no reason for inaction. Here is a practical example. Some childhood diseases we know how to cure, others we do not. That there are diseases we cannot cure is not a reason for leaving children to die of all childhood diseases.
To deter an incumbent from stealing an election, the consequences would need to be potent because the incumbent has so much to gain.
So what could we do about a stolen election in Guinea-Bissau? The most radical suggestion is to use the provision of security as an incentive for accountability. The international community already routinely sends in monitors for elections. This has been a core function of The Carter Center; the European Union sends official monitoring teams as well. But nothing yet links monitors’ assessments to any important consequences.
To deter an incumbent from stealing an election, the consequences would need to be potent because the incumbent has so much to gain. We can reasonably assume that merely linking assessments of the conduct of the election to aid would not be sufficient. The president might genuinely despair a reduction in aid, but he will be more concerned for his own power. A link to security may, then, be more effective. What if governments that came to power through elections recognized as free and fair were protected from the threat of a coup by a commitment from rich countries to restore the legitimate government to power? This would include international military force where feasible, recognizing that some coups would be easier to put down than others. In a country such as Guinea-Bissau, it would definitely be feasible.
One problem inherent in this security-guarantee approach is that it could readily be misconstrued as colonialism. Yet, when President Clinton used the threat of American troops to put down a coup in Haiti, and Prime Minister Blair used British troops to restore the legitimate president of Sierra Leone, their interventions were welcomed by the local populations. Even if inviting the protection of foreign governments opens a bottom-billion leader to criticism from political opponents, security guarantees may still be worthwhile. Since most presidents in the bottom billion are considerably more likely to lose power through a coup than through an election—within the past year alone, four African presidents have been overthrown by coups while none has been defeated in an election—an increased risk of defeat in an election may well be a price worth paying for a reduced risk of being ousted by a coup.
The real potency of the intervention, however, lies not in this positive incentive but in what might happen were the incumbent nevertheless tries to steal an election. In that case the promised protection against a coup would be withdrawn. That withdrawal of protection is not the same as the mere absence of protection: it is inevitably a signal. Thus, an incumbent who steals an election would face a heightened risk of a coup. This may sound too hypothetical to be realistic. But, by chance, one election in a country of the bottom billion came remarkably close to simulating the structure of risks that I am proposing. In 2000 Abdou Diouf of Senegal, a long-serving president, chose to accept defeat in an election that he could have stolen. He accepted defeat because of a threat from his army. Indeed, the full story is yet more remarkable: Diouf had to relinquish power because he lacked the means to be trusted. I explain why in Wars, Guns, and Votes. Suffice it to say the incumbent revealed by his actions that he preferred defeat by the electorate to the risk of being ousted by his army. The fates of some ousted presidents tell us why even an entirely self-serving incumbent might rationally take this view.
Within the bottom billion the interests of ordinary citizens seldom prevail in the struggle for power. The international community has yet adequately to face this grim fact. Policies have lurched between the passivity that allowed genocide in Rwanda and the aggression that produced the invasion of Iraq. We really can do much better.
If third parties play a more decisive role, there is some hope.
Doubt is a superb reason for inaction.
We should reward states that invest in well-being and institutions.
The premise that the poorest countries cannot grow is wrong.
We cannot apply the same strategies to every state.
We should consider other, less exciting, interventions.
My hope is to open discussion.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
But I do miss the hymns, / the small, hard apples with their dimpled skin. I do miss / things.
The vast hinterlands of the Global South’s cities are generating new solidarities and ideas of what counts as a life worth living.
Protests in China are shining a light not only on the country’s draconian population management but restrictions on workers everywhere.
Austerity is not the only way to save our overextended planet. A simpler life might be both more pleasurable and more equal.
We must reject the legal liberalism that attempts to cordon off constitutional questions from democratic politics.
The United States ranked first on health security; then came COVID-19. In place of technocratic hubris, we need robust new forms of democratic humility.