Paul Collier has trenchantly identified the core obstacle to lifting impoverished countries out of poverty. They are “structurally unable to provide the public goods” necessary for economic development and broad improvements in human well-being. The decisive structural variables, however, are much more political and social—and, by extension, now cultural—than they are physical. Very small size did not keep Botswana and Mauritius from becoming the only two sub-Saharan African countries to achieve sustained economic development. What set them apart from the other 46 countries in the region was that they were the only two to remain continuously democratic since independence. Yes, they had the protection of vast expanses of desert and ocean, respectively. But most of all, they were made more secure by being accountably governed, with truly free and fair elections.
By the same token, many of the countries at the bottom of the barrel in human development are substantial in size. Tanzania and Sudan have about 40 million people; Nigeria—who knows?—maybe 150 million. The Democratic Republic of the Congo has about 60 million; Ethiopia 70 million. These are not tiny countries, “far smaller than most U.S. states.” Nor has their size immunized them from prolonged and destructive periods of personalized power. Yes, they are deeply divided along ethnic lines. Yes, we can blame European colonialism for cavalierly throwing these peoples together. But history and heterogeneity are not decisive. No country has faced a more daunting challenge of melding people of different languages, religions, and identities than India. India has managed the problem with reasonably effective democratic institutions, including—crucially, for Collier’s theory—vigorously independent and well-managed electoral administration. Africa’s large countries have failed miserably in this regard.
None of these endemically poor countries can climb out of misery without better governance. Collier appreciates this, but he does not fully grasp the vital distinction between Asia’s developmental dictatorships and Africa’s dictatorial disasters. The classic authoritarian Asian tigers—Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Indonesia—all had near-death experiences with communism that led them to realize it was time to “develop or die.” None faced ethnic complexity as daunting as in Nigeria or Ethiopia, but Singapore and Indonesia did have to work to forge an overarching national identity. Whatever their other faults, all of these countries’ ruling elites (and later the regimes in China and Vietnam) came to identify their own political interests with generating the public goods necessary for transformative development.
By contrast, the typical African ruling elites have settled into a different pattern of behavior and expectations. Security—for the individual ruler and his family, clique, and party—derives from generating private goods and stashing them away in real estate and numbered bank accounts abroad. To say that the West has indulged this pattern does not begin to capture our complicity in the problem. When foreign aid funds up to half the recurrent budget of many of these morally bankrupt states, it is not hard to draw a nearly straight line from aid to venality.
I like Collier’s policy approach, but he does not mention the most promising innovation in aid policy for inducing democratic accountability and responsible governance: the Millennium Challenge Account. The MCA moves away from the failure of policy conditionality to a new and much more promising concept of selectivity. Instead of imposing specific economic policies on countries that feel no ownership of them and no real commitment to implementing them, the MCA rewards countries that have already invested in human well-being and put in place the types of political and economic institutions that get developmental results. Since it was created in 2004, the MCA has not granted the level of aid (or, in my view, implemented the rigor of standards) that could allow it to realize its maximum motivating power. However, it has clearly begun to catalyze and reinforce incentives toward better, more accountable governance in countries such as El Salvador, Ghana, and Mali (one of the world’s poorest states).
Traditional aid to Africa—amounting to something like a trillion dollars—has been unsuccessful, while the MCA shows potential. This suggests the need for something more radical than what Collier proposes. We (the rich West and institutions we support, such as the World Bank) should stop subsidizing bad governance. We should reorganize international aid flows more boldly and comprehensively around the MCA’s selective approach. This does not mean abandoning the rest; aid could continue to flow directly for public health and infrastructure projects and through non-governmental means. But we have to stop enabling the addiction of rotten, private goods-hoarding elites to the external cash that sustains massive corruption.
I strongly endorse Collier’s appeal for a much more serious and sustained international commitment to reinforce or guarantee security and peace in the world’s most fragile and miserable states. The United Nations has about 110,000 peacekeeping personnel deployed in eighteen nations at a cost of some $7 billion annually. These deployments have made the difference between stabilization and chaos in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Haiti. What is the more efficient investment: for the UN peace mission to stay in a place such as Liberia much longer than is now being planned; or for it to meet some arbitrary deadline, withdrawing before the state can stand on its own and thus letting another set of warlords erase years of hard-won progress toward development and meaningful statehood? Some of these states may need a significant international security presence for decades, not years. Thus, we need to double or triple international funding and troop levels for multilateral peace operations. Collier is right that it has been an impressively successful and cost-effective type of international intervention.
However, I cannot go along with Collier’s suggestion that we implicitly threaten to tolerate a military coup against a civilian leader who has stolen an election. How would that have made Kenya or Nigeria better off? The militaries in power have brought Africa nothing—nothing—but turmoil and tears. They have no positive role to play in the future of governance on the continent. The answer to any unconstitutional seizure of power—whether by a civilian in a rigged election or a soldier in a coup—is cutting off international aid; targeted sanctions against the overseas personal assets and travel options of the power-usurper, his family, and supporters; and a credible threat of indictment and prosecution by the International Criminal Court for predatory corruption, which should be made a crime against humanity—for that is surely what it is.