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When Democracies Go Bad

The limitations of democracy: it’s a concept that, even after the debacle of the neocon democratisation mission, remains poorly fleshed out in the public domain. It’s been thousands of years since Plato was warning that democracy was the last step before tyranny, and yet still today the international community treats the simple mechanism of holding elections as the ultimate panacea for the problems of the developing world. Look! Some Iraqis with ink-stained fingers! Everything will be fine. Try to ignore the six years of blood-drenched ethnic cleansing that came before.

Up steps Oxford economist Paul Collier, speaking on 9 March on Democracy in Dangerous Places, to a packed crowd in the ludicrously plush central chamber of the Royal Society of the Arts in Central London. His goal was to flesh out exactly what it is we mean when we say ‘democracy’. Or at least what we should mean.

For Collier, the wave of democratisation that followed the end of the colonial period and the end of the Cold War “turned into a cul de sac” for the world’s poorest countries. These were simply not viable states and the simple act of holding elections was never going to make up for that. The big problem, as Plato knew, is that the democratic system is uniquely exploitable by tyrants and bastards. Often, newly formed democracies and political parties become nothing more than “a vehicle for economic interests to gain access to the state and gain an unfair or criminal advantage.” (That’s from Misha Glenny).

The poorest countries are typically those which are “too large to be a nation, yet too small to be a state,” Collier tells us. Too large in the sense that they house myriad competing claims on national or ethnic identity. And too small in that, as economic entities, these countries are miniscule. Countries such as Burundi have acquired the same sovereign rights as places 10, 20, 100 times richer and more populous. These are states with an annual GDP roughly equivalent to Lewisham Shopping Centre, and yet they have their own parliament, their own economy, their own army.

Whether or not they offer elections, these struggling states cannot provide the meat on the bones of democracy – security, accountability, some common sense of identity. And without these provisions, democracy has no roots and no meaning, and is poorly equipped to protect itself from predatory self-interests. The hard truth is that is that it's a lot easier to just cheat your way to power than to attempt to provide these public goods. “The most effective election strategies are bribery, intimidation, miscounting the votes ... Unfortunately, these illicit tactics roughly triple the expected tenure in power of the incumbent.”

Collier is keen to provide some concrete proposals for what might be done about all this. At the heart of his ideas is a welcome (though he admits, “deeply unfashionable”) belief in the power of the individual to effect change, to rise above the detritus that swills around the corrupt underbelly of nascent democracies. Leaders matter: someone like Nyerere in Tanzania fashioned a functioning, stable state; someone like Mugabe is a drooling sociopath who has systematically destroyed an entire country.

The West can help, too. In his most controversial statement, Collier calls for the international community to tie its assessments of election fairness to our support for military coups. If a leader is deemed to have stolen an election, they get a red card that means we would not stand in the way of a military coup – we might even encourage it. If the election is free and fair, they get a green card which means we would intervene to protect the government from a coup.

I like the idea, not least because it moves away from the existing emphasis on economic conditionality that undermines a government’s ability to take responsibility for its own welfare system. But, as we've seen time and again, the international community doesn’t give a damn what happens in most of these god-forsaken places. A coup might cause them to hurrumph a while, send a strongly worded letter, maybe even three or four police officers, but that’s about it.

Also, coups are rarely simple. Distinguishing who gets a red card and a green card seems like a worryingly subjective game. Who decides? How do you get Russia and China to play along? How do you get round the perennial accusations of neo-colonialism, that knee-jerk refrain of every embattled tyrant? Collier is right to say that self-determination became an extremely unhealthy obsession throughout the 20th century, but it remains one of the most powerful rallying cries around.

Regardless of these thoughts, it's clear to me from my seat in the audience that a massive brain is at work in Collier’s head, and that his pragmatic insights provide a vital framework - should anyone in the international community suddenly decide to pull their finger out for Africa. Fat chance of that happening, but it’s nice to know someone’s thinking ahead just in case.

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