The Trouble With Democracy

The shortcomings of democracy are well known. Winston Churchill famously called it "the worst form of government, except all the others." In early 2006, George W. Bush

in the Palestinian territories, and when the results put the radical Islamist group Hamas in power, refused to accept their legitimacy. Not content with failure, the Bush team apparently


As in war, stuff happens in democracy.

Paul Collier has just released "

," a follow-up to his much-praised "The Bottom Billion." The Oxford economist was still focused on Africa and the world's 58 poorest nations, but here he considered security and the problem of concentrating on democratic elections. He concluded that the superficial form of democracy that predominates in these countries "has increased political violence instead of reducing it." In a blind quest for power, the various untested political parties without the proper experience, rule of law or minority protections have tended toward a "life-and-death struggle" rather than a free and fair vote.

Breaking down the cost-effectiveness of peacekeeping operations, Collier recommended a U.S.-led international force to police coups and civil wars in the region – a vision some imagine for


"Military intervention, properly constrained," he wrote, "has an essential role, providing both the security and the accountability of government to citizens that are essential for development."

Human Rights Watch director Kenneth Roth

"dangerous and naïve."

More germane to our purposes are Collier's thoughts on foreign assistance. Collier found that aid in fact increased the risk of a coup by nearly a third when it's 4 percent or more of the beneficiary's gross domestic product, a not uncommon portion. He also revealed that donor-backed government spending on infrastructure and reconstruction pushed up prices and led to a skills shortage. Some donors responded by hiring Chinese contractors, who brought in an entire workforce. Yet this eliminates the main short-term benefit from recovery and reconstruction: generating jobs for young men, which is "critical in bringing down the risks of conflict," according to Collier. He thinks the answer is training.

"Post-conflict situations need squads of bricklayers, plumbers, welders and so forth, who set about training young men," wrote Collier. "Unfortunately, it is too mundane for the development agencies to organize it. We need Bricklayers Without Borders."

Hmmm, a streamlined, blue-collar international development community of the future embracing the industrialized world's tens of thousands of laid-off laborers? That might be the ultimate in capacity building, not to mention a partial solution to the economic downturn.

About the author

  • David Lepeska

    David has served as U.N. correspondent for the newswire UPI and reported for several major newspapers, including the New York Daily News and Newsday. He was chief correspondent for the Kashmir Observer in Srinagar, India, and regularly contributes to the Economist, among other publications. Since 2007, David has reported for Devex News from Washington, New York, as well as South Asia.