Monday, July 02, 2007

Foreign Intervention as a Development Strategy

Dani Rodrik quotes Niall Ferguson summarising aspects of Paul Collier's new book on international development.

The most controversial of those solutions is the call for Western intervention to prevent civil wars and maintain order in failing states. Here is Ferguson:

Reflecting on the tendency of postconflict countries to lapse back into civil war, he [Collier] argues trenchantly for occasional foreign interventions in failed states. What postconflict countries need, he says, is 10 years of peace enforced by an external military force. If that means infringing national sovereignty, so be it.

At a time when the idea of humanitarian intervention is selling at a considerable discount, this is a vital insight. (One recent finding by Collier and his associates, not reproduced here, is that until recently, former French colonies in Africa were less likely than other comparably poor countries to experience civil war. That was because the French effectively gave informal security guarantees to postindependence governments.) Collier concedes that his argument is bound to elicit accusations of neocolonialism from the usual suspects (not least Mugabe). Yet the case he makes for more rather than less intervention in chronically misgoverned poor countries is a powerful one. It is easy to forget, amid the ruins of Operation Iraqi Freedom, that effective intervention ended Sierra Leone’s civil war, while nonintervention condemned Rwanda to genocide.

Ferguson himself has long been a proponent of benign imperialism, so it is not difficult to see why he likes this particular prescription. But it is hard not to keep in mind "the ruins of Operation Iraqi Freedom" when thinking about the efficacy and desirability of this option.

Given Ferguson's track record of apologetics for imperialism, it's a pity that the NY Times chose him to review Collier's book. It's also a pity that Iraq gets chosen as the model for intervention since it was such a terrible screw up.

A more interesting example is the RAMSI (Regional Assistance Mission Solomon Islands) intervention in the Solomon Islands that Australia and New Zealand (and some other countries, largely tokenistically) are involved in.

  • RAMSI (probably like Iraq) was initially supported by the majority of the population effected.
  • RAMSI (unlike Iraq) is still, probably, supported to some degree by the local populous.
  • RAMSI (unlike Iraq) happened within the rule of international law
  • RAMSI (unlike Iraq) was a response to an immediate crisis*
  • With RAMSI (unlike Iraq) there were no apparent alternative solutions.
  • Solomon Islands (unlike Iraq) had a recent and desirable equilibrium that it might return to post intervention. In Iraq what such equilibrium might be was far from clear.
  • RAMSI (unlike Iraq) stood a reasonable chance of success.

And succeed it did, up to a point. The immediate crisis was stemmed. Some peace-building took place. As did disarming. Unlike Iraq, it is very hard to argue that Solomon Islands is currently worse off thanks to the intervention.

Yet RAMSI has been far from smooth sailing. Right from the start Alexander Downer's rhetoric was bellicose and hardly indicative of partnership. In many ways the intervention has been needlessly heavy-handed too - particularly when it has started to suffer from mission creep (such as the Julian Moti affair).

Also, while Solomon Islands are more peaceful again now in terms of development they are still struggling. This, of course, isn't wholly RAMSI's fault by any means. The same factors that led to Solomon Islands initial problems also mean that development is difficult and will take time. However, from what I've heard from friend's, much of Australia's (but not New Zealand's, funnily enough) development efforts have been flawed. This is not to say that doing better would be easy, but simply that they probably aren't doing the best. Which is hardly surprising given the ideology of the political parties in power in Australia.

Poor development outcomes have led to considerable numbers of unemployed young men (always a recipe for trouble) while heavy handedness means that RAMSI has squandered some of its goodwill.

These two factors combined mean that it's chances of success are now much lower than they might have been.

*In saying that the humanitarian situation in Iraq did not constitute an immediate crisis I am not claiming that there was anything pleasant about Hussein's regime. I'm simply noting that, at the time of intervention (unlike say in the immediate wake of Gulf War 1) there wasn't wholesale humanitarian crisis taking place. This is something important when calculating the balance sheet of any intervention.

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