*January Posts dedicated to Ivory Coast
Making aggressive recommendations, such as a military coup, in a complex situation can have unintended consequences.A popular topic in the aid blogosphere this week was not about Haiti or Ivory Coast or south Sudan but about complex systems, ie systems that cannot be reduced to a simple mathematical or statistical model, where actions often have unintended effects. Yet this seemingly abstruse topic has surprising relevance to the Ivory Coast debate (and perhaps the others as well). One would want to be very careful making aggressive recommendations in a complex system whose principles are not very well understood.Civil conflict is a great candidate for such an irreducibly unpredictable system. Civil conflict features political and military leaders on both sides, the general population is divided, and each side of the population contains an array of different interest groups. For every move by one player, there will be counter-moves by the other players, then counter-moves to the counter-moves, and so on.
At least with economics, which features Adam Smith’s famous invisible hand complex system, we economists understand many of the incentives (profit, price, income, etc) that allow many responses of economic agents to be predicted, and we have some notions of (partial) equilibrium (at least we know supply = demand). Economists (or any other social scientists) are a long way from having that kind of understanding of civil conflict. We are more like in the situation portrayed in a famous quote from Richard Feynman (from a post on how models failed in the financial crisis, another great example of a complex system): “Imagine how much harder physics would be if electrons had feelings!”Which is why I am a little puzzled that Professor Paul Collier made such a strong and specific recommendation on Ivory Coast this week on this site, even predicting responses by the players:
“Were army officers requested by regional authorities – supported by the international community and Ouattara – to remove Gbagbo in an orderly fashion, his position might start to look precarious … It is the senior officers who are closest to Gbagbo, but they would know that a coup from lower-ranking officers would spell their own doom – and that lower-ranking officers would find this an attractive strategy for accelerating their careers. If junior officers ousted Gbagbo, their reward would not be an unstable and high-risk presidency, but secure senior military positions.”
I confess I sometimes lose it when Collier makes this kind of calm, confident statement. (This kind of entertainment is probably what Chris Blattman was hoping for when he asked me and others to respond on Twitter.)But for now I will stick to puzzlement about the popularity of Collier’s analysis (both here and in equally audacious recommendations in his previous writings) – is there an established model of coups to end civil conflict that is really this simple? What evidence base underlies this model and these predictions? How wide is the error band around these predictions?A few random doubts: how would Ivorians respond to a coup initiated by foreigners? Will they really perceive the “international community” as the benevolent neutral force that Collier has in mind? As Elizabeth Dickinson at Foreign Policy pointed out, don’t forget that Gbagbo has about half of the population on his side. And, as Wronging Rights points out, Gbagbo appears technically to be within the letter of Ivorian law, while a military coup would, um, not be.
Certainly historians and political leaders have long been aware of just how surprising and unpredictable civil conflicts really are. One particularly eloquent statement is from Abraham Lincoln near the end of the US civil war: “Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained … Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding.” Similar if not quite so eloquent statements could be made about many civil conflicts – shouldn’t that give all of us “experts” a little humility?Depending on your answers to these questions, Professor Collier, do you ever worry that this kind of recommendation would make things worse (possibly much worse) rather than better?
•By William Easterly is director of the Development Research Institute and professor of economics (joint with Africa House) at New York University.Published in the Guardian-We can’t engineer the result we want in Ivory Coast