The best books in the world (of government and international organisations)

Security consultant

You don’t see many Zapolets these days, except outside the Vatican. The Swiss Guards are the last vestige of a mercenary tradition Thomas More satirised in Utopia under this name as “a rude, wild, and fierce nation… made, as it were, only for war”.

The rise of the modern state and the constitution of standing armies largely put an end to the outsourcing of war to the private sector, but equivalents of the “free lance” still exist. However, in much the same way as pesticides companies now refer to themselves as the “plant protection industry”, we now have a “stability operations industry”.

Some of these firms became famous, or infamous, in Iraq and Afghanistan, but they’re present in practically every conflict and post-conflict zone and in many post-disaster areas too, providing a range of military and other services. Indeed, the ground in Haiti had hardly stopped trembling before one of their trade organisations was setting up a forum on business opportunities in the earthquake zone. Should governments be hiring them?

The OECD’s Partnership for Democratic Governance debates the question in Contracting Out Government Functions and Services: Emerging Lessons from Post-Conflict and Fragile Situations. Paul Collier, author of The Bottom Billion, uses the analogy of how mobile phone technology enabled many developing countries to bypass analogue technology to argue that fragile states needed to look past the 1950s European model for ministry-based service delivery.

If you don’t agree, you can contribute to the discussion on the PDG website.

Contracting Out was named as one of 2009’s “Notable Government Documents” by the American Library Association and the Government Documents Round Table. The ALA/GODORT Panel singled out another OECD publication too. In Innovation and Growth: Chasing a Moving Frontier, the OECD and World Bank discuss “options for national and global policy initiatives that can foster technological innovation in the pursuit of faster and sustainable growth”.

They argue that the competitiveness and prosperity of high income economies has come to rely increasingly on their innovative capability, but that developing countries’ competitiveness and prosperity remain largely tied to their natural resources.

Countries like Korea that shifted quickly from “developing” to “developed” support this. Today, we all know world leaders like Samsung or LG, but as the Insights book on international trade points out, fifty years ago, Korea was poorer than the Sudan and its main export was wigs made from human hair.

Patrick Love

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