New discoveries of natural resources in several African countries raise an important question: will these windfalls be a blessing that brings prosperity and hope, or a political and economic curse, as has been the case in so many countries?
A large literature in economics and political science has developed to explain this “resource curse”, and civil-society groups have been established to try to counter it. Three of the curse’s economic ingredients are well known:
Resource-rich countries tend to have strong currencies, which impede other exports. Because resource extraction often entails little job creation, unemployment rises. And volatile resource prices cause growth to be unstable, aided by international banks that rush in when commodity prices are high and rush out in the downturns (reflecting the time-honoured principle that bankers lend only to those who do not need their money).
Moreover, resource-rich countries often do not pursue sustainable growth strategies. They fail to recognise that if they do not reinvest their resource wealth into productive investments above ground, they are actually becoming poorer. Political dysfunction exacerbates the problem, as conflict over access to resource rents gives rise to corrupt and undemocratic governments.
There are well known antidotes to each of these problems: a low exchange rate, a stabilisation fund, careful investment of resource revenues, a ban on borrowing, and transparency. But there is a growing consensus that these measures, while necessary, are insufficient. Newly enriched countries need to take several more steps in order to increase the likelihood of a “resource blessing”.
First, these countries must do more to ensure that their citizens get the full value of the resources. There is an unavoidable conflict of interest between (usually foreign) natural-resource companies and host countries: the former want to minimise what they pay, while the latter need to maximise it. Well designed, competitive, transparent auctions can generate much more revenue than sweetheart deals. Contracts, too, should be transparent, and should ensure that if prices soar, the windfall gain does not go only to the company.
Unfortunately, many countries have already signed bad contracts that give a disproportionate share of the resources’ value to private foreign companies. But there is a simple answer: renegotiate. All over the world, countries have been doing this. Of course, natural-resource companies will push back, emphasise the sanctity of contracts, and threaten to leave. But the outcome is typically otherwise. A fair renegotiation can be the basis of a better long-term relationship. It is not only developing countries that renegotiate; developed countries have done so as well.
Equally important, the money gained through natural resources must be used to promote development. Infrastructure has been built with one goal in mind: getting the resources out of the country at as low a price as possible, with no effort to process the resources in the country, let alone to develop local industries based on them.
Real development requires exploring all possible linkages: training local workers, developing small and medium-size enterprises to provide inputs for mining operations and oil and gas companies, domestic processing, and integrating the natural resources into the country’s economic structure. Of course, today, these countries may not have a comparative advantage in many of these activities, and some will argue that countries should stick to their strengths. From this perspective, these countries’ comparative advantage is having other countries exploit their resources. That is wrong. What matters is dynamic comparative advantage, or comparative advantage in the long run, which can be shaped. Resources should be a blessing, not a curse. They can be, but it will not happen on its own. And it will not happen easily.
n The writer is Professor of Economics at Columbia University. This article has been reproduced from the Turkish newspaper, Today’s Zaman, with which TheNation has
a .content-sharing agreement.