Why Do Countries Become/Remain Democracies? Or Don’t? (9): The Resource Curse

If we value democracy, then it’s interesting to know

  • how societies have achieved the transition from authoritarian forms of government to more democratic ones
  • why other societies have failed
  • and how democracies have avoided the opposite transition.

This knowledge will help us to promote and sustain democracy in the future. Something we already know is that this isn’t simple. There are a huge number of factors at play and there’s no silver bullet. Some of the most widely discussed factors are economic development, levels of education, and religion and culture.

I’ll bracket two important issues here: what kind of democracy are we talking about, and how do we measure transition or development towards democracy? If you want to know what promotes or inhibits democracy and act on this knowledge in order to further the cause of democracy, you can’t avoid these questions, but discussing them here would take us too far.

What I want to focus on here is the so-called resource curse. This curse is believed to be a phenomenon that blocks countries’ development towards democracy. Promoting democracy means lifting the curse. Now, what is this curse, and is it real or just another simplistic explanation of the course of history?

Countries which own lots of natural resources such as diamonds, oil or other valuables that are found in the ground, are often relatively poor, badly governed, violent and suffering from gross violations of human rights. Resource wealth can trigger corruption and grabbing, can give autocrats the means to retain power by buying off opposition or building a repressive state apparatus, or can tempt democratically elected leaders to cling to highly beneficial positions of power.

This sounds good but even a cursory glance at reality reveals some counter-indications. There are many resource rich countries that are governed very well and are pinnacles of democracy (take Norway). Still, that may only disprove part of the resource curse. It may be the case that democracies benefit from resources and are able to solidify themselves, while non-democracies are doomed to remain as they are because of resource abundance. Resources then only create a curse when democratic institutions are absent. So we shouldn’t worry about democracies failing because of resources, but about autocracies failing to transform because of them.

However, there’s an article here claiming that

resource wealth is positively associated with both economic growth and institutional quality.

Much depends, it seems, on how to measure resource abundance. There also is a reversal of the direction of causation, a common mistake in statistics:

There is no evidence that resource-dependent countries end up with slow growth and bad institutions. Rather, countries with bad institutions attract little investment, and as a result they grow more slowly and remain dependent on exports of commodities.

Why Do Countries Become/Remain Democracies? Or Don’t? (8): The Resource Curse

The resource curse refers to the claim that some countries with lots of natural resources tend to do worse than countries with less resource wealth, worse in two respects: less economic growth and prosperity and less political stability and respect for basic rights.

Reliance on natural resources is said to inhibit development, political and institutional stability, anti-corruption efforts and legal protection for human rights.

Now, the important thing to stress here is that reliance on resources can lead to negative consequences, but doesn’t necessarily have to. Not all resource-rich countries are “cursed”. There’s a paper here arguing

that the natural resource curse burdens non-democracies, but countries with better democratic institutions are not corrupted by such endowments. For governments accountable to their citizens, resources can be a blessing.

The paper does not demonstrate that there’s a linear relationship between higher levels of corruption and natural resources. The dispersion of countries is very wide. Norway and Iraq are more or less on the same level of resources, but on opposite extreme of corruption, and the same is true for many other countries.

So, natural resources do not produce corruption or a resource curse in any mechanical or deterministic way. Some third element is necessary for the curse to take place. The paper cited above argues

that strong democratic institutions help to moderate the effect of natural resources on corruption. In figures, we split the sample into democratic and non-democratic countries. These suggest that the negative relationship between natural resources and the corruption index prevails in the sample of non-democratic countries but not in the sample of democratic countries… the relationship between natural resource rent and corruption depends on the quality of the democratic institutions… These findings imply that resource-rich countries have a tendency to be corrupt, because resource windfalls encourage their governments to engage in rent seeking. However, history shows that countries discovering natural resources after they have established well-functioning democratic institutions tend to handle the scourge of corruption much better.

Why Do Countries Become/Remain Democracies? Or Don’t? (3): The Resource Curse

Why do countries with lots of natural resources tend to do worse than countries with less resource wealth, both in terms of economic growth and in political, social and human rights terms? We see that countries which own lots of natural resources such as diamonds, oil or other valuables that are found in the ground, are often relatively poor, badly governed, violent and suffering from gross violations of human rights.

There are many possible causes of this curse (also called “the paradox of plenty”):

1. Lack of economic diversification

Other economic sectors tend to get neglected by the government because there is a guaranteed income from the natural resources. These sectors therefore cannot develop and cannot become an alternative when the resources are taking hits. The fluctuations of the international prices of the resources can cause extreme highs and lows in national economic growth. This is bad in itself, but also makes it difficult for the government to do long term planning, since the level of revenues cannot be predicted. Dependence on one economic sector means vulnerability.

Another disadvantage of concentrating the economy on one resource sector, is that these sector often provide few jobs, especially for local people. The oil industry for example needs highly specialized workers, who are mostly foreigners. On top of that, these sectors do not require many forward or backward connections in the economy (such as suppliers, local customers, refiners etc.), which again doesn’t help the local job creation.

Even if the government tries to diversify the economy, it may fail to do so because the resource sector is more profitable for local individual economic agents.

Resource dependent countries also see their best talents going to the resource industry which pays better wages than the rest of the economy or the government sector. As a result, the latter are unable to perform adequately. See point 4 below.

2. Corruption

Corruption tends to flourish when governments own almost the entire economy and have their hands on the natural resources. More on corruption in a future post.

3. Social division

Abundance of natural resources can produce or prolong violent conflicts within societies as different groups try to control (parts of) the resources. Separatist groups may emerge, trying to control the part of the territory most rich in resources. This is often aggravated by existing social or cultural division. Division may also appear between parts of the government (e.g. local government vs central government, or between different parts of the central administration).

The resources therefore may cause divisions and conflict, and thereby cause deficiencies in government, economic turmoil, and social unrest. But the resources may also prolong conflicts because groups which manage to take control of (parts of) the resources may use these to arm themselves or otherwise gain influence and power.

4. Government’s unaccoutability and inefficiency

Countries which do not depend on natural resources are often more efficient in taxing their citizens, because they do not have funds which are quasi-automatically generated by resources. As a result, they are forced to develop the government machinery in an efficient way, hence a reduced risk of government break-down. The citizens in return, as they are taxed, will demand accountability, efficient spending etc.

Conversely, the political leaders in resource-dependent countries don’t have to care about their citizens. They create support by allocating money, generated by the resources, to favored interest parties, and thereby increasing the level of corruption. And if citizens object, they have the material means to suppress protest. They don’t appreciate an effective government administration as this carries the risk of control, oversight and other anti-corruption measures (see point 2). So they have an interest in bad government.

It is obvious that bad government, rights violations and economic stagnation have many causes. The resource curse is only one. There are countries which are blessed with resources and which do well at the same time. And there are mismanaged countries that don’t have any resources. As in all correlations, the causation may go in the other way: bad government can create dependence on exports of natural resources.

“When a country’s chaos and economic policies scare off foreign investors and send local entrepreneurs abroad to look for better opportunities, the economy becomes skewed. Factories may close and businesses may flee, but petroleum and precious metals remain for the taking. Resource extraction becomes ‘the default sector’ that still functions after other industries have come to a halt.” (source)

What to do about it?

Leif Wenar has argued that a strict application of property rights could help reduce or correct the resource curse. When dictators or insurgents sell off a country’s resources to foreigners or multi-national companies, while terrorizing the people into submission, they are in fact selling goods that they stole from those people. They have no right to sell what they don’t own. The natural resources of a country belong equally to all the people of that country. Article 1 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states:

All peoples may, for their own ends, freely dispose of their natural wealth and resources.


“the people, whose resources are being sold off, become not the beneficiaries of this wealth but the victim of those who use their own wealth to repress them”. Leif Wenar (source)

One could take legal action in western jurisdictions to try to enforce the property rights of the citizens of resource cursed countries and to charge multinational corporations with the crime of receiving stolen goods.

Western countries, investors and consumers could also boycott companies that invest in resource-cursed countries, or try to pressure campaign them to get out of these countries, or they could stop to invest in these companies.

When people finally get a grip on their resources, they open the path to better government, a better economy and better protection for human rights. Perhaps then they will not have to die trying to recapture a tiny part of the resources that are their lawful property, as happened in many cases in Nigeria, for example, where people often try to tap some oil from the pipelines channeling their property to the west. In doing so, they risk their lives. As a consequence of their actions, the pipelines can explode.