The resource curse, or the paradox of poverty from plenty

Published on openDemocracy (first on Tax Justice Focus, the newsletter of the Tax Justice Network), by Nicholas Shaxson, Sept 23, 2013.

Is finance like crude oil? Countries rich in minerals are often poverty-stricken, corrupt and violent. A relatively small rent-seeking elite captures vast wealth while the dominant sector crowds out the rest of the economy. The parallels with countries ‘blessed’ with powerful financial sectors are becoming too obvious to ignore.  

While serving as the Reuters correspondent in oil-rich Angola in the mid 1990s, I wondered how such a ‘rich’ country could suffer such poverty. The shortest answer at the time was ‘War’. Angola’s conflict had many causes, but without the diamonds to fuel rebel leader Jonas Savimbi’s army, not to mention the government’s offshore oilfields, it would have been less bloody, and shorter … //

… Finance-dependent economies, it turns out, suffer a rather similar Dutch Disease-like phenomenon, as large financial services export revenues in places like the United Kingdom or the tax haven of Jersey raise the cost of housing, of hiring educated professionals, and the general cost of living. A Bank for International Settlements (BIS) study last year found that finance-dependent economies tend to grow more slowly over time than more balanced ones, and noted that, by way of partial explanation, ’finance literally bids rocket scientists away from the satellite industry’. My short Finance Curse e-book, co-authored with John Christensen, provides plenty of detail on this.

A second standard explanation for the Resource Curse is revenue volatility. Booms and busts in world commodity prices and revenues can destabilise the economies of countries that depend on them, further worsening the crowding-out of alternative sectors. Gyrations in the world oil price – from below $10/barrel in the late 1990s to well over $100 within 10 years – have played havoc with budgeting in many oil-dependent countries, often with terrible effects on economic and political stability and broad governance. Those alternative sectors that were crowded-out during the booms aren’t easily rebuilt when the bust comes: it is a ratchet effect. Again, there are close parallels with the financial sector, a source of great volatility, as the latest global financial crisis shows. Britain’s industrial base, decimated by (among many other things) over-dependence on the financial sector, is proving slow to recover, post-boom.

The third category for explaining the Resource Curse – the biggest, most problematic, and the most complex – falls under the headline ‘governance’.

Why do natural resources tend to make governments more wasteful, corrupt, and authoritarian?

A big part of the answer lies in the fact that minerals in the ground provide unproductive economic ‘rents’: easy, unearned money. As the Polish writer Ryszard Kapuscinski so brilliantly put it:

“Oil is a resource that anaesthetises thought, blurs vision, corrupts. Oil is a fairy tale and, like every fairy tale, it is a bit of a lie. It does not replace thinking or wisdom.”

When easy rents are available, rulers lose interest in the difficult challenges of state-building, or the need for a skilled, educated workforce, and instead spend their energies competing with each other for access to a slice of the mineral ‘cake’. While those neglected sectors wither, this competition among ‘godfathers’ can lead to overt conflict, particularly in ethnically diverse societies, but it can also lead to great corruption as each player or faction in a government knows that if it does not act fast to snaffle a particular mineral-sourced financial flow, another faction will. This is the recipe for an unseemly, corrupting scramble.

The financial sector, likewise, contains a multitude of potential sources of easy ‘rents’. A secrecy law, for instance, has long been a source of rents for Swiss bankers, who haven’t needed to do much else apart from watch the money roll in. More grandly, the network of British-linked secrecy jurisdictions scattered around the world, serving as ‘feeders’ for all kinds of questionable and dirty money into the City of London, is another big source of rents for the financial sector. Financial players’ special access to information is another. Martin Berkeley, a former British banker, described one mechanism deployed by his bank as it sought to sell its customers dodgy derivatives:

“On their client database they had in big letters written ‘Client Has Screens’ – meaning the client actually knows what the markets are doing: these tricks couldn’t be played on them.”

The Libor scandal provides another example of rent-seeking. One might reasonably also make a comparison between owning an oil well and having – as the banking system does – the ability to create money. Yet there is a difference too: rising credit creation – and the growing private debts that accompany it – generate fees for the financial sector that are extracted not from under the ground, as with oil, but from debtors, taxpayers and others: from the population itself.

Another source of the trouble in resource-rich states is that when rulers have easy rents available, they don’t need their citizens so much to raise tax revenues. This top-down flow of money undermines the ‘no taxation without representation’ bargain that has underpinned the rise of modern, accountable states through the rise of a social contract based on bargaining around tax, and through the role that tax-gathering plays in stimulating the construction of effective state institutions. If the citizens complain, those resource rents pay for the armed force necessary to keep a lid on protests.

In economies dependent on finance we don’t see the same kind of crude, swaggering petro-authoritarianism of Vladimir Putin’s Russia or José Eduardo dos Santos’ Angola. But we do see some surprisingly repressive responses to criticisms of the financial sector and the finance-dominated establishment, particularly in small tax havens like Jersey, as Mike Dun’s article in this edition – along with the main Finance Curse e-book and my book Treasure Islands – repeatedly illustrate.

All these processes – the economic crowding-out of alternative economic sectors such as agriculture or tourism, plus the ‘capture’ of rulers and government by the dominant mineral sector, who become apathetic to the challenges posed by trying to stimulate other sectors – add up to a mortal threat not just to democracy, but also to the long-term prospects for a vibrant economy. Since Angola’s long civil war ended 11 years ago, politicians have routinely called for a ‘diversification’ of the economy and a ‘rebalancing’ away from dependence on oil. The fact that petroleum still makes up over 97 percent of exports and contributes to 60 percent of GDP, is testament to the difficulty even the most well-meaning reformer faces. Similarly, calls for ‘rebalancing’ away from excessive dependence on the financial sector have tumbled from the mouths of politicians in the United Kingdom and Jersey. But these calls will prove equally empty if they do not actively work to shrink and contain the financial sector.

(full text).


The Maputo Protocol: Its potential for a revolution in women’s rights, on Pambazuka News, by Moreen Majiwa, Sept 26, 2013:
Much has been achieved since the Protocol came into force. But to ensure gender equality and transformation in gender relations between women and men, a comprehensive change that radically alters the status quo of the power relations rather than ad hoc or piecemeal reforms is needed …;
(my comment: best for women’s equality: equal jobs with equal income – Heidi);

Snowden’s email service Lavabit consistently denied US govt access despite intimidation, on Russia Today RT, Oct. 3, 2013.

(see also: Welcome to our new blog: politics for the 99%).

Comments are closed.