Hoping to make a little money from Sudan's ocean of black gold, a woman sells tea to roughnecks at an oil rig near Bentiu, Sudan. Photo by Getty Images.Hoping to make a little money from Sudan's ocean of black gold, a woman sells tea to roughnecks at an oil rig near Bentiu, Sudan. Photo by Getty Images.

During a decade-long commodities boom, new or emerging producers of oil, gas or mineral resources registered some of the fastest rates of economic growth in the world. Development banks, governments giving foreign aid, extractives companies and major consultancies broadly agreed that ‘extractives-led growth’ is a viable path to socio-economic development for poor countries. 
Following over a year of decline in global commodities prices and as efforts to tackle climate change mount, a new paper re-examines the 'curse of natural resources'. It finds that a policy of extractives-led growth entails serious risks. As governments of countries as diverse as Afghanistan, Mauritania, Somalia, Liberia and Cuba prepare to follow an extractives-led growth path, both the advice being handed to them and the growth model itself require a fundamental rethink.

The Resource Curse Revisited argues that:

  • The steep decline in the oil price in the second half of 2014 demolished the main assumption of the extractives-led growth agenda. The assumption that prices of raw materials would continue to increase as global demand grew and well-established sources were exhausted has actually led several low- to middle-income producers such as Ghana into unmanageable debt. At the very least, the current price context  puts new producers at a serious disadvantage, as the focus on cost-cutting has made investors reluctant to accept the risks of developing projects in countries with little infrastructure or capacity to support them.

  • Good governance initiatives are not the antidote to the resource curse. There has often been a mismatch in terms of policy advice given (for example on transparency and revenue management) and the capacity of a country to implement it. Furthermore, basing economic growth on the extraction of below-ground resources will create strong pressures towards poor governance. In the absence of strong institutions, this path leads to the enrichment of minority elite groups, whose interest in capturing rents is likely to become a barrier to improving governance.

  • Both governments with extractives potential and those advising them give too little consideration to the size and nature of the resource base. If extractives-led growth is to be sustained, resource extraction must persist long enough for new economic sectors to emerge and generate revenues that can support government spending and import needs as income from extractives declines.
  • The extractives-led growth model, in its current form, is at odds with green growth strategies. The advice from international agencies and initiatives to countries with extractive resources offers no suggestions on how governments should manage the risk of stranded assets or how they can reconcile extractives-led growth with national sustainable-development goals.

The report concludes that the extractives-led growth agenda has tended to reinforce domestic, government and investor pressures to ‘develop fast’. However, this can threaten long-term opportunities for robust economic diversification. In many cases, there is a strong case for slowing development of extractives projects to allow time to develop the capacity of the government and the private sector to maximize the linkages with the rest of the economy.

Avoiding the resource curse needs not only good governance but also an economic policy that provides for the transition of an economy over time in accordance with its competitive advantages. This report recommends that countries considering extractives development, and their would-be advisors, take into account a wider set of issues at the outset including the likely value of the asset to the economy over time, the options for slow or indeed no development of extractives, and how the rest of the economy would lessen reliance on support from the extractives sector over time.

Editor's notes: 

Read the report The Resource Curse Revisited from the Energy, Environment and Resources Department, Chatham House.

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