In a preview of his new book The Plundered Planet: Why We Must – and How We Can – Manage Nature for Global Prosperity
, Paul Collier
dispelled the common perception that Africa’s indentified resource reserves are the world’s largest. In actuality, it is estimated that up to four-fifths of the value of subsoil assets in the African continent are yet to be discovered. “That is the big story
,” Collier remarked. “Here are assets which could finance transformation….but historically haven’t.” Instead, these resources have been plundered.
In a recent event hosted by the U.S. Institute of Peace, Paul Collier, professor of economics and director of the Center for the Study of African Economies at Oxford University, and Nancy Birdsall, president of the Center for Global Development, discussed how resource-rich environments in developing countries have been traditionally misused. The two also proposed strategies to disrupt these processes and transform resource “curses” into deeply needed support for peace and stable development.
Conflict and instability in countries whose economies are heavily invested in natural resource have often hindered local development and security. Many of these countries—including Cambodia, Angola, Indonesia, and DRC—have suffered from one of two forms of plunder:
Types of Natural Resources Plunder:
1. Where the few steal from the many:
Natural assets are, by definition, without natural owners, and therefore lie as easily taken common goods. “This process of expropriation opens up a whole array of dysfunctional variants, many of which are violent,” Collier noted.
2. Where the present steals from the future:
Intertemporal mismanagement is a possibility, as unlike man-made assets, natural assets belong to all generations.
Operating from a worldview of weak sustainability, where profits from natural assets are reinvested for the benefit of future generations, Collier suggested that natural resource rights are more akin to “rights of stewardship” than traditional property rights. “We may well transform that value into something that is more productive, but if we pull up natural assets from the ground, we should leave to the future something that is equivalently valuable.”
Collier argued that the successful harnessing of natural resources for stable and sustainable development depends on the application of a tenuous decision chain:
Natural Resources Decision Chain:
1. Discovery Process:
Failure in this phase stems from poor property rights, and the time consistency problem—uncertainty that conditions and regulations that make expensive upfront investments profitable today will remain in place in the future.
2. Appropriate Taxation:
Currently, as a result of poor negotiations or limited information regarding the status of resources, governments are unable to craft tax regimes which effectively capture resource rent.
3. Avoiding the Delta:
Sustainable management any discovered subsoil assets must avoid a local “Nigerian Delta” catastrophe. Clearly designating the government as the sole responsible agent for resource rents may limit such failures.
4. Saving the money:
To avoid plunder of the future by the present, Collier suggested that, though politically difficult, a proportion of revenue streams must be delineated from general accounts.
5. Building the capacity to invest in the country:
Collier deemed the inability of resource-rich countries to attract diversified investment as the “killer link.” Governments must use returns from subsoil assets to fund “investment in investment”—directing public capital toward transportation and utility infrastructure, education, health, and other short-term projects. Once in place, such projects encourage future public and private investments, thereby multiplying long-term returns.
As with many complex systems, Collier warned that the chain is only as strong as its weakest link. If one link fails, “the chain won’t pull the country from poverty to prosperity.” On the other hand, if each link holds, the value is tremendous. ”[Y]ou really can pull the country from poverty to prosperity over the course of a generation. There are no fixes in economics that are faster than that.”
Ultimately, Collier and Birdsall emphasized that success depends upon the development of an informed and competent “critical mass” of people. Even the strongest decision chain will fail if it is not underwritten by a majority of the population. Birdsall reiterated the need for public participation in the process, possibly through direct income distribution or responsible interventions by non-vested third parties.
Photo: Courtesy of Oxford University Press.