Protecting Guyana from the Natural Resource Curse

The ethnically-divided country of Guyana is one of the smallest and poorest countries in South America. It has a population of just 782,000 people—roughly the size of North Dakota—and its income per capita is less than $5,000 per year. But while the rest of the world faces a crippling recession, Guyana’s economy is projected to grow by 53% this year, thanks to a significant offshore discovery. (The country’s projected growth had been even higher before the recent stress in oil markets.) Guyana sold its first barrel of oil this past January, and national oil output is expected to reach 750,000 barrels/day by 2025 and 1.2mm barrels/day by 2030—more than a barrel of oil per day for each of Guyana’s 782,000 citizens.

But will this oil wealth benefit Guyana’s citizenry? Many observers worry that Guyana may fall victim to the “natural resource curse”—a paradoxical phenomenon in which resource wealth not only fails to generate sustainable economic growth but actually worsens the standard of living for most of a country’s citizens. While some manifestations of the natural resource curse are macroeconomic in nature (for example, the so-called “Dutch disease,” in which resource-driven currency appreciation stifles other tradable sectors), other versions of the resource curse involve resource wealth undermining institutions and weakening governance. Natural resource wealth, especially from point-source resources like oil, gives the political leaders who control the resource cash flows the power and opportunity to engage in various forms corruption. Not only can these leaders profit directly through kickbacks or embezzlement, but they can use resource wealth to solidify their own political power through favoritism and clientelism. In both cases, political leaders may weaken or eliminate transparency, accountability, and institutional checks that are designed to constrain their ability to improperly use resource wealth for their own personal or political benefit. These risks are greatest in countries that already have relatively poor governance and weak institutional frameworks when the resource wealth is discovered. And this corruption and institutional weakening may make ordinary citizens worse off than they were before the resource boom, even as those with connections or political power get rich.

This manifestation of the resource curse is a significant concern for Guyana, a country with political institutions that are already fragile and prone to corruption. In a winner-take-all political system with voters split along ethnic (and even geographic) lines, politicians win by favoring their base and suppressing opposition turnout. And indeed, this year’s presidential elections, conducted just two months after the country’s first oil sale, were marred by vote rigging, civil unrest, and violence. But there are also encouraging signs that the Guyanese government is taking steps to address the resource curse concern by strengthening budgetary institutions. In January 2019, the government established the Natural Resource Fund (NRF) to manage the country’s natural resource wealth. Similar to funds established in Ghana and Timor-Leste, the NRF is structured as an offshore fund that invests in liquid international securities with well-established guidelines governing fund transfers to Guyana’s Ministry of Finance. By codifying transfer rules and prohibiting fund borrowing, the NRF will compel the government—and whichever political party controls it—to save a significant portion of its oil revenue, limiting its discretionary spending abilities and curbing the corruption opportunities that arise from unencumbered financial resources.

The NRF, however, is not sufficient. While the NRF is restricted from borrowing, the Guyanese government is not. And while the NRF limits a government’s ability to withdraw more oil revenue than the NRF’s bylaws allow, the Guyana state is not forbidden from borrowing against this revenue. This loophole would allow a profligate government—especially one that intended to reward its constituents or award suspicious investment contracts—to borrow in international financial markets to fund its expenditures. Furthermore, even with the constraints imposed by NRF transfers, Guyana’s central government expenditures are projected to double from 290 billion Guyanese dollars (approximately US$1.4 billion) to 580 billion Guyanese dollars (US$2.8 billion) over the next five years. This presents ample opportunity for political leaders to leverage their power over discretionary spending to enrich and entrench themselves.

To further constrain the sort of resource-fueled discretionary spending associated with the natural resource curse, Guyana should take at least two additional steps: Continue reading