Is the Resource Curse a Myth?

Perhaps one of the most surprising and influential findings in development economics research is the so-called “resource curse”: the idea that a large natural resource endowment (and, consequently, a significant role for natural resource exports in the national economy) actually leads to slower economic growth, and lower per capita incomes (at least in the long term). The resource thesis has the appealing feature that although it’s initially counter-intuitive (and so people like me can seem and feel clever when we point it out), one can immediately think of many salient examples that seem to corroborate the idea, and it’s fairly easy to construct plausible stories as to why it would be true. Although such stories originally focused on exchange rate appreciation (so-called “Dutch Disease”), contemporary research (see, e.g., here and here) tends to focus more on the impact of natural resource abundance on institutional quality, governance, and corruption. The hypothesized causal chain (at least one version) runs roughly as follows: Natural resource wealth creates opportunities for massive economic rents for those who control the government; the competition for these resources fosters corruption, and makes currying favor with the government more important than entrepreneurship or productive investment. Furthermore, and perhaps even more importantly, natural resource wealth enables corrupt or otherwise inefficient governments can use their control over resource rents to secure their power, alleviating pressure that these governments might otherwise feel to reform their institutions and govern more fairly and effectively. And indeed, many studies (see here and here) show a strong negative correlation between natural resource wealth (especially oil wealth) and various measures of institutional quality (including accountability, checks & balances, and control of corruption). The bad institutional environment that natural resource wealth fosters, the argument continues, has adverse effects on long-run economic performance that outweigh the boost to economic performance associated with natural resource wealth. This, the causal chain runs from resource wealth to bad institutions to poor(er) economic performance; absence of resource wealth tends to generate incentives for institutional improvements that ultimately lead to better performance.

The resource curse thesis grows mainly out of quantitative cross country research that finds a negative correlation between resource wealth and GDP growth (controlling for a range of factors). Some more recent research has refined or qualified the thesis in important ways. For example, (see here and here) suggests that the “curse” is only associated with particular sorts of resources, particularly “point source” resources (such as oil or certain minerals). Other research (see here and here) has suggested that countries that already have relatively good institutions prior to the discovery of resource wealth seem immune from the curse. Still, even with these qualifications, the core idea remains: If a relatively poor country, with less robust governance institutions, discovers oil, its economic prospects over the longer term are actually worse—largely because of the relationship between resource wealth and corruption.

But what if that’s all wrong? What if there is no “resource curse”? What if resource wealth—even from point source resources, even in countries with lower levels of transparency and accountability—is, on average, associated with higher rather than lower economic growth? And what if natural resource wealth actually has no consistent discernable impact on institutional quality? For many years I’d been entirely convinced of the resource curse thesis (at least in qualified form). But I recently read an excellent 2009 paper by the economists Michael Alexeev and Robert Conrad which has forced me to reconsider. I’m still not sure exactly what I think, and I hope to spend the next few months delving more into this research (so I may eventually do a follow-up post), but I thought it would be worth discussing the essence of Alexeev & Conrad’s critique and reassessment of the resource curse thesis. Continue reading