Sunday, October 16, 2011

Exploding the resource curse ‘myth’?

The resource curse hypothesis has its detractors and supporters in equal measure. The vanguard of many a commodities bubble – crude oil – often leads the discussion on the subject as the ‘resource’ in question. The title of a book, the first edition of which was published last year, by two academics Pauline Jones Luong and Erika Weinthal – Oil is Not a Curse – simply gives away which side of the argument they are on. Using Former Soviet Union (FSU) nations as case studies, Luong and Weithal opine that resource-rich states are cursed not by their wealth but, rather, by the ownership structure they choose to manage their natural resources with. Furthermore, contrary to popular beliefs, they also stress that weak institutions are not a given in resource-rich nations.

Without a shadow of doubt, such a chain of thought while not unique to the authors is indeed a significant departure from the conventional resource curse literature, especially journalistic writing, which has by and large treated ownership structure as a constant across time and space and has (largely) presumed that resource-rich countries are incapable of either building or sustaining strong institutions – particularly fiscal regimes.

While popular conjecture is based on the usual suspects in the Middle East and Africa, this book of just under 430 pages split by ten chapters, highlights the experiences of the five petroleum-rich FSU states of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, the Russian Federation, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan to challenge prevalent assumptions about the resource curse. The text is backed-up and contextualised with aid of ample graphs, appendices and tables.

Admittedly, while the arguments offered are very convincing in certain parts of the book, the Oilholic remains sceptical about of the case(s) in point especially those pertaining to Russia and Turkmenistan. However, at the same time the authors’ arguments in context of the other three of the aforementioned jurisdictions – especially Kazakhstan strike a convincing chord.

This FSU’s developmental trajectories since independence certainly demonstrates that ownership structure can vary even across countries that share the same institutional legacy and that this variation helps to explain the divergence in their subsequent fiscal regimes. One of the chapters in the book on foreign private ownership in Kazakhstan is one of the best the Oilholic has read on the topic.

The authors’ concluding chapter makes a reasonably, if not overwhelmingly, persuasive case about why the resource curse hypothesis is a myth. Ultimately, Luong and Weithal believe our take on the subject depends on the broadness of our frame of reference. Warning against faulty generalisations and assumptions over a truncated period of time, they feel that if scope and time frame of the research is broadened – it is not crude oil which is the curse, but Petroleum wealth, which becomes an impediment under certain conditions especially when state-owned and controlled.

The Oilholic really liked the book, albeit with some reservations and is happy to recommend it to those interested in oil, the resource curse hypothesis, current geopolitical debates and energy economics.

© Gaurav Sharma 2011. Photo: Cover of ‘Oil is not a curse' © Cambridge University Press 2010.

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