Common Tragedies

Thoughts on Environmental Economics

The curse is broken?

Posted by Daniel Hall on May 6, 2008

Why hasn’t this been reported more widely?

The correlation between resource dependence and slow growth and conflict, therefore, does not imply causation from the former to the latter. Instead, causality appears to be running from weak institutions and conflict to resource extraction as the default sector, which produces resource dependence as the final outcome. Resource dependence appears as a symptom, rather than a cause of underdevelopment.

The authors argue that previous research on the ‘natural resource curse’ has been unable to correctly identify which way causality runs:

The standard resource variable used by Sachs and Warner, as well as by Collier and Hoeffler, is primary exports divided by a measure of national income. It thus captures the resource dependence of economies, rather than abundance. A negative correlation between this variable and growth could mean that resources lead to slower economic growth, as suggested by the curse proponents. Alternatively, it could mean that poor economic development policies–leading an economy to become dependent on its primary exports–dampen growth. Similarly, although a negative correlation between the resource variable and institutional quality may imply that resources undermine institutions, it might also capture that the resource sector is the “default sector” in the absence of decent institutions when nobody is willing to invest in alternative forms of capital. Finally, a positive correlation between the resource variable and conflict may indeed mean that resources trigger conflict. But it may also be the case that conflict makes countries dependent on resource extraction–the default activity that still takes place after other economic sectors (more mobile or, perhaps, better linked to the rest of the economy) have come to a stop. If so, resources are not a curse to development, but rather a safety net to support people and economies even under adverse circumstances.

They argue that economic dependence on natural resources is endogenous in exactly this way and use data on resource endowment — rather than resource exports — as an explanatory variable for economic growth.

When using the new World Bank variable to proxy for resource abundance, we find that the direct effect of resource wealth (particularly the subset of mineral resource wealth) on income growth is positive and significant. All things considered, an increase in subsoil wealth by one standard deviation–roughly the difference between Senegal and Sweden–would have brought Senegal’s growth performance on a par with that of Mozambique or Kenya; not a huge improvement, but certainly not a growth curse.

Similarly, resource wealth also attenuated the risk of conflict. This is due to a positive indirect effect: Resource wealth raises income, and higher incomes, in turn, reduce the risk of conflict. Again, although the aggregate impact of resource abundance is slight–amounting to less than a 5% reduction in the risk of war in case of a standard-deviation increase in resources–it is still statistically significant.

If this result holds up it will be a significant finding in development economics and could overturn almost 2 decades of conventional wisdom on the curse of natural resources.  The full text is here (gated); a non-gated version is here.

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