Dodging the Resource Curse

Over the weekend, the Financial Times had a fascinating piece about Farouk al-Kasim, an Iraqi who is credited with saving Norway from the resource curse:

Poor countries dream of finding oil like poor people fantasise about winning the lottery. But the dream often turns into a nightmare as new oil exporters realise that their treasure brings more trouble than help. Juan Pablo Pérez Alfonso, one time Venezuelan oil minister, likened oil to “the devil’s excrement”. Sheikh Ahmed Yamani, his Saudi Arabian counterpart, reportedly said: “I wish we had found water.”

Such resignation reflects bitter experience of the way that dependency on natural resources can poison a country’s economic and political system. Inflows of hard currency push up prices, squeezing the competitiveness of non-oil businesses and starving them of capital. As a result, productivity growth withers (a phenomenon known as “Dutch disease” after the negative effects of North Sea gas production on the Netherlands). Meanwhile, the state institutions in charge of oil often become corrupt and evade democratic control. And oil-rich states almost invariably waste the income it brings, many ending their oil booms deeper in debt than when they started.

al-Kasim is credited with designing a system that struck a balance among a state-owned oil company, private oil companies, and an independent regulator:

The real achievement, in other words, was not finding oil but coping with its discovery. Norway faced the same dilemma as every other new oil producer with no experience of the industry: if you rely too much on private foreign companies, too little of the oil wealth benefits the country in the form of government revenue or economic development; if you go too far in the other direction, you risk a bloated, politicised oil sector that evades both accountability to the people and competitive pressures to be efficient.

The economic question is fascinating — how can you avoid the resource curse? — but you should also read the article for his unique personal journey (involving a child with cerebral palsy and one of the easiest job hunts in history).

P.S. Other coverage at Curious Capitalist and Kottke.