Paul Collier: Why Natural Resources Should Help End Poverty
Tuesday, June 29, 2010
Natural assets can be hugely valuable for the poorest countries. In Afghanistan, the Americans have used new aerial prospecting technology to scour the country for natural resources. So far they have found $1trn’s worth. Properly used, this would be enough money to transform Afghanistan into a land of prosperity. It could finance the security, schools and infrastructure that are the foundations from which ordinary people can earn a decent living.
But natural resources can also generate huge liabilities. The distinctive feature of BP’s catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico is not its physical scale – over the years, the Niger Delta has been similarly wrecked – but that, for the first time, the environmental costs of extraction have occurred within a jurisdiction where the perpetrator has legal liability for them. And environmental costs are a pinprick compared to the social costs that the struggle for control of natural assets can run up if it turns violent. Instead of attaining prosperity, Afghanistan could find itself repeating the history of Sierra Leone. Its $1trn of natural assets could merely morph the violence, turning it from being driven by a warped ideology into the probably more secure motivation of raw greed.
In the coming decade, the poorest societies in the world – home to the bottom billion – will need to manage the huge opportunities and risks posed by natural resources. Central Asia and Africa are the last frontiers for resource extraction, and with high global commodity prices and new prospecting technologies, the natural assets hidden beneath their territories will be discovered. Whether this leads to environmental degradation and violent plunder or a meteoric ascent out of poverty depends on the choices that these societies make. Not only are the stakes high, but the choices involved are complex. Harnessing natural assets for environmentally responsible prosperity is not just a matter of “good governance”: the decision-makers need to know the underlying economics along a whole chain of decisions.
The chain starts with how resource extraction rights are sold. Past and present practices of secretly negotiated deals expose societies to the acute technical problems of agency, information asymmetry and time inconsistency. The agency problem is the simplest: ordinary citizens cannot readily control what their representatives, politicians and officials get up to. Information asymmetry is about the huge advantages that companies have in knowing the true value of prospecting rights and the many ways in which they can conceal true profits.