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Papyrakis Elissaios (ed.). — Why Does Development Fail in Resource Rich Economies: The Catch 22 of Mineral Wealth ; Steinberg Jessica. — Mines, Communities, and States: The Local Politics of Natural Resource Extraction in Africa ; Gillies Alexandra. — Crude Intentions: How Oil Corruption Contaminates the World

Douglas Yates
p. 659-664
Référence(s) :

Papyrakis Elissaios (ed.). — Why Does Development Fail in Resource Rich Economies: The Catch 22 of Mineral Wealth. Abingdon-Oxon, Routledge, 2018, 146 p., index.

Steinberg Jessica. — Mines, Communities, and States: The Local Politics of Natural Resource Extraction in Africa. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2019, 294 p., bibl., index, ill.

Gillies Alexandra. — Crude Intentions: How Oil Corruption Contaminates the World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020, 320 p., bibl., index, appendix.

Texte intégral

1The oil curse. A year seldom passes without new books and articles about its causes, its consequences, and its remedies—books and articles by scholars for scholars, by scholars for ordinary readers, and by ordinary nonfiction writers who presume to enter the fray, convinced that there is a new way to tell the story, what it really means, and why it still matters. This proliferation of books and articles, accompanied by a constant outpouring of related research papers, conference proceedings, NGO reports, masters’ theses, and doctoral dissertations, has proliferated into a pandemic of critique, with the “oil” curse radially expanded into a protean “resource” curse—e.g. blood diamonds, conflict timber, conflict minerals (cassiterite, wolframite, coltan, gold ore)—something like a Pandoran theory from which all evils fly out into the world.

  • 1 R. M. Auty, Sustaining Development in Mineral Economies: The Resource Curse Thesis, Lond (...)
  • 2 A. Gelb, Oil Windfalls: Blessing or Curse?, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1988.
  • 3 M. L. Ross, The Oil Curse: How Petroleum Wealth Shapes the Development of Nations, Princ (...)

2The phrase “resource curse” is sometimes credited to the economic geographer Richard Auty in his book, Sustaining Development in the Mineral Economies: The Resource Curse Thesis (1993)1 although anyone who actually reads this essay would discover his inspiration in Alan Gelb Oil Windfalls: Blessing or Curse? (1988).2 The phrase “oil curse” is credited to Michael Ross’s best seller The Oil Curse: How Petroleum Wealth Shapes the Development of Nations (2012),3 who also cited Gelb in his bibliography and whom he praises as one of the “pioneers” he interviewed to write his own book.

3The main problem with the “cursèd” expression, besides who gets credit for coining it, is the word “curse.” It has a meaning in popular culture that is widespread and well-understood: a solemn utterance intended to invoke a supernatural power to inflict harm or punishment on someone or something. Although people, when you draw their attention to this, immediately nod their heads knowingly and admit that, of course, no one is actually proffering any claims about black magic. Yet the human mind, being largely irrational, makes this association.

  • 4 N. Shaxson, Poisoned Wells: The Dirty Politics of African Oil, Basingstoke, Palgrave, 20 (...)
  • 5 J. Ghazvinian, Untapped: The Scramble for Africa’s Oil, Orlando, Harvest, 2008.
  • 6 T. Burgis, The Looting Machine: Warlords, Oligarchs, Corporations, Smugglers, and the Th (...)

4Publishers market trade books to the general public, and their distribution teams usually focus on ensuring they get into libraries and both brick-and-mortar and online bookstores. Such books take much of the spotlight and for better or worse, shape the popular perception of the evolution of resource curse theory. With exciting titles like Nicholas Shaxon’s Poisoned Wells,4 John Ghazvinian’s Untapped: The Scramble for Africa’s Oil,5 or Tom Burgis’ The Looting Machine: Warlords, Oligarchs, Corporations, Smugglers, and the Theft of Africa’s Wealth,6 these trade books are stuffed with personal interviews, citations of newspaper articles, NGO reports, and a string of narrative accounts of, well, the kinds of sordid topics that their titles promise. Crude Intentions: How Oil Corruption Contaminates the World by Alexandra Gillies has the feel of those other successful trade books. She did her doctorate at Cambridge University and published her study of the 2008-2014-oil-boom corruption crisis with Oxford University Press.

5“Thanks to the rise in prices, over $9 trillion in new money flooded into the oil industry,” she commences, “creating unprecedented opportunities to profit” (p. 16). Chapter after chapter, the reader is narrated anecdotal episodes of grand corruption, the large-scale corruption undertaken by those who hold positions of power, not petty corruption that citizens confront as they try to access everyday services. It ends with a chapter of policy recommendations. Readers, alas, have been here before. The good thing about these kinds of books, and I should confess that I am an avid reader of them, is how they bring you up to date with the endless corruption scandals of world oil. In this episode are the Panama Papers, the rise and fall of the Dos Santos family of Angola, scandals involving leaders of Malaysia, Peru, Nigeria, Brazil, South Africa, and even the United States (the Trump Administration) with stories of bribery, collusion, tax evasion, tax avoidance, and corporate enablers, banks, lawyers, offshore trust funds, so shocking that one must be outraged, stunned with indignity, in short, scandalized! She argues that this oil-boom corruption pandemic has spread worldwide. “Observing oil boom corruption is like placing a dye in the circulatory system of global corruption and watching it reveal the system’s channels and pathways as it spreads and spreads” (p. 10).

6The problem with such books is their epistemology of scandals and ontology of good governance policies. The title of chapter 7, “We Know How to Fight Corruption,” begins with the promise that “Observing past corruption cases makes clear both what works and where to start” (p. 210), proposing to “use international strategies, matching the international nature of corruption itself” (p. 213) and continue investigating, arresting, and prosecuting corrupt actors. I agree. However, global level analysis has its limitations.

7Elissaios Papyrakis asks Why Does Development Fail in Resource Rich Economies? in an edited volume comprised of articles originally published in a special issue of Journal of Development Studies, including contributions from three of the most famous names in the resource curse literature: e.g. Paul Collier (Oxford), Michael Watts (Berkeley), and Richard Auty (Lancaster). Collier draws upon recent developments in social psychology to discuss the formation of negative mass opinions on resource ownership, the struggle between local and national claims (a significant cause of conflict), and between current consumption and future investment. He says psychological biases interact with resource discoveries to generate unhelpful elite and mass opinions: “The resource curse is predominantly political, generating a range of dysfunctional rent-seeking behaviour” (p. 43). Watts looks at oil-rich Edo State in Nigeria, a State embroiled in the Niger Delta conflict that has suffered from poor performance indices, historically associated with unbridled plunder, failure and fiscal crisis. “Yet since 2009, the Governor has been applauded at home and abroad for his accomplishments in road construction and the capital sector more generally, internal revenue generation, and political succession,” concluding: “even within so-called dysfunctional states, there are pockets of effectiveness amidst state deficits” (p. 79). Auty, for his part, draws a loose comparison of two small island economies, Mauritius and Trinidad, with similar initial conditions other than their mineral endowment (Trinidad is oil-rich) and suggests that “policy outweighs size, isolation and resource endowment in determining economic performance.” Auty, who coined “resource curse,” now says resources aren’t a curse.

8Some chapters in this edited volume are qualitative case studies of natural resources and national effects. Gavin Hilson and Tim Laing, for instance, present a case study of the curse of gold ore in Guyana. Other chapters are large-n quantitative statistical reviews of the evidence globally. Frederick van der Ploeg and Steven Poelhekke’s cross-country show that empirical evidence is “ample” but “fraught with econometric difficulties” (p. 31) and conclude that “old cross-country evidence on the natural resource curse is mixed and not very strong and should not be relied on too much” (p. 32). Still, other chapters are policy papers evaluating State institutional policies and international transparency initiatives. Papyrakis and his co-editors claim Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) offers, “on the whole, a shielding mechanism against the general tendency of mineral-rich countries to experience increases in corruption over time” (p. 121).

9Like all such efforts to magazine together different papers between two covers of a book, there is not enough accumulation of knowledge. For the authors do not address one another(their articles were written as articles, not chapters.) It is difficult to summarize what one should conclude after reading them all. Papyrakis says that these studies do collectively emphasize that the presence and intensity of the so-called resource curse “is largely context-specific, depending on the type of resource, socio-political institutions, and linkages with the rest of the economy” (p. 1). This view sounds more like an apology than an addition to the theory’s external validity.

10One of the strengths of Papyrakis’ edited volume is how he has gathered together current empirical research, especially hard data, describing the resource curse. Another strength is how he has moved beyond the holy cult of macroeconomics. While academic hierophants of development studies do continue to swing the incense smoke of large-n statistical analysis, religiously invoking the sacred mysteries of causation—correlation, regression, and logit-probit analysis—with a naked faith (given the poor quality of most statistical data reported by oil-exporting countries, especially revenue data) that makes one blush, Papyrakis’ collection includes innovative chapters treating new disaggregated data on localized impacts. Instead of simply digressing into local particularism in an escape from grand theory, these chapters do try to theorize, generalize about the resource curse, but at the local level. Here is something new.

  • 7 J. C. Nash, We Eat the Mines and the Mines Eat Us: Dependency and Exploitation in Bolivi (...)

11The movement of resource curse theory to the local level is one of the literature’s more promising developments. Emma Gilberthorpe and Dinah Rajak, for example, postulate an “anthropology of extraction” to address what they see as the resource curse’s two major problems: seeking technical solutions to political problems and oil receiving the lion’s share of scholarly interest. “[M]ining, as opposed to oil, has historically grabbed the greater share of anthropological interest and ethnographic research,” they note, citing June Nash’s We Eat the Mines and the Mines Eat Us (1979)7 as the inspiration for their epistemological branch of the resource curse tree. “Critically, we stress that while ethnographers have traditionally focused on the agency (or lack thereof) of the ‘powerless,’ and on the ways local populations affected by and implicated in resource extraction nevertheless find modes of resistance, one of the most significant contributions of anthropology to debates about the resource curse has been bringing into focus the agency of the powerful” (p. 16). Anthropological approaches, they argue, counterbalance the “depersonalization that has dominated accounts of the political economy of resources extraction” (p. 19). Their chapter points to the way forward to study the oil men, businessmen, engineers, traditional leaders and other local actors whose decisions make outcomes vary from one locale to another.

12Traditionally, resource curse theory has generalized to the international or national levels. Blood diamonds, conflict minerals (like coltan) and even oil are said to inflame national and international “conflict.” But Jessica Steinberg’s new book Mines, Communities and States (2019) is reflective of the new move towards local analysis of variation in outcomes, which she calls “the local version of the natural resource curse” (p. 10). Instead of asking if natural resources are correlated with conflict nationally, she asks why some regions of natural resource extraction experience protests and others do not? Moreover, what forces shape how governments respond to them? These deceptively simple questions take resource curse theory ethnographically “into the field.” They provide a framework for weaving together the woof and warp of hundreds of case studies of local mining communities which have proliferated in the literature, often written by students of development doing their field research or progressive activists writing reports for non-governmental organizations. “Generalizing locally” is how I describe this approach. “Of approximately 2,500 mines in Africa in operation between 1990 and 2014, approximately one quarter of them saw some form of social conflict nearby,” writes Steinberg (p. 6), implying that three-quarters did not. Differences in local communities she factors into the equation, as well as differences in mining companies. Local-level analysis, she says, “is required to understand variation in the role of the firm in local governance outcomes” (p. 35).

13Her text is scholarly in tone, so it may not attract readers who buy their resource curse books at the airport. But it offers a theoretical framework and a systematic comparison of cases using a protocol of methodical questions, and it provides a causal mechanism to explain the different local outcomes. In other words, it avoids the trap of suggesting that correlation is causation or invoking a mystical “curse” of conflict minerals. Instead, it examines the logic of firm behavior and government behavior, which she calls the “logic of governance.” Her definition of “conflict” includes non-deadly government repression and arrests, rather than only deadly violence, allowing her to include many more cases of conflict than mere “wars.” Combining archival research with field research that she conducted herself in Mozambique, Zambia, and the DRC, she makes two kinds of systematic comparisons: (1) two mining firms (Vale and Rio Tinto) operating in the same country (Mozambique) and, (2) one mining firm (Metorex) operating in two different countries (Zambia and DRC).

14With these controlled comparisons, Steinberg shows that “the more interruptible mineral extraction is, the greater the likelihood of mobilization near the mine” (p. 133); “as the cost of the promised transfer to the local population increases, firms are less likely to provide it” (p. 134); “as the government’s take increases, the likelihood of protest increases” (p. 134); “as the political relevance of the local population increases, repression of a nearby conflict becomes less likely” (p. 161), and; “as the value of the mine increases, repression of a nearby conflict event becomes more likely” (p. 161). These are generalizable claims made about local facts, i.e. “generalizing locally.” The weakness of this small-n approach, of course, is external validity. While she tries to compensate with some continent-wide data, it is always problematical to generalize from so few cases.

15However, a fertile trend in the resource-curse literature is starting to flourish. Cultural and social anthropologists should rejoice. For if general public screeds against political corruption, government revenue mismanagement, and corporate greed will remain a staple diet of readers in the Global North, and if the large-n econometric statistical studies will continue to correlate natural resource abundance with a Pandora’s box of disorders, a new, locally centered, anthropologically minded, qualitative kind of study, doing field research on local communities most affected by natural resource extraction, is now getting prominently published by the prestigious university presses. So long as readers are willing to spend their time and money to acquire such expensive university books, the genre is ripe for new ethnographic contributions to the resource curse genre.

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Notes

1 R. M. Auty, Sustaining Development in Mineral Economies: The Resource Curse Thesis, London, Routledge, 1993.

2 A. Gelb, Oil Windfalls: Blessing or Curse?, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1988.

3 M. L. Ross, The Oil Curse: How Petroleum Wealth Shapes the Development of Nations, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2012.

4 N. Shaxson, Poisoned Wells: The Dirty Politics of African Oil, Basingstoke, Palgrave, 2008.

5 J. Ghazvinian, Untapped: The Scramble for Africa’s Oil, Orlando, Harvest, 2008.

6 T. Burgis, The Looting Machine: Warlords, Oligarchs, Corporations, Smugglers, and the Theft of Africa’s Wealth, London, William Collins, 2016.

7 J. C. Nash, We Eat the Mines and the Mines Eat Us: Dependency and Exploitation in Bolivian Tin Mines, New York, Columbia University Press, 1993.

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Douglas Yates, « Papyrakis Elissaios (ed.). — Why Does Development Fail in Resource Rich Economies: The Catch 22 of Mineral Wealth ; Steinberg Jessica. — Mines, Communities, and States: The Local Politics of Natural Resource Extraction in Africa ; Gillies Alexandra. — Crude Intentions: How Oil Corruption Contaminates the World »Cahiers d’études africaines, 247 | 2022, 659-664.

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Douglas Yates, « Papyrakis Elissaios (ed.). — Why Does Development Fail in Resource Rich Economies: The Catch 22 of Mineral Wealth ; Steinberg Jessica. — Mines, Communities, and States: The Local Politics of Natural Resource Extraction in Africa ; Gillies Alexandra. — Crude Intentions: How Oil Corruption Contaminates the World »Cahiers d’études africaines [En ligne], 247 | 2022, mis en ligne le 01 septembre 2022, consulté le 02 octobre 2022. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/etudesafricaines/39927 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/etudesafricaines.39927

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Douglas Yates

American Graduate School in Paris, France

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