The difference between a habit and an addiction is control. We accommodate our habits and we cling to them, but we can say no to them in a pinch. When a habit or the substance attached to it takes control, when its power cannot be denied, it has become an addiction.
A similar problem applies to places with great natural resources. For nations, states, even neighborhoods, the presence of a unique natural resource – a mountain skiers love, or a nice, sandy beach; or vast deposits of oil, gas, copper or gold – should be a blessing.
But so often, “in countries of the greatest plenty there is the poorest living.” That observation came from a 1711 edition of the famous London journal The Spectator. Almost 300 years later, and only two things have changed. The old “paradox of plenty” has a new name, “the resource curse” and lots of new numbers to measure it.
51 countries are classified by the IMF as “resource-rich.” They got that label by having at least 20 percent of their national revenue or 20 percent of national exports come from extractable natural resources. 29 of them are considered low or lower-middle income.
How come? Usually, the blame is fixed on the locals. After all, their countries are “resource-rich.” So, why aren’t they rich rich?
Part of the answer has to do with the label. What if we called Nigeria or Venezuela or Angola, the iconic addresses of the resource curse, not ”resource-rich” but “resource mines?”
This wouldn’t obscure the necessary hard questions for local governments as to why the riches extracted from their lands generate so few benefits for local citizens. But it would underscore the importance of control, and how little of it stays at home with the cursed and how much power and control reside in global markets and foreign financial capitols.
“Many observers,” notes Wikipedia, “have likened the resource curse to the difficulties that befall lottery winners who struggle to manage [their] newfound wealth.” Sheer obfuscation. The lottery-winner’s issue is self-control. The resource-cursed have little of that, and their misbehaviors show it.
That same IMF report notes that the governments of those 29 poor to less-than-middling countries rich in resources share common characteristics: 1) they fail at economic growth and economic development; 2) they can’t save, because, 3) when they’re flush they spend all their money and when they’re poor they just suffer, and 4) they’re extremely dependent on something whose price they can’t control.
In short, places with the resource curse behave like addicts. Think how many decades we wasted blaming addicts for their failures without focusing on the producers and distributors who control them.
Curses don’t just happen. Someone has to pronounce them. Wherever the resource curse shows up, local collaborators may be taking their slice, but the lion’s share of the riches usually winds up close to the places where the labels – like “paradox of plenty” or “resource curse” – are born.
Visual journalist Jerry Redfern covers the environmental and humanitarian issues across Southeast Asia and other developing regions. His work ranges from the aftermath of American bombs in Laos to agroforestry in Belize to life amid logging in Borneo. Jerry’s photos have appeared in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, and Der Spiegel, among others. He has contributed to four book projects, including Eternal Harvest: The Legacy of American Bombs in Laos (co-authored with Karen Coates), which was a finalist for the IRE Book Award.
After graduating with a degree in journalism from the University of Montana, he spent several years as a staff photographer at newspapers in the American West. He began his freelance career in Cambodia where he shot news, features and investigative stories for Agence France-Presse, The New York Times, The Cambodia Daily and other publications. These days he works with video as well as photos, and he is in the final stages of post-production on his first feature-length documentary film, Eternal Harvest, an extension of the book project.
Jerry was a 2012-2013 Ted Scripps Fellow in Environmental Journalism at the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado at Boulder and a Senior Fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University.
His reporting on the American Southwest has included articles first published by Capital & Main, and were then co-published locally by the Santa Fe Reporter and NM Political Report.