It’s a variation on the debate over what shapes human personality — nature or nurture? The variation is the debate is over what shapes those political aggregations of humans called nation-states. Are the political fates of countries dictated by what is given to them by nature — climate, geography, resources, location, or by how they are nurtured or starved by the people in charge?
Economists Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson say the future of nations is not in the cards they’re dealt, but in how those cards are played. “Poor countries are poor,” they wrote in their book Why Nations Fail, “because those who have power make choices that create poverty. They get it wrong not by mistake or ignorance but on purpose. To understand this,… study how decisions actually get made, who gets to make them, and why those people decide to do what they do.”
Some of the poor nations where Acemoglu and Robinson’s judgements play out are those suffering from the famous “resource curse” — places where the state “underperforms economically, despite being home to valuable natural resources.”
Like a lot of definitions launched in short-hand onto the internet, this one leaves out some crucial elements. Any “resource cursed” state worthy of the name performs brilliantly for the people who own the resource and, usually, the people who run the state. It only “underperforms economically” for the citizens of the state.
Also, while there are a few cursed countries with many “valuable natural resources,” most of the worst-treated have only one or at most two natural resources to exploit.
And there’s another essential element to the resource curse: a sizable external market — national or global — for the resource being extracted from the victim-state.
Like, say, oil and gas extracted from my home state of New Mexico, for sale elsewhere in America and the world. Even a quick glance at the state budget shows the importance of the oil and has industry. The state’s revenues essentially come down to oil and gas and everything else. And if the oil and gas contribution isn’t quite half, its concentration — as opposed to “everything else” — gives the energy industry immense political power.
Oil and gas money notwithstanding, it is a fact that New Mexico always “underperforms economically.” The resource curse structure plays a part, but more important to the political underperformance of the state are the issues raised by those two economists — “how decisions get made, who makes them, and why they do what they do.”
Cody Nelson is an independent journalist whose work focuses primarily on investigative environmental reporting and producing audio documentaries. Cody is the producer and co-creator of a documentary podcast called Parks, a regular contributor to The Guardian, and a producer for Blue Wire Podcasts. His writing has been published with many other fine outlets including Floodlight, Capital & Main, High Country News, Audubon magazine, and the New Mexico Political Report. Before going independent, Cody was a reporter and producer at Minnesota Public Radio.