Oliver Walton is a research fellow in the Governance and Social Development Resource Centre. His areas of interest include NGO legitimacy, civil society peacebuilding, conflict prevention, war-to-peace transitions, and Sri Lankan politics.
On the surface, recent announcements of the discovery of about one trillon dollars worth of mineral resources in Afghanistan might seem like a good thing. The Afghan economy is heavily reliant upon agriculture and foreign assistance, and an emerging extractive industry sector could fund investment in infrastructure and social expenditure, potentially lifting millions of Afghans out of poverty.
However, the news has also sparked fears that Afghanistan will become the latest victim of the so-called resource curse. The resource curse is the idea that an abundance of natural resources causes poor growth and governance by crowding out other industries and promoting corruption. Another potential side-effect is a heightened risk of violent conflict. Resources may fuel the grievances of local populations in producing regions (as occurred in the Delta region of Nigeria and in Aceh), by motivating the state, rebel groups or outside parties to fight harder to protect or capture mineral resources wealth.
The evidence for a link between natural resources and conflict is highly contested. Most of the academic debate surrounds large, cross-country studies that have sought to draw out broad statistical relationships between conflict and the abundance of resources. A number of studies in the late 1990s and early 2000s claimed to demonstrate a strong link, but these findings have subsequently been challenged, mostly on methodological grounds. Most scholars now warn against making the case that natural resources increase the likelihood of conflict per se, focussing instead on a range of variables and contextual conditions that determine whether or not the resource curse occurs.
Many factors are involved in determining the effect that resources may have. The type and location of the resources themselves are key factors, of course: are they easily lootable and are they in easy reach of opposition groups? The nature of the international market for these resources and its susceptibility to price shocks has an impact, as does the degree to which a private sector has already developed prior to a resource boom. Finally, social factors play a big role, including the degree of societal opposition to elites and the question of whether and how resources become intertwined with processes of group identity construction – violent conflict often ensues when decisions surrounding resources become linked to narratives about social exclusion or ethnic marginalisation.
Some of the linkages between resource management and conflict can be glimpsed by looking at cases where conflict has been averted. Botswana’s success in managing diamond wealth can partly be explained by good macro-economic policy decisions, but it is important to recognise that these decisions were underpinned by a stable political settlement, unusually favourable world market conditions and effective private property institutions. Zambia, in contrast, managed a sharp influx of wealth quite badly yet did not succumb to violent conflict, largely as a result of its resilient central state. Resource management strategies alone do not explain the onset or recurrence of violent conflict. In each case, conflict is driven by a complex array of institutional, historical and political factors.
For more on the resource curse, see the following recent GSDRC research reports: