Is there a causal link between Natural Resources and Conflict?

The “resource curse” is the name given to the alleged causal links between a country’s abundance of natural resourcee and the existence of all sorts of “bad things”, such as authoritarianism, economic stagnation and/or outright economic decline, increased probability of attempted coups d’etat, etc.  In our session on political economy we read Jensen and Wantchekon’s article on the link between natural resource wealth and authoritarianism, specifically, and we also looked at Richard Snyder’s article on the putative link between the existence of what he calls “lootable wealth” and political (in)stability in a state.  Their conclusions were at times complementary but at times divergent.  What matters (at least for political stability), according to Snyder, is the ability of the rulers (i.e., the government) to partake of the rents/riches accrued by the exploitation of the particular “lootable” resource.

Snyder’s is, of course, not the final word on the topic and there is an avalanche of published research on this very topic.  A new resource that can be used to find data on the link between natural resources and conflict–political, civil, etc.–is the Resource Conflcit Monitor, maintained by the Bonn International Center for Conversion.  From their web site:

Many developing countries rich in natural resources, such as diamonds and oil, have been plagued by poverty, environmental degradation and violent conflicts. In many of these countries, the natural wealth has not led to sustainable development. On the contrary, in some instances resource wealth has provided the funding and reasons for sustaining civil wars. This so-called ‘resource curse’ brought a lot of attention to the link between resources and conflict over the past decade. ’Governance’ has been identified as key factor for understanding the resource-conflict dynamic and for mitigating its negative impact in developing countries. ‘Resource governance’ in the present context describes the way in which governments regulate and manage the use of natural resources as well as the redistribution of costs and revenues deriving from those resources

The Resource Conflict Monitor (RCM) monitors how resource-rich countries manage, administer and govern their natural resources and illustrates the impact of the quality of resource governance on the onset, intensity and duration of violent conflict. The RCM serves as a tool for identifying and supporting viable resource governance and contributes to conflict prevention, post-conflict reconstruction and sustainable development….

There is an informative, and user-friendly, application that provides historical annual information on conflict and resources in individual countries.  Here is the result for Sierra Leone, the specifics of which should be familiar to those of you who watched Cry Freetown.  For an explanation of “resource governance” and “resource regime compliance, go here and scroll down.

There’s an additional methodological point that is crying out to be made here.  Notice that the level of conflict intensity first decreases rather significantly between 1996 and 1997, then increases dramatically between 1997-1999, to then fall just as dramatically between 2000 and 2002, while at the same time “resource governance” and “resource regime compliance” do not change much at all.  This means that we have to be very careful about attributing the level of conflict to the two afore-mentioned phenomena.  Maybe the causal link between these two and conflict intensity is not monotonic, maybe there is a threshold effect at work, or maybe the existence of an abundance of natural resources is a sufficient (under certain conditions) cause of conflict intensity.  On the whole, though, there certainlly doesn’t seem to be a clear linear, and/or monotonic relationship between resources and conflict (at least in Sierra Leone,  between 1996-2006)

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