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Natural resource wealth has massive potential and can hugely impact the economy of a country. The natural resource sector and more particularly the petroleum and mining industry is distinguishable from other sectors of the economy in that ventures in this sector are high-risk and prone to failure if not competently undertaken. Moreover, resources in the sector are typically immovable and must be exploited on the site of their discovery.

Being exhaustible and non–renewable, these resources call for prudent exploitation and management that must also factor in intergenerational equity. And unlike other industries, the exploitation of natural resources is community-based, in the sense that the activity takes place inside communities, providing opportunities for conflict as the business pursuits of an investor threaten the general welfare of the community.

Despite the lucrative nature of the sector, it comes with a number of challenges. Learning from the many countries that have experienced the “resource curse”, it is imperative that from the outset, the following issues are taken into consideration if at all a country wishes to progress and develop through the proceeds of its natural resources.

First, a country endowed with mineral resources should always plan to diversify its economy using the proceeds from its mineral wealth. This is done to avoid the Dutch disease and to ensure that the economy can withstand shocks caused by fluctuating prices. Venezuela and Nigeria are two countries that experienced economic recession due to a fall in the price of oil.

Second, while mineral exploration and production automatically comes with a high pollution risk, there is need take contingency measures to mitigate any such damage. Deliberate steps need to be taken to avoid the Niger Delta situation where land has been so degraded that the cost of cleaning up is estimated at £900 million.

Third, the phrase “resource curse” arises from the many cases where the discovery of minerals has resulted in retrogression instead of progress for the communities within which the commodity has been found. More often than not, these host communities experience conflict when the expected benefits are not realised, sometimes because of unrealistic expectations but more often because of corruption. It is important for investors and communities to engage from the outset, ideally with the government facilitating the process. Increasingly, however, civil society and religious organisations are stepping in to fill the gap left by unresponsive governments.

It is clear that natural resource wealth can provide opportunities for countries to improve the living standards of their people and can positively impact the development of nations. Indeed, it is a commonly held belief that nations richly endowed with natural resources are more advantageously positioned to shape the economic, physical and social aspects of their development than those less endowed.

However, the paradox of plenty has been the subject of extensive research by scholars and practitioners precisely because many resource-rich countries are associated with increased poverty levels, civil war, reduced economic growth, greater inequality and social injustice. This is because of a lack of goodwill to develop other sectors of the economy that are not necessarily dependent on natural resources, among other factors.

There are however, countries that can be cited for having taken off successfully.  Norway, one of the world’s richest economies, and Botswana, one of the largest producers of gemstones, have both clearly demonstrated how natural resources can be harnessed to foster development, build the economy and generally improve people’s livelihoods.

Conversely, countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo, with its has huge deposits of natural resources including cobalt which is highly sought after and is of great economic value, and Angola, with its vast reserves of natural gas, are examples of how resources can come to be regarded as a curse due to the civil wars, conflicts, under-development, low GDP, and the many other problems associated with these nations despite being resource-rich.

A number of academic studies also suggest that natural resource wealth slows down the economic growth of a country. This narrative is however challenged by countries like Singapore, the United Arab Emirates and Taiwan which, despite being modestly endowed, have invested the revenue from their limited natural resources in the areas of education and research, have strengthened their policy and legal frameworks and institutions, and established parameters for advancing wealth creation and multiplication, as well as savings for the future generations.

Many theories have been advanced in an attempt to explain the resource trap in mineral rich countries. However, none of the hypotheses advanced has identified the root cause of the paradox of resource abundance. This is because, by themselves, natural resources cannot be classified as either a curse or a blessing; they are opportunities that prudently exploited can jumpstart an economy and bring long-term fiscal benefits to a country.

Unfortunately, a majority of resource-rich countries are anti-democratic and have opaque policies and institutions. Predatory governance, greed and corruption often lead to the signing of secretive and exploitative production contracts that only benefit the investing multinationals and their countries of origin.

However, there are many tried and tested strategies and approaches that have resulted in strong economies with stable and functioning governments. For mineral wealth to have a positive impact and be a blessing there must be transparent policies, reasonable public regulation, commodity flows and sustainable and varied production systems.

A good example is the resource-rich state of Alaska in the United States where 9.6 billion barrels of oil were discovered in 1969. That year Alaska collected US$900 million from the oil lease sales but all the money was soon squandered. Worried that money from the oil resources would go to waste and benefit just a few, Alaskans voted to have the proceeds spent on state development.

Seven years later, and with infrastructure development largely achieved, a public vote established the Alaska Permanent Fund through a constitutional amendment. The fund was designed to receive at least 25 per cent of the oil revenue and in 1982 a dividend programme was added to the fund. The sovereign wealth component promotes and ensures intergenerational savings while the dividend fund ensures that all residents of Alaska enjoy the fruits of their natural resources by receiving annual dividends in the form of cash transfers. Since the first deposit of US$734,000 was made in 1977, the fund had over US$64 billion dollars in 2019 with each resident of Alaska receiving US$1,606 in dividends that year.

From the example above, it is very clear that a country can truly develop using its natural resource wealth. One of the ways in which it can do this is by securing tenure rights to natural resources through regulations that determine who can use the natural resources, for how long and under what conditions. Tenure rights clearly specify the expectations of each stakeholder with regards to their roles and, importantly, the role that the hosting communities are going to play during the entire period of the extraction of the resource.

Contract transparency is another way in which good governance can prevail in the extractive industry. Resource extraction contracts signed between the host governments and the multinational companies should be made public to provide general information to the public and ensure transparency, scrutiny and accountability.

There are countries, like Ghana, that support the idea of contract transparency as a fundamental principle in managing their extractive industry, but many nations have not fully embraced the idea of contract transparency for fear of sparking public outrage and also to conceal the information for personal gain. Through contract transparency, everything that is in the contract is laid bare and the specific expectation from every stakeholder is made public. This promotes good governance and transparency and also ensures that the benefits trickle down to the community level, promoting sustainable development.

Creation of a strong regulatory and institutional framework is also another way of ensuring good governance in the management of natural resources. The legal or regulatory framework can either enhance or inhibit development in the extractive industry and there is no template for what needs to be done in order to ensure a strong legal and regulatory framework. Each country has a unique opportunity to come up with its own tailor-made legal and regulatory framework that works for it and this involves developing laws and regulations that address specific issues in the industry while at the same time safeguarding the interests of the communities and  incorporating international best practices.

Having competent and functional institutions to implement the laws and regulations is another important step towards ensuring good governance in the management of the extractive industry. For the enacted laws to be effective, they must be implemented by institutions that are proactive and competent. Narrowing the implementation gap by ensuring that what is happening on the ground is in tandem with the provisions of the law is one of the critical roles of functional institutions.

A strong civil society can help in ensuring good governance in the management of natural resources.  Civil society organisations provide information and have the moral legitimacy to set the resource governance agenda. They can help to democratise power in resource management, and can work to keep other resource governance actors like governments and companies accountable. The civil society plays many roles, among which is the monitoring role, where it ensures that all the state and non-state actors play their role effectively in the management of resources and, more importantly in monitoring and ensuring that benefits are realised at the community level. They also help in highlighting corrupt practices in the industry and non-adherence to the internationally recognised practices guiding the extractive sector. Civil society organisations also have a role in representing the views of ordinary citizens on issues of national importance, in this case the extractive industry.

Lastly, civil society also plays a role in setting the agenda to ensure that the interests of the public in general, and development, are given priority. According to the Institute of Global Environmental Strategies Report of 2007, governments are increasingly involving local communities and non-governmental organisations in the management of natural resources. The ways in which the different stakeholders are involved varies. In involving different stakeholders, the governments broaden the scope of engagement and possibly minimise the chances of achieving a negative impact, reduce conflict and increase efficiency in resource management.

And finally, natural resources cannot be discussed without mentioning the environment. In an effort to benefit from the natural resource wealth while dealing with environmental issues, the following principles should be considered: All decisions made must be anchored in best governmental practice in order to ensure best practice in perpetuity. Resources must also benefit communities away from the resource as the impact of pollution may be felt away from the immediate location of the activity. Where there is no scientific evidence of possible impact, an investor should provide contingency measures and where such evidence of possible impact on the environment exists—usually through an Environmental Impact Assessment—an investor must formulate measures to avoid harming the environment and a polluter must sufficiently compensate for harm caused. We must give future generations the same opportunity to have access to a healthy environment that we as a generation have been given.

The article is done with support from Diakonia Kenya Country Office under the Madini Yetu Wajibu Wetu (Our Minerals, Our Responsibility) Project. Views expressed in the article are those of the author.