This is Part One of “Is there such a thing as resource curse?”
Africa is often said to suffer from a resource curse. How valid is such thinking? In this article we are going to look closely at this issue. First of all what is a curse? As usual, I do not want to use a dictionary to explain what it is.
A curse is a form of judgment, usually leading to punishment — originating from one’s parents. To Christians, a curse is associated with God but I want to believe that to non-Christians, it is still the same idea, in which case it comes from some power that is higher than the human being himself. Usually, one is cursed for committing a sin or doing something that is forbidden by one’s tradition and/or culture; in the case of God, if one breaks His commandments.
Before we proceed further with our discourse it is still important to describe what resources are. Resources fall into two major categories — that is natural and man, and animal-made ones. As far as resources are concerned, one is born wired up to depend on them for survival. This is a natural instinct that even animals possess. Considered from both religious and evolutionary viewpoints, man and natural resources are intimately connected through earth, the soil. And even though evolutionary theorists want to propound the idea that the black man has developed the slowest among all tribes, according to both views-that is religious and atheistic, man’s origin is the same. And he lives on and/or uses natural resources.
From this elucidation it becomes clear that in reality, there is definitely no such a thing as a “resource curse”, for how can someone be cursed for using something that they have been created to use? But in spite of this fact, we often hear or read about this phenomenon of a “resource curse”; and strangely, it is mostly meant to apply to Africa and the Africans. So what exactly, is going on here? The way I see it, this is a contorted view of life that is meant to mislead people, particularly we black Africans. But why so? The simple answer to this question is: To make us lose what belongs to us.
At this juncture the matter becomes more intriguing because most Africans who share this view of a resource curse also believe that the continent has more natural resources than any other continent on earth. But nothing could be further from the truth. In terms of total natural resource endowment, Africa, even as a continent, does not feature among the top ten natural resourced countries in the world.
And frighteningly still, these same people may not be aware that Africa’s resources are getting depleted at the fastest rate in the whole world today! In the book “Oppenheimer and Son”, by Antony Hocking-Earnest Oppenheimer, the subject of this book, is keenly aware of this phenomenon that took place in the South African diamond and gold mines right from the early days at Kimberly where the Great Hole is its main result.
That said, the question still remains unanswered here; if this allegation is actually true, why is it only the Africans who are being targeted to lose their resources? Surprisingly, here the answer is quite straight forward; because they either allow it or they make themselves prone to the seizure of their natural resources by other peoples. And paradoxically, in quite a few cases, they do not only encourage it, they assist in the process. But why, still?
The way I see it, at this stage of the argument, the matter changes from being quite straight forward to being quite complicated within a short space of the argument. But, however, I shall proffer my reasons which the reader does not necessarily have to agree with. Some of those people I have referred to above, just explain their case by asserting that Africans are ignorant, underdeveloped and all the related negative descriptions — this is why they lose their natural resources to those who are more advanced technologically than them. In these arguments, corruption becomes the major reason for this curse “because it ends up causing the Africans themselves, not anyone else-to kill and/or starve one another”. Sadly, the results on the ground seem to corroborate this view.
But do all those derogatory terms aptly describe the Africans? If so, how come we have all those inventors and innovators from Africa who end up residing in the “developed” world? So surely, Africans cannot be lagging behind other races technologically. But still, what is the real reason for this state of affairs? One can look at this matter from a number of angles. Let us take it that Africans are behind technologically and ask ourselves what it is that technology does to enable and or to make one want to hold on to their natural resources?
In that case, as I have always argued in my opinion pieces, we find that if one possesses technology, they can make goods with their natural resources — a process generally referred to as value addition. Examples here are iron, copper, nickel and platinum products among others.
From iron they can make steel and iron products, and so forth; in fact, there are so many examples it would fill quite a number of books to go into all of them. And fossil oil — ironically, the current master polluter of the air over the earth — is one product from which numerous products of good commercial value can be made.
That said, there are some products that are made from some natural resources that are so ubiquitous that many of us take them for granted and therefore, may not even think much of in our everyday life. With all due respect to their humanness, in the underdeveloped countries such as Zimbabwe, the illiterate among us are not even aware such processes exist. Some of these products are sand, air, sea water and algae-all of which constitute a major part of modern high technology developments.
From sand we get silicon computer chips and glass, among other products. From air, we get ammonium nitrate fertiliser, air to inflate tyres, liquid nitrogen to preserve life, etcetera. From sea water we get fertilisers and salts for making chocolate and other products. Through some of the latest scientific discoveries, the Americans are contemplating making fuel from algae.
And considering the matter from a deeper perspective, one comes to realise that the sort of transformation that these natural resources undergo during their technical manipulation by man is quite fascinating.
And the sort of economic jump that one is able to make just by the acquisition of this technology and know-how is such that it would be simply impossible for one to catch up once they have fallen behind the one who is ahead of the rest in this respect.
The result of this situation is often a tussle between those at the top and those just behind them, or within the same category of technological and economic development. This tussle can assume a number of degrees; from being muffled to a full-scale war. Today there are many examples of it between and among such countries as the US, Canada, China, North Korea, Iran and even Russia and Japan, among the main ones. The tussle between the US and Canada — two countries that are supposed to be the epitome of good neighbourliness — accentuates the absurdity and enormity of this challenge.
The desire to catch up often brings with it, some undesirable results such as the use of unsafe technology and its attendant methods. Nuclear disasters such as those that took place at Chernobyl (Russia) and Fukushima (Japan) among others, are such examples.
Ironically in Africa (Zimbabwe included) the desire to catch up has brought up another negative phenomenon — that is, leapfrogging — that has often paradoxically, led to economic retardation. Why and how does this happen — you may want to know? You see, in the developing world, we start at the high technology level, in the process ignoring the basic level of (making) nuts and bolts. As a result, we become quite proficient at operating high technology gadgets without even bothering to find out how they are made in the first place, let alone try to make them ourselves!
The results of this state of affairs is the misuse and abuse of technology through social media — a condition that has almost destroyed our economy without us not even being aware of what is happening. The other even more detrimental result, is the inflation that has ravaged the Zimbabwean economy through the importation of finished products that we should, with the right use of technology-be producing locally instead of importing with scarce foreign currency.
Let us go back to the natural resource curse issue. There are special elements that have become highly demanded because of the role they play in making the gadgets of high technology. It started with a few chemical elements, now the list is lengthening at a galloping pace. The original elements in this case were uranium and related radioactive elements such as radium and cadmium. Then came the discovery of the silicon chip that revolutionised computer technology. Then came the platinum and related metals — the so called pgm group; then came the discovery and invention of the nickel battery for making clean fuel and it shall continue like that.
So now, because of this high demand for these elements that — in their natural form-exist as elements of the earth— that is soil, gravel and rock, the whole category of elements being known as minerals or natural resources — every technologically advanced country wants more of them in the current era. This situation has been worsened by the demand for the same natural resources by emerging and some developing economies. The latter have realised that the only way they can also become rich or just survive — is the use of these natural resource through value addition as well as increased end usage.
So naturally, there is a scramble for these natural elements by everyone concerned; from the developing to the emerging, to the developed economies. But the distribution of these elements has been through natural geological movements and processes that have taken place within a period spanning millions of years; this is why a reserve of a specific mineral can be found in such far flung places as South Africa, Australia and the Americas, for example. Nickel, gold, platinum and so forth are some of these minerals.
That said, the distribution of these minerals is now dependent on the rate of their exploitation and their consequent depletion. This is the major reason for this scramble. In this case we find that generally speaking, the developed economies have exhausted quite a few of their mineral reserves, hence their current strategy of ferreting for same from foreign lands is now more urgent than before. And because of their current state of relative backwardness on a number of economic fronts, the Africans are having a really tough time coping with events and processes in this area.
Sadly, these are circumstances in which the psychological element is playing a no mean role. In the 28 May-4 June 2019 issue of this paper, I said something about this matter in my article on the “Necessity of negotiating skills” among Zimbabweans in particular, and Africans at large. I argued that so far, the latter are not yet ready to successfully negotiate in contracts, most of which are to do with the extraction of these natural resources.
In the same article I alluded to, but deliberately avoided being blunt on the matter by explaining what I meant about the general Zimbabwean mentality when it comes to the acquisition and use of our minerals. Now I have no choice but to delve deeper into the matter. I shall tackle this aspect in (Part Two) of this article.
Shambare is an agriculturist cum economist reachable on 0774960937 or email [email protected]