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Resource curse: No safe ground

27th November 2012
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Editorial cartoon

The Media Council of Tanzania on Saturday hosted a rather rare guest – a vastly experienced and highly regarded Iraqi-Norwegian petroleum geologist, engineer and resource management consultant by the name of Farouq al-Kasim.

The function was an audience at which the expert, once concerned with petroleum reservoir and development studies, exchanged ideas with editors on the intricacies of the petroleum industry.

There was little surprise in the fact that the editors, all of them citizens of a Tanzania where the development of the oil and gas sector is still at a very elementary stage, were all ears as al-Kasim tackled a topic he is so comfortable with.

And why not, considering the enormous impeccable documentary evidence there is that he has been instrumental in developing conservation regulations, strategies related to resource management and institutional development in the petroleum sector in many parts of the world?

Given the variety of the backgrounds and interests the editors represented, it was only natural to expect mixed reaction to some of the points the expert raised – that is, except for one aspect: his remarks on what is commonly referred to as the “resource curse”.

While fighting to beat the temptation of falling into politicking, there was just no way al-Kasim could permanently desist from tiptoeing into some form of politics. To be fair, no one would have expected him to deny that the petroleum industry plays such a pivotal role in the development of nations that it is part and parcel of global social, economic and political trends and realities.

But he was not to be so hamstrung by the fear of sounding too political as to fail to sound a warning many other experts have sounded: that whether oil, gas or other natural resources will be a blessing or a curse much depends on the nature of the institutions, laws, policies and regulations nations or governments for that matter formulate and implement.

This is simple logic, and there is no scarcity of cases showing the paradox of resource-rich countries where the majority of whose continue to languish in untold poverty and misery decades into the large-scale exploitation of those resources.

Al-Kasim cited his own native Iraq as a typical example of the tragic failure by petro-dollars to translate into a better life for the millions upon millions of ordinary citizens, at least in the form of having readier access to public education, health, water and other basic needs.

That it is only belatedly that Tanzania has entered the petroleum prospecting and exploitation era in earnest could be a blessing in disguise in that it will hopefully have had occasion to learn vital lessons from countries where abundance of natural resources such as minerals has not meant much in terms of improving the lot of ordinary citizens.

It would be sad indeed if, instead of serving as an agent of people-centred development, our very own oil, gas, gold, etc., should submit to corruption and lack of accountability and end up sabotaging efforts to fast-track or secure such development. That would surely be a typical manifestation of resource curse.

SOURCE: THE GUARDIAN