Are sub-Saharan Africa’s abundant mineral and fuel resources undermining prospects for devel­opment in the region? An influential body of research asserts that natural resources curse the countries that possess them with a host of unde­sirable outcomes — from economic stagnation, to authoritarian rule, to violent conflict. Africa is no stranger to these maladies. With international commodity prices booming, its dependence on resource exports is unlikely to diminish anytime soon. Is Africa suffering from a resource curse?

Proponents of the resource curse hypothesis identify several channels through which natu­ral resources may harm development.1 In the economic sphere, lucrative natural resources at­tract attention and assets from other sectors with greater long-term growth potential. In the po­litical sphere, the effects of natural resources de­pend on whether the state is able to capture re­source wealth. Where the state does capture re­source wealth, proceeds from resource extraction

1. See Paul Collier, “Natural Resources, Development and Conflict: Channels of Causation and Policy Interventions,” in Economic Integration and Social Responsibility: Annual World Bank Conference on Development Economics — Europe, 2004, ed. Franc¸ois Bourguignon, Pierre Jacquet, and Boris Pleskovic (Washington: World Bank, 2007), 323–335; Jeffrey A. Frankel, “The Natural Resource Curse: A Survey,” National Bureau of Economic Research Working Papers 15836 (2010); Michael L. Ross, “The Political Economy of the Resource Curse,” World Politics 51 (1999): 297–322.

enable governments to use a mix of patronage and repression to evade meaningful accountability to the general public. Where it does not, proceeds from resource extraction enable the rebel groups that control them finance violent insurgencies.

The most influential evidence marshalled be­hind the resource curse hypothesis consists of cross-national statistical associations between nat­ural resource abundance and undesirable devel­opment outcomes. For example, in a widely cited study of the impact of natural resources on eco­nomic performance, Jeffrey Sachs and Andrew Warner found that a “surprising feature of mod­ern economic growth is that economies with abun­dant natural resources have tended to grow slower than economies without substantial natural re­sources.”2 Turning to politics, in a widely cited study of the impact of natural resources on regime type, Michael Ross found that “the antidemocratic properties of oil and minerals are substantial.”3 And in a widely cited study of the causes of vio­lent conflict, Paul Collier and Anke Hoeffler found that “primary commodity exports substantially in­crease conflict risk.”4

2. Jeffrey D. Sachs and Andrew M. Warner, “Natural Re­sources and Economic Growth” (Center for International De­velopment, Harvard University, 1997), 2.

3. Michael L. Ross, “Does Oil Hinder Democracy?,” World Politics 53, no. 3 (2001): 342.

4. Paul Collier and Anke Hoeffler, “Greed and Grievance in

The empirical case for the resource curse hy­pothesis is far from settled, though. Several studies of the past decade have used similar cross-national statistical methods to dispute it. For example, Jean-Philippe Stijns measured re­source abundance using data on the “stock” of re­source reserves rather than the “flow” of resource exports. Unlike Sachs and Warner, he found that “natural resource abundance has not been a significant structural determinant of economic growth.”5 Stephen Haber and Victor Menaldo in­vestigated the within-country relationships be­tween natural resource trends and changes in political regime type. Unlike Ross, they found that “oil and mineral reliance does not promote dictatorship.”6 And James Fearon replicated Col­lier and Hoeffler’s statistical analysis with minor changes. Unlike them, he found that “the empir­ical association between primary commodity ex­ports and civil war outbreak is neither strong nor robust” and appeared to be driven mainly by oil.7 Research of the past decade has chipped away at claims of a generalized resource curse that oper­ates throughout the world.

Surprisingly little attention has been given to how well the resource curse hypothesis fits the experience of contemporary Africa. On the face of it, Africa’s record since the end of the Cold War looks like an ideal “laboratory” for investi­gating the relationship between natural resources and development. As of 1990 the region had expe­rienced more than a decade of economic decline, and nearly every country was under some form of authoritarian rule. Since the mid-1990s global

Civil War,” Oxford Economic Papers 56 (2004): 588.

5. Jean-Philippe C. Stijns, “Natural Resource Abundance and Economic Growth Revisited,” Resources Policy 30 (2005):


1.      Stephen Haber and Victor Menaldo, “Do Natural Re­sources Fuel Authoritarianism? A Reappraisal of the Resource Curse,” American Political Science Review 105 (2011): 25.

2.      James D. Fearon, “Primary Commodity Exports and Civil War,” Journal of Conflict Resolution 49 (2005): 503.

commodity prices have risen substantially, affect­ing resource-rich and resource-poor countries dif­ferently. Meanwhile, divergent political trajecto­ries emerged, with some countries making tran­sitions to democracy and others descending into spirals of state collapse and violent conflict.

Comparing the records of Africa’s resource-rich and resource-poor countries during this pe­riod of political and economic fluidity approxi­mates a natural experiment, which can help clar­ify the effects of natural resources on develop­ment outcomes. Yet basic empirical questions nevertheless remain largely uninvestigated. Have Africa’s resource-rich countries fared any worse since 1990 than their resource-poor counterparts have? Have their economies grown more slowly, have they been less likely to democratize, and have they been more prone to violent political conflict? And on a regional level, has Africa’s increasing dependence on proceeds from natural resources since 1990 corresponded with greater prevalence of these unfavorable outcomes?

In this paper I present a preliminary analy­sis of the empirical relationship between natu­ral resources and development outcomes in sub-Saharan Africa since 1990. The analysis is pre­liminary in that I aim simply to establish whether natural resources and adverse development out­comes have tended to go together in practice. I do not attempt to test causal hypotheses about the ef­fects of natural resources. Correlation does not im­ply causality, but knowing what correlation exists is a good place to start investigating a causal claim. I present the evidence in a series of graphs that show regional trends over time and clarify simi­larities and differences between resource-rich and resource-poor African countries.

The rest of the paper proceeds as follows. In the first section, I address the challenge of measur­ing the theoretically relevant properties of natural resources, settling on a measure based on the un­earned “rent” component of mineral and fuel ex­traction. The data confirm a substantial increase in Africa’s resource rents during the two decades beginning in 1990, much of which has occurred since the late 1990s. In the second section, I suc­cessively examine the empirical relationships be­tween resource rents and three “outcome” indi­cators — economic growth, political regime type, and political violence. In the third section, I out­line a research agenda that flows from analysis — focusing on issues the sustainability of resource-led growth, local and sectoral dimensions of re­source governance, and the (potential) distinctive­ness of oil. The fourth section is a brief conclusion.