And dependence has got to do with a lot of other things besides mineral reserves. It is true that many countries that rely heavily on natural resource exports are poor and unstable. That's because poor and unstable countries are rarely globally competitive in banking or computer design (it's hard to develop a flourishing microchip industry as the bullets fly). Natural resources are pretty much the only thing such countries have a comparative advantage in trading. Again, countries don't get rich if all they do is produce crops and dig stuff out of the ground. Getting rich takes a vibrant services sector and at least some manufacturing. So countries where digging stuff out of the ground is an especially large part of what goes on in the economy are in trouble. But they are in trouble because they've failed so miserably to create an environment where services and manufacturing can flourish -- not because they happen to have a diamond deposit.
Do kleptocratic regimes exploit natural resources to pad their bank accounts, buy off opponents, and purchase weapons to cow holdouts? Of course they do. Exploiting, padding, bribing, and bullying are what kleptocrats do best. But they are equal-opportunity exploiters. If natural resource rents aren't available, they'll find something else -- and maybe do something worse to get it. For every Gen. Sani Abacha skimming billions off Nigeria's oil wealth, there is a Field Marshal Idi Amin massacring Ugandans by the thousands without the aid or incentive of significant mineral resources.
Happily for those countries stuck atop piles of diamonds or lakes of oil, then, it turns out the resource curse must have been enchanted by a pretty feeble witch. Once you look at the evidence more carefully, the usual argument is turned on its head. Countries that rely on natural resources for a large part of their output are indeed cursed -- by poor quality government and an institutional environment that stifles the growth of manufacturing and services. That's the good news for Afghanistan, Mozambique, and Papua New Guinea: They won't necessarily get any poorer or more unstable thanks to their massive mineral reserves. But bad news follows, too: Given the comparatively weak state of their current institutions, the countries are unlikely to use the money generated to become the next Norway, either.
That's why the most heralded talisman against the resource curse -- improving institutions through greater transparency and oversight -- makes sense regardless. In fact, because so much of the revenues from extractive industries flow through governments, improved oversight might be a particular help after a mineral find. The Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, for example, publishes audited statements regarding payments from industry to government in royalties and taxes. Another approach, championed by Todd Moss at the Center for Global Development, is to pass on oil revenues directly to citizens -- a model adopted in Alaska. These are good ideas, and it is great news that Mozambique and Afghanistan have signed up to the Transparency Initiative.
But at heart, they are good ideas because all governments should be more transparent and increase the flow of resources to communities, no matter what's under their land. Blaming oil wealth for poverty, though, is like blaming treasure for the existence of pirates.