The Resource Curse and the Separation of Powers

| April 15, 2013
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The problem of the “resource curse” is well documented. Countries rich in natural resources such as oil or gems are often “cursed” by corrupt authoritarian regimes and are at higher risk of internal conflict. The curse is a major hurdle for securing global justice. Recent work by Thomas Pogge and Leif Wenar has helped revolutionize how it is understood. Both argue that importing countries have a vital role to play in addressing the problem. I agree, but would add one important consideration they overlook: the need for constitutional reform of exporting states.

Pogge (2002) highlights what he calls the “international resource privilege” that often contributes to the problem of the resource curse. The idea is that importing states routinely recognize the leaders of exporting states as the legitimate distributional authorities. Those who control exporting states also have control over the sale of natural resources. Unsurprisingly, the wealth earned through selling natural resources has tended to enrich those in power without trickling down to benefit the wider population. Pogge argues that the international resource privilege incentivizes civil conflict because those who win power may also come to possess great wealth. This privilege also undermines power sharing and local democracy, amongst other injustices.

The problems with the international resource privilege, Pogge argues, are not entirely the fault of exporting states. If importing states discontinued their recognition of this privilege, then this might help end the associated injustices. So the reason why countries rich in natural resources may be likely to endure corrupt authoritarian governments, or face recurrent civil wars, is because a variety of parties have a reason to overthrow the current regime through force. Moreover, the perpetuation of  undemocratic government ensures that political power will result in great wealth for the ruling clique. This is only possible because importing states choose to view coup leaders as legitimate partners in international trade. If this ceased or was subject to some standard of good governance, then parties would have fewer incentives to vie for power through violence and to seek to retain power through the disempowerment of the general population.

Leif Wenar (2011) correctly argues that reforms ground in international norms, and which further national interest, are feasible.  Specifically, he recommends that an accountability continuum that links conditions with actions be established. According to his proposal,  the strong performance  of a state on measures of transparency, the reduction of corruption, and a stronger judicial record of convictions on matters related to corruption would be linked to favorable international measures governing market access and direct foreign investment. Through broadly agreed and existing international norms and benchmarks it may be possible to address the resource curse. The problem is not that we lack these shared global norms, but rather that we fail to implement them in a substantive manner.

We can and should go further. Improved transparency might heap greater criticism upon corrupt authoritarian rulers, but it may not be sufficient. One factor missing in the analyses of the resource curse is that the governments affected require constitutional changes, and not only improved governance. Here we should emphasize the importance of the separation of powers. The countries most affected by the natural resource curse – Algeria, Nigeria, Sudan, and many others – all suffer from an executive that is too powerful. There are many reasons why some, but not all, states rich with natural resources like oil – such as the United States – do not succumb to the resource curse.

A state that lacks a separation of powers may be more likely to be subjected to corrupt authoritarianism and civil conflict. No branch of government would be sufficiently empowered to challenge the decisions of and actions by a relatively unaccountable executive. Moreover, the costs to parties seeking to take control of the government by force are (relatively) small: they need only overtake the executive.

Absolute power corrupts, whether in the hands of a single president—or any single branch of government, for that matter. This problem should be tackled through the ways illuminated by Pogge and Wenar. My analysis accepts their positions, but I recommend that constitutional change and, specifically, the central importance of securing the separation of powers, is one additional part of this larger strategy concerning trade measures. We should expand the conditions for favorable trade measures to include the constitutional change of securing a separation of powers. This may prove a major challenge in practice as constitutional change may be difficult to secure and slow to enact. But such change is neither impossible nor unrealistic. The requirement for a separation of powers is sufficiently flexible to permit some variation in how it may be achieved.

The resource curse is a complex problem that affects a great many. It has rightly occupied an important place in debates about global justice. Many proposed solutions look to creating economic incentives and making international trade conditional upon governance reform. We should add to this list the need for constitutional change, too. A separation of powers may not be enough on its own to ensure any state will overcome the resource curse, but it is doubtful whether the curse can be overcome without incorporating the separation of powers as part of any feasible solution to the problem.


Pogge, T. 2002. World Poverty and Human Rights. Cambridge: Polity.

Wenar, L. 2011. “Clean Trade in Natural Resources,” Ethics & International Affairs 25:1, pp. 27-38.




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Category: Blog, Development, Inequality, and Poverty, Uncategorized

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