Burma is a country with vast reserves of natural resources. It’s territory includes substantial reserves of natural gas, oil and minerals. Despite this Burma remains one of the poorest countries in the world. However the establishment of democracy within the country has now meant many international sanctions have been lifted and the country is now open for business. Dependence on resource wealth however may limit Burma’s progress towards development.
The resource curse, coined by the economist Richard Auty in 1993, describes the observation that resource dependent countries tend to under perform on a number of development indicators compared to their resource poor counterparts. For instance GNP per capita decreased by 1.3% per year in the OPEC countries during the period 1965-98 compared with a 2.2% average per capita growth in all lower to middle income countries.
Burma has already contracted one of the symptoms of the resource curse – the Dutch Disease. The disease describes how the increases in wealth brought about by a resource boom may cause an appreciation in the real exchange rate in turn decreasing the competitiveness of other exports such as manufactured goods. Burma presents a clear example of this, natural resources have helped drive up the value of the country’s currency, the kyat, from over 1400 to the U.S. dollar in 2007 to less than 700 in 2011.
In addition to this much of the valuable land and resources are controlled by the military and political elite. Although Burma has established democracy, there is a significant lack of transparency regarding resource earnings and how they are spent. The government does not report annual figures regarding resource revenues and foreign oil companies do not publish how much and how they pay the established military regime. The military still operates firmly outside the law in Burma, the constitution means that the one quarter of all government seats are reserved for members of the army. As a result levels of corruption are particularly high in Burma. Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) ranked Burma 172nd out 174 countries, showing the perceived extent of the problem.
This poor institutional and economic environment means that upcoming expansions in the oil and gas industry could further hamper development and fuel corruption. With many western countries lifting economic sanctions upon Burma, the increased levels of trade could further drive up the value of kyat prolonging the effects of the dutch disease. In addition the characteristics of such industries mean that they typically provide few benefits for the wider population. Oil and gas extraction tends to be highly capital intensive employing a small number of workers and concentrate wealth in the hands of the few.
On a broader scale such industries can decrease the need for high quality education. Notable economist Thorvaldur Gylfason argues that resource rich countries tend to neglect education because resource extraction is primarily low skilled. This can have a knock on effect for the development of more labour intensive industries such as manufacturing which require higher levels of education. Furthermore a recent article in the guardian reports that many families are now buying plots of land in oil rich regions with the hope of striking lucky. This has meant that many children now find themselves working in oil fields with obvious consequences for their education and health.
Although such abundance of resources should be a blessing for Burma in the long run it could be a substantial burden. The country lacks the institutional framework and regulation to successful reinvest the earnings of such industries into development. Its inefficient tax regime means little of the wealth generated by the resources ends up in the hands of the poor. On the other hand the high levels of corruption and state control mean such wealth is destined to end up in the hands of the influential few.
Burma could learn a lot from the case of Botswana which is one of the few countries that has beaten the resource curse. This success has been directly attributed to its good governance and the integrity of its public institutions. The country has good levels of democratic accountability, an independent judicial system and a free media. All of which have contributed to Botswana exhibiting low levels of corruption – the country ranks 30th on Transparency International’s CPI outperforming even some western countries such as Spain.
Despite signing up to the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, Burma still has a long way to go. There is a strong need for the development of a robust institutional and legal framework to help utilize resource wealth for poverty reduction. Until this is established the opening of trade and construction of more gas pipelines could further hamper efforts towards such development goals.