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Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Africa and the Resource Curse 

There's a fine article by Peter Beinart up at The New Republic (I think you need a subscription) documenting the Bush administration's newfound appreciation for US-African relations, and bemoaning its cause (oil, duh):
Over the past several years, Bush and his foreign policy team have done something almost no one expected when they took office--they have made Africa a priority. It would be an uplifting story, the fulfillment of countless bleeding-heart dreams, except for one thing. Africa is a Bush priority for one reason: oil.

For critics who consider President Bush's talk of global democracy a sham, and suspect it conceals a hidden agenda to control the world's supply of oil, Africa is a kind of Rosetta stone. The continent's west coast--from Nigeria in the north to Angola in the south--is America's fastest-growing source of oil and gas. Over the next decade, according to the National Intelligence Council, Africa's share of the U.S. petroleum market will rise from 15 to 25 percent. As Kansteiner has put it, "African oil has become of national strategic interest to us."

For an administration worried about the stability of longtime oil cow Saudi Arabia, West Africa is a godsend. Its oil is high-quality, easy to refine, and largely offshore, which means political unrest is less likely to disrupt production. It's half the distance from the Persian Gulf. And, because most West African oil producers don't belong to OPEC, they can pump out as much crude as they want, potentially lowering prices.

That's the good news. The bad news is that many of the regimes that control this new oil make Saudi Arabia look like Sweden. In the Middle East, the president is supposedly renouncing the decades-long bargain in which America blesses Arab dictatorships in return for their hydrocarbons. But, in West Africa, his administration is building another, equally ugly arrangement to replace it.
One counterargument which might be offered is that while the relevant African states might not be paragons of liberal values and respect for human rights, the US has improved its development assistance technology to take these factors into account. Indeed, it's worth noting that at least a portion of this new relationship involves bilateral foreign aid explicitly designed to improve things like democratic accountability and respect for the rule of law. Unfortunately, as I argued in a prior post, the discovery of oil actually makes this sort of conditional aid much less likely to succeed in doing anything but lining the pockets of entrenched elites.

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