Why natural resources should help end poverty

The BP crisis in the Gulf of Mexico has laid bare the harm caused by the plunder of natural resource

Natural assets can be hugely valuable for the poorest countries. In Afghanistan, the Americans have used new aerial prospecting technology to scour the country for natural resources. So far they have found $1trn's worth. Properly used, this would be enough money to transform Afghanistan into a land of prosperity. It could finance the security, schools and infrastructure that are the foundations from which ordinary people can earn a decent living.

But natural resources can also generate huge liabilities. The distinctive feature of BP's catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico is not its physical scale - over the years, the Niger Delta has been similarly wrecked - but that, for the first time, the environmental costs of extraction have occurred within a jurisdiction where the perpetrator has legal liability for them. And environmental costs are a pinprick compared to the social costs that the struggle for control of natural assets can run up if it turns violent. Instead of attaining prosperity, Afghanistan could find itself repeating the history of Sierra Leone. Its $1trn of natural assets could merely morph the violence, turning it from being driven by a warped ideology into the probably more secure motivation of raw greed.

In the coming decade, the poorest societies in the world - home to the bottom billion - will need to manage the huge opportunities and risks posed by natural resources. Central Asia and Africa are the last frontiers for resource extraction, and with high global commodity prices and new prospecting technologies, the natural assets hidden beneath their territories will be discovered. Whether this leads to environmental degradation and violent plunder or a meteoric ascent out of poverty depends on the choices that these societies make. Not only are the stakes high, but the choices involved are complex. Harnessing natural assets for environmentally responsible prosperity is not just a matter of "good governance": the decision-makers need to know the underlying economics along a whole chain of decisions.

The chain starts with how resource extraction rights are sold. Past and present practices of secretly negotiated deals expose societies to the acute technical problems of agency, information asymmetry and time inconsistency. The agency problem is the simplest: ordinary citizens cannot readily control what their representatives, politicians and officials get up to. Information asymmetry is about the huge advantages that companies have in knowing the true value of prospecting rights and the many ways in which they can conceal true profits.

Time inconsistency is the most complex: it is about the difficulty that governments have in making credible commitments, and the consequences from companies not trusting the deals that governments offer. Or, as an industry insider recently put it to me, given the reputation of the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Chinese offer $6bn of infrastructure in return for $60bn of resource extraction rights was "quite reasonable".

Share and share alike

The next link in the chain is avoiding disasters such as that of the Niger Delta, in which neglect has generated a violent response. Risks must
be kept to a minimum by a combination of regulation and legal liability - whichever is the more effective and credible option in practice. Unavoidable environmental damage, which will often be extensive, should be compensated for generously. Extraction companies are tempted to give local communities a share in ownership of natural assets. This can be dangerous; a fairer use of natural assets should be for the benefit of an entire society, not just lucky local people. A commitment by a local popu­lation to participate fully in national sharing of the benefits is essential, but privileged local ownership can be a slippery slope.

For all citizens to benefit from resource extraction, a government must be able to collect rents through taxation. At present, national tax systems are often so poorly designed that this does not happen. Zambia is exporting some $3bn of copper, yet tax revenues from these exports are a mere $100m. The global copper boom has benefited the Chinese who own the copper company far more than it has benefited ordinary Zambians.

Effective taxation is difficult, more often than not because the extraction companies hire first-rate accountants, part of whose job is to conceal true profits. Such information asymmetry can be countered either by governments hiring the accountancy expertise they lack, or by redesigning the tax system to target things that are more easily possible to observe than profits - such as gross revenues.

Once a government succeeds in taxing resource rents, its next decision is what to do with the income. Because revenues are unsustainable, generated by depleting a natural asset over which the current generation has only limited rights, the ethical imperative is that they should not all be used up in the present day. This is the legitimate ethical insight from environmentalism - future generations have rights over natural assets that the present generation must not infringe.

The plunder of nature takes two distinct forms: the few expropriating what should belong to the many, and the present expropriating what should belong to the future. Both matter. But where romantic environmentalism goes awry is in insisting that respecting the rights of the future must take the form of preserving nature as it is. We are not, ultimately, curators of natural artefacts. Defining ethical behaviour in that way would be to put environmentalism in conflict with the struggle to end global poverty.

Natural assets are special, but that is because the future has rights over their value. When a poor society can rise out of poverty by using some of its natural assets, it is ethical to do so. The important political struggle is not to preserve nature, but to harness it for the benefit of future generations in the poorest societies. That takes us back to the decision chain.

The final link in the chain is what to do with revenues that are not used up. They should be invested in the domestic economy, not used to build up foreign exchange in a future generations fund - but the issue is how to do it. Too often in the past, attempts to have a big investment push have foundered on corruption and inefficiency in public projects. During the oil boom of 1974-85 the Nigerian government spent heavily on infrastructure, but it did not get much infrastructure for its money. The capacity to invest large amounts of money productively has to be built, within both the public and the private sector. I call this "investing in investing". Although it is the final link in the decision chain, it needs to be done early,
because without it revenues cannot be spent sustainably.

So, how is this complex decision chain to hold fast, not just once, but repeatedly for two or three decades (the minimum time needed for a poor society to achieve modest prosperity)? There is no substitute for the hard task of building a critical mass of informed citizens, society by society.By that, I mean a group sufficient in size to get these decisions right. Sometimes it may require a voting majority, but more usually in poor societies it will involve the few thousand people who directly or indirectly influence how senior officials and politicians think.

Taking on the tiger

Modern communication technology has vastly lowered the costs of knowledge and also enhanced the ability of citizens, once informed, to organise themselves collectively into pressure groups. The Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) shows what is possible. Less than a decade old, it has already shifted practice on transparency and is sure to achieve much more: for example, the new finance minister of Afghanistan was previously the EITI representative for the country. I realised the scope for reaching people when my 2007 book, The Bottom Billion, was translated into 15 languages and a related talk was posted on a website that had 35 million hits.

That is why I have written The Plundered Planet. The EITI, which focused on transpar­ency of revenues, was the right place to start - without such transparency, there is little hope that decisions will be got right. But it would be the wrong place to stop: citizens need to understand the entire decision chain, not just scrutinise revenues. The Natural Resource Charter, described in the book, is a civil society initiative that builds on the EITI and complements it. It is a website being built by a wide group of stakeholders, designed for citizens and governments of resource-rich countries.

In trying to break out of the history of plunder, initiatives that create specialist international organisations, books and websites may be peashooters aimed at a tiger. Or they may prove to be the stone that slew Goliath. Rather than mock our efforts, help to strengthen them.

“The Plundered Planet: How to Reconcile Prosperity with Nature" by Paul Collier is published by Allen Lane (£20)

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Bernie Sanders and the future of the American left

How an old, white guy is bringing class-based politics to the Democratic primary.

One thing is immediately striking: as he addresses primary rallies across America, arms flailing like a giant bird coming in to land, snow-white hair fizzing skywards like Doc Brown’s in Back to the Future, eyes startled behind the robust spectacles he has worn since childhood, Bernie Sanders looks quite unlike any other presidential candidate.

Perhaps the surprise in those eyes is sparked by the size of the crowds Sanders has been attracting. They are enormous, rivalling the numbers who turned out for Barack Obama back in 2008, and unprecedented for a candidate who is not shy of describing himself as a socialist: 28,000 in Portland and LA, 25,000 in Boston and 15,000 in Seattle. Even in Dallas, not a renowned centre of radicalism, 8,000 turned out to “feel the Bern”.

In these days when slick suits and expensive haircuts are increasingly a turn-off for a public weary of smooth politicians they see as delivering only for the wealthy, Sanders’s persona, like that of Jeremy Corbyn, his equally unkempt British counterpart, has proved popular. But it is his message – an angry chronicling of the depredations facing so many Americans and a solid social-democratic programme for putting things right – that is really pulling in the crowds. Sanders, who is 74, and the main challenger to Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, doesn’t just look different. With his confident calls for a “revolution” to break up the banks and impose higher taxes on the rich, he doesn’t sound like any other recent presidential contender, either.


I first met Bernie Sanders in 1996. I was the publisher of his book Outsider in the House, a political autobiography that appeared the following year (and which has just been reissued by Verso with a new foreword, and more than a hint of optimism, as Outsider in the White House). The occasion was a benefit concert during his successful bid to be re-elected to the House of Representatives from the small, rural state of Vermont.

Sanders’s early years are not well documented, least of all by him. He devotes less than three of the 300 pages in Outsider to the first three decades of his life. He doesn’t much care for the “humble roots” narrative beloved of so many politicians, generally millionaires whose ancestors lived in broken-down cabins. But the raw material is certainly there. The son of Polish immigrants, Sanders grew up in a working-class Jewish family in Flatbush, Brooklyn. At home, money was tight: “Every major household purchase . . . would be accompanied by a fight between my parents as to whether we could afford it,” he wrote.

It was an achievement to gain admission to the University of Chicago, and though he described himself as “not a good student”, that was a result of sacrificing coursework to the cause of social activism. He settled permanently in Vermont at the age of 27, having bought an 85-acre farm in the north of the state for $2,500. Four years later he moved to Burlington, the state capital, where he became involved in city politics, at first in the tiny Liberty Union Party and then as an independent. In 1981 he was inaugurated as mayor and commenced a series of tilts at the state’s congressional seat. He finally entered the House of Representatives in 1991 – the first independent candidate to enter Congress in 40 years.

By the time I encountered him, Sanders was seeking to defend his seat for the third time. The concert where we met was taking place in an old art-deco theatre in Brattleboro, perhaps the most hippiefied community in a state where tie-dye remains as ubiquitous as dairy herds. It was headlined by Pete Seeger, who ran through a panoply from his folk songbook to a packed crowd that knew all the words.

Ten years earlier, Mayor Sanders, a long-time admirer of Seeger, had recorded one of his songs, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone”, on a surreal folk/rap album. Now, he waited until Seeger had finished his set before taking the stage and, speaking in the only manner he seems to know – a gruff, shouted staccato – exhorted Vermonters to join him in the fight against Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole to stop the Republicans from taking over the presidency and the Senate. The response was rapturous. Sanders left the stage like a president concluding a State of the Union speech, gladhanding lines of admirers as he made his way out of the hall.

A few weeks later I met him again, this time at his congressional office in Washington, DC. On the wall of his office I spotted a plaque of Eugene Debs, who ran for Congress and the presidency on a socialist ticket, travelling to every part of the country on a train he called the Red Special and picking up 6 per cent of the popular vote in 1912, when he finished fourth, behind Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft.

Sanders had invited me to lunch and so we headed off through the underground passageway that leads from the office building to the congressional dining room. We were accompanied along the way by one of his assistants who, in true West Wing style, peppered him with questions and made notes on a clipboard as we walked. We had just started our food when John Kasich, then congressman for Ohio and now governor of the state and a contender for the Republican presidential nomination, wandered over for a chat. Despite Kasich’s reputation as a fiscal conservative, it was evident that he and Sanders had a cordial relationship, and indeed, Sanders invited him to join us for lunch.

It was difficult to reconcile these two contrasting snapshots of Sanders: the rousing air punch in Vermont and the bridge-building handshake in DC. But the more one looks into his career, the clearer it becomes that this dual approach is integral to his remarkable political ascent. Sanders plays it quite differently inside and out, but he plays both sides very hard.

“Bernie doesn’t see a contradiction between working within the system and campaigning to change it,” the journalist Matt Taibbi told me, recalling the time when he shadowed Sanders for several weeks in 2005 while researching a piece for Rolling Stone. “I remember one Thursday afternoon I made a snarky comment about members of the House already sneaking off home for a long weekend and how it seemed to me that many of them were pretty lazy. Bernie scolded me, insisting that most of the people in Congress work very conscientiously. He doesn’t believe the system functions for ordinary people, but he’s not cynical about it either.”

This point was reiterated by Heather Gautney, an associate professor of sociology at Fordham University in New York who previously worked as a researcher in Sanders’s Senate office. “Working with Bernie in DC, I realised what a difficult place it was for someone more interested in movement-building than passing legislation,” Gautney said. “But Bernie was known for getting substantial chunks of the Republican vote in Vermont and he used that same skill to connect with some pretty unlikely allies in Congress.”

Sanders’s legislative record is strikingly good. In the decade after the Republicans took over the House of Representatives in 1995 no other lawmaker attached more amendments to bills that were voted on. He achieved this by using his position as an independent to put together coalitions that spanned both of the main parties, and also by sheer hard work. In his Rolling Stone article, Taibbi describes Sanders waiting patiently for hours to table an amendment in the office of the House rules committee, “a tiny, airless closet deep in the labyrinth of the Capitol where some of the very meanest people on Earth spend their days cleaning democracy like a fish”.

Sanders’s method of working across party lines is not without its critics. Especially on the left, there are voices that wonder if the compromises that inevitably accompany playing the system in DC are too large. Many of Sanders’s positions on foreign policy have skewed towards the militarism and careless disregard for human rights that prevail among the Washington establishment. Although notably, and unlike Hillary Clinton, he opposed the initial vote on the Iraq War, Sanders voted for every bill that came before Congress to fund the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq. He has supported basing the new F-35 fighter plane at Burlington Airport in Vermont, despite widespread concern from residents about the environmental impact. And he did not oppose the Senate resolution that supported Israel’s attack on Gaza in 2014, which left as many as 2,200 Palestinians dead.

Sanders is clearly happier talking about problems inside the US than foreign policy. In his opening statement to last Saturday’s televised debate between the Democratic candidates, he segued awkwardly from condemning the attacks in Paris to excoriating America’s “rigged economy”. Yet on domestic issues, too, some of his stands have given progressives pause for thought: his opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-country trade agreement championed by Barack Obama, has always been grounded in an argument in favour of saving jobs for American workers, rather than any notion of international solidarity. His slowness in expressing support for the burgeoning Black Lives Matter movement, something which his campaign has latterly striven hard to correct, was less of a surprise to those aware of his consistent support for the police union while mayor of Burlington. And his position on guns (he voted against the Brady Bill, which mandated background checks on buyers of firearms) is the only area in which Clinton outflanks him to the left.

But perhaps the biggest issue for many progressives is Sanders’s decision to run for president through, rather than outside, the Democratic primary. Though he began his political career in the Liberty Union Party and has stood in every election since as an independent, he is, as Howard Dean, the progressives’ challenger in the Democratic primary of 2003/2004, put it, “basically . . . a Democrat . . . [who] votes with the Democrats 98 per cent of the time”.

As Sanders relates in Outsider in the House, faced in 1996 with the choice of backing Ralph Nader, “a personal friend and an exemplary progressive” running as an independent, or Bill Clinton, whose policies on health care, welfare reform, trade, gay marriage and military spending he sharply disagreed with, Sanders decided to “support” Clinton. “Perhaps ‘support’ is too strong a word,” he frets in the book. “I’m planning no press conferences to push his candidacy, and will do no campaigning for him. I will vote for him, and make that public.”

Sanders has called for a vote for the Democratic nominee in every presidential election since Jimmy Carter left office in 1981, and early this month, on ABC’s This Week, he appeared to have completed a long transition, asserting: “I am a Democrat now.”

This failure to build an electoral force outside the Democrats always leads to a dead end, according to Anthony Arnove, a prominent member of the International Socialist Organisation (ISO) who is also a publisher and literary agent representing a range of leftish writers, including Arundhati Roy. “We’ve seen it over and over,” Arnove said: “a left challenge fires up the base and is then defeated in the primaries by a centrist, or, more accurately, right-wing candidate, who goes on to betray everything those people were mobilised around.”

Sanders’s fundraising almost matched Clinton’s over the summer – in the third quarter they raised $26m and $28m, respectively – and in September he became the first candidate to attract more than a million individual donations. (The average donation to his campaign has been $30.) But his dip in the polls after Hillary’s strong performances in the first nationally televised primary debate, and then again at her House select committee hearing on the 2012 attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, suggests he will struggle to win the nomination. As of early November he trailed Clinton nationally by 25 points.

In Arnove’s view, Sanders “won’t get further than Super Tuesday [at the beginning of March], when he’ll direct his base to vote for Clinton. This is exactly how the Democrats become a graveyard for progressive politics, when what we desperately need are social movements that can remain independent of both establishment parties and push for their own agenda.”


The revolution to which Sanders often refers is a long way from the sort envisaged by Arnove’s ISO. He is pursuing a fairer capitalism, not its overthrow. “He’s not Trotsky,” as Taibbi put it to me. But there are those inside his campaign who think its primary focus should be building a grass-roots organisation capable of transcending the four-yearly coming together of presidential elections, to create a more permanent basis for a broad, progressive movement.

One such advocate is Adolph Reed, a writer and academic who is campaigning for Sanders in South Carolina. Working with local unions and Labor for Bernie Sanders 2016, which has 70,000 signed-up members, Reed sees the potential in using Sanders’s programme, with its emphasis on basic economic demands such as the minimum wage, universal health care and free college tuition, as a way of drawing together various groups campaigning around single issues such as housing and police racism.

For Reed, who is black, class trumps race as the key to building a movement. “In New Orleans everyone talked about Katrina as having a devastating effect on black people in the city, which of course it did. But when you analyse it, class was a much better predictor of who suffered most there,” he told me. The centre of a class-based movement, Reed argues, will have to be provided by the trade unions. “Despite the fashionability of protests without any specific demands or elected leaderships, no movement initiative is going to have staying power without being anchored in the trade unions.”

Recruiting the unions to work alongside Sanders’s campaign in the way Reed envisages isn’t easy. The American Federation of Teachers and the machinists’ union have already thrown in their lot with Hillary Clinton. And Richard Trumka, the president of the AFL-CIO (America’s national federation of trade unions), has warned individual unions against coming out for Sanders. But Reed can point to significant declarations of support, from postal workers and the National Nurses Union. The AFL-CIO chapters in Vermont and, more surprisingly, South Carolina have also backed his run.

“It’s important to keep Bernie in the race for as long as possible, but the ultimate objective is to develop structures that can continue beyond the election,” Reed said. “It’s premature to say what this network will look like, but Bernie’s campaign provides an important boost to putting it in place.”


From Jesse Jackson to Dennis Kuci­nich to Howard Dean, an array of people’s champions has made a splash in the recent history of Democratic presidential primaries. None, however, has been as explicitly critical of capitalism (or so gruff about it) as Bernie Sanders. His no-nonsense, class-based politics are a measure of how the disenchantment with the ideology of a free market that arrived like a train in the 1980s and ran off the rails in 2008 is now finding its way into the mainstream.

Up until now, the critical moments of left advance in America – the Seattle WTO protests, the anti-war movement, Occupy Wall Street, the campaign for gay rights and, today, Black Lives Matter – have occurred outside electoral politics. There are a couple of good reasons for this. The US electoral system, like Britain’s, makes third-party challenges extraordinarily difficult. And inside the Democratic Party these movements would have been crushed by a conservative leadership around the Democratic National Committee, put in place by Bill Clinton.

One result is a paucity of new progressive voices inside the party. At a moment when, as Gramsci once put it, the old order no longer works but the new order has not yet been born, Sanders, with his New Deal politics and firebrand demeanour, seems not so much a successor to the old order as a throwback to a time that pre-dates it, when politicians spoke with conviction and the society they represented was less unfair. As such, he provides a staging post for a new progressive consciousness (according to a poll by Pew at the end of 2011, more Americans aged 18 to 29 would prefer to live under socialism than under capitalism) that is not yet sufficiently coherent to enter mainstream politics in its own right, either through a serious third-party challenge or the transformation of the Democratic Party.

As a middle-class white man, Sanders has been able to get a pass to promote bold positions that someone with a less privileged identity might have found hard to sell. And his age, paradoxically, has proved not to be a disadvantage with a youthful constituency dismayed by the surrender to expedience that disfigures so much of contemporary American politics. His record has been constant over such a long period that, again like Jeremy Corbyn, he can be relied on not to sell out. Though his politics are less radical, his venerability provides a messianic cloak from the same closet as the one worn by Noam Chomsky, another hero for many young progressives.

So it’s not just today’s professionally polished politicians to whom Sanders presents a stark contrast. Recent progressive movements have embraced an identity politics that was much less prevalent when Sanders started out back in 1970s Vermont. In order to forge the sorts of alliances that are necessary to mount a credible challenge on the national political stage, they will likely have to borrow extensively from his unifying class politics. But their leadership will be younger, blacker, less straight and less masculine than Sanders. In that sense, he represents the last hurrah for the old white guy.

Colin Robinson is co-publisher at OR Books (, based in New York

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror