Human development is key to sustainable growth

Updated: 2013-11-01 07:06

By Ken Davies(HK Edition)

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Some of the poorest countries in the world are sitting upon a fortune in natural resources. Instead of squandering these overnight in a failed development attempt, they should follow Hong Kong - and the Chinese mainland's - examples of diversification and investment in human capital.

In 1841, British Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston dismissed Hong Kong as "a barren rock with nary a house upon it" that would never be "a mart for trade". How wrong he was. Unlike other British colonies, Hong Kong did indeed have no natural resources such as coal or gold. But it did, and still does, enjoy a tremendous locational advantage, which subsequent generations of entrepreneurs exploited to the hilt. It has also educated its people. This is a good example for all countries, even those endowed with rich natural resources.

Several of what international institutions call the least-developed countries and developing countries possess a wealth of undeveloped energy and mineral resources: coal, oil, gold, diamonds, metal ores or rare earths. When foreign corporations offer to exploit these, governments are tempted to see this as a way of increasing revenues so they can improve infrastructure and raise incomes.

Jeffrey Sachs, at Columbia University's Earth Institute in New York, strongly endorses this strategy, while seeking to minimize typical problems.

In his books and his public appearances, Sachs proposes solutions to the "resource curse", i.e., the process by which the foreign company, for example an oil major, retains most of the revenues from a large investment and leaves the local society largely untouched.

How to achieve this? He suggests that the companies be made to expand the facilities they create for their own use so that locals may also benefit from them.

The company needs to build a road to get its minerals to a port? Then let it build a wider and longer road that will allow farmers to expand their local market. The company builds a school for children of expatriate employees? Make it a bigger school that can educate local children.

This all sounds fine and dandy, but is it really the way to develop an economy and a society? I don't think so.

A major part of the resource curse is that resource-exploiting investments result in the smallest value-added for a poor country. They provide far fewer local jobs than the same dollar value of investments in manufacturing or services. The real money is in refining and processing, done overseas. And government revenues are often dwarfed by corrupt payments to leaders who put it into Swiss bank accounts.

So the "socially responsible" extras are mere crumbs off the table of foreign investors, and building bigger roads to ports benefits foreign economies more than local farmers.

More importantly, do you want a foreign company, which is not accountable to local voters, to decide your country's transport and education policies? Is that morally or politically acceptable? Do you know of any developed country that would allow this? Of course not. And who is to maintain the roads and run the schools when the oil has run out and the company is long gone?

Wholesale reliance on maximizing the offtake of natural resources is a recipe for environmental degradation, corruption, a wildly unbalanced economy, stagnation of potentially important industries when the currency appreciates as a result of massive resources exports (the "Dutch disease") - and ultimate impoverishment when these resources have been exhausted.

Am I suggesting these countries should stay poor by leaving these valuable materials in the ground? Absolutely not. But I am saying they should not sit back and expect the drillers and diggers to develop their economies.

The most important investment any country can make is in its own people. It builds, or allows and encourages others to build, human capital by providing healthcare and education to all its inhabitants. A healthy, educated workforce will attract investment, both foreign and local, in a wide range of activities, not all of them predictable, and most of them providing more jobs, than an oil well or an open-cast mine.

At the same time, governments should facilitate downstream investment in oil refineries, diamond cutting and similar processing operations, so that their countries can capture a higher share of value-added.

All this should be accomplished by positive means like retraining, competition policy and increasing investment openness, not by disastrous methods like central planning or industry policy, which destroy initiative and creativity - just what a poor economy needs.

Environmental impact assessments of natural resource exploitation projects (whether by foreign or local firms) should be rigorous, transparent and accountable to minimize external diseconomies that subtract from the social value of such investments.

The author was senior economist at the Vale Columbia Center on Sustainable International Investment under Columbia Law School and the Earth Institute at Columbia University in New York from 2010 to 2011.

Human development is key to sustainable growth

(HK Edition 11/01/2013 page9)