"Raw Mmaterials wealth the population must also benefit"

Inhuman resources and how to make them human

Does natural resource wealth cause poverty? No, says Angolan author Jose Eduardo Agualusa. Not if you invest in people.

I am Angolan and I grew up hearing about Angola's immense wealth. The country is one of the biggest oil producers in Africa and the world's fourth largest source of diamonds. During the colonial era Angola was also one of the world's biggest coffee producers.

Travelling around Angola as a child, however, I realised that most other children had no shoes. After independence in 1975, the situation improved a little and nowadays most Angolans wear shoes. In spite of war and poor governance, tens of thousands of Angolans have also managed to study and are now financially better off than their parents. And yet, poverty still reigns.

'Angola's problem is oil' is another adage I got used to hearing. Blaming poverty on wealth – namely, hidden wealth and overt poverty – always seemed a naive argument to me, even a bit patronising. Rich countries are just like rich people. They can choose to use their wealth wisely – both for themselves and those around them – or they can squander it. It is safe to say that an educated and informed person who suddenly becomes rich – because they discover hidden treasure in their attic, say – will be in a better position to manage their new fortune than an illiterate person. As such, Norway was decades ahead of Angola when it discovered oil and it is therefore not surprising that it has been better able to benefit from this resource.

A country without resources but with democratic and good government is able, despite its resource deficiencies, to find original solutions to its problems. As the old saying goes 'necessity is the mother of invention.' And in some ways, this is what is happening in Cape Verde. Suppose the Cape Verdeans were to discover oil. I reckon they would make good use of this wealth, investing it like Denmark does in long-term plans and in human resources.

An anecdote that is very well known throughout the Portuguese-speaking world tells of the time that God, putting the finishing touches to his new world, surveyed the many beauties of the territories nowadays called Brazil and Angola and became besotted with these corners of his new creation. And so he began bestowing these lands with riches: handfuls of diamonds, tons of gold, immense oil fields. One of God's angels, concerned at the spectacle, intervened: 'My Lord, look here, this is not right. Angola and Brazil are already handsomely endowed with innumerable gifts: year-round sunshine, unbounded forests, beautiful birds, fabulous beaches. These lands suffer neither earthquake nor tsunami nor hurricane. Adding such an immense wealth of natural resources to these already most fortunate lands... well, it just doesn't seem fair at all.' God looked at him, smiled and then burst out laughing. 'You are right,' He said. 'But just look whom I'm sending to colonise them.' If, instead of colonisers (in this case the Portuguese), we simply think about people, about human resources, this anecdote sums up much of what I have written above: that whatever the country, the most important thing is its people. Converting mineral resources into human resources is, at the end of the day, the key to fair and sustainable development. Accordingly, Angola's overt poverty has nothing to do with its hidden wealth. Angola never had democracy, and dictatorships rarely result in stable, wise and just government.

One of the lessons to learn from the recent democratic revolutions in North Africa is that democracies tend to be more stable and trustworthy than dictatorships. Supporting Third World dictators, as Western democracies have been wont to do the in name of realpolitik, may not actually be such a good idea these days. Even putting aside moral arguments and focusing solely on immediate economic issues, it seems obvious to me that the increasing democratisation of information brought about by new technologies does not favour dictatorship. Western democracies should take this into account. It is safer and, in the medium term, cheaper to support emerging democracies and the democratic forces active in countries subject to dictatorial rule, than to put money into the hands of despots.

Author: José Eduardo Agualusa, Angolan author.
The article was first published in the GIZ magazine akzente, issue 04/2011.