Issues in Interdisciplinarity 2020-21/Evidence in the Resource Curse and democratic instability in Africa


In this chapter, we explore how two disciplines rely on different types of evidence, which leads to contradicting conclusions on whether the "Resource Curse" is the main contributing factor to the continued democratic instability in Africa.

Countries by GDP (Nominal) in 2014

The economist Richard Auty introduced the idea of the “Resource Curse” and investigated countries that were rich in natural resources, but failed to grow economically.[1] The “curse” describes how these countries often experience increased secessionist conflicts, poverty and reduced GDP growth, and anti-democratic effects.[1] These components interact: authoritarian governments will be less able to resolve domestic conflicts, leading to an increased chance of conflict within the state; meanwhile, the reduced economic growth makes it harder to resolve such conflicts, and the impacts of conflict generate further economic chaos and decline.[2] The widespread effects of this vicious cycle impact many African states.[1]

Political scienceEdit

In political science, research on the "Resource Curse" and democratic instability has been focused on utilising quantitative evidence, such as statistical analyses and models.

In 2001, the political scientist Michael Ross performed a quantitative analysis to investigate whether oil impedes democracy. He used pooled time-series cross-national data from 113 states between 1971 and 1997 and considered how the two independent variables, Oil and Minerals, impacted the Regime of a country.[2] He used the control variables: Income, Islam, OECD membership, Regimet-5, and 26 dummy variables, which account for unique factors from each year such as the effects of the Cold War.[2] This study concluded that the oil-impedes-democracy claim is “both valid and statistically robust”.[2] Ross confirmed the validity of this conclusion with the support of his statistical evidence.

A review of the developments in evidence since Ross' study shows the widespread quantitative evidence which supports this claim.[3] Statistical models confirmed the relationship between natural resource wealth and political survival,[4] as well as this effect being dependent on the strength of the initial political power in place.[5] Following panel data analysis, the idea of a "conditional resource curse" was presented, providing evidence for the long term effect of oil wealth.[6] In 2012, Anderson and Ross responded to criticisms concerning the short timespan covered by the data in previous studies [7] by stating that oil wealth only began to have an anti-democratic effect in the 1980s, when developing country governments began to capture previously foreign-owned oil rents, thus accumulating wealth for themselves.[8]

Further studies have suggested that British colonialism has had a positive influence on democracy.[3] British rule was considered a “learning experience” for subsequent democracy,[9] due to the introduction of reforms that facilitated democracy such as bureaucratic structures or the rule of law.[3] Statistical analysis showed that there is a significant positive association between former colonial influence and democratic tendency, as well as countries with democratic historical backgrounds being less prone to democratic collapse.[3]


Map of European colonies and the modern African borders
A comparison of the distribution of ethnic groups in 1880 vs a map of European colonies after the Berlin Conference

In history, evidence is based on the analysis of primary and secondary sources.[10] This results in a narrative formed by particular historical events, thus the research methods and evidence produced are essentially qualitative.

Looking at qualitative evidence from the historical past of many African countries, we see that the natural resources of a state do not induce or inhibit political instability,[11] but rather the instability is a result of historical and cultural factors such as colonialism, ongoing conflicts, corruption[12] and economic recession.[13]

The ongoing conflict results from the differences of ancestral, religious, and language backgrounds between ethnic groups. Historical analysis of the General Act of the Berlin conference[14] shows that the dissimilarity within countries is owed to the “Scramble for Africa”,[15] in which 13 European nations drew arbitrary borders as seen in an attempt to keep one another’s colonies in check.[16] There was no acknowledgement of native African territories or ethno-regional factors (shown in the comparative maps).[15] This engendered conflicts,[17] as previously, dispersed communities had checks and balances to limit authoritarian power, but were then grouped together in an unprecedented environment of corruption and authoritarianism.[18] Furthermore, qualitative surveys have shown the long-term civil, economic and emotional consequences of ethnic partitioning.[15]

Oppressive colonial governments hindered the introduction of the values of democracy, by not holding elections [19] and creating a legacy of autocratic rule.[20] Imperialist regimes also made it hard for post-colonial rulers to establish authority democratically.[20] During the post-colonialist era, bureaucracies emerged, which worsened the negative impacts of pre-colonial clientelism.[11] As a result, post-colonial, modern bureaucracies transformed into neopatrimonial states.[21] In this context, the extraction of natural resources was principally directed to benefit the patrimonial rule in power (personalised state) under the cover of an impersonal bureaucratisation.[11] In consequence, the evidence highlights how, from a historical perspective, political instability has appeared as an inevitable outcome of inheriting a flawed system from colonial rule, which had a greater impact on political instability than oil wealth and the "Resource Curse".


Political Science generally maintains the view that oil wealth hinders democracy and supports this with statistical evidence, while History speculates that there are other factors to acknowledge, such as colonialism, supported by more qualitative evidence. While experts from each discipline will agree that both oil wealth and colonialism play a part, the conflict arises in the weighting of these factors as the different causes for Africa's political instability. This problem cannot be solved by simply comparing the evidence produced, because one approach offers a qualitative exploration of history whereas the other utilises a quantitative method of calculation, leading to a conflict in evidence.

Methods exist that attempt to quantify qualitative data by calculating the frequencies of particular themes from the set of data.[22] This quantification has benefits, such as ease of analysis, providing answers to questions such as “To what degree ...?”, and allowing some comparison with quantitative data.[23][24] However, it cannot be taken as the sole result of a qualitative investigation as it can undermine the impact of qualitative data [25], due to the differences in research methods and the data produced.

Understanding the main contributing factors to the continued democratic instability in Africa is important for creating a stable political environment, and so will be of interest to a number of parties.[3] However, the differing evidence on this topic may lead to contradictory findings and incompatible attempts to resolve the issue. Here, we have recognised that the conflicting opinions arise from different types of evidence in History and Political Science, which are quantitative and qualitative respectively, and thus inherently incomparable by nature. Although they cannot be compared directly, we hope this chapter stimulates discussion on how both can be incorporated in both the recognition and resolution of problems.


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