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Oil to Cash: Fighting the Resource Curse through Cash Transfers
This work has now concluded.
Natural resources and the income they generate can stifle development by undermining the relationship between citizens and their state. In a series of papers and a book, CGD’s Todd Moss proposed oil-to-cash—direct distribution of resource revenues—to encourage a “social contract” in resource-rich countries. The income generated by resource extraction can be distributed directly to citizens and then taxed by governments. With a personal stake in the government’s budget, the citizens could then hold the government accountable for providing goods and services with their taxes.
Todd Moss proposes that countries seeking to manage new natural resource wealth should consider distributing income directly to citizens as cash transfers. Beyond serving as a powerful and proven policy intervention, cash transfers may also mitigate the corrosive effect natural resource revenue often has on governance.
Next week, President Obama, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, and other global leaders will meet with Sudanese leadership to discuss the upcoming referendum. The stakes are huge. In January, southern Sudanese will vote on whether to secede and launch a new, independent country. It’s hard to imagine them not supporting the breakaway vote given their decades’ long fight for independence. Roughly 2 million people died in that struggle. The multi-million dollar question is – what will Khartoum do? Will they let the referendum happen? Will it be fair and transparent? If so, will they respect the results? The meeting next week will grapple with these critical issues.
This paper argues for approaches that increase public understanding of the need for prudent spending of oil revenues in booms, and for comprehensive consideration of a range of options for using rents. Drawing on the experience of a few successful countries, it points to a number of common factors that seem to be important in enabling countries to obtain a positive payoff from resource wealth. These include a strong concern for social stability and growth, a capable and engaged technocracy, and interests in the non-oil sectors able to act as agents of restraint.
Nigeria, perhaps the world’s poster child for the oil curse, is the latest country to deploy a sovereign wealth fund as a tool to try to better manage national income. At the same time, Nigeria is struggling with depleted savings and growing fiscal concerns, even in a time of high oil prices. Will the sovereign wealth fund help Nigeria get back on track? What are the chances it won’t be raided by politicians with short-time horizons, as in the past? Could cash transfers help? Two new background papers from CGD’s Oil2Cash Initiative look at these questions from different perspectives.
Last Sunday the government of Nigeria scrapped fuel subsidies, leading to an immediate doubling of petrol prices. This set off violent protests across the country, threats of strikes by trade unions, and was even lamented by western pundits as a sign of government indifference to the poor. Economists of course view the move as a valiant step toward fixing a deeply dysfunctional budget system. Fuel subsidies were (directly and indirectly) draining the treasury, at a cost of up to US$8bn per year, equivalent to over 25% of the federal budget.
The rub will be if the government can make the case that there’s a better way to spend its resources than through fuel subsidies. Nigerian protesters could be forgiven for being skeptical. Many see cheap gas as the only tangible benefit from their country’s vast oil wealth.