The Inadvertent Curse Of Abundant Natural Resources (I)

Mon, 15 Nov 2010 Source: Baidoo, Philip Kobina

When I was in my first year at secondary school my history teacher, a fine gentleman, who left an indelible mark on my thinking processes, posed an unplanned question to capture the attention of a disruptive class, perhaps, to get us thinking. ‘Why is it that Africans are poor and the Europeans are very rich,’ he said. The whole class was caught by the wrong foot. As we tried to make sense of the question with our very feeble and malleable minds, it was the bush that suffered and we were unable to come up with any sensible answer in retrospect. However, I remember one of my mates saying that its because they have technology, which was a first grade answer judging from our ages then. How did they get their technology our teacher countered? So the whole exercise stalled at the old question of the egg and the chicken, which came first. Finally, our teacher ended up answering his own question. His simple answer was necessity. Since that time the question has always bugged me and it’s been an endless quest to find the soul of that illusive answer, which keeps receding whenever I get closer.

Of late the sort of lamentations that dominates Ghanaian discourse and journals have burdened me to straighten out certain misconceptions that is muddying up the waters, possibly, unduly sapping our energy. It is obvious that after 53 years of national life we’ve not got much to show for and it eats up a lot of people who are impatient. Especially, when they think about the fact that we have rich soil, abundant deposits of minerals, adequate water resources, beautiful vegetation, lush forest, a rich coastline, which has recently yielded oil and above all wonderful sunshine all year round, which should serve as a recipe for prosperity. It, therefore, beggars the imagination to think that with all these resources there are a lot of people in the country who live on less than a dollar a day or go to bed clenching their stomach. Our lack of development, which is a function of the way we think, feel, perceive and conduct the necessary negotiation with our environment led to some of the sages of the European enlightenment or renaissance, notable among them David Hume, Voltaire etc., to conclude that black people are incapable of using their brains. It is a perception that lingered on until the midway of twentieth century to prove the fallacy of that belief.

Nevertheless, the questions that still saturates the minds a lot of Ghanaian thinkers are why with all the abundant natural resources we are not flourishing? What is the stumbling block? Has it got to do with a deficiency in our cerebral cortex like David Hume and his contemporaries’ thought? Is it lack of hard work? Some people even go to the realms of the spirit to contemplate the possibility of a curse. Not too long ago a so-called Ghanaian prophet suggested that Ghana is going to face four years of hardship implying a curse – a cunning prophet playing on the fear of the people. Obviously, I laughed my head off when I read that especially, the comments that accompanied it. I realised then that the need for this piece has never been quite so tangible. Perhaps, to help stabilise our psychic bartered by impotence in the face of dizzying technological progress. I, therefore, humbly submit based on my own observation and studies that the fact that we had, and still have, so much natural resources is the limiting factor to our scientific and technological development. So in this article and the subsequent series I will try to answer the question why we are poor and analyse if there is a hope for the future.

On the outset let us look at the most important natural resource in the world – the sun, the ultimate life giver, which gives energy to plants to produce the food and the vital elements we need, is limited in supply in the European countries for six months of the year. During the absence of the sun for the greater part of the six-month, the shortfall in the Sun’s energy due to the tilting of the earth on its axis, unleashes harsh climatic conditions that cripple their economic activities and social life. Sometimes, the extreme harsh physical conditions they had to endure were beyond description. The Christmas carol with the lyric ‘earth stood hard as iron water like a stone’ is not just a mere poetic language. It captures the reality of the tough conditions during the winter period when this beautiful lyric was written. Mind you, do not picture winter from a modern perspective. Get your imagination back to the Middle Ages when they didn’t have the cars, trains, buses, aeroplanes the high-tech homes with the central heating systems etc., and you will know what I am driving at. It is inconceivable now to think about the cessation of hostilities during a war in the winter months but this was the norm in the European war theatre, undoubtedly, to mitigate the untold paralysis of such enterprise in a tough and unrelenting milieu. Under such environment a European had no option than to plan exceptionally well to survive, else he die of starvation or the cold. When you read the Augustan histories there were times in his life that the cold weather became so unbearable he couldn’t even grab a pen to sign documents of state. And I am writing here about a ruler of the greatest empire of antiquity.

So when you are faced with such hardships year in and year out you must be an animal to leave your survival based on genetic coded instincts rather than a well thought out logical planning to deliver a desired end. And the latter was the only option opened to the Europeans, which has produced a monolithic thought processes that delivers the wonderful technologies we enjoy today. However on the sub-Saharan region where we have moderate temperatures all year round it delivers calm transition from one season to the other both at the sun rise and sun set of every year. As a result food, which is the most important thing in the sustenance of human life can be harvested all year round. Giving such clockwork of natural precision of provision the tendency of complacency, indolent and cancerous procrastination cannot be overemphasised. The stimulation of the human mind comes about either by learning or through hardship. Once nature cocoons the mind in its endless provision and the concept of learning is limited to a clique of linguist bred on oral tradition in the comfort of a royal household the mind regress into a literal vegetative state with no power to deliver. And that explain one of the reason for our sorry state.

Now for those who may doubt the centre piece of my thesis, I would like to furnish them with an example of a society that happens to come from the same European stock and inhabit the same country but different climatic conditions similar to the differences between Europe and black Africa. Though America is well developed there is a significant disparity in their development. The northern region where the climate is cold is much more developed than the south with moderate temperatures. Currently, to an outsider, it will appear that the whole of America is developed but it’s not. To really get a picture of the jelly I am pushing up the hill, it is best to cast our net to antebellum American south when slavery was in full swing. Slavery, which should have made them richer, was rather the opposite it more or less impoverished the southern economy. The northern part of the country notably New England was far richer than the south in wealth, technology and intellectual pursuit. It is somewhat anachronistic to describe the south with the adjective rich vis-à-vis the north. A more appropriate word will be poor. The cotton gin, which transformed the Deep South and increased their economic prospects, was invented by a northerner Eli Whitney Jr. Though the south was comparatively an agrarian society only 9 out of the 62 patents for agricultural implements of the era were accredited to southern inventors the rest went to the northerners. Why? Because the cold climate of the north provides conditions that engender hard thinking in order to survive unlike the south.

On the other hand, the current relatively across the board 21st century level of development of what many people, erroneously, perceive as the American juggernaut might spawn an idle doubt in some of my readers. However, it is very important to note that technology feeds on itself. The rapid development of the rest of America came about as result of modern communication and transportation technologies, i.e. the train, a technology borrowed from Britain and the telephone. The introduction of the train was more than a revolution in transportation. A journey that took days could now be made in a couple of hours. Consequently the combination of this dual technology integrated the country and had a multiplier effect on its economy. The dynamic effect of these two world changing technology speeded up the transfer of the requisite technology and capital to every nook and cranny of the country. For people who lived in pre-civil war America, it was similar to travelling to space – a feat that can only be accomplished by people who are super rich, and it set them on course to become the super power of the modern world.

Philip Kobina Baidoo Jnr



Columnist: Baidoo, Philip Kobina