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What is the Resource Curse and How Can Natural Resources Lead to Violence?

This analysis highlights the various theories linking resources to conflict. Two major perspectives stand out: (1) a surplus or a lack of natural resources can directly lead to violent conflict; and (2) there is no connection between resources and conflict. Below, the author highlights three common triggers that maintain the relationship between oil and violent conflict.

  • Motive- Natural resources trigger violent conflict by introducing a motive for various parties to fight. In most cases, the presence of oil or other natural resources increase the opportunity for monetary and political gains. This motive can be seen on the national level through disagreement over the control, production or profit of the resource, the subnational level when a particular oil-producing region of a state demands more autonomy or representation in the central government, and on the international level where conflict over a nation’s resources sprout from the vested interests of international actors (for an example of international motive, see the Oil Above Water analysis).
  • Opportunity- Natural resources can trigger violence by providing opportunity, especially in the case of armed rebellion. This is seen as an increased financial opportunity for rebel groups trading or selling seized resources to maintain their rebellion. Opportunity can also be seen through strategic military targets. Rebel groups can focus their attacks on areas that transport or process natural resources, thus crippling the central government and providing additional sources of income or bargaining chips to the rebels.
  • Vulnerability- Natural resources can increase the vulnerability of countries on the economic, social and political level. Economic vulnerability can be seen through a developed resource-dependence or a state ignoring other economic sectors and solely focusing on their natural resources. This leaves other sources of income, such as manufacturing and industry, weak and uncompetitive. Once economic disparity is tied to resources, public services suffer which can lead to violent conflict. Vulnerability is also witnessed through the decline of a country’s social and political institutions. A surplus of resource wealth often leads to oversight and corruption, leaving the state with a weak bureaucracy and social institutions. Weak states are more susceptible to rebellion due to their failure to provide adequate social programs and their lack of control over their territory—leading to resource rich targets that can be easily looted or controlled by a rebelling force.

There only is partial support for these triggers. This study suggests that this void is largely due to the uniqueness of each conflict scenario, which stresses the importance of understanding the social context of the conflict when conducting these types of studies.

In this particular study, the authors explore various factors that may trigger a relationship between violent conflict and oil. Their research focused on four oil-producing countries with comparable levels of natural resources that experienced various levels of violent conflict: Venezuela (least violence), Iran (moderate violence), Nigeria (moderate violence) and Algeria (most violence). This selection process allowed them to identify any of the above resource related triggers and see if patterns appeared to help explain the respective countries’ levels of violence.

The results of the research showed that none of the above triggers were able to fully explain why the countries experienced different levels of violence. However, two important findings emerged:

  • The above-mentioned Motive trigger was supported though discovering Venezuela (the least violent country in the case study) also possessed the lowest levels of motivation. This finding shows that violence is directly related to the presence of financial motivation found in natural resources.
  • Governments were particularly vulnerable when their people organize into a unified, ideologically motivated opposition movement. When the studied governments were unable to address the economic grievances of their people, mass violence occurred in all of the examined case studies.

Although still unable to determine the exact causes of resource-conflict, this study shows additional correlations between natural resources and other factors that are assumed to lead to violent conflict. The authors provide an important overview of triggers that are most commonly associated with the resource-conflict link, which are valuable to keep in mind whenever we reflect on this dynamic relationship.


The authors’ finding suggesting violence breaks out when a government fails to address the economic grievances of its people was a contributing factor to the Arab Spring uprisings, most notably Libya & Syria.

Talking Points

  • Violence is likely to occur when a regime fails to address the economic grievances of a unified, ideologically motivated opposition movement.
  • The conflict-oil link can be partly explained by three main triggers: motive, opportunity & vulnerability.
  • The economic advantage of controlling the access and supply of a state or region’s natural resources has been proven to cause conflict.

Practical Implications

In order to avoid violent conflict, government regimes should be encouraged to address the grievances of their people, especially in the case of an organized opposition movement. The authors organize and make available the three main causal mechanisms linking oil to violence. Practitioners of violence prevention and peacebuilding can continue to examine these mechanisms, gain useful insights into the various causes of conflict, and develop mechanisms for prevention and disruption.


Key Terms: The Resource Curse suggests that a country or region with an abundance of natural resources tends to experience less economic and social development than those without a surplus of resources.

Key Words: violent conflict, causes of conflict, resource curse, resource conflict, oil wars

Citation: Basedau, M., Mähler, A., & Shabafrouz, M. (2014). Drilling Deeper: A Systematic, Context-Sensitive Investigation of Causal Mechanisms in the Oil–Conflict Link. Journal of Development Studies, 50(1), 51-63.


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