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Afghanistan's Mineral Wealth: An End to Problems, or the Beginning of New Ones?

Afghanistan is one of the poorest nations on the earth, where the income per capita is only $446 per year. So when the US Department of Defense announced that Afghanistan may be holding more than a trillion dollars of mineral wealth under its soil, the future prospects of Afghanistan suddenly seemed a little brighter.  Some have even stated that Afghanistan could be the Saudi Arabia of minerals.


Great news, right? Not necessarily. First and foremost, Afghanistan will have to stabilize to even attract foreign investors. According to the UN Conference on Trade and Development, Afghanistan, with a population of 27.2 million people, saw $300 million in foreign direct investment in 2008. That might sound like a lot, but Trinidad and Tobago, a much smaller country of only 1.3 million  inhabitants attracted over $3 billion in that same year. Even if foreign countries and businesses eventually decide to heavily invest in Afghanistan (and that’s a big if) some examples from around the world show that an abundance of natural resources can create a lot of problems. These problems are often referred to as “the resource curse”. Nowhere is the resource curse more evident than in Africa.


Nigeria’s resource curse is synonymous with its oil problems. Nigeria’s political instability and history of systematic corruption has left much of its oil wealth concentrated in the hands of the few. Rather than being a force for development throughout the country, Nigeria’s oil wealth has far too often fallen prey to government mismanagement or worse - outright graft. Corruption isn’t Nigeria’s only oil problem. Rebel groups in the oil rich Niger River Delta resent both the government and foreign oil companies who ignore the environmental and social problems that come with drilling. Throughout the years, these rebel groups have kidnapped foreign oil workers, and attacked oil rigs making investment by foreign countries less attractive.

 

Elsewhere on the continent, the mining of diamonds have fueled deadly conflicts and activities of warlords throughout Africa. Charles Taylor, who faces charges of war crimes at The Hague, used diamond exports to fund his support of insurgency groups in Sierra Leone while he was the president of Liberia. Thankfully, the practice appears to be on the decline due to sanctions by the UN, increased international visibility, and a conflict-free diamond certification process.


While these problems may sound unique to a continent continually ravaged by war and prone to corruption, they also exist in abundance in Afghanistan. It’s not hard to imagine mineral wealth squandered by an already corrupt Afghan government. It’s equally easy to see a future in which minerals are used to fund tribal conflicts or even aid terror groups. It would be wonderful to believe that mineral wealth could create jobs, raise the standard of living, and solve many of Afghanistan’s problems. But in its current state, it may be more likely that the minerals would just create new ones.

 

 
 

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