17 January 2010

Articles: Does Oil Hinder Democracy?

Here an influential article that studies the impact of countries' natural resource wealth on democracy and democratization processes, claiming that natural resources have "antidemocratic properties" – "oil and mineral wealth tends to make states less democratic": Michael L. Ross, "Does Oil Hinder Democracy?" ("World Politics", 53 [3], April 2001: pp. 325-61).

From the abstract: "Some scholars suggest that the Middle East's oil wealth helps explain its failure to democratize. This article examines three aspects of this 'oil impedes democracy' claim. First, is it true? Does oil have a consistently antidemocratic effect on states, once other factors are accounted for? Second, can this claim be generalized? Is it true only in the Middle East or elsewhere as well? Is it true for other types of mineral wealth and other types of commodity wealth or only for oil? Finally, if oil does have antidemocratic properties, what is the causal mechanism? The author uses pooled time-series cross-national data from 113 states between 1971 and 1997 to show that oil exports are strongly associated with authoritarian rule; that this effect is not limited to the Middle East; and that other types of mineral exports have a similar antidemocratic effect, while other types of commodity exports do not."

The article can be read free of charge here:


Excerpt: "The test also implies that oil and mineral wealth cause greater damage to democracy in poor countries than in rich ones [...]. This pattern is consistent with the observation that large oil discoveries appear to have no discernible antidemocratic effects in advanced industrialized states, such as Norway, Britain, and the U.S., but may harm or destabilize democracy in poorer countries. [...]

"Moreover, [...] a given rise in oil exports will do more harm in oil-poor states than in oil-rich ones. Hence, oil inhibits democracy even when exports are relatively small, particularly in poor states."

On his website, Michael Ross also provides the preliminary draft of a 2009 working paper titled "Oil and Democracy Revisited":


Abstract: "Recent studies have disputed the claim that 'oil hinders democracy,' or raised questions about the causal mechanisms behind it. I re-examine this question, using an improved measure of petroleum wealth, and a dataset that covers all countries from 1960 to 2002. I also explore other types of evidence on oil and authoritarian rule, including data on public opinion and gasoline prices. The results suggest a) oil wealth strongly inhibits democratic transitions in authoritarian states; b) oil's anti-democratic effects seem to vary over time and across regions; and c) there is little support for most of the alleged causal mechanisms, including two of the three mechanisms suggested by Ross [2001]."

Excerpt: "[According to the World Values Survey] Oil Income is strongly and negatively correlated with a less favorable view of democracy. The pattern can be seen in [...] the fraction of respondents in each country that agreed, or strongly agreed, with the statement supporting democracy. [...] This pattern holds across regions of the world: in Africa, Latin America, the Middle East and North Africa, and the Former Soviet Union, citizens in oil-rich states have less affection for democracy than citizens in oil-poor states".

This working paper also provides references to the most recent literature in the field.

An article of interest not mentioned by Ross, though, is Kevin M. Morrison, "Natural Resources, Aid, and Democratization: A Best Case Scenario" ("Public Choice", 131 [3-4], June 2007: pp 365-86). Here again a link to the full text:


Abstract: "Natural resources and aid give dictators revenue to maintain power. Attempts are being made, therefore, to funnel these resources away from nondemocratic governments and toward their citizens. Using formal analysis and building on existing theories of democratization, I analyze the effects of such institutional solutions when they function perfectly (the best-case scenario). The models show that even with institutional safeguards, these resources diminish chances for democratization. In addition to their practical importance, the results have an important theoretical implication: the political resource curse may not be due to dictators' use of these resources, but simply to their existence in nondemocracies."

Michael L. Ross is Professor in the Department of Political Science at UCLA and Director of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies.

Kevin M. Morrison is now an Assistant Professor in the Department of Government at Cornell University.

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