The Resource Curse, Colonialism, and The Hypocrisy of Western “Climate Leadership”

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Introduction: Is Colonialism still in the Atmosphere?

Western countries are often hypocrites, especially when it comes to climate change mitigation. As the world works to curb emissions and tackle climate change, many Western countries, including the U.S., Britain, France, and Germany, are investing in green energy sectors across African countries attempting to promote green infrastructure and sustainable development goals (SDGs).

This investment is being done through national governments, the United Nations, and international financial institutions like the World Bank, the European Commission, European Investment Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. While this energy assistance is essential, the idea that this investment makes Western countries “leaders” in the renewable energy sector is ironic: Western countries contribute most to carbon emissions, consume the most global energy when imports are considered, and the extractive industries in many of these African countries were set up by Western countries.

Interestingly, the non-Western countries that contribute most to carbon emissions are production-based countries that export products mostly to Western countries.  When the energy used to produce products being exported is subtracted from countries that produce the goods and that energy use and consumption is added to those that import products, the consumption-based energy use is astonishing: the U.S. and Europe remain the largest net importers of energy with average net offshoring of energy being 10 to 15 percent of domestic energy.

The other large contributors to carbon emissions, including China and India, are large energy exporters to said Western countries. History is not different.  Oftentimes, colonial powers set up extractive models in African countries that were designed to transfer resources from colonies to the colonizing country for utilization. Today, Western countries outsource the production of goods that they consume similar to the ways in which they extracted resources from African countries for at-home consumption during colonialism. Outside of subjecting individuals to brutal working conditions, slavery, and egregious segregation policies, this colonial history laid the foundation for the extractive models that still exist across African economies today.

This article will briefly outline the idea of the resource curse. It will then delve into the extractive sectors set up by European colonial powers across five African countries by touching upon the industries set up and the continued connection between Western countries and African minerals and exports. It will then broadly outline the impact this colonial history has had on the development and security outcomes across the same African countries. The article concludes that it is imperative that Western countries should invest in non-Western research and development institutions, bolster national green energy transitions, and begin calculating national emissions by including the energy imported and consumed.

The Resource Curse

Having abundant natural resources can make it challenging for countries to diversify economies. The resource curse, or the paradox of plenty, posits that resource-rich countries often do worse economically, have reduced human rights outcomes, and are more apt to authoritarianism and conflict.

Political scientists observe that leaders in resource-rich countries rely more on large revenues from natural resources rather than taxes from citizens. When citizen participation in government spending is limited (due to no or low taxes), citizens are often less concerned with government spending and the government is less concerned with transparency and accountability.

Since economic power in resource-rich countries is tied to natural resources, fighting to control these resources is often observed. According to the National Resource Governance Institute, oil-producing countries are two times as likely to have civil war since 1990. Additionally, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) observes that over 50 percent and 20 percent of government revenues are in petroleum-rich and mining countries, respectively.

When countries rely on natural resources for the bulk of their economies, it is challenging for such economies to cope with price fluctuations and a reliance on natural resource exports in an economy can contribute to inflation and exchange rate appreciation. When economies are dependent on one resource and the resource becomes less valuable the economy can collapse.

Orienting a country’s economy around resource extraction gives little motivation to invest in human capital and education and could, as a result, lead to less innovation. Economic diversification and investment in human capital are essential for the economic resilience and stability of countries. This extractive model focused on resource extraction was utilized by colonial regimes across Africa and continues to impact the development outcomes of African countries today.

Brief Survey of Extractive Colonialism Across African Countries

When Britain annexed Lagos, Nigeria in 1851, the Imperial British East Africa Company established palm oil plantations and mineral extraction sites across Nigeria for the needs of the British populace. During this colonial period, British companies explored and discovered Nigerian oil resources. Similarly, Portugal set up railways in Mozambique to transport coal and other minerals to coastal ports to export for consumption in Europe. Germany’s East Africa Company set up rubber plantation and extraction sites and coffee plantations for export to Europe across Tanzania, Rwanda, and Burundi (this article with a focus on Tanzania for brevity). Belgium set up large crop plantations and extensive mineral extraction hubs in the mineral-rich Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The French colonial regime developed palm oil production and plantations in the now climate fragile Niger. Many African countries did not gain independence from colonial powers until the early to mid-1960s or later. Today, Western countries, including the U.S., continue to utilize minerals mined across Africa.

These five colonial ventures led by five different European colonial powers continue to have a lasting economic impact on the environment across the globe and in Africa. The same extractive models set up across the five mentioned African countries persist today. While some have diversified their economies, some economies remain reliant on extractive industries.

Extractive Models and Industries across Five African Countries that were the Former Colonial States


British companies began conducting oil exploration exercises across Nigeria in 1903. Eventually, British companies including Royal Dutch Shell Group and British Petroleum got involved in and dominated and influenced the sector until the 1990s. Today, oil revenues make up 80 percent of Nigeria’s exports. Its largest export destinations are India, Spain, the U.S., France, and Ghana. Shell and now Italy’s Eni oil companies continue to operate in Nigeria and have caused major environmental damage. In 2015, Shell paid a settlement of $83 million USD to Bodo villagers in Nigeria for its damage to the Niger Delta.

In 2018, 40 percent of Nigerians lived below the poverty line and at the start of the pandemic in 2020, Nigeria experienced its deepest recession in two decades when oil prices declined. The country’s economy remains highly dependent on oil revenues, lacks economic diversification, and its economic projections are bleak.


The Portuguese regime began controlling Mozambique and exporting its minerals including coal and ivory in 1897. After much resistance and fighting against the brutal occupation, Mozambique gained independence in 1975. Today, Mozambique has immense mineral resources and recently discovered natural gas resources. In 2018, a military insurgency began in Mozambique’s oil-rich Cabo-Delgado province and it continues today. According to the International Crisis Group, the insurrection is fueled by frustrations in government provision of resources to the populace despite having major natural resources. The economy of Mozambique is mostly dependent on revenues from mineral, petroleum products, and agricultural exports. Its largest trade partners are South Africa, India, and the Netherlands.

According to the World Bank, the economy is expected to grow in the medium-term though the country is extremely vulnerable to climate disasters and the extreme shifts caused by climate change. To support stronger governance and reduce insurgencies and enhance safety for civilians there are efforts to increase transparency on revenues from mineral exports and support a stronger provision of basic services to citizens.


Tanzania is one of the three East African countries where Germany’s East Africa Company established plantations and mineral extraction sites. Today, Tanzania is doing well economically compared to other countries in the region: in July 2020, Tanzania reached the status of a lower-middle-income country. Nevertheless, one million Tanzanians fell under the poverty line during the pandemic.

Today, Tanzania’s largest export is gold which comprises more than 30 percent of its exports, it also exports coffee, tobacco, and refined petroleum. China, India, the United Arab Emirates, and Switzerland are the most common destinations for its exports. In 2020, Tanzania’s major economic sectors are agricultural goods, mining, and services sectors – it is not plagued by a lack of economic diversification like other countries examined though mining and extraction remain a large component of its economy.

Democratic Republic of Congo

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is the largest country in Sub-Saharan Africa by area and is thought to be the most mineral-rich country in the world. DRC also has the third-largest population of people living below the poverty line in the world. Belgium’s colonial regime ruled the country from 1908 until 1960. After World War I, European and American investments in extensive mining and expansive rubber, cotton, and agricultural plantations across DRC. After years of resistance against the Belgian forces, the republic became independent in 1960 and its economy relied heavily on its mineral exports since its independence.

Mined minerals including copper, coal, uranium, gold, and diamonds make up 90 percent of DRC’s exports. It is noteworthy that the U.S. imported most of the uranium used in the Manhattan Project during World War II from the DRC. Currently, manufacturing is quite limited in DRC and a vast majority of the population works in agriculture. The most common destinations for DRC’s exports are China, United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia. Interestingly, Belgium remains one of DRC’s largest import partners: in 2019, Belgium exported $362 million USD to DRC.

In recent years, the DRC has been experiencing dramatic agricultural fires caused by dry conditions, logging, small-scale agricultural forest clearing. Since 2000, DRC has experienced an 8 percent tree cover loss and is experiencing major deforestation across its humid tropical forest. This is worrying since the Congo Basin Forest is the second-largest rainforest in the world and is a major carbon sink. The loss of this incredible forest will be catastrophic for communities dependent on the forest and will contribute substantially to carbon emissions.


Niger is a landlocked country in the Sahel that is extremely vulnerable to climate shocks. In 2020, 42.9 percent of the country’s population, more than 10 million people, were living in poverty. French colonial forces were present in Niger from the late 1890s until its independence in 1960. During the French colonial rule, French forces established numerous plantations across Niger.

Today, France, China, and United Arab Emirates are the largest trading partners of Niger. Its largest export is uranium though it also exports substantial cement and brick. Its economic sectors include agriculture, services, and industry. Like other countries mentioned, its manufacturing capacity remains meager while the country relies heavily on extractive industries to fuel its economy. The country is experiencing major challenges due to persistent climate shocks and security issues with armed groups along its borders with Nigeria, Burkina Faso, and Mali. Niger is also grappling with the ongoing pandemic and is the home to more than 200,000 refugees and approximately 300,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs).

Climate Change and the Green Energy Transition: What Should be Done?

According to the African Development Bank Group (AfDB) seven of the ten countries most vulnerable countries to the devastating effects of climate change are African countries. The effects of climate change, both sudden- and slow- onset events, are already causing millions of internal displacements across the continent due to droughts and weather pattern shifts that are contributing to famine, water scarcity issues, and challenging agricultural communities across Africa. The World Bank Group (WBG) estimates in its most pessimistic projection that up to 85.7 million people could be internally displaced in sub-Saharan Africa due to climate change-induced events by 2050. The figures across the entire continent will likely be higher.

While Western countries should support the green economic transition and greater economic diversification in partner African countries, ultimately, the West needs to contribute less to global emissions. The West shouldn’t simply focus on making African countries green: Western countries are clearly culpable for instituting and orienting some countries around extractive practices and are continuing to fuel the demand for minerals and oil. Western countries should instead focus on transitioning away from fossil fuels and by investment in national green energy solutions, including relative cheap solutions (in the long-term) like solar and wind energy, to electrify national grids as outlined in Saul Griffith’s book Electrify.

Western countries should also lead the shift away from the net-zero rhetoric. However, this is highly unlikely given many campaigns like the IMF’s “Net Zero by 2050” campaign.  Net-zero does not consider emissions produced in supply chains or consumption of energy.  Some countries are simply outsourcing production overseas to “achieve” net-zero – this is not productive and contributes to the continued environmental exploitation of low- and middle-income countries. Some U.S. companies are also attempting to offset their carbon contribution and achieve net-zero by contributing to costly and impractical carbon sequestration projects, which will not work or be sufficient to curb emissions.

As evident by the sourcing of this article, Western countries continue to monopolize the common narrative about countries in Africa: Western institutions like the IMF and WBG remain the foundational institutions that provide research, provide economic data on countries, and provide large-scale projections on the future impacts of climate change. To diversify this space, there should be an increased financial investment in non-Western institutions that are led by African economists instead of dominated by Western ones. Finally, Western countries cannot continue simply outsourcing production and energy needs to reduce their net contribution to global carbon emissions: this will not help us mitigate the climate crisis or support African climate resilience in the long term. In short, while continued investment in renewable energy across African countries will not remedy the past or improve the credibility of former imperial and colonial states, it should be done since Western countries have directly contributed to the current extractive models that exist and subsequently have a moral obligation to invest in green energy solutions and support governments across the globe to ameliorate the associated issues.

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