The Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy and the Social Sciences

RLF Recap: The "Resource Curse" with Rockefeller Center Director Andrew Samwick

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This ongoing series explores sessions of the Rockefeller Leadership Fellows (RLF) program. RLF provides fellows with resources in leadership theories and practical skills. Selected their Junior Spring, these Seniors take part in the workshops, dinner discussions, and team-building exercises as they gain a better understanding of the qualities and responsibilities necessary for leaders and successful leadership styles.

The Rockefeller Leadership Fellows were most recently visited by the director of the Rockefeller Center, Andrew Samwick. In addition to leading the Center, Professor Samwick is the Sandra L. and Arthur L. Irving Professor of Economics at Dartmouth. From 2003 to 2004 he served as the chief economist on the President’s Council of Economic Advisers. After I introduced him, Professor Samwick joked that he needed to update his bio to reflect an area of focus I had left out–his new-found interest in social entrepreneurship.

The Rockefeller Leadership Fellows recently enjoyed a session on the "resource curse" with Andrew Samwick, Director of the Rockefeller Center.

The bulk of Professor Samwick’s time with us was spent analyzing what is known in economics as the "resource curse." The resource curse describes the surprisingly negative experience of nations who find themselves rich in natural resources. They often lag behind other nations in many economic categories, most notably GDP per capita. What, Professor Samwick asked, is behind the resource curse? And how do we avoid it?

To elucidate the causes and potential solutions, Professor Samwick scanned the room for volunteers, threatening to cold-call the economics majors if no one stepped up. Eventually we came to the understanding that the best way forward, and indeed the hardest way forward, for a country that stumbles upon natural resources is to find a way to invest it in each of their citizens. Rather than pay citizens or invest in infrastructure, one student suggested governments invest the proceeds in education. Professor Samwick smiled–he thought that was exactly right.

As we wrapped up the session, Professor Samwick took us in a different direction. He asked us to ponder the resource curse, or the "paradox of plenty," in the context not of countries but institutions. He also pushed us to consider whether we as individuals experience paradoxes of plenty. An example one student suggested was that of the friend we all knew or still know—the friend who is so talented that he develops bad academic habits, eventually under-performing his less talented friends.

For me and for many fellows with whom I spoke, the session brought out the challenge of complexity in leadership. Even when we appear to have a natural advantage, the advantages themselves can become liabilities over time. In order to prevent this, leaders must not just be prudent. Instead, they must proactively take difficult or even painful steps to keep their organizations innovative.

-Written by Max Gottschall '15, 2014-2015 Rockefeller Leadership Fellow

The Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy and the Social Sciences