Just look at the number of construction cranes around you and you’ll immediately know that you have landed in a petrostate. What’s special about the Caspian oil giant Kazakhstan is the fact that there are two types of cranes—the idle ones and the busy ones. This becomes nowhere more apparent than in the country’s new capital Astana. The idle cranes stand on private construction sites and the busy ones on public construction sites.
Kazakhstan is probably one of the countries worst hit by the global credit crunch. After years of aggressive borrowing on international markets Kazakh banks have had to pull the plug on many domestic projects after their own cash stream evaporated and it became clear that they would need to settle most of the $14 billion in scheduled principal repayments on external debt this year. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) had been warning about the unsustainability of the ever growing debt ratio for the past two years, but to little avail. Growth rates above 9 percent for the past seven years and great future prospects thanks to ever expanding oil production earned Kazakhstan a credit rating of “stable” from Standard & Poor's rating agency. Now, the bubble burst, the S&P rating turned “negative”, and the private cranes stopped.
The busy cranes—in contrast—run 24/7. No effort is spared to make sure that the fancy new government building, the pavement, the flower-adorned square will be finished in time for the highlight of the year: the birthday of both the President Nursultan Nazarbayev and the capital on July 6 (their 68th and 10th, respectively). This simultaneity is no coincident. Astana is largely Nazarbayev’s creation. It was him who anointed the city in the middle-of-nowhere the new capital of the young Republic, who chose its no-nonsense name (“Astana” literally means “capital”), and who caused its population to triple. The upcoming celebrations almost turned into a Nursultan & Nursultan party. If Mr. Sat Tokpakbaye and his fellow parliamentarians had gotten their way, the capital would yet again have undergone a name change—this time to honor its creator more explicitly by endowing it with the President’s first name (there is already an oil field named after him). But out in his modesty, the President declined. With his proposal Mr. Tokpakbayev, achieved the near-impossible: to distinguish himself by loyalty in a Parliament whose members all come from the same Nur-Otan party.
The idle and the busy cranes both stand for different answers to petrostates’ most burning policy question—how to best use the ballooning governmental revenues from the thriving oil and gas sector. Save or spend?—is the 500 billion dollar question (to take the value OPEC earned from net oil export in 2007). Kazakhstan, like 23 other oil and gas producing countries, followed the IMF’s advice and established an oil fund with the goal of sterilizing, stabilizing, and saving governmental oil revenues. The so-called National Fund of the Republic of Kazakhstan (NFRK) has accumulated more than $26 billion in the eight years since inception, and the total value of all oil-related funds around the world is estimated to surpass the astronomical sum of $2.300 trillion. While the theoretical logic underlying the creation of oil funds is compelling, their actual track record in achieving macroeconomic stability and fair intergenerational income distribution is more mixed. As a number of recent studies demonstrate (e.g. Shabsigh and Ilahi 2007; Usui 2007), oil funds are no substitute for the strengthening of all institutions involved in the revenue management and budgeting process. Strong expenditure and deficit control mechanisms are indispensable because such richly endowed funds make it easier for the government to borrow money on international financial markets whereby the fund acts--explicitly or implicitly—as a collateral, which in turn undermines the fiscal prudence that the fund was meant to ensure in the first place. More indirectly, the accumulation of large sums of money creates a moral hazard problem also with respect to private sector spending. The temptation is huge for private (and state-owned) companies to take overly risky decisions in the hope that the oil fund will bail them out in case their speculations turn sour. When oil fund assets correspond to more than a quarter of the country’s GDP—as it is the case in Kazakhstan—this temptation is hard to resist. Recent demands by Kazakh banks to dip into the NFRK for alleviating their liquidity problems provide just one case in point, and the national oil company KazMunaiGas may soon follow suit.
However, spending, rather than saving, does not provide a panacea either and is fraught with its very own set of problems.
First, governments of oil rich countries faces a challenge similar to that of rich parents who want to raise their children to become productive members of society. As the US billionaire investor Warren Buffet was once quoted saying: “a very rich person should leave his kids enough to do anything but not enough to do nothing.” Political scientists refer to this concern as the risk of a growing “rentier mentality” (Beblawi 1990), i.e. the tendency of citizens in petrostates to expect the government to solve all their problems rather than relying on their own initiative. The resulting societal dependency may actually suit governments very well since who will bite the hand that feeds him/her? Innovation and entrepreneurship are undermined and undemocratic structures perpetuated. Second, pro-cyclical spending of highly volatile oil revenues results in a series of negative macroeconomic consequences ranging from soaring inflation, exchange rate appreciation, and a further accentuation of the crowding-out of private investments. Finally, a massive explosion in government revenues (e.g. the newly introduced oil export tariff alone is expected to add another $1.5 billion per year) makes it close to impossible for the governmental apparatus to identify and supervise a sufficient number of new spending projects with a satisfactory social return. The floodgates are wide open to white elephant projects, mismanagement, and corruption.
The Kazakh government is acutely aware of this dilemma. Like all other oil producing nations around the world, Kazakhstan is desperately trying to navigate safely between Scylla (saving) and Charybdis (saving). As a possible solution to this dilemma a number of scholars and activists are now proposing the direct distribution of oil revenues to all citizens (and thus the ultimate owners of a country’s natural resource endowment), thereby empowering them to decide for themselves how they want to spend the monetized share of their subsoil assets.
The only real world examples of direct distribution arrangements can be found in the US state Alaska and the Canadian province Alberta. This option has also been proposed for Nigeria (Sala-i-Martin and Subramanian 2003), Iraq (Birdsall and Subramanian 2003; Palley 2003; Sandbu 2006), and Kazakhstan (Makmutova 2008).
While direct distribution arrangements may mitigate some of the problems highlighted above, they have to be greeted with some degree of caution. High levels of corruption and patronage-driven politics not only undermine the effectiveness of top-down development projects but can also jeopardize the fair distribution of oil revenues. Furthermore, even if every entitled citizen does receive his or her share of oil revenues, the long-term impact on a country’s economic development may be small or possibly even negative because of increased inflation and spending on unproductive goods and services imported from abroad. These considerations are not of particular relevance in the two existing examples of direct distribution of oil revenues. Alaska and Alberta both enjoy a relatively good record in fighting corruption and in observing the rule of law. They are both part of a larger, highly developed economy which helps to mitigate inflationary pressure and the risk that citizens will spend most of their additional income on goods imported from abroad. But the picture looks very different in most other oil dependent countries.
One possibility for addressing the risk that directly distributed oil revenues will be spent unproductively is to combine the direct distribution scheme with certain conditions that are intended to encourage citizens to invest in ways that boost their own productivity. This approach has so far not been discussed in academic or policy circles, but the conditional distribution of oil revenues (CDOR) offers the potentials of marrying the merits of two programs that are generally considered to be successful, namely the direct distribution of oil revenues and conditional cash transfer programs employed throughout the world to fight poverty in a more targeted and bottom-up fashion. A whole range of different design options are compatible with this overarching concept. CDOR schemes do not have to adopt the exclusive pro-poor focus of conditional cash transfer programs. In fact, both in Alaska and in Alberta oil revenues are deliberately distributed in an income-blind manner, staying true to the logic that citizens are entitled to a share of oil revenues in their capacity as the ultimate owners of these resources. Also in contrast to most existing conditional cash transfer programs (e.g. Oportunidades in Mexico), the conditions attached to the direct distribution of oil revenues would probably be primarily linked to the use of these revenues rather than some pre-qualifying behavior (e.g. taking infants to regular health check-ups). Eligible spending areas would be selected based on their potential to maximize productivity gains and could include education, health, energy efficiency, start-up capital for small enterprises. Additional design options worth examining include the saving and pooling of CDOR money, which would allow citizens to realize a medium to larger scale common project within the approved spending priorities. For instance, the most promising strategy for greater productivity in Kazakhstan’s agricultural sector lies in the creation of larger units (co-operatives, publicly traded agricultural complexes), and specific incentives may therefore be built into the CDOR scheme to promote such a move away from subsistence farming.
The conditional distribution of oil revenues under any of these design options presents a promising discussion platform for a new initiative the World Bank announced in April 2008—tentatively labeled EITI++. This initiative is meant to help resource rich countries to “manage and transform their natural resource wealth into long-term economic growth that spreads the benefits more fairly among their people”, by focusing not only on the transfer of oil revenues from companies to governments (as does the “original” Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative (EITI) of 2002) but also on the generation, management, and distribution of oil revenues. The transparency mechanism of double disclosure pioneered by EITI could thereby be used to ensure that all citizens receive the share of oil revenues they are entitled to. Transparency could be further enhanced by tools currently developed by the Google Foundation’s Inform & Empower program.
The implementation of the CDOR scheme could build directly upon the experience gained under conditional cash transfer schemes, including the scientific testing of its effectiveness in a randomized experiment setting. The bottom-up development philosophy underlying the conditional distribution of oil revenues ties nicely in with other approaches to strengthen the consumers of public goods and services that have gained currency over the past decade (e.g. vouchers for health and education services).
With this sketch of a conditional distribution of oil revenues scheme in my pocket (and and unconditional love for the kicking baby in my belly) I navigated my way through yet another construction site to see Mr. Kuandyk Bishimbayev, one of Kazakhstan’s young and rising stars (now the head of the so-called “Division of Socio-Economic Monitoring” within the Presidential Administration). During our meeting I got the impression that my enthusiasm for this novel approach to oil revenue management proved contagious, and since my return to Stanford I have rolled out my networking machinery to spread the virus among my academic colleagues. The time is certainly ripe. With oil prices set to remain high for the foreseeable future Kazakhstan and all other petrostates cannot afford to miss this historic opportunity to promote the diversification of their economies and to create the foundation for a future where oil may lose its dominant position to alternative sources of energy.