The Real Raw Material of Wealth

TIRANA – Poor countries export raw materials such as cocoa, iron ore, and raw diamonds. Rich countries export – often to those same poor countries – more complex products such as chocolate, cars, and jewels. If poor countries want to get rich, they should stop exporting their resources in raw form and concentrate on adding value to them. Otherwise, rich countries will get the lion’s share of the value and all of the good jobs.

Poor countries could follow the example of South Africa and Botswana and use their natural wealth to force industrialization by restricting the export of minerals in raw form (a policy known locally as “beneficiation”). But should they?

Some ideas are worse than wrong: they are castrating, because they interpret the world in a way that emphasizes secondary issues – say, the availability of raw materials – and blinds societies to the more promising opportunities that may lie elsewhere.

Consider Finland, a Nordic country endowed with many trees for its small population. A classical economist would argue that, given this, the country should export wood, which Finland has done. By contrast, a traditional development economist would argue that it should not export wood; instead, it should add value by transforming the wood into paper or furniture – something that Finland also does. But all wood-related products represent barely 20% of Finland’s exports.