The Journal of Modern African Studies

Research Article

Djibouti's unusual resource curse*

Jennifer N. Brassa1 c1

a1 Department of Political Science, University of California, Berkeley, 210 Barrows Hall, Berkeley, CA 94720, USA


An extensive literature on the ‘resource curse’ posits that abundant natural resources ‘curse’ countries possessing them with negative economic, social and political externalities. Usually, scholars identify tangible resources like oil, diamonds or timber, rarely questioning whether other kinds of resources might have the same impact, and under what conditions. This paper examines how little-studied Djibouti's non-tangible resources – geo-strategic location and aid-inspiring poverty – have produced ‘curse’ effects; with an economy dominated by US and French military spending (and concomitant aid) and rents on trade passing to and from Ethiopia, tiny Djibouti suffers from this curse. It draws four conclusions. First, resource curse effects can derive from non-traditional sources. Second, leaders' policy decisions matter at least as much as the presence or absence of resources. Third, advanced countries' spending patterns in their less-developed allies often produce unintended consequences. Finally, even tiny countries can provide scholars and policy makers with new insights.


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* In researching this paper, I interviewed over seventy politicians, lawyers, civil servants, civil society leaders, donor representatives and NGO workers in Djibouti during August and September 2006. Due to the sensitive nature of this topic and the small size of the elite, interviewees were offered anonymity for their statements. Very few chose to waive this right. I would like to thank these many generous interviewees. David K. Leonard, Christopher Ansell, Rachel Stern, Susanne Wengle, Kristin Reed, Oren Ahoobim, Brian Markham and two anonymous reviewers provided invaluable comments on earlier drafts. I owe particular appreciation to David Leonard for sparking my interest in Djibouti and for encouraging me to write this paper. All errors in the text are, however, my own. Portions of the text were originally written as a report for the UN FAO and the Inter-Governmental Authority for Development (IGAD) Livestock Policy Initiative.