The wealth of a nation can be a rather complex achievement

Norway used its resources wealth to invest in its citizens' future. Photo: Shutterstock
Norway used its resources wealth to invest in its citizens' future. Photo: Shutterstock

Australia is the lucky country and, if we're honest with ourselves, it really does appear to be a large helping of luck. But will it last?

As a way of describing the development progress of an economy, economists might categorise them into three broad stages.

The first step of this progression is the export of resources. This includes agriculture like food and textile fibres, and mined materials such as metals and fossil fuels.

A nation will then look to graduate onto the next stage which is industrialisation. That is, goods are manufactured in order to add value to those raw materials. Trucks, caravans and trailers are just some examples of products that we do still manufacture in Australia, although we've generally been more of an automotive importer than an exporter even when we had car manufacturers here.

The third stage is when the majority of a nation's output is services. These can be anything from professional services like finance and admin, to more obvious things like hospitality and tourism. Education-related travel (higher education in particular) is normally Australia's biggest services export by dollar ($22b in 2016 according to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade).

By dollars though, we still draw in a lot of national income through commodity exports such as coal, metals, minerals, grains, meats, sugar, wool and much more.

Looking at other countries, some have done a really good job of exploiting their natural resources while they could, but also investing that wealth in their future.

Norway basically nationalised their oil industry when it was discovered in the 1960s, then used the wealth it gained to create an international investment portfolio, the profits from which (US$131b in 2017) have helped to fund things like higher education to produce a highly-skilled workforce with an amazingly-low unemployment rate, a proper welfare safety net to counterbalance the cost of living, and public infrastructure projects.

Others, well, not so much. And the reasons can be attributed to various things, including (but not limited to) political or military corruption, tax avoidance and evasion, outright exploitation by foreign corporations, political and/or military interference from more powerful nations also looking to exploit them, inadequate worker protections, various flawed ideologies that failed to blend socialism and capitalism anywhere near as well as Norway managed, or a simple lack of foresight, as well as combinations thereof.

As an example, many (but not a majority) in Venezuela did really well off its oil wealth for a while and they were even a founding member of OPEC. But when the government decided to start taking significant revenue from the oil industry they tried but failed to make good long-term use of it. They also had loads of other problems like multiple corrupt leaders, systemic corruption that blew out the cost of their highway network, subsidies that supported big corporations but crushed smaller competitors, and after oil prices dropped, runaway inflation. Now I know that synopsis doesn't even scratch the surface of their modern history, but as a consequence of so many things being done wrong, a nation that should still be among the richest in the world is today one of the poorest.

It's not just oil that can corrupt. Other resources related to motoring are also failing to lift people in certain nations out of poverty.

Current lithium-ion batteries used in everything from smartphones to most electric cars require the element cobalt. By far the world's largest producer of cobalt, currently over 60 per cent of the global supply, is the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

This story The wealth of a nation can be a rather complex achievement first appeared on The Canberra Times.