Resisting the resource curse

Political science Ph.D. candidate Mikhail Strokan’s work looks at the idea that countries abundant in such natural resources as oil and natural gas wind up struggling economically despite the bounty—and examines why some of these countries fare better than others.

Political Science Ph.D. candidate Mikhail Strokan stands in front of a sign with a seal that reads "Tashkent."
Mikhail Strokan is a Ph.D. candidate in political science.

When political science Ph.D. candidate Mikhail Strokan moved to Central Asia with his young family last year, he saw firsthand how his dissertation topic can play out in the real world.

Strokan’s work looks at the idea that countries abundant in such natural resources as oil and natural gas wind up struggling economically despite the bounty—and examines why some of these countries fare better than others. He says he was drawn to studying this so-called “resource curse” because it seemed relevant, something with practical implications in the real world. During his first winter in Uzbekistan, he found out how true that was.

“We just experienced the most severe winter in the past 50 years in Uzbekistan, and it seems striking that a country abundant in energy resources was not able to ensure adequate heating and fuel supply to its population during this period,” he says.

He witnessed the near collapse of the energy system there, not only in remote regions but also in the capital, Tashkent, leaving millions of households without electricity or fuel for their vehicles. Even though 80% of the electricity in the country comes from natural gas-fired power stations and natural gas is the most common fuel for vehicles there, he says the government prioritized export revenue over the improvement of domestic energy security, chasing export windfalls.

“The temperature outside was -20° Celsius (-4° Fahrenheit), while inside apartments with central heating, the temperature did not rise above 15° Celsius (59° Fahrenheit). So, it was really cold, even to a native of Western Siberia like myself,” he says.

“But the whole experience inspired me even more to study the topic,” Strokan says. “What I have to offer might change how politicians view resource dependent nations and help figure out novel ways to combat the resource curse.”

Discovering ‘the curse’ and a love of teaching

Resources like gas and oil are vital for daily life across the globe. Some might assume that if a country is abundant in resources, then they’ve won the lottery, because they have the resources available for them to help develop their economy, he notes.

But statistical evidence shows a counterintuitive finding. Countries with abundant resources happen to have various problems associated with this abundance, Strokan says. Some scholars believe that those problems might include lack of democracy, weak institutions, corruption, social unrest, and even gender inequality, he says.

Strokan’s research is contributing to the economic part of the resource curse. His dissertation, entitled “Varieties of Post-Soviet Petrostates: Pathways to Resisting the Resource Curse,” tries to explain what mechanisms cause detrimental effects on the resource-abundant nations, and what possible policies and institutions these countries could build to mitigate those negative effects of the resource curse.

Strokan came to Penn with a different topic, applying to the Ph.D. program with a focus on studying nationalism and national identity formation. His interest in the resource curse came about by accident, after working as a teaching assistant to professor Rudra Sil in his Russian Politics course.

“After he delivered a lecture on Russia’s dependence on resources, I just came to his office and told him that this is what I want to study for my dissertation,” Strokan says.

Sil says Strokan’s work is “fascinating and highly relevant in view of both the effort to constrain Russia’s energy revenues during the war and also with respect to the overall rising demand for hydrocarbons despite the West’s pivot to renewables. His personal story is also remarkable.”

Strokan’s backstory also laid the groundwork for his research. He grew up in the Western Siberian city of Magnitogorsk. His family is originally from Ukraine and was brought to Siberia after the revolution in 1917.

Strokan earned a bachelor’s degree from St. Petersburg University in Russia, and then moved to Syracuse University for his master’s. After working with think tanks in Washington, D.C., he came to Penn in 2017, and discovered his love of teaching here. He’s won the Alvin Z. Rubinstein Award for Teaching, was named one of the finalists of Penn Prize for Excellence in Teaching and won the Dean’s Award for Distinguished Teaching. He is currently working on finishing his dissertation under a Dissertation Completion Fellowship.

Pandemic, war, and perseverance

During his first year as a Ph.D. student, Strokan and his wife welcomed their first child, a son. Then in the spring of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. All international students were advised to move to their home countries, so Strokan, his wife, and their son returned to his hometown in Russia, while he was finishing teaching via Zoom. Strokan had to adapt to new realities, using online interviews to start fieldwork. After getting vaccinated, he was able to travel, first within Russia and then to Central Asian nations and Azerbaijan. During this time, Strokan and his wife welcomed their second child, a daughter.

Then Russia invaded Ukraine in Feb. 2022, just as Strokan was finishing his fieldwork and was planning to return to campus. Getting a visa to come back to the U.S. suddenly became next to impossible, as the U.S. shuttered consulates in Russia while the wait time for getting an appointment at consulates in the neighboring countries in some cases exceeded a year.

At that time Strokan received an offer from a university in Tashkent to become a senior research fellow there and he decided to move the family to Uzbekistan, where it would be easier for him to conduct research and fieldwork.

“Traveling in all those countries, I saw how their economies and ordinary people’s lives are affected by the mismanagement of resources and the rents coming from their export,” he says. “I have a lot of personal stories from this region that people shared with me and now feel personally obligated to conduct a meaningful analysis to help understand the ‘curse’ and ways to mitigate it. Relevance of the research topic and practical implications of my analysis inspire me to continue my work despite all these challenges.”

Strokan’s work as a teaching and research assistant has been exemplary, Sil says. “He has been no less impressive in his perseverance in carrying out months of fieldwork under challenging conditions in support of an ambitious dissertation project,” Sil says. “And, despite the extraordinary disruptions caused by a combination of the pandemic and the Ukraine War, he has managed to win a Dissertation Completion Fellowship and put himself in a position to finish the dissertation by May 2024.”

A realistic look at energy’s future

Strokan’s parents were educated as environmental scientists and engineers in the Soviet Union, forming his interest in environment and energy since early on in his life. Strokan says he supports the transition to “cleaner” energy, but believes that, when creating policy, it’s important to look at numbers of energy use around the globe.

“We still live in a world that is totally based on these kinds of hydrocarbon resources that are even more important in the developing world,” he says, noting that about 83% of people in the world are just now starting to transition from coal to oil and natural gas.

“If you look at the energy balance of India, for example, natural gas occupies only 6%; the country predominantly gets its energy from burning coal. When we’re thinking about the future and developing countries trying to find their niche within global economy, it’s hard to imagine that countries of Africa, Latin America, and South Asia would switch immediately from coal to wind or solar, because that would damage a competitive advantage.”

Strokan says the world’s dependence on hydrocarbon resources will continue, at least for the next few decades, and so the resource curse will also continue be an issue. According to the International Monetary Fund, roughly a third of all countries are not only resource-abundant but with economies dependent on resource exports, making them potentially vulnerable to the so-called resource curse.

“We better learn now how to deal with detrimental effects of the curse and turn it into a blessing by creating more sustainable policies for developing countries,” Strokan says.