Stanford Law Students Enlist Students to tackle “Resource Curse”

Erik Christensen ’08 is no stranger to the socioeconomic issues facing third-world countries. A fluent Russian speaker, he worked for the National Basketball Association prior to entering Stanford Law School, negotiating television agreements with Eastern European countries, including former Soviet states.

Especially interested in the problem of corruption facing developing countries, Christensen was pleased to see that Thomas Heller, Lewis Talbot and Nadine Hearn Shelton Professor of International Legal Studies at the law school, was offering a seminar on the topic last spring. Christensen was one of just 20 students lucky enough to get a spot in the class, which had more than 80 applicants.

“It was an excellent experience,” said Christensen, now a second-year law student who called the course “very atypical in its approach.” “In your average class, you’d be given material and take an exam to judge what you’d learned. But this course was a vehicle for something greater.” What Heller offered his students, said Christensen and other students who took the course, was a chance to make an important, hands-on contribution to countries that are struggling with issues of corruption. “It was a wonderful opportunity,” he said.

Officially titled International Corruption and the Resource Curse, the class focused on the paradox of why resource-rich countries frequently show less economic growth than countries without natural resources. Largely attributed to government mismanagement—if not outright corruption—the resource curse is something that has interested Heller for some time.

“The idea behind the course was to produce a design for doing actual field research into whether anticorruption initiatives being implemented at the international level were effective or not,” said Heller, who serves on the board of the New York–based nonprofit Revenue Watch and who several years ago became involved in its fight against corruption in developing countries with an abundance of natural resources, particularly oil and gas.

Heller’s interest is not theoretical. A renowned scholar, Heller is also a globally recognized legal expert who actively contributes to policy-making international organizations on a broad range of issues involving international law and political economy, law and development, energy law and policy, and environmental law. His work translates directly into actions taken by the international community on such issues as climate change, human rights, and natural resource mismanagement.

In addition to his teaching duties, Heller is director of the law school’s Microsoft Rule of Law Program and is a senior fellow in the Center for Development, Democracy, and the Rule of Law (CDDRL) at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.

With regard to the “resource curse,” although a number of initiatives have gotten off the ground that attempt to impose checks and balances on resource-rich developing nations, Heller is concerned that no one has been monitoring the monitors— that is, checking to see if attempts at reform are actually working.

“So, how do you do that? How do you know whether these organizations are actually accomplishing anything or whether they involve just more and more committees meeting and money flowing through different hands?” asked Heller. He decided to design a policy-based class to address these questions.

In the semester-long course, students were divided into teams, each dedicated to a resource-rich developing country such as Nigeria, Iraq, or Azerbaijan, and charged with producing a detailed report on how best to monitor whether international guidelines on best-practice governance were actually having an effect.

The first stage of the project—the one addressed during last semester’s course— examined the effectiveness of watchdog groups and asked, “Was it possible to judge their success?” The second part will focus on implementation of the initial research through actual fieldwork in the countries.

Students were enthusiastic about the hands-on, cutting-edge nature of the course.

“It was an interesting challenge to be involved in a course for which the textbook hadn’t yet been written,” said Noah Long ’08, who, like Christensen, was a first-year law student when he took the class and who said that getting the chance to work with Heller was one of the reasons he chose Stanford for his legal studies. “There was a good amount of collaboration and the inclusion of student research and student thought on where the course went. It was rather like an improvisation and very exciting.”

The next milestone: to develop three of these preliminary studies in more detail for presentation at a conference Heller is planning to hold in spring 2007. After that, he hopes to develop those studies into actual field tests. “On the basis of what we can derive from the conference, we can decide how to go further with a much fuller set of case studies,” he said.

Funding is an issue, however. Heller estimated it will take approximately $500,000 to bring the project to the next step. Student safety is another concern.

“I’m not going to send someone into Nigeria or Angola to look at corruption for any length of time—it’s dangerous,” said Heller. The issue then becomes one of building relationships with existing networks of independent non-government organizations (NGOs) with strong local bases.

If the project does proceed, both Long and Christensen are in. “This first step was a real eye-opener, but I would really like to travel—if possible, to Azerbaijan—and take it further,” said Christensen. “If Tom gets the funding, I want to be involved,” agreed Long.