Background: In a restricted sense, the resource curse is a theory that explains the inverse relationship classically seen between dependence on natural resources and economic growth. It defines a peculiar economic and political environment, epitomized by oil extraction in sub-Saharan Africa.
Methods: Based on secondary research and illustrations from four oil-rich geographical areas (the Niger Delta region of Nigeria, Angola, southern Chad, Southern Sudan), I propose a framework for analysing the effects of the resource curse on the structure of health systems at sub-national levels. Qualitative attributes are emphasised. The role of the corporate sector, the influence of conflicts, and the value of classical mitigation measures (such as health impact assessments) are further examined.
Results: Health systems in a resource curse environment are classically fractured into tripartite components, including governmental health agencies, non-profit non-governmental organisations, and the corporate extractive sector. The three components entertain a range of contractual relationships generally based on operational considerations which are withdrawn from social or community values. Characterisation of agencies in this system should also include: values, operating principles, legitimacy and operational spaces. From this approach, it appears that community health is at the same time marginalized and instrumentalized toward economic and corporate interests in resource curse settings.
Conclusion: From a public health point of view, the resource curse represents a fundamental failure of dominant development theories, rather than a delay in creating the proper economy and governance environment for social progress. The scope of research on the resource curse should be broadened to include more accurate or comprehensive indicators of destitution (including health components) and more open perspectives on causal mechanisms.