OpenGov Conversations: Alice Powell on Creating Effective Transparency Policies


This post is part of our series, OpenGov Conversations, an ongoing discourse featuring contributions from transparency and accountability researchers and practitioners around the world.

AlicePowellThis post, by guest author Alice Powell, responds to the following questions:

What are the three most important conditions that make transparency policies effective? And must these conditions precede effective transparency interventions, or can transparency policies actually positively bring about these conditions? Read the other responses here.

Before delving into how transparency policies work, and under which conditions, we need to unpack what these terms mean for the extractive industry. Transparency policies and interventions are designed to bring light to aspects of natural resource management which have been shrouded in secrecy. This can include the basis on which a certain company was chosen for a project or the tax payments a company has made. Making this information available empowers citizens to ask how their revenues were spent or why a contract went to a certain company. This helps prevent deliberate mismanagement (giving a company a contract because your brother-in-law owns it) and also mismanagement due to lack of competence (local authorities not properly collecting taxes). Our goal is ultimately for all citizens to benefit from their natural resources. Without transparency, this isn’t possible. How can you know a community is receiving the correct amount for its natural resources, if you don’t know how much a company has paid in taxes? Transparency works through small and incremental steps, not as a silver bullet. Transparency policies enable and empower actors to ask the right questions and supports them in their campaign for change.

So what does success for a transparency policy look like, precisely? It’s isn’t overnight transformation, or even rocketing up the human development index. It is recovering missing revenues that had not completed the journey from company to government coffer. It is a contract that gives a country the best deal possible for its resources.

The success of transparency policies depend on a myriad of factors. For example, in order to be able to ask their questions, actors need to understand the information that is being made available. In order for that ask to be articulated and acted upon, they need the ability and space to make their call. Finally, a responsive government and genuine political will is necessary, or at least incredibly helpful, in effectively capitalising on transparency policies.

Niger is a good example to look at to see all of these factors at play:
Niger is set to become the world’s second largest producer of uranium, but lies at the bottom of the human development index. Not only have Niger’s citizens not benefited from the resource, but Niger as a whole has lost out. In the dying days of France’s empire, the French signed a deal over Niger’s uranium, obtaining the resource for a pittance. For decades, these deals remained mired in secrecy and were in effect little more than defence deals, profiting a few people in power perhaps, but few others. It was forbidden to talk about natural resources. PWYP’s activists, asking for the government to account for how the resources were being used, were harassed and arrested. These deals, selling uranium for a fraction of their worth, meant that Niger lost out on 21 billion euros over 50 years.

Last February, Nigerien President Mahamadou Issoufou proclaimed that Niger would re-negotiate its contract with AREVA (the French nuclear giant) in order to obtain a fairer deal.

What had happened to lead to this change?

In 2010, there was a coup in Niger, which put into power a new government who was more favourable to natural resource transparency than the previous one. Not only did this make for a more responsive government but it also helped create a space where actors could freely advocate for change. This meant that PWYP activists, using figures from EITI reports, were able to show how little money Niger made from uranium and publicly criticise the government’s relationship and call for change. PWYP activists were ready to use the information – they needed the space and the figures.

So do these conditions need to already be present in order for transparency policies to be effective, or can transparency policies bring them about? Transparency policies rarely exist in a vacuum. In most cases, they have been the result of years of campaigning and awareness-raising which contribute to the political change necessary for transparency policies to succeed. For instance, in calling for contract transparency, activists are arguing that citizens have a right to know under what terms their natural resources are being sold. The eventual adoption of a law in response to such a campaign is a tacit admission of this truth, and so the principle begins to be internalized. This will contribute to an environment conducive to change, so that information can be acted on and responded to.

In raising awareness and campaigning it is not only governments that become conditioned but also citizens, so that demanding a say over their natural resources is something that comes increasingly naturally to them.

The implementation of transparency policies can also in and of themselves engender some of the conditions necessary for their success. In Nigeria, our coordinator Faith told us how the passage of the NEITI Act in 2007 gave citizens the boldness to ask for more information, and more answers on how the money had been spent. When citizens saw that $400 Billion had been made from oil and gas, they really wanted to know where that money had disappeared to, as they certainly couldn’t see the impact in their daily lives.

The EITI generally has helped improve the conditions under which transparency policies can thrive. In making the participation of civil society a requirement in its implementation, it has created a space for civil society to operate in. Importantly, it has also given civil society a seat at the table, legitimizing their role in the management of natural resources.

Although transparency in the extractive sector can prove a technical subject, the conditions above relate to politics as much as anything else and require behavioural and cultural change.

This is why we should add a note of caution when evaluating success and not expect too much transformation too soon.It is easy, living as we do in an age where ‘transparency’ has become not only a principle approved of by all but a veritable buzzword, to forget where the starting point was.The starting point was activists in resource rich countries not being allowed to even talk about their natural resources and being threatened for their work. The starting point was one where the principle that all citizens own the country’s natural resources was a radical one. Extractive companies were there to make money and bribery was just the way you did business in certain countries.

Today, a growing number of governments are being open in a way few would have imagined. Several are publishing the contracts they make with extractive companies. Last November, Guinea published all their contracts online, when only years before the then president had been secretly selling off Guinean assets. Companies are publicly talking the language of transparency and responsible business. Some, such as Tullow Oil, are even publishing the payments, including taxes and royalty, they make to governments. Although the situation in certain countries is still difficult, activists are freer than they had been to campaign.

The change in discourse in the extractive sector over the past decade represents nothing short of a transparency revolution.

Bio: Alice Powell is the Communications Coordinator at Publish What You Pay. Alice holds an MSC in Comparative European Politics from Trinity College Dublin and a BA in History from Cambridge. Before joining PWYP Alice worked at Global Policy Forum, New York, writing newsletters and coordinating meetings between the NGO Working Group on the Security Council and the UN Security Council ambassadors.