Normative Narratives


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Economic Outlook: African Leaders Demand Better Deals in Chinese Extractive FDI

Original Article:

In Niger, government officials have fought a Chinese oil giant step by step, painfully undoing parts of a contract they call ruinous. In neighboring Chad, they have been even more forceful, shutting down the Chinese and accusing them of gross environmental negligence. In Gabon, they have seized major oil tracts from China, handing them over to the state company.

China wants Africa’s oil as much as ever. But instead of accepting the old terms, which many African officials call unconditional surrender, some cash-starved African states are pushing back, showing an assertiveness unthinkable until recently and suggesting that the days of unbridled influence by the African continent’s mega-investor may be waning.

For years, China has found eager partners across the continent, where governments of every ilk have welcomed the nation’s deep pockets and hands-off approach to local politics as an alternative to the West.

Now China’s major state oil companies are being challenged by African governments that have learned decades of hard lessons about heedless resource-grabs by outsiders and are looking anew at the deals they or their predecessors have signed. Where the Chinese companies are seen as gouging, polluting or hogging valuable tracts, African officials have started resisting, often at the risk of angering one of their most important trading partners.

“This is all we’ve got,” said Niger’s oil minister, Foumakoye Gado. “If our natural resources are given away, we’ll never get out of this.”

“We’ve got to fight to get full value for these resources,” Mr. Gado said. “If they are valued correctly, we can hope to bring something to our people.”

“The Chinese are genuinely unprepared for this degree of pushback,” Mr. Soares de Oliveira said.

China’s Foreign Ministry rejected the notion that its role had been anything but fruitful. In Niger, it said, it has improved the economy, has hired local residents and is building schools, digging wells and carrying out other “public welfare activities.” In Chad, it said, it has urged companies to protect the environment and will seek to resolve the dispute through “friendly negotiation.” In Gabon, as elsewhere, it said, it supports cooperation “on the basis of equality, amity and mutual benefit.”

Few nations in the world are as weak as Niger, where nearly half of the government budget comes from foreign donors. But the nation long had unfulfilled oil dreams that were largely ignored by major companies. In 2008, two partners came together secretively — the country’s autocratic ruler, Mamadou Tandja, and China National Petroleum — and signed an unpublicized deal that seemed to give both parties what they wanted.

But far less clear, then and now, was whether Niger — one of the world’s most impoverished countries, regularly threatened by famine — would substantially benefit from the deal.

Mr. Tandja got a costly oil refinery in an area of Niger that he needed to win over with the promise of development, but the need for such a project in this low-energy-consuming nation has been sharply questioned by experts, not to mention the mysterious $300 million “signing bonus” Mr. Tandja’s administration received….The refinery has a capacity that is three times Niger’s consumption, and the overall cost should have been only $784 million, according to a United Nations expert. Niger must still pay 40 percent of the original cost, with money lent to it by the Chinese.

In return, the Chinese got access to untapped oil reserves in the remote fields on Chad’s border on terms that still make Oil Ministry officials here wince. Beyond that, local residents have protested that the Chinese presence has brought few jobs, low pay and harsh working conditions.

“In the context of this fight, we are revisiting these contracts to correct them,” said Mr. Gado, the oil minister in the new democratic government led by an opponent of Mr. Tandja. “In the future, we will pay closer attention, to not make the same mistakes.”

“This is a lesson we are giving to the Chinese: we are keeping a close lookout on them,” said Mahaman Gaya, the Oil Ministry’s secretary general. Mr. Gado has not made his last trip to Beijing.

Niger’s lesson is being applied elsewhere as well: African governments, grateful as they are for Chinese-built roads and ministry buildings, are no longer passive partners.

“Are we going to continue to ignore what the Chinese companies are doing?” asked Mr. Doudjidingao, the Chadian economist. “I think this is the beginning of a change between African states and the Chinese. It’s a consciousness-raising, so they won’t be guilty in the face of history.”

Natural resources need not be a “curse”, but avoiding human rights violations in extractive industries takes political will, government oversight, and corporate accountability. In order to help African governments, which tend to be underfunded and sometimes corrupt, the Chinese government should hold it’s companies accountable for their extra-territorial human rights obligations (especially considering these companies are state-owned!). Sure this may result in higher costs in the short-run, but businesses thrive on consistency and stability; it is better to pay a little more now then have no idea what the cost may be in the future.

Commitments must be made on the side of the African government’s too; if the Chinese agree to work with them on vetting extractive contracts for human rights implications, then the terms agreed upon will be honored for the life of the contract. This is admittedly challenging in an unstable political climate, where the government of today may not necessarily be the government tomorrow. I am not talking about regime changes, I am talking about revolutions, coups, and other means of fundamentally altering the structure of the government. But still, deals should be made with a mutually beneficial long-term view.

Certain types of foreign direct investment, known as “market-seeking” FDI, are characterized by better deals for host-countries. Willing to forgo some of the labor and regulation saving costs, companies pay a little more because they wish to not only produce at a cheaper cost, but to also empower locals to become future customers. Unfortunately, “extractive” FDI does not lend itself to such benevolent partners. It is therefore the job of the government(s) involved to ensure that human rights obligations are upheld; in an industry with tens of billions of dollars in annual profits, paying to ensure the local poor are receiving a fair deal should not be an issue.

It is not only foreign powers that wish to exploit Africa’s natural resources, cheap labor and lax environmental standards. Natural resources can be easily stolen, especially in countries with lax security / highly organized criminal networks. Furthermore, often times corrupt government officials are willing to provide protection for oil thieves in exchange for personal riches:

Thieves steal an estimated average of 100,000 barrels a day, the report said; working in elaborate networks and protected by corrupted security officials, they tap into the huge and isolated network of pipes that crisscross the country’s swampy southern Niger Delta region. The price of oil fluctuates, but a hypothetical per-barrel price of $100 would mean an annual loss of $3.65 billion. Oil closed at $107.28 per barrel on Thursday.

“Top Nigerian officials cut their teeth in the oil theft business during military rule,” it said. “Over time, evidence surfaced that corrupt members of the security forces were actively involved. The country’s return to democracy in 1999 then gave some civilian officials and political ‘godfathers’ more access to stolen oil.” Security officials are said to extort payments from the oil thieves in return for protection, according to Chatham House.

There is no easy answer to sustainable human development in Africa. However, it is self-evident that the presence of natural resources should expedite the development process, not slow it down or reverse it. This requires political will from both host countries and governments representing foreign investors. But political will is not enough, multiple layers of accountability are needed to ensure the gains of resource extraction go to help the people in the countries which own these resources. Corporate accountability is one aspect which, alongside political accountability, can help ensure that the rule of law is upheld with respect to contracts, and that deals are properly vetted for human rights considerations.

There is, however, another part of the story. African governments would be right to instill the idea within their citizenry’s that profits from natural resource production indeed do belong primarily to the people. Bad contractual terms are more easily remedied than organized criminals and corrupt officials stealing resource rents. In order to remedy this issue, social accountability could go a long way. Empowering people with political rights, and institutions for voicing grievances (such as ombudsman offices and / or NHRIs, or institutions created specifically for extractive industry grievances) can help turn nationalism and self-interests into meaningful accountability on a scale that is otherwise unachievable.

If people in the developing world are convinced resource profits will go to development programs, and governments are committed to these programs and institutions that promote social accountability, then perhaps we can move past the point in history where the presence of natural resources is considered a “curse” and move toward a future where natural resource profits help expedite human development (as they should!). It appears the political will is slowly accumulating throughout Africa, this is great news as tighter regulations always work better when imposed regionally in order to avoid a “race to the bottom”. The UN Post-2015 Development Agenda will also help achieve this goal, as it is set to have human rights considerations and accountability at it’s core.

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Transparency Report: The UK, Kazakhstan, Domestic and Extra-Territorial Human Rights Obligations

Original Article:

“British Prime Minister David Cameron helped inaugurate the world’s costliest oil project in Kazakhstan on Sunday on a trip aimed at sealing business deals but quickly beset by questions over the Central Asian nation’s poor human rights record.

Kazakhstan hopes Cameron’s visit, the first by a serving British prime minister, will cement its status as a rising economic power and confer a degree of the legitimacy from the West it has long sought.”

“With a $200 billion economy, the largest in Central Asia, and deep oil and gas reserves, Kazakhstan is a tempting target. Britain is already among the top three sources of foreign direct investment, according to Kazakh officials.

Since its 1991 independence, officials say British firms have invested about $20 billion in their economy, part of a total $170 billion ploughed into Kazakhstan since then.

But more high profile trade links carry political risks.

New York-based Human Rights Watch said Cameron had a duty to use his trip to denounce human rights abuses.

‘We are very concerned about the serious and deteriorating human rights situation there in recent years, including credible allegations of torture, the imprisonment of government critics, (and) tight controls over the media and freedom of expression and association,’ it said in a letter on Friday.

Answering questions from reporters in Atyrau on Sunday, Cameron said he never put trade and business interests before rights.

‘We will raise all the issues, including human rights. That’s part of our dialogue and I’ll be signing a strategic partnership with Kazakhstan,’ he said.

‘Nothing is off the agenda, including human rights.’

“[Nursultan] Nazarbayev, a former Communist party apparatchik, has overseen market reforms and maintains wide popularity among the 17-million strong population, but has tolerated no dissent or opposition during his more than two decades in power.”

“Nazarbayev, a former steelworker who now holds the title “The Leader of the Nation”, says that he puts stability and rising living standards before hasty political changes in his steppe nation, the world’s ninth-largest by area and five times the size of France.

Comparing Kazakhstan to ‘Asian economic tigers’ like South Korea and Singapore, he has said he wants to turn it into ‘the economic snow leopard of Central Asia’

International human rights law places the state as the central and primary duty bearer for human rights obligations. Human rights include economic, social and cultural rights, in addition to political and civil rights. These rights are indivisible and interdependent, and must be upheld indiscriminately. Certain rights cannot be violated in the name of others—when Nazarbayev says he is putting economic and social progress ahead of political freedoms, he is failing to live up to international human rights law.

The reason behind this is that, without certain political and civil rights, developments are not sustainable. If standard of living gains are made at the benevolence of a dictator, these gains are unlikely to be made in an egalitarian way. Additionally, any gains made can easily be taken away in without any accountability or redress for society as a whole.

The state, however, is not the only actor accountable for the human rights implications of its actions. According to a recent publication, “Who Will Be Accountable”, released by the UN OHCHR and the CESR, “Under international human rights law, States are primarily accountable for respecting and protecting the rights of those within their jurisdiction. The proliferation of actors in international development—from business enterprises and multilateral economic institutions to private foundations—has made it necessary to develop a more multidimensional approach to accountability…However, the notion of shared responsibility has not led in practice to a clearer attribution of the respective and differentiated duties of each of the many actors in the development process. If all parties are responsible for achieving development goals, the risk is that no party can be held accountable for anything. (p 17-18)”

It certainly seems that nobody is willing to take responsibility for human rights violations in Kazahkstan—not the Kazakh government, not Cameron, not UK investors.

Cameron’s government has even been unresponsive to the UK and EU wide effects of austerity on human rights (the UK has been a strong supporter of austerity in the face of the Great Recession). Austerity programs have contributed to the prolonged economic slump in the UK (and the EU as a whole) that is some ways has been worse than even the Great Depression.

One would hope Cameron’s time spent as co-chair of the UN High Level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda would make him more in-tune with the importance of human rights for conflict prevention, economic growth and sustainable human development. Even if it has, it is also clear that Mr. Cameron, as an elected official, has more short-term concerns to deal with.

I am curious to hear what my readers think. Do states and private investors really have extra-territorial human rights obligations? Is it possible for external parties to even affect a dictator’s policies? Can economic and social progress be achieved without political and civil rights? Is international human rights law too idealistic and not pragmatic enough to be realistically applicable?

There is no question that whenever large sums of money are involved, human rights implications will follow. A large investment in Kazakh oil fields will undoubtedly further entrench the rulers.  But if a government is unwilling to listen to even its citizens, will it listen to other world leaders and investors? Perhaps it will—as they say, “money talks”.

Is it realistic to expect UK actors, who greatly need new avenues for economic growth and are seemingly unresponsive to proximal human rights issues, will risk a “slam dunk” investment in order to champion human rights (especially when that demand would likely be rebuffed by an insulated authoritarian regime)?

The stability and security needed for long term investments to pay off seems to exist in Kazakhstan. Is this the extent to which international actors care about human rights issues, or does a greater moral and long-term sustainable human development imperative exist?  

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