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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Economic Outlook: In a Well Timed Shift, Mexican President Embraces FDI in Energy Sector

Total Oil Produced in barrels per day(bbl/day) Mexico

Original Article:

President Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico on Monday, pushing one of the most sweeping economic overhauls here in the past two decades, proposed opening his country’s historically closed energy industry to foreign investment.

Mr. Pena Nieto’s goal, like those of presidents before him, is to recharge Mexico’s economy by tackling areas that analysts agree hinder its expansion, which has averaged just 2.2 percent a year since 2001, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Perhaps the worst of those is the creaky energy sector. Demand for energy in the country is growing so fast that Mexico could turn from an energy exporter to an energy importer by 2020, the government says.

Already, Mexico must import almost half its gasoline, mostly from the United States. Mexican companies pay 25 percent more for electricity than competitors in other countries, the government says. Although Mexico has some of the world’s largest reserves of shale gas, it imports one-third of its natural gas.

“With the reform that we are presenting, we will make the energy sector one of the most powerful engines in the economy,” Mr. Peña Nieto said at a ceremony to present the plan on Monday.

Mexico’s left-wing parties have been adamant that the Constitution’s 75-year-old prohibition on private investment should remain ironclad. From the right, the National Action Party, or PAN, proposed energy reform last month that would go even further than Mr. Peña Nieto to invite in private investment.

Public opinion is also suspicious about opening up the industry. A survey last year by CIDE, a Mexico City university, found that 65 percent of the public opposed private investment in Pemex, the state-owned oil monopoly.

The proposal would allow private companies to negotiate profit-sharing contracts with the government to drill for oil and gas. Under such a scheme, the reserves would continue to belong to the Mexican state, but investors would get a share of the profits. Private investment would be allowed in refining, oil pipelines, and petrochemical production.

Since the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement exempted energy from Mexico’s broad economic opening, presidents have attempted to loosen the prohibitions that give Pemex sole control over all oil and gas exploration and production. No joint ventures are allowed. Those past proposals have often withered in Congress.

But this time, the precipitous decline of Mexico’s energy industry may work in Mr. Peña Nieto’s favor.

Pemex, which was long an important source of crude imports into the United States, is spending more to pump less. As Mexico’s giant Cantarell oil field in the shallow waters of the Gulf of Mexico has declined, production has dropped 25 percent from the peak in 2004, to just over 2.5 million barrels of oil a day.

At the same time, the amount the government budgets for Pemex to invest has steadily climbed to $26 billion this year. To increase production and reserves, Pemex needs to drill in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico and in onshore deposits of shale oil and gas. But the company has neither the capital nor the expertise to increase production significantly, analysts say.

There are a number of reasons why now is the proper time for Mexico to open up its energy industry to FDI. Mainly;

1) Economic: Loose monetary policy is conducive to FDI. Investors can borrow at historically low rates, while energy is a relatively safe investment (if anything energy prices will only go up as the global economy strengthens). Even if Mexico puts strict regulations and high taxes on foreign operations (which it certainly should, more about this later), the opportunities for a relatively low risk-high reward investment exist. These factors will attract many potential investors, allowing Mexico to drive a harder bargain and secure the best deal for the Mexican people.

2) Political: Political instability and armed conflict in the Middle-East and Northern Africa make Mexico’s main competition for FDI much less attractive. Venezuela and Russia ramped up anti-Western rhetoric in recent months; the trust needed for large-scale investments may be compromised. Look at the updated 2013 Political Risk Map;  Mexico is arguably the most politically stable major oil producing country, both in terms of internal stability and in a regional context. When considering investing in extractive industries–with high start-up costs and very asset-specific capital investments–peace, stability, and trust are very important components of any deal. These factors are often more important than traditional “race to the bottom” incentives.

The Mexican people are right to be wary of private investment in their natural resources. Natural resource rents can be a powerful tool for human development, if they are used the right way. However, globalization in extractive industries in the past decades has been marked with human rights violations, corruption, exploitation, and violence. This so called “natural resource curse” is not inevitable, but without proper oversight and accountability, “bad” governments will always be willing to cut lucrative deals from themselves and private corporations, at the expense of society as a whole. 

I do not see this as an issue in Mexico for a few reasons. Primarily, the linkages between governance, extractive industries, corruption, and sustainable human development are now well understood by the international community. Mexico, by waiting to liberalize it’s energy sector, has the benefit of adopting best practices / avoiding worst practices from past ventures. There is also a strong belief in Mexico that the oil belongs to the people. Political opposition, once the energy sector is liberalized, will manifest itself as “watch-dog” organizations and other social accountability mechanisms. Social accountability (aided by social media and ICT), relatively good governance at the global and national level, alongside the comparative advantages addressed earlier, suggest that Mexico will have a very positive experience liberalizing its energy sector (assuming the political will to develop exists).

If Mexico’s natural resources stay underground, they cannot be utilized for development purposes. The article cites a lack of capital and expertise holding back the Mexican energy sector–FDI addresses both of these impediments.  A new trend Mexico may want to utilize is having private investors pay for development projects–such as schools, hospitals, or other human capital enhancing institutions–as a way of signalling the investors desire for a mutually beneficial and long term relationship. Furthermore, because of high taxes, private companies will make it a point to run operations as efficiently as possible, maximizing both their share and Mexico’s share of profits. A quadruple layer of private, governmental, international and social accountability will exist, diminishing opportunities for  embezzlement and corruption by state or private interests.

The time is right for Mexico to liberalize it’s energy sector from a policymaker and investors point of view. However, this does not necessarily mean that the Mexican lay-man will agree with this assessment. The Mexican people’s distrust of FDI in extractive industries is understandable; it is the Mexican governments job to educate the public, assuring them that policies and safeguards will be put in place to ensure that liberalizing the energy sector benefits society as a whole, not just vested interests.

“It is fine to appeal to rationality, but when it is about these issues, it’s indispensable to touch the audience’s heart,” wrote an analyst, María Amparo Casar, in the Excelsior newspaper last week.

In a democracy, big policy changes generally require popular support. The rational political economy argument for liberalizing Mexico’s energy sector is strong. The remaining road block is convincing the Mexican people that such liberalization is in their best interests.