No-one wins in the race to the bottom: five reasons to be cheerful this Party Conference season

Over the last three weeks, all visitors to the UK might well be forgiven for thinking that the titan of British business is marigold manufacturing.

Whether it be David Cameron rolling up his sleeves to mop up Labour’s mess or Ed Miliband preparing his hard hat for some serious Britain (re)building, the message from this party conference season has been clear: add a bottle of one nation disinfectant to your bag of electioneering props party people, because it’s time to clean up the country.

It’s back to basics, belt and braces. Land of hope and Tory. Making work pay. Paying people to work. Cleaning up politics? We’re through the looking glass now. It’s time for a reality check, for rigour and strategy. We’re all in this together, after all.

With more of the pervasive political rot exposed in recent weeks by the oddly Shakespearean Campbell/McBride doubleact, the unions up in arms, Nigel Farage tinkering away at the fringes (at times, literally) and the various wings of the Lib Dems locking their philosophical horns on everything from plastic bags through to pornography, never has the average politician’s share price been so low.

This is perfectly normal. With a year and a half to go until the next General Election, this year’s conference season followed a standard holding pattern, with the party leaders lobbing a few grenades across the bows before all out warfare takes hold next year. It’s time to air the dirty laundry, both inside and out of the various party HQs and make sure that everyone knows that the other team aren’t worth trusting with the petty cash tin at a coffee morning, let alone the UK economy.

But is Britain really as broken as our politicians suggest? I’d argue not. Ever the optimist, I’d like to take a moment to celebrate some of the political breakthroughs we’ve seen this year.

  1. The IF campaign – over 50,000 people turned out in London and Belfast, hundreds of MPs of all parties were lobbied by their constituents, with 70 attending the launch and even more taking action by writing to ministers, asking parliamentary questions or attending local events run by supporters.
  2. The G8 – thanks to IF campaigners, both civil society and parliamentarian, land grabs and tax and transparency made it onto the international agenda in spectacular style. The UK Government has also kept its promise to spend 0.7% of GNI on aid – something development organisations have been campaigning for since the 1970s.
  3. The EU Accounting and Transparency Directives. Sound dull? These magic pieces of legislation will ensure that companies publish what they pay for developing countries’ precious natural resources, a serious step towards transforming a system rent with conflict and corruption. MEPs of all UK parties, bar UKIP, cooperated on this crucial legislation and can be proud of the role they have playing in unearthing the truth on corruption.
  4. Rape as a weapon of war will never be accepted. Last week at the United Nations, 120 countries promised for the first time to join British Foreign Secretary, William Hague, in his campaign to stamp out impunity for rape and sexual violence in conflict situations. In his party conference speech, Hague explained that his aim is also to change global attitudes and work towards full economic, social and political rights for women, no matter where they live.
  5. Action for those affected by the Syrian conflict. The debates in the British parliament were a tortured, Westminster-ified affair, but since then our politicians have worked to provide an extra £87 million of aid to the UN World Food Programme, on top of the extra £100 million of aid pledged by Nick Clegg at the UN General Assembly last week, taking British aid to Syria up to £500 million, our biggest ever relief effort. And then yesterday, the UN Security Council agreed on a statement urging the Syrian authorities to grant access to the country for humanitarian agencies so that they might finally get help to those who need it the most. There’s still far more to do, but a lot that the British people can be proud of.

With two months left to go, these are just five of the many reasons we can be proud of 2013. Can Britain do better than this? Undoubtedly. But should we be buying into the headlines which tell us that our society is in pieces that it would take all of the King’s (read Queen’s) horses and men to fix? I would still argue not. Instead, let’s look at the achievements of 2013 and build upon them in the year ahead, instead of swallowing whole the daily headlines of recrimination and despair. After all, as Ed Miliband pointed out during his conference speech, no-one wins in the race to the bottom. 

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How can the EITI become more relevant to people’s lives?

This week board members of the EITI (Extractives Industry Transparency initiative) will be meeting in Oslo to discuss how to strengthen the initiative so that it meets its aim of increasing transparency, public debate and accountability over the management of oil, gas and mining resources. Key questions will be discussed, such as whether to require extractive industry companies to disclose contracts, project level information the beneficial owners of licences, as well as how to ensure this information is presented in a way that reaches the right audiences in an accessible and understandable way.

In the light of these debates, Revenue Watch Institute, Paz y Esperanza and Tearfund have recently published a report into the use of EITI information in Peru published through its first report.

Women in Vinchos Community, Ayacucho at information meeting by mining company

Women in Vinchos Community, Ayacucho at information meeting by mining company

The EITI is now implemented in 37 countries and EITI reports present information on payments by oil, gas and mining companies, as well as the receipts by governments, and try to reconcile any differences. The subsequent dissemination of the results aims to enhance transparency, public debate and accountability over use of extractive industry revenues.

The research found that there had been little impact in Peru so far. Various reasons were given and are covered in detail in the report, but below I mention just three clear suggestions for change given by the potential users of the information.

1. Provide information that is relevant to people’s lives

The overwhelming response from local communities was the desire to know what impact the revenues from extractive industries were having on their daily lives. Put simply – what money was paid for the mining project in their community, what reached the district and what was it being spent on. The other main demand – more at national level – was to know the terms and conditions of contracts, with concerns that many of these were not negotiated in the interests of the country, but had been the result of underhand political deals. Both are needed to make the EITI relevant.

2. Work with ‘info-mediaries’ to interpret the information

Many of those interviewed complained that the information they received – particularly in long reports – was too complicated and difficult to understand. Others said that they wanted additional information on the full ‘extractive revenue routes’ from contracts through revenue payments to government spending and impacts.

Recommendations were for groups such as NGOs, media organisations and universities to act as ‘info-mediaries’ (information intermediaries) to interpret complex information and present it in a way that is understandable and relevant to different audiences. There is a role here for greater support from EITI national secretariats as well as donor agencies, and it should also be considered as part of the G8’s transparency agenda.

3. Analyse the context and link to wider social and political processes

The context in Peru is one of rapid development and expansion of oil, gas and mining activity, which has been accompanied by increased social conflicts. In December 2012, the government’s Ombudsman recorded approximately 230 conflicts, more than half of which were related to the exploration and exploitation of minerals. The most high profile case is the ongoing conflict over the Conga mine in Cajamarca, which has paralysed operations for over a year.

The country is largely divided into ‘pro’ and ‘anti’ mining camps and this affects any work by the EITI, with it being seen by some as a government initiative and therefore ‘pro’ mining and not to be trusted.

Although the EITI is not a panacea to resolve all of Peru’s problems, it needs to link closely to the dominant political issues such as environmental protection and local development planning if it is to remain relevant and contribute to better natural resource management and wider reforms. As one respondent from Cajamarca commented:

‘The EITI only plays a role of] informing and disseminating, but many people ask us what use this reconciliation is if it goes no further than making recommendations. A number of people have asked us what point there is in Peru being a compliant country if this has no impact on conflict resolution.’

 [A version of this article was first published on the EITI website and reproduced with kind permission]

2013 – will the UK deliver transparency?

Exports of African oil and minerals totalled around $333 billion in 2010, nearly 7 times the $48 billion of international aid given to the continent.[1] However, such wealth often provides little benefit to the people living in these countries due to opaque systems that facilitate corruption.

In a world where there aren’t endless pots of money available, we need to ensure that resources – whether from tax, investment or aid – are used to tackle poverty and are not lost along the way.

Increased transparency is one part of the solution.

Tearfund has over a decade of experience working to make government, society, and economy work well, and especially for the poorest. When we ask our partners what they want, the request to support them in fighting corruption comes back time and again. So we help them hold their governments to account. And it works. By pushing budget transparency, partners in Tanzania have seen schools being built and health centres stocked with medicines.

Local budget tracking committee in Tanzania

The UK government recognises that transparency is critical for effective government, engaged citizens and efficient public services. It has set itself the ambitious aim of becoming the ‘most open and transparent government in the world’. This does not stop at our borders: David Cameron is clear that transparency and fighting corruption are part of the ‘golden thread of conditions that enable open economies and open societies to thrive’.

This has borne fruit domestically. DFID came top in the recent rankings for aid transparency and the UK government came third in the Open Budget Index for transparency in budgeting. But if open government is to make a real difference to the world’s poorest people, the UK government must grasp the opportunities of 2013.

As co-chair of the Open Government Partnership (OGP) and chair of the G8, the UK has a unique opportunity to coordinate governments, the private sector and citizens to ensure that resources are used to tackle poverty.

Specifically, we are looking for international action on transparency in government budgets, tax payments, and natural resource revenues.

Transparency in government budgets

Beyond the red box photo calls, budgets can seem dry and boring. But cash is king, and budgets are the heart of government activity. They show where money comes from, and where it goes. As “pasty-gate” reminded us, no budget decision can go unnoticed in the UK.

UK Chancellor George Osborne presenting the budget

But many governments do not have transparent budgets or allow citizen participation. A lot of money can go missing as a result. The good news, as shown by the Open Budget Index, is that improvements in this area are possible reasonably quickly through concrete government action.

The UK should work with other governments – both in the global north and south – to reach the highest standards on budget transparency and citizen participation. The OGP provides a real opportunity for this.

Transparency in tax payments

Research by Christian Aid has estimated that tax dodging costs poor countries US$160bn a year, again money that could be used by developing country governments to invest in vital services and meet the Millennium Development Goals.

Global action is needed to develop and implement rules which prevent companies avoiding their responsibilities to pay taxes, including the automatic exchange of information between revenue authorities, country-by-country reporting of revenues for all sectors and tackling tax havens.

The UK needs to be ambitious in pushing for concrete action through the G8 and G20.

Transparency in natural resource revenues

As mentioned above, revenues from natural resources often fail to deliver the promised benefits.

The UK government has shown strong leadership in this area, pushing for effective EU transparency legislation for companies to publish what they pay to host governments, in line with comparable US rules.

To have the greatest impact, other countries such as Canada, Australia, China and South Africa need similar legislation. Here the UK government can bring together leaders of resource-rich countries to develop global standards of natural resource governance.

On a final note, the government must lead by example by joining the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), and encouraging other G8 and G20 countries to join. With the EITI providing a forum for business, civil society to improve participation, transparency and accountability of natural resource management, surely the most transparency government in the world would want to part of it?

Graham Gordon

Senior Policy officer – Governance and Corruption

Tearfund


[1] OECD, (2011), Development At A Glance. ODA to Africa, p2 and WTO, (2011), International Trade Statistics, Merchandise trade by product, Table II.23