Jan 18th, 2013 3:00 PM UTC
By Katherine Lay
Say that your country is blessed with natural resources. Oil, gas, minerals – it has it all. The future looks good. But deep down you worry that the bonanza could turn into a bust – maybe you live in Africa and have seen how windfalls have been wasted before. How do you know that’s not going to happen now? Are there any tell-tale signs of sound management of “commodity wealth”?
Marcelo Giugale, the World Bank’s Director of Economic Policy and Poverty Reduction Programs for Africa, recently asked these questions and, in response, offers us a combination of measures that every government should have in place to help citizens get a good deal from their resources.
We’ve looked at four of these measures and how they’re playing out in Africa.
First Measure: Governments publish their extractives contracts
Extractive resources are public assets and decisions about their use should be subject to public oversight. But many African governments are keeping their oil, gas and mining contracts firmly under wraps. This is a problem because confidential contracts prevent citizens from holding political and corporate leaders to account for the deals they’ve struck. Closed contracts may contain unreasonable tax breaks, terms that contravene national legislation or clauses that allow companies to ignore changes in national law. By contrast open contracts help maximize gains for citizens, and are a deterrent to self-serving actions on the part of government leaders. They also increase investment stability for companies by securing balanced deals from the outset.
Contrary to warnings that contract disclosure turns investors away, the countries that have elected to go the transparency route have watched investor interest in their resources grow. After Liberia and Nigeria signed up to the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) – a voluntary global standard that promotes revenue transparency and open extractives governance – their credit ratings improved and foreign investment increased. Both countries have passed national EITI laws that make independently audited reporting of resource revenue payments and receipts legally binding. Sierra Leone, with its devastating history of mineral wars, is now publishing all its mining contracts online. Guinea’s new mining code mandates the same. Ghana has made its most important petroleum agreements publicly available and has established a Public Interest and Accountability Committee made up of government, corporate and civil society representatives to oversee oil revenue flows. It is also an EITI member, with a national EITI law in the legislative pipeline. Zambia’s parliament is set to enact its EITI law this year. In fact, the majority of member countries of the EITI are African (22 of 37 members), although some key extractives producers – notably South Africa – have yet to sign up.
Second Measure: Rent from the exploitation of extractive resources is saved for bad times and for future generations
Massive offshore oil and gas discoveries in East Africa, from Tanzania to Mozambique, are catapulting countries in the region into global energy players, and will bring in billions in windfall revenues that could transform entire economies. Planned investments exceed the current GDP of some host countries. Barely a month goes by without new discoveries of extractive resources across the continent. These provide unprecedented opportunities for countries to tackle poverty and to ensure more prosperous futures for their citizens. But for this to happen, a substantial share of revenues need to be invested in assets, with a sense of responsibility to future generations, rather than used for immediate consumption. Too many countries have made the mistake of depleting their resources, allowing revenues to disappear through unsustainable spending and consumption, and finding their coffers quickly exhausted.
Although there are mixed views on whether current African producers – even those with relatively strong governance records – are investing revenues adequately or distributing them equitably, there is no doubt that issues of rent beneficiation and the importance of long-term saving is now high on the African radar. Governments are recognizing that beating the resource curse requires prudent fiscal policies with long-term expenditure frameworks that prioritize investment in human capital and infrastructure.
Sovereign wealth funds can help countries smooth the volatility of resource-driven revenues by lowering the effect of boom and bust cycles resulting from fluctuating commodity prices. They can also help a country diversify its wealth. The continent is currently witnessing a scramble for sovereign funds, reflecting a healthy interest by African governments in saving for future generations and in buffering their economies against financial shocks. As long as these funds are transparently managed and well-structured, they can help keep a country’s economic trajectory firmly on the upswing. Botswana’s long-standing Pula Fund, financed for the most part by diamond revenues, has been a strong source of growth for a country that was one of Africa’s poorest in the 1970s and now finances the university education of over 90% of its students. As oil revenue starts to flow into Ghana’s coffers from newly discovered offshore reserves, the government is eager to reap the profits and pressure to spend is high. But the rapid development of the oil industry and the associated challenges for the government have made it critical to assure investors that a framework is in place to save oil money when energy prices are high. In response, Ghana launched its sovereign wealth fund last year. Africa now accounts for 14 sovereign wealth funds – Angola, Botswana, Nigeria, Libya and Algeria have them in place, and Tanzania will soon follow.
Third Measure: Governments pay off their debt
Debt dynamics have been driving global economic change over the last decade, not least in Africa. Overall, the benefits of debt relief and sustainable debt management are persisting. African governments are servicing their debt and borrowing responsibly. Debt stock ratios – which fell dramatically with debt relief – have risen only slightly since, and “debt-distress” risk ratings prepared by the World Bank and the IMF have improved markedly. The number of African countries rated as high-risk has halved since 2006 (from 18 to 9) and low-risk ratings are becoming the norm (from 5 to 13). Nigeria, South Africa, Namibia, Senegal, Cote d’Ivoire, Gabon, Ghana and Zambia are all issuing sovereign bonds on international markets and getting high levels of international investor interest as bond buyers seek higher yields than in the US and less default risk than in some Asian economies. Last year, Senegal issued its second sovereign bond, breaking new ground by successfully concluding a joint bond issue and exchange.
But risks remain high, especially for fragile states. Some emerging African economies have exceeded the globally acceptable benchmark of a no higher than 30% debt to GDP ratio, over which debt burdens become over-bearing. The IMF has warned that the build-up of public debt levels in South Africa since the global financial crisis is now a constraint on the government’s fiscal space as additional debt accumulation will likely raise funding costs. South Africa’s debt to GDP ratio for 2012-13 is 40%. Ghana’s ratio stands at 41%. Nigeria‘s ratio of 18% is relatively low, but, in contrast to South Africa and Ghana, a large portion of this debt has been used to plug holes in its budget rather than on capital projects. Kenya continues to be one of Africa’s debt success stories: in 2003, the debt ratio stood at 60%, declining to 40% by 2008 through prudent fiscal policies, economic reforms and sound budget management. Its debt currently stands at 45%, but is on track to return to 40% by 2014.
Fourth Measure: An audit of the government’s budget execution is done on time and made available to the public
The budget audit closes the accountability loop by giving an authoritative account of whether the government’s reporting of how it raised taxes and spent public funds during the budget year is accurate and whether it has complied with financial management laws and regulations. Budget audits are a key deterrent to corruption as they provide a means for public scrutiny during budget evaluation phases and, when published, promote a sense of trust in elected representatives.
The Open Budget Survey rates South Africa one of the world’s top performers, both on audit reporting and broader budget transparency. The government gives citizens a full picture of its plans for taxing and spending, publishing all key budget documents and an understandable citizen-friendly version of the official budget. Budget audits are published on time and online. The country’s budget framework creates disincentives for misappropriation of public funds and formalizes the participation of citizens in the budgeting process, developing a sense of ownership of outcomes through collective decision-making and helping ensure that expenditures are better directed towards pro-poor programs.
Uganda and Ghana – East and West Africa’s top performers – are also producing and publishing comprehensive audit reports, although their timeliness is problematic. Liberia’s audit institutions have been exceptionally active in promoting budget accountability, publishing audit reports on time and issuing press releases to signal their submission to parliament. The audits are discussed with citizens in public hearings and open forums all over the country, and are made available in schools and public libraries. Liberia’s legislature has also enacted a Public Finance Management Law that lays down the budget system to be followed by the government, and approved a law that limits the amount of funds the executive can transfer from one administrative unit to another at its own discretion. But Liberia’s story is not common. An ongoing problem across the continent is the limited time given to parliaments to look over budget proposals and audits, and limited powers to amend or challenge them.
Strong accountability institutions – parliaments, audit institutions, civil society organizations and the media – are essential to maintaining a connection between citizens and the public purse, and to ensuring that resource revenues are invested in social sectors that help secure better development outcomes. A broken connection enables diversion of public revenue from the policies they’re intended to finance and the services they’re supposed to deliver. This diversion, whether through misappropriation, embezzlement or plain inefficiencies, thrives when transparency and accountability are weak.
On a positive note, we’re seeing an emerging trend in Africa toward the adoption of practices that make it easier for citizens to follow public money and track spending results. South Africa, Ghana, Liberia, Tanzania and Kenya are all members of the new Open Government Partnership – a multilateral global initiative to promote compliance with open governance standards – and they’re showing commitment to strengthening their systems and opening up their practices to public oversight. But many African governments are still resistant to this trend. Whether they can remain so, in the face of citizen pressure to reform and in the wake of mass protests against corruption and the persistent lack of economic opportunities, is the question. As owners of their countries’ extractive resources, citizens are demanding their rights to profit from them. Public information and government accountability for what resources are available, how they’re spent and what results they achieve are the best guarantee that a country’s resource wealth will translate into lasting benefits for its citizens.
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