The Split Personalities Of Aid, Transparency & Business


This post is written for: SOAR, Generation C Magazine & bathimpact

Nzalang Nacional Fans at Ticketing for Game 1 of the Africa Cup of Nations 2012

Photo by Pablo Manriquez

The African Cup of Nations is the 3rd most watched football tournament in the world. This year, one of its co-hosts is Equitorial Guinea, which happens to be the 3rd largest producer of oil in Sub-Saharan Africa. President Teodoro Obiang has been in power for 32 years, during which his regime has been connected with a whole litany of abuses of power – from electoral violence to failing to comply to international transparency standards to the extortion of public funds used to buy $32 million worth of property in the USA. There are numerous other teams in the tournament representing nations with highly valuable national resources that, all to often, do almost nothing to help average citizens while making politicians and corporate executives massively wealthy.

Transparency is one of the most fashionable global development movements of the last few years. It makes donors happy and it addresses some issues regarding the division of industry power between the global north and global south. On top of the good it can do to alleviate extreme poverty, transparency is something that pro aid advocacy organisations and their associated celebrity advocates (and their media coverage) can use to combat most of the common anti-development arguments: namely, the ones about money.

Transparency is a movement that has very high profile supporters in business – it’s easier to make a profit when doing deals doesn’t necessarily involve a margin-narrowing amount of bribery. This isn’t just the wittering of lefties: it’s an argument made by one time richest man under forty, Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and one that got him put in prison (there is a very good documentary on this subject). Most notably leading the charge is Bill Gates, now a figure who straddles the twin spheres of corporate enterprise and philanthropy so completely that he has become the figurehead of surprisingly large sections of ‘the fight on global poverty’ – as Bill Easterly referenced with this somewhat barbed tweet the other week, you can’t do much in global development without encountering the Gates Foundation.

(The article linked to in the tweet is well worth a read.)

Football is another industry that has something of a split personality – the institutions that rise to the top are three parts sporting excellence and two parts ruthless money-making expertise. Sepp Blatter, a man who has constituted the top of the worldwide governing body of the sport, FIFA, for the best part of fifteen years, is no stranger to the term ‘transparency’ if only from the wrong side of a headline.

He has been accused of what can charitably be referred to as ‘shenanigans’ on numerous occasions, particularly when it comes to issues of financial impropriety. Expecting anything to come from FIFA on these issues of transparency will be an extremely long wait. Fortunately, there are other organisational bodies that can step up.

EU legislation has been proposed that would require oil, gas, mining and forestry companies to publish all the payments they make to governments like that of Equatorial Guinea. This law would allow citizens to hold their government to account for the money received for oil and other things that you have to rip out of the ground at great expense and, often, to the enormous detriment of the local environment and people, even in the rarefied global north (heaven forfend). The UK, France and the European Commission have all supported the law so far, but fierce lobbying from oil companies determined to maintain the secrecy status quo threatens its progress.

One of the most important things about lobbying for increased aid and development spending is to lobby for that larger budget to be spent more effectively. Fortunately for everyone involved, it seems that aid organisations have started to get on board with this. Tom Murphy, who writes the excellent development blog A View From The Cave, recently wrote a post outlining how, in the face of ever increasing calls for lowered foreign aid budgets during the ongoing economic malaise, the humanitarian industry can start to help prove their worth to the general public:

“Providing disaster relief is hard and complex. IFRC’s Matthias Schmale, suggests that humanitarian organizations “Provide more credible leadership through less marketing and spinning, and ensure actions match words.”

An effort to make the industry of development more effective in the face of probable financial restraints is one that should be applauded. It also throws the actions of corporations and governments who hold barely dimmed resources like oil yet fail to positively affect the people of the country that they benefit from into sharp relief. In fact, it makes them completely reprehensible.

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One thought on “The Split Personalities Of Aid, Transparency & Business

  1. One of the most important things about lobbying for increased aid and development spending is to lobby for that larger budget to be spent more effectively. Fortunately for everyone involved, it seems that aid organisations have started to get on board with this.

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