My country, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), is rich in oil, gas, minerals and timber, but most of us, especially my brothers and sisters living in poverty, do not have a clue about our natural wealth. We don’t know how much money our government gets from companies for the right to exploit our natural resources. We have no clue how much money ends up in the pockets of government officials.
We do know one thing, however: money made by exploiting our natural resources ends up abroad and in the pockets of unaccountable political elites. The new European legislation could help to change this and that is why it is so important to us.
The EU transparency (pdf) and accounting (pdf) directives that are supposed to be adopted by June can only make a difference if they are not watered down. Our friends in the EU must demonstrate their commitment to Africa‘s development and turning the tide on poverty and injustice by not hindering the passage of these two directives.
First, companies must be required to report on payments not just on an aggregated, country basis but also on every financial dealing with official instances, with respect to all projects: leases, licenses or other ventures – including small ones. Even a “small” €10,000 ($13,257) project could have huge repercussions for surrounding communities. In addition to the impacts on the environment, various small mining projects employ children, who should be at school, in very poor working conditions.
Second, our forests are as valuable a resource as our oil, gas and minerals. Forests in the DRC are cut at an alarming rate and beyond any control. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the UN, 706,000 hectares (1,744,000 acres) were lost in the Congo basin between 2000 and 2010. These green lungs of our country and planet are a vital global public good and deserve to be managed carefully as such. Requiring timber companies to be transparent about all their financial dealings with official instances is a first step in the right direction.
Third, the information the companies are disclosing should be accurate and able to stand up to scrutiny. This is best ensured by making companies liable for the information they publish to meet reporting requirements. This information should be audited and included in their annual financial reports. The data should be available publicly and in an accessible format, which is needed to allow adequate monitoring by African citizens.
These are crucial concerns. Yet they are just a starting point. If my brothers and sisters living in poverty in the DRC and all over the world are to fully enjoy their countries’ riches and benefit from commercial investment, companies will have to become far more transparent. Companies operating in all sectors will have to provide accurate and publicly accessible information on all their financial accounts (not just payments to governments), information on their subsidiaries, the number of people they employ, their annual turnover and profits, and this on a country and project basis.
What may seem a highly technical matter to some will determine the odds for a better future of many. It is time to shed light on opaque business.
This article was published by The Guardian on 30 April 2012.