Releasing datasets, changing mindsets: Arming citizens to follow the money

Written by Alice Powell, Publish What You Pay, and Laura Bacon, Omidyar Network.

This is the latest post in our blog series on ‘What kind of ‘data revolution’ do we need for post-2015?

Civil society members need data to hold governments to account

When asked why she campaigns for extractive transparency, Aminata Barry Toure from Mali explained, “Our country is rich in minerals and natural resources, yet our communities remain very poor.”

Indeed, citizens in many resource-rich countries often know that something is wrong: Natural resources and their exploitation are abundant, but there’s very little to show for it.

While this sentiment has been repeated by activists across the globe, few countries better illustrate this cognitive dissonance than Niger, ranked 186th on the Human Development Index and tied with the Democratic Republic of Congo for last place.

Niger is rich in gold and tin and is the world’s fourth largest producer of uranium (second-largest when the Imouraren mine eventually opens). However, 75% of Niger’s citizens live on less than $2 a day. Niger’s uranium fuels one light bulb out of three in France, but only 10% of Nigeriens have access to electricity.

There are several reasons for this paradox. For one, Niger has never been justly compensated for its uranium. Its partnership with uranium company AREVA, forged as Niger was liberating itself from the French empire, was unbalanced from the outset. For example, AREVA’s mines extracted uranium valued at more than 3.5 billion euros in 2010, yet the share for Niger and its citizens was 459 million euros, 13% of the total value.

Secondly, information on this disparity was only recently made available. Until 2012, civil society had little ammunition to prove their hunch that Niger was significantly losing out in the extraction of its resources. When the Niger government publicly announced that it would rebalance its historic relationship with AREVA, they used data disseminated by ROTAB (a network of Nigerian civil society organizations) to support their case. Thanks to data from the Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative, ROTAB was able to illustrate that mining contributed 5% to Niger’s GDP, while minerals made up 80% of Niger’s exports.

As well as losing out on billions in the first step of extraction, the Nigerien government has not always used revenues effectively. Ali Idrissa, ROTAB’s coordinator, explained that in 2007 the government received a signature bonus for uranium extraction from the Chinese mining company CNNC but spent 83% of it on weapons. Idrissa explained civil society’s response: “During the constitutional reform of 2011, we put all our weight behind a campaign so that revenues from the extractive sector are only used towards priority areas: education, health, agriculture, and developing a fund for future generations.”

Daggo in Niger is not seeing much revenue flow back to it

Daggo in Niger is not seeing much revenue flow back to it

ROTAB succeeded in its campaign, and a provision to this effect was included in the constitution. And ROTAB has been campaigning for years to ensure that communities local to extraction receive the 15% of mining taxes they are owed. However, without more data on extractives revenues, aid, budgetary spending, and service delivery, citizens cannot confirm whether the government has stayed true to these commitments.

Idrissa argues: “Transparency in the extractive sector would give us the means to oversee the exploitation of natural resources along the value chain – from the decision to extract to how the money is used, including how extractive sites are dismantled. This allows us to act as watchdog of the sector.” By demanding transparency and engaging citizens in participatory budgeting, activist groups such as ROTAB are ensuring the data, once released, will be used.

Secrecy and opacity have surrounded Niger’s natural resource management, and thus citizens have neither benefitted from revenues nor known what they were missing. A successful data revolution would transform this dynamic, enabling citizens to assess whether their government is being a judicious steward of the country’s natural resources and to put pressure on government officials if they are failing their responsibilities.

A healthy push and pull of information would enable activists, journalists, lawyers, and citizens to ‘follow the money’ and ensure that flows from extractive resources benefit everyone. On the supply side, governments need to liberate their data by publishing oil and mining contracts. On the demand side, civil society, parliamentarians, and local officials need training to understand and analyze the contracts.

A data revolution goes beyond the publishing and use of payment figures. It’s about liberating information hitherto kept secret, and internalizing the fact that certain data belongs in the public domain. In short, following the money is as much about the revolution in expectations as it is about data. It is not just releasing datasets, but also changing mindsets.

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