Capturing Africa's missing billions and making it work for its people

Oxfam co-hosted an event today featuring African politicians and academic and industry experts to discuss "How to make the African extractives industry work for African people."

For a continent so rich in natural resources, how is it that many of Africa's countries fall among the lowest in global rankings of economic growth, despite exports of minerals, oil and gas from Africa worth roughly seven times the value of international aid to the continent?

In our research, a statistic caught my eye.

Africa is said to be losing more than $60 billion of all its wealth each year, an estimated two-thirds of it from minerals, gas and oil. That's more than a billion dollars a week - week in, week out - with most of it lost offshore. It's being stuffed away into corporate tax havens, numbered bank accounts, mazes of shell companies, tax evasion, corruption, in price manipulations and similar ruses and dodgy dealings.

The OECD itself says the global tax system is broken. It has not kept pace with the transnational nature of our global economy. The opportunities for tax evasion and tax minimisation through clever accounting and profit shifting is robbing poor African countries of much needed revenue to tackle poverty and foster sustainable development.

For example, the Government of Zambia believes it is owed up to a billion dollars in unpaid taxes from copper production.

Maybe $60 billion seems familiar? Remember back five years. Lehman Brothers went bust on the back of toxic loans reckoned to be worth around $60 billion. I think there is some synchronicity here. Lehman took time to accumulate and detonate its $60 billion time-bomb. The world is still suffering the fall-out from that domino collapse, with ordinary people now paying dearly for the clean-up in the name of "austerity."

How extraordinary it is then that Africa is extracting from its earth and losing a Lehman-sized mountain of money every 12 months. Or that where Lehman provoked such terror and such action, in Africa, the minerals keep being discovered and its money keeps disappearing.

This hemorrhage of capital has been happening for at least 30 years. That's the finding of the African Development Bank, which calculates Africa having lost as much as $1.4 trillion in illicit financial flows between 1980 and 2009.

That's a lot of Lehmans. That's a lot of schools and hospitals and roads and bridges. "Africa's resource curse" could be in danger of becoming just another hackneyed headline.

However, I'm optimistic that this scandal is finally being taken seriously.

Africa's mineral wealth remains monstrous.

$11 billion in new finds, and hundreds of billions more in established flows, with much more no doubt still to come. Africa still has plenty of mineral assets. There's time to get it right, so that African people can properly benefit from the wealth beneath their feet.

I'm optimistic that all this mineral wealth could be realised for the benefit of ordinary African citizens because there is now political progress being made - slow maybe, but real, in capitals, in regions, and crucially in Washington and Brussels too.

Ghana for example has married its new mineral discoveries with an ambitious new petroleum revenue management law. Regionally, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has begun work on a regional mining code, intended to protect the rights of local communities. The Africa Union has adopted its 'Africa Mining Vision'. The G8 just last year endorsed the need for mandatory payment disclosure requirements as well as the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative. The EU Transparency and Accounting Directives and US Dodd-Frank Act now require oil, gas and mining companies to disclose payments to host governments, right down to the project level.

Other mining nations with a major presence in the countries of Africa, such as Australia, must get on board and introduce similar mandatory payment disclosure legislation, like that in the US, the EU and planned for Canada. There are more than 250 Australian companies operating today in the countries of Africa, and if you include the explorers, that number soars to 700 projects in 42 African countries.

These are all examples of the kind of solid foundations we need, to shine a light into the secrecy of the global extractives industries and to help shore up good governance in African countries.

The time is ripe for all these initiatives to be set into action. As Dr Nic Cheeseman, the Director of the African Studies Centre at Oxford University who is co-hosting the speaking event with Oxfam, says, how well African countries manage their natural resources over the next decade is the single most important factor that will determine whether or not the continent manages to sustain its fragile economic recovery.

We must redouble our efforts to understand how African countries can best manage their extractives industries and to support them. But we should not just focus on what African governments can do. Multinational companies and rich countries have often pursued self-interested policies to the detriment of African people.

Ensuring that Africa's mineral potential is made to work for the people of Africa requires a new approach, both inside and outside of Africa.

You may also like

More about Oxfam's work on extractive industries from Oxfam America and Oxfam Australia.

Read the Africa Progress Report 2013: Equity in Extractives

Share this page: