Few people may have noticed but a potentially game-changing decision was taken on Tuesday in the Tanzanian town of Arusha by the Southern African Development Community-Parliamentary Forum (SADC-PF) – when its Plenary Assembly unanimously adopted the Southern Africa Resource Barometer.
Developed over the past three years by the SADC-PF and the Southern Africa Resource Watch (SARW), the Barometer is a set of clear principles for measuring transparency, accountability and equity in the exploitation of the region’s vast natural resources – principles that will empower parliaments and parliamentarians to play a more constructive role in the oversight of the extractive sector.
And more rigorous oversight is urgently needed.
In recent years, the scramble for access to Africa’s natural resources has intensified, fuelling an economic boom in many mineral-rich countries, particularly in southern Africa – a boom that could have been the driving force behind real socio-economic development.
However, soaring GDP rates have not benefited everyone. Instead, foreign companies and domestic elites have raked in huge profits, while mining communities have been left poorer than before – with their water and air polluted, their environment degraded and their rights violated.
Many people are sceptical that the situation will ever change, that mining companies and their government collaborators will ever march to a more responsible, sustainable and ethical tune. But there is actually a historic opportunity now for real progress in southern Africa.
The African Mining Vision has finally produced a charter that all African countries can use to improve the governance of their natural resources. The SADC Mining Policy is also at an advanced stage, while a variety of approaches are being pursued at the national level in a number of countries, such as the renegotiation of contracts, value added strategies, and debates about various ownership models, including the creation of state mining companies.
But to achieve change, countries need to strengthen those institutions that are essential to controlling, directing and overseeing the mining sector. In particular, parliaments need to be given the skills and knowledge to perform their role better – and this is where the Barometer comes in.
Enhanced by contributions from members of all 14 SADC parliaments, civil society activists, selected mining companies and community members, the Barometer will help parliaments to monitor and evaluate the management of their countries’ extractive industries from negotiating contracts to working conditions to revenue sharing, and from environmental protection to corporate social responsibility to the final closure of each mine.
Now that it’s been adopted by the SADC-PF, the Barometer can start to be used to strengthen the capacity of parliaments and parliamentarians across the region – helping them to conduct far more efficient oversight of the natural resource sector and so ensure that the benefits of southern Africa’s mineral wealth are spread more broadly and equitably.
However, these principles will not only enhance Parliamentarians’ oversight role, they will also increase interaction between governments, companies and parliaments on the one hand and between parliaments and citizens on the other hand. And it is not just a tool for parliamentarians since civil society groups, labour organisations, the media and communities will also be able to use the Barometer to shine a light on the often murky operations of mining companies.
All of this will increase transparency, accountability, respect for human rights and protection of the environment and promote real and sustainable development that will benefit all SADC citizens, especially in those countries where mining contributes between 40-90 percent of their national budgets.
Needless to say, the Barometer is not a ‘silver bullet’ but boosting the ability of parliaments to oversee the mining sector will go a long way towards improving governance of this vital sector. In many cases, southern Africa’s legislatures have abdicated their responsibilities when it comes to natural resources – allowing the executive and mining companies far too much freedom and secrecy – with disastrous results for local communities and the majority of the people in the region.
It is time for all parliaments to take their oversight role seriously – to realise that by keeping an eagle eye open, they can make a real difference. And the Barometer will help them to do that by providing a series of clear guiding principles for them to use – principles which they themselves have drafted, refined and adopted.
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