Thursday, February 4, 2010

Discovering Poverty

Only a few months ago there was great excitement about the 'discovery' of oil in Isiolo, in Kenya's Eastern province. This is not the first time oil has been 'discovered' there. Tens of millions of dollars have been poured into exploration without any commercially viable discovery. A few hundred thousand dollars were put into making local people think that they will benefit from being an oil producing region and no money at all went into cleaning up the pollution and environmental damage caused over the years.

A local politician was predicting that "Kenya will join Uganda in celebrating the status of a new oil producer". So far, Kenya is not celebrating. But neither is Uganda, despite discovering huge quantities of oil. This is not a new story of developing countries having enormous mineral wealth while their own people make nothing and lose a lot. It's the same old story of Nigeria, Sudan, South Africa, Botswana, Tanzania, Uganda and, indeed, Kenya. There's no reason why the story should change, as long as wealthy countries can get hold of all the oil and other resources they require.

As Uganda is finding out, deciding who gets to profit from the oil deposits is not up to them. It's up to their senior politicians, a handful of business people and a bunch of rich foreigners. If anyone who doesn't belong to one of those groups happens to have property or interests affected by work of extracting oil, that's their tough luck. Sure, some people will be employed for a while, but most of the top jobs will go to foreigners or to people who are already pretty well off. A hell of a lot more people will lose their livelihood, most of them being subsistence farmers and others who are just getting by.

Local consultation, democratic accountability, sustainability, environmental impact, social impact, these are all as relevant as condoms at a USAID sponsored HIV awareness programme. Tullow Oil and that bastion of corporate social responsibility Royal Bank of Scotland will be able to wallow together in their ethical vacuum without having to worry about petty matters like human rights, environmental contamination or mass evictions of people from their land. And no one need worry, the Ugandan government will compensate the oil company if anything threatens their profit margins.

Kenya should note what's happening in Uganda at the moment. Not that their politicians are likely to behave any differently if oil is discovered here. But maybe civil society groups here can start now, before the sort of secret negotiations seen in Uganda get going. It's hard to imagine what a developing country successfully extracting a natural resource would look like, where people in that country actually gained from the process rather than suffering greater poverty, disease and death.

Maybe oil will not be discovered in Kenya, or perhaps not yet. It's not that natural resources are a bad thing, but as long as developed countries and multinationals always have the upper hand when they are discovered, the resources might as well remain in the ground. Some Kenyans may not know how lucky they are, but many in Isiolo would still remember the fallout from the various explorations and 'discoveries' of the last few years.


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