Foreign Policy Blogs

What The UN Can Do

For most of its existence, the UN hasn’t dealt with oil, gas or mining much. It has gotten involved on mostly small scale, small bore development projects, and, of course, the disastrous oil-for-food program in Iraq. Natural resource development is considered an internal matter, and one involving the private sector — a part of the universe the UN has had little to do with. But with the high number of extremely bad and dangerous situations involving natural resources, the UN cannot and should not stay on the edges of the issue much longer.

Right now, it has a small grant from the EU to try to address conflict and natural resources, including extraction resources, water, and land. A small group is working on a handbook on dealing with natural resources and conflict for relevant country offices. It’s tiny, but it’s a start.

The UN can’t, and never will be allowed to, police natural resource situations even if it had the desire, which I doubt it has. It is caught between the desire of its member states for internal sovereignty and control over its own territory and the howling needs of the people of those countries, stuck in a situation where they have no control over what happens to the land they live on or the water they drink.

I have a few starting suggestions on what could it say to alleviate the situation with extractabler resources, especially non-confrontationally. Of course, all situations are individual and each will take on a life of its own in response to the specific situation

1) Establish tighter universal environmental guidelines that protect land and water at Western levels or beyond, that include environmental studies of local impact. Sometimes corruption allows for lax protections but much of the time it is lack of government capacity and intimidation by the company. Tighter standards are the problem of the extraction companies (meaning they are the ones who pay the costs), and while they always whine and moan how environmental protection means they can’t afford to drill, somehow they always find a new creative way to meet new and tighter standards. And they still make money.
2) Make sure the contract includes mutually acceptable emergency plans and backstops for accidents and disasters.
3) Make sure the plan includes reclamation plans that are locally specific and enforceable. This is also paid for by the company.
4) Offer detailed information about the extraction process, especially its environmental impact, to the people of the area, the national and local media, civil society groups and the government, so everyone knows what to expect.
5) Offer informational and supportive workshops to local civil society so they can determine and control the local impact of the project — socially, economically, environmentally. Support their involvement in the negotiation process.
6) Push for independent economic and environmental impact assessment requirements before the contract is signed or the project starts.
7) Help everyone manage expectations about how long a good contract takes to write and, especially,  about the money. Governments — everyone — see oil or gold or whatever as the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. It isn’t. Honest economic projections and financial commitments should be done ahead of time. And one selling point that companies (and some governments) always announce is that the project will create jobs. Extraction processes rarely do and most of the jobs will be turned over to skilled outsiders.
8) Develop an inter- or intra-state oversight commission that can deal with emergent and on-going situations to deal with problems as they happen.
9) Identify where water is being wasted, misused or could be recycled.

And this is a more expanded list of possibilities.

1) Support international transparency initiatives by the World Bank and other groups. Dishonest governments (and their cronies) don’t want to say where the money is going; international corporations view secrecy as normal business practice. But governmental accountability is the bedrock of good governance and economic development — think of where Nigeria would be today if the $400 billion stolen over time through corruption had actually gone to infrastructure and the people. Corporations are slowly coming around to the idea, but need more reassurance (and pressure) to come clean.
2) Bring civil society into the contract negotiations. Defuse a potential conflict situation by takimg into account the concerns and needs of the people. This does lengthen the time it takes to complete a contract negotiation. But as a little old woman in my country of Pennsylvania was supposed to have said while holding out for better terms on a gas contract, “The gas has been there for billions of years. It’ll be there next year.”
3) Offer conflict prevention/resolution training to the personnel (of all levels) in the extraction company. Many international actors go into these development situations offering a school or clinic (that soon falls into disrepair); the Chinese have been building roads. This is PR and not substantive.
4) Broker the creation of an ombudsman office to help bring civil society and the corporations’ representatives (ones with some power to make things happen) together, especially on a regular basis.
5) Recommend that the country contractually obligate the extraction company to use local workers whenever possible.
6) Help the government develop a plan to share a portion of the wealth with the local community. Increasingly, countries are finding that, for peace, it is essential to offer to give the communities involved a cut in the royalties. This is the plan in Ghana, Uganda, and now Nigeria. There are a number of ways the income can be distributed and it should be up to the community involved.

Does anyone have any other ideas?



Jodi Liss

Jodi Liss is a former consultant for the United Nations, the United Nations Development Programme, and UNICEF. She has worked on the “Lessons From Rwanda” outreach project and the Post-Conflict Economic Recovery report. She has written about natural resources for the World Policy Institute's blog and for Punch (Nigeria).