A cure for the resource curse? Ask the people.

Friday, 27 March 2015 09:49 GMT

In a 2007 file photo, Grace Debroha, a 13-year-old orphan, writes the names of body parts on a chalkboard at St. Jude's Orphanage, outside Gulu in northern Uganda. REUTERS/Edward Ou

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East African countries rarely ask people how they want oil and gas revenues used, so researchers are posing the question

What do the people want?

It's a simple enough question but one that East African countries rarely ask when it comes to deciding how to use the revenues from their oil and gas discoveries.

A group of American researchers sat down to think of ways that Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Mozambique, which have major oil and gas finds, could avoid the rampant corruption, community conflict, violence and poverty commonly called the “resource curse” that has plagued so many resource-rich countries.

They are testing whether talking to citizens about natural resource wealth ahead of time can build trust and help countries make better decisions on how to invest the revenues.

"There is an underlying assumption that the misspending of natural resource revenues is because people demand spending now and they lack foresight," said Justin Sandefur, research fellow at the Center for Global Development.

"We are interested to see what actually people say when you ask them."

For Uganda, the results are in.

A poll of 2,714 people in 304 villages conducted in mid-2014 found the top priority was to use oil revenues for social programmes such as health and education, which development experts consider critical to achieving long-term prosperity and growth.

More surprising perhaps was that saving for the future came in second place, followed by infrastructure. This ran counter to the popular view that citizens have a short-term perspective and want to see the money spent now.

The researchers also found a high degree of national consensus. Communities in western Uganda where the oil finds are located and villagers outside the oil-rich region expressed similar priorities, suggesting that if the national government delivered programmes equitably, oil revenues need not stoke the type of inter-regional rivalries seen in Nigeria.

"It comes down to fairness," said Laura Paler, assistant professor of political science at the University of Pittsburgh who conducted the Uganda research with Guy Grossman from the University of Pennsylvania and Jan Pierskalla at Ohio State University.

The researchers also found citizens have high expectations for the benefits that would flow from oil, hold President Yoweri Museveni's government in high esteem, and have little willingness for political engagement around accountability and transparency over oil revenues.

The researchers present their findings to civil society groups in Uganda in May.

In Tanzania, Sandefur is completing a similar survey of 2,000 citizens. He also found a high level of interest in social welfare investments and high levels of confidence in the government's ability to deliver.

The trust in government was a surprise, and holds a lesson for non-governmental organisations, the researchers said.

Foreign donors and NGOs have many programmes to increase community awareness about natural resource revenues, and they focus on pressuring governments and companies to release more data about their extractives contracts.

Many governments prefer to keep its contracts and plans under wraps. In Tanzania, for example, a high-level panel meets behind closed doors to draw up its policy for huge gas reserves. In Uganda, the government called keeping contracts secret a matter of national security.

While government secrecy certainly smacks of enabling corruption and runs counter to the global transparency mantra, this research suggests that NGOs might do well to take a subtler approach when they work with citizens, said Grossman.

In Uganda, people have a "don't rock the boat" approach toward how the government uses the resource wealth, and if NGOs are antagonistic towards the government, it may not be well received in the oil areas, he said.

Instead, NGOs could do well to focus more work on non-oil regions. A better understanding now in these communities of how revenues will be distributed could avoid inter-community resentments that fuel violence in the future.

"The question of fairness and distribution is key in avoiding the resource curse," Grossman said.

Their research has not yet been published.

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