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Does More Data Mean Enhanced Transparency? Ghana, Mexico, Tanzania and Tunisia Sector Experts Weigh In

Data is information. Information is power. This is especially true in the natural resources sector, where information asymmetry and technical knowledge gaps are barriers to accountability.

NRGI and many peer organizations advocate for more extractives data being made public, ideally in an open data format. At the annual advanced-level Reversing the Resource Curse: Theory and Practice course NRGI runs at Central European University in Budapest, I spoke to four participants to learn what the fight for transparency, accountability and the increased availability of published data really means for good natural resource governance.

I was joined by Tanzania Petroleum Development Corporation planning officer Diana Byonge; Ombudsman Energía México (OEM) market analyst Ricardo Ángel Granados; Tunisian Ministry of Energy, Mines and Renewable Energy Inspector of Economic Affairs and head of department Mehdi Ben Ameur; and Africa Centre for Energy Policy (ACEP) senior policy analyst Jo Ann Tackie, who is based in Ghana.

Sidra Khalid: In terms of extractives sector transparency progress, each of your countries is in a different place. Describe the local context you deal with.

Mehdi Ben Ameur: In Tunisia, we were under a dictatorship, which is a black box: nobody can see what’s really going on. As a new democracy, we have a lot of work to do in the extractives sector. We have started the journey toward transparency by publishing oil and gas contracts and that has helped our score on the Resource Governance Index.

Jo Ann Tackie: Over time, we’ve seen an improvement in oversight mechanisms. We’ve seen better laws and regulations that ensure that there’s more transparency and accountability. We publish contracts, report facts and figures, [and] gazette it in newspapers and online. We have a vibrant civil society and vocal media body that creates a good environment. Over time, we’ve learned lessons from the mining sector, where we started and made so many mistakes. With Ghana beginning to venture into oil and gas, you can see the application of lessons learned from mining over time so there’s definitely a vast improvement.

Ricardo, you work for a key oversight actor. What is OEM’s role in Mexico?

One of our main activities is to collect data that is scattered everywhere, make it less technical and make it publicly accessible. For example, electric companies publish their price levels every hour, every day. So you have rows and rows of data, which is not useful for consumers. Data without processing doesn’t tell the story. We tell the story and then ask the important questions. In this way, people can see if what they expect from the government and the national oil company is actually happening and if the promises they have been hearing all this time are being kept.

Publishing data is a big advocacy point for NRGI. But sometimes this leads to an information overload. The story behind the data gets lost. Are you facing these challenges in your country?

Jo Ann: Data that is required to be public by law in Ghana is easily accessible, but it’s very technical. Different organizations interpret it differently. Now, there’s a big gulf between what the data actually is and what the data means. Sometimes governments will say, “You asked for the data, we’ve given you the data.” But it’s not as simple as that.

Mehdi: Our sector is highly technical and civil society has an important role in bridging this gap between industry and citizens. In Tunisia, we work on communications between ministries and governmental agencies to simplify data so citizens understand issues better.

Ricardo: What is challenging to us is gathering information from different sources. The financial data is in the Economy Secretariat, the production data is in the Energy Secretariat and then the commercial evaluation of the company is on the New York stock market. You have to know where the data is, because it’s not obvious. Then, once you find the numbers, they might differ from one source to another and you have to start looking into why. You have to know the context of the number you are looking at.

Diana: In Tanzania, we have different institutions publishing different data sets in the sector. The problems lie in interpretation. For example, we now have a lot of politicians saying that we’ll be moving from liquefied petroleum gas to natural gas, which is cheaper than LPG. Everyone expects cheaper gas prices now, but if the published prices are not lower, that will be an issue. And then the standards of measurement can be problematic. We use British thermal units, that doesn’t mean anything to ordinary people. We have a communications unit that works on public awareness seminars and education, but there is a long way to go.

After two weeks of Reversing the Resource Curse: Theory and Practice, are there any lessons or next steps you’ll take back to your country?

Jo Ann: For me, it’s understanding different viewpoints in tax matters. The company has to make money, but the government also needs a good deal to ensure the whole country develops. It’s about finding that middle ground. For me, it makes me want to look at our contracts again and ask: are we at that middle ground?

Ricardo: I acquired a toolset for measuring and evaluating transparency. I’m excited to see how I can apply this to improve our work and oversight for the government and companies in the sector.

Diana: The negotiation exercise was amazing because that is what I am actually doing right now. We meet monthly to negotiate with the government and politicians who don’t see these issues as a priority. So when I go back, I’ll prepare a presentation for my colleagues on what I’ve learned here and also to try to change the system from within, because it begins with me.

Mehdi: I’ll be paying special attention to corruption red flags and benchmarking any issues against other country’s experiences to learn from how they dealt with challenges in the natural resources sector. Many of the issues I’ve learned about at the course are at the heart of my job. I now have a template to follow in Tunisia, which will help in my work and enable me to do something positive for my country.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Reversing the Resource Curse: Theory and Practice is held annually in partnership with the School of Public Policy at the Central European University. Click here to learn more.

Sidra Khalid is a capacity development program assistant with the Natural Resource Governance Institute (NRGI).