Lebanon’s progress to cultivate wealth from its offshore oil and gas resources has left us with more questions than answers. While the country will not extract any resources for at least five years, the agreements being negotiated in the next 12 months will determine whether Lebanon gets a good deal or not.
Over the course of five days, seven leading thinkers will discuss different aspects of the resources — from avoiding environmental destruction to how to spend the new wealth — each with the aim of helping provoke awareness about what is going on in this crucial period.
For our third segment, OpenOil's Zara Rahman discusses how to push the government to be transparent.
Transparency has become something of a buzzword for Lebanese politicians, most recently former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, as they suggest ways to avoid corrupt practices and bad governance in the country's nascent gas industry. But publishing information and signing up to transparency initiatives is not enough; this transparency needs to be coupled with information accessibility in order for the information provided to bring actual value to the process, and it needs the Lebanese people to stay involved and interested in what the government is doing with their natural resources.
One way of understanding transparency in the extractive industries can be as making information public about what is going on, at every stage of the value chain. To prevent hidden favors, governments should be publishing contracts, releasing procurement tenders online and announcing licensing rounds and bidding rules to the wider public at the same time.
But the problem with this type of transparency, at least in the extractive industries, is that often the information released cannot be understood by the vast majority of the population. As such its value is lost, simply because it is not coupled with the tools needed to understand and use that information. The fact that a government is putting information online – often without advertising how to find it or putting in a format easily read and understood – does not necessarily contribute in concrete terms towards making it a 'transparent' government.
Take, for example, the Kurdistan Regional Government, which has published their signed contracts online. This step was welcomed as a clear sign of their commitment towards a transparent and open extractives sector, and rightly so, but the fact that the contracts are available only in Adobe Flash format has a huge effect on the way they can be understood. This format means that only one page can be viewed at a time from the KRG website, and also that only one page can be printed at a time. Without being overly critical – because their very decision to put the contracts online has been a great step in the right direction – the format they chose (whether this was a conscious decision or not) hindered the accessibility of the information.
Other countries have released statements saying that they have decided to put their contracts online; but a search for them comes up with nothing. Whether that means that they then decided to take them down, that they put them online on an obscure URL where people are unlikely to find them, or whether they were simply lying in the first place is not clear. What is clear, though, is that statements of transparency effectively mean very little unless a government takes the extra time to ensure sure that people can easily access that information.
Furthermore, we need to help people get past the legal jargon as oil contracts are often seemingly impenetrable to the untrained eye. To an oil and gas contract lawyer, these contracts can reveal huge amounts of information about what was focused upon in the negotiating room, what was conceded by the company and the government, and who is getting the 'best' deal out of the contracts. But to anyone else, reading the contract from scratch can be a thankless task; like reading a foreign language without a dictionary.
International organizations are taking steps now to make these contracts accessible: including (disclaimer: a project the author was involved in) OpenOil, which produced the first non-specialist guide to understanding contracts last November, released under the Creative Commons license. This book was designed to be a guidebook to allow citizens to really understand the issues covered in oil contracts, in order for them to act as an effective and real watchdog upon both their government and companies.
Other tools are also available, in the form of training courses around contracts and policy issues, and internet-based resources such GOXI – the social network which brings together experts working on governance of the extractive industries worldwide.
So let's say, in theory, that the Lebanese government really commits to transparency, and provides a single resource center where information on the process can be found – including any contracts the government may sign with international companies and clear announcements for calls to tender. The next crucial step is finding people within Lebanon to take that information and use those tools to really get inside the process and understand what is going on.
This group of people does not, necessarily, have to be civil society; it could also be people from the local private sector, who want to ensure that they have the best possible chance of gaining business from the deals their government is making with international oil companies. Or it could be engineering students who want to be sure that they are getting the opportunity to be trained to international standards by the companies – in contract speak, that there is a strong “local content” clause. Or, even better, a mixture of many different groups – the more people involved in really understanding that information and making well informed decisions on what should or should not be happening, the better.
These people need to take the tools available now, and begin to really understand what can, or should, be going on in the industry. This group of people, however small, can then disseminate the information to the wider public in more comprehensible terms; essentially democratizing the whole process and allowing the highest number of people possible to really have a handle on what is going on with their oil and gas industry.
In order for Lebanon to have the best chance of a corruption free and responsibly managed oil and gas sector, the commitment towards transparency needs to come from all levels of society. The government cannot do this alone; it needs citizens to act as a watchdog, both for the government itself and on the companies it is doing business with. These citizens must make sure that every party involved is acting in an economically and socially responsible way. Knowledge is power; and this power should belong to the Lebanese people, just as the natural resources do.
Zara Rahman is a Research Associate at Berlin-based transparency organization and publishing house, OpenOil