Jumping in the deep end

What the conflict around the Letpadaungtaung mine taught me about the EITI’s core mission.

Joining the EITI was always going to involve a steep learning curve, but joining Jonas’ trip to Myanmar in mid-January was a welcome jump in the deep end.

The issues involved went to the very core of the EITI, from the opacity of contracts covering mines of national importance to the role of an enabling environment for civil society to participate in the EITI, often one of very few forums for interaction. Indeed they touched upon the role of international efforts such as EITI in the stop-start, often torturous, process of national reform.

Stewing tensions

The brewing confrontation between civil society and government centred on the Letpadaungtaung copper-mine, that has elicited protests since 2012. Originally a joint-venture between a subsidiary of China’s North Industries Corp. (Norinco) and the military-controlled Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd. (UMEHL), the government exercised a 51% equity stake in the venture in 2013, diluting the other two partners to 30% and 19% respectively.

The shareholding change came in the wake of a Commission of Inquiry into the project, headed by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, following protests by civil society in late 2012 calling for a halt to the project. Most of the Commission’s other 96 recommendations, covering issues including compensation for previous landowners and the need to build trust and transparency, do not yet appear to have been followed. The resurgence of protests against at the project’s site in late 2014 witnessed the death of a female protester, Daw Khin Win, further escalating passions on both sides.

How the EITI got involved

As one of the only forums for dialogue between government and civil society, the EITI was swiftly brought into the crisis as civil society organisations (CSOs) argued that the handling of protests and subsequent government comments on the situation, deemed high-handed and accusatory, contravened the requirement of building an enabling environment for civil society – the EITI Standard’s section 1.3. It was in this context that Jonas and I visited, hopefully providing support and contributing towards all three stakeholders remaining at the Multi-Stakeholder Group (MSG) table.

The significance of the confrontation over Letpadaungtaung went well beyond these immediate implications however. “Within crisis lies opportunity”, to draw on an often-quoted Chinese saying that includes both danger and opportunity. Similarly, stakeholders in any EITI process have the choice to either look backwards or forwards, either viewing their participation in the EITI process through the prism of game theory, using their involvement as an instrument for negotiation, or as a means of open consultation and dialogue to build the institutional framework for accountability through the MSG. Of course in the case of Myanmar following decades of strife the process of building trust is slow and circuitous. While I have only been visiting Myanmar since early 2010, the transformations have already been dramatic. Yet for all the reforms that have been initiated, we still only stand at the start of a long journey.

More at stake than civil society space

The environment for civil society is certainly key to successful EITI implementation, yet there is also a parallel aspect to Letpadaungtaung that has garnered less intense media scrutiny.

The project’s contract and financial structure are shrouded in secrecy, albeit with elements disclosed as part of a Commission of Inquiry in 2013. This falls squarely within the remit and is arguably where the EITI process could help the most. The EITI, as an international standard, is part of a broader network of international initiatives ranging from the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights to the Open Government Partnership. This network of international forums and responsibilities constitutes a kind of new diplomacy reflecting global realities, one where civil society, business and government have permanent seats at the table. As such it is an instrument to be localised and used to address pressing requirements for transparency.

With information comes responsibility

With unprecedentedly extensive information now flowing through EITI, the priority is to do more in using this information. The old dictum that “information is power” may seem as self-evident as it is concise, yet I would argue that the process is neither automatic nor a foregone conclusion.

Information can certainly lead to empowerment, yet it remains a necessary but not in itself sufficient condition. Indeed in this dawning age of open data, the dangers of information overload and data fatigue loom large. Building on the information being divulged as part of EITI’s implementation in 48 countries, it now falls on stakeholders to use the information in creative ways.

Civil society can develop visualisation software and apps to both disseminate the (increasingly granular) figures more broadly and empower people to track extraction revenues. Disaggregated figures are also important for industry, not only in their compliance requirements but also as a reliable source of information on local production. This also yields increasingly significant benefits for government in terms of international recognition, improved credit ratings and ultimately terms of financing.

Some first successes, hopefully more to come

The events of the past week in Myanmar, where the extraordinary MSG meeting proceeded with measured and honest dialogue between the three sides, were significant in keeping the process on track. As the MSG matures, the quality of dialogue will improve and trust will develop. Learning trips involving the three stakeholder groups will be key in building bonds within the MSG. To nurture emerging institutions and organisations, such as the recently-formed CSO MATA (the Myanmar Alliance for Transparency and Accountability), the EITI process should also deliver some ‘quick wins’ in the short term for its members, ahead of the first formal EITI Report due by 2016.

It is clear already that both sides in the recent confrontation would have been more polarised had it not been for the existence of both MATA as a CSO and the EITI as a forum for discussion. Further steps could now range from dialogue on disclosure of contracts and beneficial ownership to establishing the mechanisms for consultation both within the MSG and beyond.

How information is used will determine the EITI’s success

The last week has demonstrated the value of EITI for Myanmar, but it also highlights the watershed at which the EITI now stands globally. With the first reports under the 2013 EITI Standard now being produced, the onus is on EITI and its stakeholders to encourage more productive use of the verified figures and contextual information being published. By expanding this outreach to potential users of the information we produce the EITI can demonstrate its value as more than the sum of its parts. This will further prove to participants in EITI that the benefits lie in collaboration rather than confrontation.

In a more personal way I am also joining this journey by moving from my previous life in a private business intelligence outfit to the EITI. It seems we are all moving from reporting and analysing, to concerted and concrete action, a transition I take with great pleasure and anticipation.

 

Alex Gordy joined the EITI International Secretariat in January 2015.