Many of us donate money to help the poor overseas. But what we don’t realize is that, every time we fill up a gas tank, we may be indirectly giving money to hurt the poor overseas—by funding corrupt officials whose source of power is big corporate payoffs, not accountability to their citizens. Such officials, when they don’t simply steal the money, tend to squander it on vanity projects, including military buildup, rather than on education, health, or balanced economic development. Civil wars often break out as regional military leaders make a bid for a piece of the pie.
And so the cruel irony is that poor people often get still poorer and their lives more insecure, even as vast amounts of cash flow to their countries’ elites. “One of the most shocking [examples] of government corruption is the case of Equatorial Guinea,” says Cameroonian activist Valéry Nodem. Despite “huge revenues from oil, the population is still living in deep misery, and the regime is one of the most dictatorial in Africa, with recurrent human rights violations.” Indeed, while the country’s Gross National Product grew more than 900 percent from 1990 to 2007 after the discovery of oil, infant mortality rates remain among the highest in the world.
The problem is called “the resource curse.” But it isn’t some spell cast by the resources themselves, or some cultural failing indigenous to the global South. Rather, it’s a problem that is bought and paid for by the deep pockets and shallow consciences of resource-hungry large corporations—a sort of multibillion-dollar-a-year anti-foreign-aid program.
Needless to say, corruption financed by powerful, unaccountable foreign corporations is profoundly frustrating to global-South civil society: “I feel a great sense of despair when I see our political leaders wasting our best chance of self-determination,” says Nodem. “When these resources are gone and we haven’t developed our industries, our labor market, and our professional class, how do we get out of this poverty trap?”
Fortunately, as Nodem and other activists in the worldwide Publish What You Pay movement will tell you, there is a simple way to help the people most affected by the resource curse break it themselves: Let the sunshine in. The proposed Energy Security through Transparency Act, currently before the U.S. Senate, would require corporations listed on U.S. stock exchanges to disclose all payments made to foreign governments, their officials, or officials’ cronies. The bill asks President Obama to work with other G8 and G20 countries to get them to impose similar rules. It also leads by example by asking the president to sign the U.S. up to disclose its oil and mining revenues under the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, a voluntary program that has had limited success in increasing the leverage of transparency activists in the global South.
But, unlike the EITI, this bill will have teeth, as Nodem points out: “It will have financial consequences for companies that don’t respect the rules, and it is governed by the American rule of law, which is stronger than in our countries. We will feel benefit in a matter of months.”
Publishing the names and numbers—making it impossible for officials to siphon funds off under cover of darkness—would give civil society in resource-rich countries a fighting chance of following the money and holding their governments to account for it. It will also help corporations that want to be aboveboard not to lose out to more corrupt competitors—and it will help protect U.S. consumers and shareholders from the financial, as well as the moral, costs of provoking civil wars in resource-rich areas.
The message of anti-corruption activists is clear: It’s high time to make the world unsafe for kleptocracy.
Elizabeth Palmberg is an assistant editor of Sojourners.