Transparent Governance in Latin America’s Age of Abundance

Editor’s note: This blog piece is based on findings from the new book Governance in an Age of Abundance: Experiences from the Extractive Industries in Latin America and the Caribbean, which will be launched at a Brookings public event later today. A Spanish version of this post is available on the Inter-American Development Bank’s website. 

The myth of Sisyphus represents in Greek mythology a metaphor for pointless and interminable efforts. Sisyphus was condemned by Zeus to push a huge boulder up a steep hill. Every time he was close to reaching the top, the boulder was made to roll back down the hill and to the starting point, so that Sisyphus had to start all over again, in perpetuity.    

This metaphor may sound familiar to countries rich in natural resources. In many of these countries, citizens have hoped for generations that the revenue derived from extractive industries (oil, gas and mining) would translate into concrete benefits. Instead, rents from extractive industries have frequently been misused, either through wasteful state spending or public and private corruption. In many countries, heavy dependence on revenues from extractive industries has produced economic and political distortions. Also, revenues are all too often centralized at the national level, leaving local communities to wonder about the benefits of hosting extractive industries.

Overcoming the ‘Resource Curse’

The good news is that there are countries that have found a way to overcome the so-called “resource curse.” In Norway, for example, the revenue deriving from the extractive industries supports a majority of government investment in education and health, as well as the pension system. While many resource-rich states can make the same claim, what makes Norway unusual is that it has been able to do so while minimizing corruption, mitigating economic distortions and ensuring efficiency in government spending at the same time.  

How did Norway do it? A look at the Natural Resources Governance Index (NRGI), developed by the Natural Resource Governance Institute, provides a possible explanation: by strengthening governance in the extractive sector. This implies establishing a robust legal and regulatory framework, agile mechanisms to promote transparency and disseminate information, effective safeguards and rigorous controls, and an overall institutional environment that is business-friendly and conducive to greater accountability in the public sector. And this is not a phenomenon unique to Norway, but it is replicated in other countries with large extractive sectors, such as Australia, Botswana and Canada.

Extractive Industries in Latin America and the Caribbean

Latin American and the Caribbean are at a crucial juncture in their effort to strengthen governance in the management of natural resources. On the one hand the above-mentioned NRGI, which measures the quality of extractives governance in 58 resource-rich countries, shows that among the eleven world leaders in quality of extractives governance, more than half are countries from the region (Brazil, Mexico, Chile, Colombia, Trinidad and Tobago and Peru). This is especially good news if one considers that Latin America and the Caribbean is the main source of metals at a global level, and that it holds the second largest oil reserves in the world. Latin America and the Caribbean are also remarkable because many countries have managed to develop large extractive sectors while at the same time avoiding the secessionist conflicts over extractives that plague resource-rich countries in other regions of the world.

On the other hand, Latin America still has to resolve some important issues. Overall, the region still falls short on rule of law and corruption measures in comparison to OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries. Social conflicts related to the exploitation of natural resources remain a sensitive issue in the region, especially when extractive industries operate in territories where indigenous communities have a significant interest and presence. Citizen demands regarding the control and mitigation of environmental impacts by governments and corporations are increasing, especially in terms of land use and conservation of water resources and forests. And many Latin Americans are increasingly demanding good governance and transparency in state spending.

Transparency is Key to Improving Governance

The recent IDB book Governance in an Age of Abundance: Experiences from the Extractive Industries in Latin America and the Caribbean (IDB, 2014), edited by Juan Cruz Vieyra and Malaika Masson, analyzes these challenges, particularly in light of recent initiatives to strengthen transparency in the governance of natural resources in the region.

The book focuses on two main themes. The first is on how best to improve governance in the extractives sector, especially in a way that promotes inclusive growth and takes into account the concerns of citizens. The key to this is governance mechanisms that include checks and balances to ensure that the needs of local communities are taken into account. The second theme of the book is a focus on evaluating concrete governance proposals, which include improved legislation, licensing arrangements, contracting procedures, and fiscal regimes. Underlying these two themes is a strong argument in favor of strengthened government capacity to produce, use, and disseminate accurate and timely information about the extractive sector.

The book identifies transparency as a key tool to improve the quality of governance in the extractive sector. This is not an easy task, because effective governance of this sector requires states to manage across a complex set of policy domains. Transparency is part of the solution to this problem by making data available to a wider set of stakeholders. This allows for improved coordination inside of government and helps civil society and the private sector to make informed contributions to public policy and hold governments accountable. For example, Colombia, through its Maparegalías initiative, is putting all the information about how money from extractive industry royalties are being spent, community by community, with everything placed online on an interactive map for easy access. But to make the most out of transparency, states need to address shortfalls in human capacity to use newly available data effectively in the public sector. This is particularly true at the sub-national level in many Latin American and Caribbean countries. Ultimately, as transparency improves and governments use data to operate more effectively and efficiently, citizen trust and confidence in the ability of the public sector to manage the wealth produced by extractive industries will improve. 

The findings of the book point towards two key challenges for governments related to designing and implementing transparency initiatives:

  1. Governments need to make data more easily available and more accessible to stakeholders. This includes addressing the quality and timeliness of information. It also means improving the ease of use of data, both in terms of the formatting of data and navigability of the platforms that present it.
  2. Governments need to be creative about soliciting feedback from stakeholders in the extractive sector. It is not enough to merely present data to the public. Governments should actively seek out input from citizens. This will ultimately mean investing in public and private capacity to analyze available data so that stakeholders can make informed contributions to governance.

These recommendations present the best way for governments in Latin America and the Caribbean to emerge from the paradoxical Sisyphean trap that resource abundance has all too often posed.

The authors are grateful to Pablo Bachelet, Juan Cruz Vieyra, Francesco De Simone and Martin Walter for their comments.