British Academy Emerging Powers Conference – a few tidbits

I was at the British Academy conference on emerging powers this last Wednesday to hear about the panels’ perspectives on natural resource extraction and environmental issues.

The sessions were very interesting and saw some leading lights of the academic, policy and business worlds discuss key issues. There was a tendency for the discussion to centre on China in Africa but there was more to it than just this. A few interesting tidbits:

  • Tom Wheeler from Saferworld talked about the changing CSR practices of Chinese extractive comapanies. One of Tom’s points was that Chinese companies are facing a two-fold pressure to up their CSR game. The first was pressure from HQ to cause reduce conflict surrounding their operations, the second was pressure from local communities – the responses to both tended to be quite state-centric.
  • There was quite a lot of pushback around Chinese extractives being ‘worse’ than western companies. Amusingly, one panelist pointed to Shell’s poor record in Nigeria as evidence of this – fair point. My own experience from Zambia tells a different story – Chinese mining companies have been responsible for the worst conflicts and have a poor track record of managing relationships with local communities and their own workers. Most Zambians haven’t really gotten over the fact that a Chinese company was responsible for the worst mining disaster in Zambia’s history; which, given that it’s been going since the 1920s, is quite an achievement. It could be my knowledge is of just one country and that the overall story might be different but I am a little skeptical that the problems surrounding Chinese extractives in Africa are communication problems or the result of media prejudice rather than some pretty poor practices. That said, Prof. C K Lee‘s recent research seems to be pointing to increasing pressure on Chinese companies to not rock the boat as much as they have in the past.
  • The discourse of CSR as a risk management strategy is spreading. I’m not quite sure what to make of this as I’ve not really figured out the consequences of this approach, but I suspect this view of CSR is here to stay. I want to come back to this in a later post.
  • Prof. Ian Taylor did a fantastic job of demolishing recent upbeat discussion of Africa’s development prospects. Simply put, African economies are not growing nearly fast enough and the long term structural position of African in the global economic system has not improved in recent decades. If anything it’s got worse with and increased reliance on natural resource extraction. Take oil from the mix and growth has been pretty flat for the continent.
  • Added Poor Numbers to my reading list. Lots of interesting discussion about this book – sounds like a must for any self respecting researcher of Africa.
  • The outlook for climate change looks really bleak. I guess we all sort of know this, but having a bunch of heavyweights from the world policy stage explain this really brings it home. It is a real shame that austerity politics has pushed climate change down the international agenda. Nick Stern was resolutely ‘we can do this’ but I left wanting to buy a house on top of a big hill.

I’ll be working on a short working paper for my ESID project in the coming weeks which I’ll be sharing. This should also give me an opportunity to explain the other comparative research project I’m engaged in.

No really, what’s your research about?

Basically, I want to link global pressures on mining companies to be nicer with their local effects. For the British Academy the official (it’s on their website) title of the research is ‘Mining and Corporate Social Responsibility: Linking Global Drivers and Local Impacts’. The research abstract reads thusly:

This research will examine the global governance and development impacts of the extractive sector in Africa; specifically, relationships between emerging international governance regimes, mining companies and new multi-faceted community development corporate social responsibility (CSR) programmes in Zambia. Over the three years of the fellowship, this research will develop a multi-scalar analysis that links international governance (emerging international standards and norms) and changing mining company practice with the development impacts of extractive industry in Zambia. By linking these three elements together in a single study, this research will trace the effects of global pressures and dynamics in local communities in Africa. This case study offers insights into wider processes of global governance, the role of the private sector in development, the effects of new complex modes of governance in developing countries and the role of extraction in broader development.

Clear as mud, you might say. I’ll avoid too much academic jargon on this blog, but I just had to get that off my chest.

This all started when I was doing my PhD research in Zambia in 2008. The most interesting interview I did was with a mine manager who was coming to the end of his contract, unhappy with his employer, his mine and Zambia. He was fed up and just let rip. This man (it’s always men) is the only person I have met to date who said, “I am a neoliberal”. He was being provocative, but he was trying to say that he’s not one of those fluffy types who goes around and plays nice, he’s interested in profits and efficiency above all else. He was a miner’s miner. Oddly, however, in the midst of telling me all the dodgy practices of the mining company, he told me about the large sums of money they were spending to make the mine less polluting and more environmentally friendly. I followed this up with a bunch of other mining managers in Zambia and they all talked about the same thing: they were all spending money on cleaning up their act, and not because the Zambian government was pressuring them to do so. They tended to give one of two reasons:

1 – “You just can’t do that [pollute] anymore”
Or
2 – “If we had an accident, our share price would plummet”

The first indicates that norms around what mines can and can’t do are changing and that (at least some) miners are listening. The second points to the role international stock markets and investors in applying pressure on mining companies. Both struck me as very interesting. In 2010–11 I spent a year in Toronto looking at these changing norms and pressures and found a remarkable amount of activity around improving the CSR practices of mining companies in Canada and around the world. I’ll talk more about what I found in Canada in later post, but what struck me was that there was an awful lot of activity and things had been changing rapidly but few people could explain why, and why now. Further, there was very little (academic, non-partisan) information on what the impacts of this new activity were. There’s plenty of evidence that previous approaches to CSR by mining companies were woeful and effectively a poorly-executed PR exercise, but what about these new practices? All these people who have been in jobs in mining companies for just a few years (and there is a remarkable number of CSR professionals who fall into this category), have they not changed anything? That’s what I wan’t to find out – why? And what difference (if any) is this making? My hope is that if we can answer those questions, we can might find ways to answer the bigger question of how we make mining really work for development.

And we’re off!

Hello world!

Welcome to my blog! As you may be able to see, I’m just getting started, but I thought it was worth announcing the kick off of my new research project as of this Monday, and for the next three years, I am o-ficially a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow! Which is nice.

This blog will track my progress through this fellowship and beyond. Don’t expect daily, or even weekly updates. There is something about the academic workload which means that sometimes weeks go by and all you’ve done is write and write and write or teach and teach and teach. Do, however, expect to hear about any interesting events and milestones in my research – including draft findings and any presentations.

So what am I researching, you ask. Well, I am involved in two projects both looking at mining and CSR, one funded by the British Academy, and the other Effective States and Inclusive Development Research Centre. Many thanks to both for their kind support. I’ll talk more about the subtly different emphases of these two projects in later posts but, broadly speaking, they are both looking at the role of international pressures on mining companies to improve their CSR programmes, how the mining companies respond to these, and what this means for what they do on the ground. Current case studies are Zambia, Ghana and Peru.