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.