New Book Recognizes Civil Society Achievements in Ghana, But Work Remains

Across sub-Saharan Africa, civil society groups and journalists have been playing an increasingly important role in advocating for governance reform. Part of their aim is to increase the chances that their countries’ sub-soil wealth might be transformed into meaningful strides in development.

This is perhaps seen most clearly in Ghana, a country that discovered oil in 2007, just as civil society groups globally were gaining momentum on the back of great strides in transparency. “Citizen power is alive and well in Ghana,” observes journalist Celeste Hicks in her new book Africa’s New Oil: Power, Pipelines and Future Fortunes.

Ghana is by no means new to the extractive industries; gold has been mined here for hundreds of years. Yet the ravages of illegal mining, worrying damage to the environment, and a lack of visible development, particularly in mining towns, have led many to wonder whether gold has actually benefited Ghanaians at all. The discovery of oil was seen as a clean break where things could be done differently.

In her book, Hicks thoughtfully unpacks the success with which civil society actors came together to advocate for governance reforms. Organizations, such as our own Natural Resource Governance Institute (at the time known as the Revenue Watch Institute), found a common platform for their advocacy in the lessons from other “resource curse” experiences, captured in frameworks such as the Natural Resource Charter. With a government that was willing to engage on these issues, this was in many ways a great success.

Progress was made on a range of fronts. A raft of legislative changes and additions were made that amongst other things clarified responsibilities for regulation of the sector, shaped a strategy for managing petroleum revenues, and aimed to ensure that Ghanaians benefited from the economic activity. At each point, the government welcomed civil society’s perspectives. This continues to a large extent to this day, with momentum maintained by a group of enthusiastic journalists who cover developments in the petroleum sector.

But Hicks holds back from painting an overly rosy picture of the state of affairs in Ghana, with good reason. There have been some areas in which civil society organizations (CSOs) have struggled for traction. The book highlights a lack of monitoring and oversight of Ghana’s latest TEN project contracts; implementation challenges around the Petroleum Revenue Management Act; and a lack of transparency of the Ghana National Petroleum Corporation as areas for concern. The Public Interest and Accountability Committee, which civil society groups fought hard to bring into existence and which is tasked with monitoring the government’s use of petroleum revenues, also remains hugely underfunded by the government.

Hicks’ book also reminds us of the heady expectations of the early days, captured in a statement by former President John Kufuor the day after the discovery of oil: “We’re going to really zoom, accelerate, and if everything works, which I pray will happen positively, you come back in five years, and you’ll see that Ghana truly is the African tiger, in economic terms for development.”

Alas, this has yet to come about. Seven years down the line, few would confidently describe Ghana’s current direction in such terms. In practice, Ghana’s rapid accumulation of debt is the main reason for the country’s current lack of roaring feline prowess. This is a recurring problem that has undermined some of the efforts at managing petroleum revenues. It is an issue with which Ghana must grapple.

Think-tanks and CSOs such as the African Centre for Energy Policy, the Institute of Economic Affairs, the Centre for Democratic Development and the Integrated Social Development Centre, worked tirelessly with other local organizations in the Civil Society Platform on Oil and Gas to put many of these governance issues high on the agenda and drive important legislative changes. However, monitoring implementation of these laws is a different matter that offers its own challenges. In an ideal world it would require the relatively simple task of checking that the government is not breaking any specific provisions in laws. In practice, many of the key challenges Ghana now faces have taken root in gaps in the legislation, ambiguous provisions and questionable policy decisions. For a range of CSOs, with different interests, these are often complicated debates making consensus-building and advocacy on these issues a greater challenge.

Civil society, the media and government need to begin building a shared understanding of what has worked and what hasn’t. Ghana is still only in the early years of oil production, meaning that there is an opportunity to capitalize on recent governance gains. Hopefully this critical learning and advocacy work will be inbued with the same vigor that Hicks captures in her book.

Mark Evans is an Africa economic analyst at the Natural Resource Governance Institute (NRGI). Celeste Hicks will launch Africa’s New Oil at SOAS in London on 8 June 2015, with a panel to include NRGI’s director of data and analysis, Jim Cust.