Why We Work with Parliaments, and Why You Should Too

Last month, here in London, the Natural Resource Governance Institute (NRGI) led a couple of sessions on parliamentary scrutiny of natural resources during the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association UK branch's (CPA UK) fourth Westminster Seminar. It was CPA UK's largest gathering to date and the first one focusing on public accounts committees (PACs) and other parliamentary committees with key financial responsibilities.

The workshop brought together 85 members of parliament (MPs) and clerks from 30 legislatures to explore practical and practicable ways of working more effectively. The event also built a support network among the delegates attending, which has enabled them to continue to share knowledge, expertise and advice in the future.

Parliamentarians are key agents of reform but need support, says NRGI's Matteo Pellegrini.

As my colleague Femke Brouwer (who coordinates NRGI's work with parliaments) and I interacted with committed legislators, we mulled over NRGI's rationale for working with parliaments in the first place. Let me share some reflections from the workshop. (I won't refer to specific names since the event was held under the Chatham House rule.)

Parliamentarians see natural resource governance as key for development. We had a very lively and engaged audience, drawing roughly 30 of the 85 workshop participants. Demand for the session on natural resource governance was such that CPA suggested two breakout sessions instead of one.

Parliamentarians have a good understanding of extractive sector governance challenges, but need guidance on policy choices. The quality of the debate was excellent and pointed to a sophisticated understanding of the challenges at hand, including critical policy choices a country must make as it develops its resources. MPs discussed how to develop a fiscal regime that would provide a fair return to both investors and countries, as well as how to create reasonable incentives to attract foreign investment without undermining a country's ability to get a good deal. This was followed by a rich discussion on what to do with resource revenues. Some suggested investing more revenues more quickly to develop physical and human capital. Others, citing examples from their own countries, preferred natural resource funds as a stream of income for future generations.

Parliament's oversight role is constrained by a number of factors including systemic lack of access to information. Parliamentarians say that it's hard to address problems when information is generally kept from them, or when they are not given authority to step in. For instance, one MP lamented he had little recourse against contract negotiations that do not follow due process. Likewise, most MPs were frustrated at their lack of access to resource contracts—the very contracts at the heart of deals between the government and the private sector, and which provide information essential to understanding whether the country is receiving its fair share.

For example, in Guinea all mining contracts must be approved by parliament, and NRGI recently trained Guinean MPs to better understand the key elements of such agreements. We also introduced parliamentarians to civil society organizations that monitor the implementation of contractual obligations of a large mining project in Guinea, so that they might collaborate on addressing the challenges faced by affected communities.

At Westminster we also discussed the EITI as an avenue to increase information available to parliaments—but it was obvious that the linkages between EITI and parliaments must be strengthened. Ways to do this include ensuring that EITI reports are presented and discussed by parliaments (not just civil society organizations), and that EITI recommendations to improve sector governance are regularly monitored by the relevant portfolio committee, such as a PAC. In both Ghana and Mongolia, NRGI is encouraging EITI multi-stakeholder groups and parliamentarians to reach out to each other, so parliamentarians can raise critical questions based on the EITI report findings.

Parliamentarians are key agents of reform but need support. I was inspired by the wealth of knowledge, strong thinking, motivation and keen interest shown by the majority of MPs that attended the Westminster workshop, including many heads of PACs in countries where NRGI works. Many approached me to ask for advice on very specific and tangible problems they are facing.

At the event I had the pleasure of reuniting with a committed, reformist MP with whom I worked many years ago. He wistfully commented how little had changed in the governance of minerals in his country, and gave me a few examples of how parliament's reform efforts were systematically thwarted by insiders in government, the leadership of the ruling party, and other sectors of society. He seemed discouraged, but vowed to continue with his work. I pointed him towards organizations and individuals who can help, brought him up to speed with NRGI's latest efforts in the country, and explained how parliament could make the most of ongoing initiatives, including a comprehensive extractive sector assessment led by the country's government. I left the meeting feeling that continued and responsive support to champions like him is a core responsibility for NRGI and any other organization that is serious about addressing mismanagement and corruption in natural resource governance.

Matteo Pellegrini is NRGI's head of capacity development.

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