Africa: a continent of wealth, a continent of poverty

Capetown, South Africa (NI) – There has been much talk of an African renaissance in recent years. Thabo Mbeki, South Africa’s second post-apartheid president, has spoken of a ‘rebirth that must encompass all Africans’. So as African politicians and mining companies convene in London this week for ‘Mining on Top’ – Africa’s annual mining summit – where are the voices of civil society? Their absence speaks volumes.

Africa is blessed with a rich bounty of natural resources. The continent holds around 30% of the world’s known mineral reserves. These include cobalt, uranium, diamonds and gold, as well as significant oil and gas reserves. Given this natural wealth it comes as no surprise that, with the tripling of global mineral and oil prices in the past decade, mining has exploded on the African continent. Over the period of 2000 to 2008 resource extraction contributed more than 30% of Africa’s GDP while the annual flow of foreign direct investment into Africa increased from $9 billion to $62 billion (most of this into extractive industries). However, despite being so richly endowed, and despite the mining boom of the past decade, Africa has drawn little benefit from this mineral wealth and remains one of the poorest continents on the globe, with almost 50% of the population living on less than $1.25 per day.

So, why is it that a continent with such vast potential wealth can remain so poor? It is in large part down to ‘illicit financial flows’: the illegal movement of money or capital from one country to another. The exploitation of mineral resources has all too often led to corruption and a large proportion of the continent’s resources and revenues benefiting local and foreign elites rather than the general population. Trade mispricing (and in particular transfer pricing and trade misinvoicing) is the most common way of transferring illicit funds abroad. Through trade mispricing, companies seek to maximize profits artificially through maximizing expenses in high-tax jurisdictions and maximizing revenue and income in low-tax jurisdictions. This enables corporations to minimize tax payments illegally and transfer the funds abroad.

Such illicit flows undermine social development and stymy inclusive economic growth. Instead of investing resource revenues into improving infrastructure, health and education, political elites, often in collusion with mining companies, have siphoned off proceeds from the continent’s mineral and oil wealth – lining their own pockets to the detriment of ordinary Africans.

Zambia presents as a wealthy country – the largest producer of copper in Africa and the 7th-largest globally. Yet Zambia is one of the poorest countries in the world, with 74% of the population living on less than $1.25 a day and 43% of the population being undernourished. This is in part due to a hemorrhaging of wealth, mainly to transnational mining companies. According to the Zambian Deputy Finance Minister, in 2012 the country was losing $2 billion a year from tax avoidance – around 10% of Zambia’s GDP. The mining industry was the largest culprit and the bulk of the loss was attributed to transfer pricing – where parts of the same company trade with each other at prices that they determine on their own – and to the over-reporting of costs and under-reporting of production. The situation is compounded by overly generous tax incentives provided to companies by the Zambian government.

The Zambian example is not an isolated case. Such corporate practices in the mining sector are common right across the continent. In South Africa, illegal capital flight through trade-misinvoicing (a means to evade tax) is rife in the ores and metals sector. Over the period of 1995 to 2006 trade misinvoicing alone amounted to $167 million. And when it comes to fuel-exporting countries, over the period of 1970 to 2008 states were losing on average $10 billion per year because of misinvoicing – the sum accounting for nearly half of all illicit financial flows from Africa during this time. Moreover, statistical data generated through the Kimberly Process Certification Scheme, which was introduced in 2003, revealed that diamond production was nearly twice as large as estimated, indicating massive smuggling, under-reporting and tax evasion in the sector. The list goes on.

So, what is to be done? At the heart of any solution must be transparency. Countries need to be more open in their dealings with mining companies, put in place and enforce fairer tax regimes and anti-corruption rules, and pursue economic policies that promote diversified economies and reduce dependence on revenues from mineral wealth. International mining capital would also, of course, have to play by the rules or be held to account for its indiscretions. Such measures would go some way to ensuring that the continent’s wealth benefits ordinary people and puts Africa onto a path to greater prosperity.

Mining routinely disrupts and destroys people’s livelihoods while damaging their health and the environment. It is local communities right across the continent that are most affected by the extractives industry. ‘Mining on Top’ should be the perfect opportunity to bring these communities into the very discussions that will affect their lives. Shamefully, they’ve not been invited. So while the mining elite discuss how best to exploit a continent, ordinary Africans continue to lose out.

On March 4, 2006, Nata made history by becoming the first village in Botswana with a website. natavillage.org is a unique opportunity for the reader to witness the battle to control the spread of HIV/AIDS in an African village. Botswana has the second highest HIV infection rate in the world (37% for ages 15-49). The co-founders, a Canadian traveler, a U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer, and a local businessman were all frustrated that millions of dollars pour into Botswana due to the AIDS pandemic yet little money reaches remote villages like Nata. The site www.natavillage.org offers the visitor 3 videoblogs, a 10 minute documentary ( WATCH NOW), over 350 flickr photos and a blog that gives the reader an intimate look into the lives of the villagers. The reader is given the opportunity to donate directly to the village and the funds are managed transparently by a local 6 member board of trustees with very little overhead cost. The donor can see the results of their generosity through regular photos of what is purchased. People living with AIDS (PLWA's) in Nata must travel 60 miles to reach the ARV (anti-retroviral ) clinic. Many can't afford the $4.00 bus fare. The trust provides transportation money for all members of the PLWA support group to reach their life saving ARV's. The trust also purchased a sound system and generator for an out of school youth group that provides vital HIV/AIDS educational activities to Nata and the surrounding villages. We hope to serve as a model for other villages and change the way aid is distributed in the developing world. Image Source: Jon Rawlinson, Flickr, Creative Commons

On March 4, 2006, Nata made history by becoming the first village in Botswana with a website. natavillage.org is a unique opportunity for the reader to witness the battle to control the spread of HIV/AIDS in an African village. Botswana has the second highest HIV infection rate in the world (37% for ages 15-49). The co-founders, a Canadian traveler, a U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer, and a local businessman were all frustrated that millions of dollars pour into Botswana due to the AIDS pandemic yet little money reaches remote villages like Nata. The site www.natavillage.org offers the visitor 3 videoblogs, a 10 minute documentary ( WATCH NOW), over 350 flickr photos and a blog that gives the reader an intimate look into the lives of the villagers. The reader is given the opportunity to donate directly to the village and the funds are managed transparently by a local 6 member board of trustees with very little overhead cost. The donor can see the results of their generosity through regular photos of what is purchased. People living with AIDS (PLWA’s) in Nata must travel 60 miles to reach the ARV (anti-retroviral ) clinic. Many can’t afford the $4.00 bus fare. The trust provides transportation money for all members of the PLWA support group to reach their life saving ARV’s. The trust also purchased a sound system and generator for an out of school youth group that provides vital HIV/AIDS educational activities to Nata and the surrounding villages. We hope to serve as a model for other villages and change the way aid is distributed in the developing world.
Image Source: Jon Rawlinson, Flickr, Creative Commons

Tom Lebert is senior international programme officer (Resources & Conflict) at War on Want.

The ‘Mining on Top’ Africa – London Summit takes place on 24-26 June at the Park Plaza Riverbank Hotel, 200 Westminster Bridge, SE1 7UT. On Thursday 25 June, War on Want will join London Mining Network and Gaia Foundation in protest at the failure of organizers to include civil-society representatives at the summit.