NGO people= good, Big Oil= bad… or not
To set the scene, our trip was an assessment mission for Revenue Watch Institute, looking into transparency possibilities in and around the oil and gas sector. We decided to meet up with people from a variety of backgrounds; transparency activists, newly-established NGO workers, oil sector managers, and government officials, as well as talking to the public, to get as broad a picture as possible.
Our first full day was pretty full on- 4 meetings, with the founder of a new magazine, our “fixer” and someone who had worked in the oil sector, a civil society worker, and the acting head of the Libyan Investment Authority (LIA). If you’d asked me before the meeting which person I thought I’d like more, or have a higher opinion of (yes, without meeting them- bad I know!) I’m ashamed to say I would have answered without many qualms; the civil society guy, and the media person.
However, my ridiculous prejudices based on pre-judgements of people based on the sector in which they work were well and truly banished after just the first day, and even more so as the trip went on. Without a doubt, the person I have the highest opinion of after meeting around 35 people from the variety of sectors I outlined above, is Mr. Rafiq al-Nayed, the acting head of the LIA.
I’m not sure quite when, but at some point during my adult life, I appear to have developed a technique of putting people in ‘boxes’ depending on their career choices. Charity workers go in the good box. Corporate heads go in the bad box. When I finished school, I was sure that I wanted to go in the ‘good’ box, and as such, made a concerted effort not to work in any big corporate companies; even in more recent years, when friends of mine have joined Accenture or Deloitte, there’s always been a small part of me thinking “pff. Corporate sell out…”
But I would now like to sincerely apologise to all those people I labelled as sell-outs. It might sound strange, but I actually have even more respect for those who, as a small cog in a well-oiled corporate machine, manage to implement changes for the better, rather than well-supported and well-resourced activists working as part of an organisation who all share the same aims.
Rafiq al-Nayed is one of the former; he comes from a background of having worked in Oilinvest, a global company which forms part of Libya’s downstream activities, and is now attempting to sort out the incredibly complicated organisation that is the LIA. He holds responsibility for $70 billion dollars, which is more than I can even begin to picture. And what’s more, is that (I imagine) his predecessors, working under the Gaddafi regime, won’t exactly have been stringent with their book keeping, which makes his job even harder. I really don’t know where I’d even start in trying to change the way that an organisation as large as the LIA has worked for 42 years; hundreds of employees who have been accustomed to working in a certain way; subsidiaries held all over the world, and perhaps even unknown subsidiaries that might pop up every so often.
I imagine cynics among you are thinking that I might just have been sucked into his ‘pitch’ of being a socially responsible, forward thinking person, when actually it might all be just for show because we were there, but I have to say, I really, really don’t think it was.
In our first meeting, he explained how one of his main policies was to get as many international organisations acting as “watchdogs” over the LIA, so that his successor simply wouldn’t have the opportunity to act in an illegal manner, or to change the newly implemented policies. To this end, he was scheduling as many meetings as possible with representatives from various organisations, including Global Witness, us, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to name just a few. The second time that we went to see him (incidentally, with no particular agenda, and without having given him much notice at all) he actually went to the trouble of showing us into a meeting he was having with IMF and World Bank delegates, simply as a fairly humourous way of ‘proving’ that he really was meeting with them. He later explained that they were scoping out which accountability measures needed to be put in place, and trying to implement ‘best practice’ policies wherever possible.
This all seems a little off-topic, but the same applies for those who work in Big Oil, or in Libya’s case, the state-owned oil companies, or the National Oil Corporation, companies which are known for their corrupt dealings. We met so many people who had held positions of responsibility in those companies, and if we were going by my previous and erroneous technique of putting people in boxes, they would definitely have gone in the ‘bad’ box.
This might sound obvious, but merely working as an individual in a company where corruption takes place doesn’t make you a ‘bad’ person. It just means that you were working in a company where there were bad policies in place; it has absolutely nothing to do with people’s moral choices. One man we met had seen invoices for 2 small air compressors that he knew only cost $127,000 but on paper they cost 1.5 million euros. If he had said something, he would have been fired, and somebody would have been hired to replace him, so nothing would have been solved nor prevented.
Which brings me to another thing I learned this week- it’s all very well pointing the finger at people who may have abused their power under Gaddafi in order to earn some extra money, or get someone on side, but the aspect of the oil industry that we need to change isn’t the people, it’s the system. I’m not saying that they should not face some sort of justice for the illegal acts they committed, but to be perfectly honest, I’m not hugely surprised that corruption was rife amongst the industry considering the incredibly low salaries. For example, one man that we met told us that he was earning $300 per month as a terminal superintendent while his foreign deputy superintendent was earning $11,000 per month. If that were me, and I had a family to support and someone offered me a quick, unnoticeable way to make a little extra cash, I’m sure I would be sorely tempted.
And that wouldn’t necessarily make me a bad person, it would make me a victim of a badly organised system which pays its technically qualified workforce far less than it should, while making huge amounts of money from their skills. A system which clearly needs new policies and better governance, which is what everyone we met in Libya was incredibly keen to implement. I think how to do that probably requires another blog… more next time.