In the dark about the black stuff

Last week I attended a conference, the “Forum for Media and Development 2011, called “Hype or hope; the impact of digital media on journalism and development”. As many of you will already know, at OpenOil our projects cover quite a range of topics and areas, from transparency assessments in Tripoli for Revenue Watch Institute, to, in this case, journalism with regards to the oil industry.

Naturally, telling people I was from a company called OpenOil invited some obvious questions; what do you have to do with journalism? I put my best ‘journalist’ hat on, and told people about the public education branch of our work, of which the easiest to explain example is this MediaWiki prototype that we’ve just developed on the Libyan oil industry, designed as a guide for reporters and the basis for a potential knowledge community around the industry. Ideally, it would be translated into Arabic and used as the basis of a programme to create a group of ‘energy specialist’ journalists in countries where oil plays a huge part, whether indirectly or directly.

The reactions after this were quite mixed; there were some people who quickly saw the importance of having journalists with the knowledge and confidence to cover an industry as complex as oil, but others for whom the whole idea seemed completely alien.

One conversation I had highlights this perfectly. I began talking to a woman who was project manager of an international organisation and who, from the level of seniority of her position and the brief trips that she mentioned, had a fair bit experience in Africa and the Middle East. I explained what I did, and she explained what she did- her area was more based on humanitarian and aid work, as well as using the media to increase public knowledge of topics such as HIV and gender issues, just to take a couple of the topics she mentioned.

After I had explained a little about the idea of running workshops for journalists around the oil industry, along with the importance of increasing public knowledge about the industry, a journalist working in South Africa who I had met earlier else overheard us and joined in.

“Are you talking about oil?!” she asked.

The first woman answered, “Yes! I think that’s the first time I’ve ever had a conversation about oil like this.”

They both laughed- “Yes, it’s hardly something that comes up very often, is it?” they agreed.

I couldn’t believe my ears. Here we are at OpenOil, trying to establish a knowledge community around oil in emerging countries such as Libya and Iraq because there appears to be a huge gap in knowledge; and yet, there in a conference of well educated, well travelled people who held positions of responsibility in international organisations, there was just as big a gap in awareness of the importance of the oil industry in the countries in which they were working.

The first woman then turned to me and said “So, basically the big international companies come into developing countries with oil and take it all, and take all their money, and they can’t do anything about it… how are you going to change that?”

I didn’t really know where to start; was the first part an assertion, or a question, or an admission of a serious lack of knowledge around the oil industry? No, in fact it was a highly educated woman revealing what she believed about the oil industry’s workings as a whole.

And I don’t think that this example is particularly special or unusual; it’s more revealing about the incredibly low levels of general education and awareness around the oil industry, even amongst people with experience working in and around resource-rich countries.  I don’t mean to be disrespectful about their levels of general knowledge, or their knowledge of the areas in which they work (which I’m sure is very high!), but if someone can reach a senior position in an organisation doing humanitarian work in the Middle East without ever having engaged in a conversation about oil, I think that is quite revealing about awareness levels as a whole.

While I am sure that both of the people concerned know far, far more than I do about any number of things, this is just an example of how people of all cultures seem to hear the word “oil” and run in the opposite direction, no matter where they’re from.

The same happened while we were in Misrata, when we stopped to talk to people working at a  radio station. Johnny was happily chatting away in Arabic and the organiser of the radio station was being really responsive- and then I heard Johnny mention the word “نفط” – “oil”- and the man’s face dropped. It couldn’t have been any more sudden or obvious; he may as well have literally ran in the opposite direction, and given that he was a quite a large man, that would have been quite hard to ignore.

Just to be clear- this was someone who was running a recently established radio station in LIBYA. Oil plays an absolutely huge role in politics, in history, in economics, in almost everything there; and yet, to that man, it seemed completely irrelevant in his role at the radio station.

Why is nobody interested in oil?

Category: Libya, Oil 101 · Tags:

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