Who cares about oil?

What will it take to get Libyans talking about their oil industry? As in detail, numbers and mechanisms, not just salon gossip and personal slander.

At the end of the Paving the Future Youth Forum, held in Tripoli last week by the British Council, the participants were asked to organise themselves into groups, according to the issues which most concerned them about Libya’s future. There were the usual suspects- civil society, women’s empowerment, education, health…. but the table on oil issues, labelled, perhaps unfortunately, “dependency on oil”, was empty.

Out of 100 bright young Libyans, well educated, globalised, brimming with energy and confidence – some of them heroes who had risked their lives to win a scrappy battle against Gaddafi’s forces – the precise number of people thinking of working on the oil industry was zero.

I asked a few people how they were planning on funding their projects.

“Libya’s a rich country- we need to invest the oil revenues into projects like these which provide for the future”, I was told.

The assumption that Libya has enough oil to provide for its 6 million inhabitants appears to be widespread. But while concerns about what are happening to oil revenues now are present, corresponding actions are non existent; there seems to be no belief that ordinary people, you and I, can do anything about it. It’s thought of as difficult, technical and boring. Maybe it’s that there is no appetite among young Libyans to work on the issue.

I asked some friends here in Tripoli why they thought this was. “For 42 years, the oil industry was the property of only one family. We never talked about oil, we never thought about it, it didn’t concern us. It’s difficult to start thinking about it now.”

Another reason for the lack of attention the oil industry is getting stems from a logic which is seductive – and false. That the fall of the regime would automatically eliminate bad governance around the sector. An easy way of thinking about corruption in the oil industry is by blaming it on certain individuals who were the main decision makers under the Gaddafi regime. Using this logic, now that those individuals have gone, and a democratic system is being installed, corruption should disappear too.

Unfortunately, it’s not that black and white. Installing democratic systems of elections and laws does not necessarily correspond to having the checks and balances in place which necessary for a democratic society; take Azerbaijan, or Russia, both countries with theoretically democratic elections but which share the position of 143 out of 183 countries ranked in the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index 2011.

Instead, the government and the National Oil Corporation need to be held accountable for their actions, which is the job of civil society and the media, and ultimately the public. The industry needs ‘watch dogs’ from the public. Knowing that contracts will be looked over and decisions will be questioned if they are not in the best interest of the Libyan people is an incredibly powerful tool which could make a huge amount of difference to the decisions made at the top.

Every single day, the Libyan government are earning close to $100 million dollars from their oil sector. Who is taking notice of where this money is going? Apparently nobody. Working on oil issues just isn’t as ‘feel-good’ as dealing with more traditional post-conflict issues, such as women’s empowerment and education. I am by no means saying that those issues aren’t important- of course they are, especially in Libya right now. But all of these projects depend upon funding from Libya’s natural resource wealth; a fortune which could continue to be wasted if people don’t take notice now. And, it may be a trite word but it’s the one which comes readily to mind – empower themselves.

People here are questioning almost everything in the public sector, from management of their sovereign wealth fund, to the way their educational system is run, but management of the oil sector seems to be a black hole, not attracting any actions or any of those great project ideas at the Youth Forum.

Maybe people also think corruption is just a cost of doing business, a chronic condition but one you can live with.

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