Repository 3rd edition release – 723 contracts from 72 countries

We are happy to announce the third edition of the contracts repository, with 200 new contracts and 18 new countries. The repository now totals 723 contracts from 72 countries.

One feature of the new release we are excited by is the inclusion of what we call “auxiliary” contracts – those signed by two private oil companies. The new edition features 100 of these from 31 countries. There are strong, technical reasons to be interested in gathering and curating these contracts as well, which I go into in a separate blog.

But here I wanted to take a chance to review the usage and impact of the repository since it was first published last year. The general picture is: there is consistent demand for contracts, and many spikes of interest coming from within particular countries – even those with low bandwidth and supposed lack of technical capacity.

Since last November, there have been about 20,000 individual downloads, or a 100 per day. The number of contract downloads is several times higher, since the country-level archives and even the four gigabytes zip-file – containing a complete copy of the repository – have been downloaded several times per day on average. This is important since the function of the repository is to provide wide bases of comparison at the click of a mouse.

While it is true that over half that traffic has come from within high bandwidth countries, there has been considerable use – and spikes of interest – originating in about 20 countries around the world.

The most spectacular was Tanzania, where opposition parliamentarian Zitto Kabwe tweeted out the Songo Songo contract to his 186,000 Twitter followers, which led to 5,000 download requests of that contract inside Tanzania in 24 hours.

But there are spikes every week. There was a run on Kurdish contracts in February-March, when a new agreement between Erbil and Baghdad reached a critical stage. There was a peak in interest in Yemeni contracts in the days after the Houthis took Sana’a. The last month has seen peaks on contracts from Indonesia, Kenya, Congo Brazzaville, Peru, and Uganda.

In most cases, this is coming from in-country. About 80 people have also registered to receive the entire archive through the post, in regions such as Africa, where low bandwidth may be an issue, to Iran and Russia, where there may also be issues of Internet control.

We have not obliged registration so we have no further data on precisely who is downloading. But in broad terms it looks like the repository is serving the purpose of stock reference. A contract-related issue comes up somewhere, there is an awareness that some data to address it, and then comes a local spike.

None of this is hyper Web traffic. Nor would anyone reasonably claim that increased contract availability will have instant and dramatic effects, or that all or even most of these downloaded contracts are being systematically analysed – yet.

But it is clear evidence that large constituencies (relative to the governance community as a whole) see the value of contracts and want them. In our view, the “what’s the point?” argument used against contract transparency is empirically disproved.

What’s next? We and others are beginning to use the easy access to build applications. There is the whole rise of the public interest financial model, where five organisations at least have various projects in play. There is the Bloomberg reporter who sought quick comparison for terms of a proposed contract in Somalia and used the repository to compare ten early stage offshore African projects. There is the academic researching how gas contracts typically differ from oil.

There is also, interestingly, demonstration of the value of transparency in proving a negative. We have received dozens of queries from investigative journalists, parliamentarians and civil society groups convinced that the contracts must show widespread malfeasance and corruption. To which we can only answer: not to our knowledge. This of course speaks to two different realities. One is that most contracts are unlikely to contain glaring illegalities because they don’t actually exist. The other, subtler point is that where corruption happens it is now better hidden. Transparency has created an arms race of sophistication with arrangements now more than ever parked in side deals, unmarked back handers and hidden ownerships.

So the goalposts keep moving. It turns out that now we have a wide range of contracts, it still needs a lot of work to make them useful. But there is no question that if transparency is going to be serious and credible, contract transparency is necessary, but not sufficient, to it.

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