Monday, 19 March 2012

Resource nationalism: hardly the 'end of history'

Today was quite a day -- I'm going to namedrop: politicians (Blair, Obasanjo, Tsvangirai, Mandelson) and businesspeople (Ivan Glasenberg, Xavier Rolet, Tidjane Thiam) - and that curious mix of both, Cyril Ramaphosa.

Today I sat at The Savoy, London (as one does on a Monday morning ...) agreeing with most of what former prime minister Tony Blair was saying opening The Times CEO Summit Africa. I say 'most' because he suggested that Africa had 'moved on' from global ideological debates about Left or Right; his view seemed to be that it was now clear to all what are the correct policy prescriptions in African countries, and it is now merely a matter of these being implemented. Africa, he said, is in a 'post-ideological' age...

Mr Blair of course is -- with great respect to him -- surely wrong. Like many at today's event he spoke of public-private partnerships as the solution to unlocking Africa's growth and development potential. But there is nothing ideology-free about the concept -- just ask unions in South Africa (or whatever still-crystalising force takes up the current slack on the Left of politics there); and if Africa's growth story is 'post-ideological', no-one has told South Africa's cabinet (let alone its wider society), which is still struggling for some coherent consensus on what are the appropriate / ideal relative roles for government and the private sector in meeting economic and development challenges, imperatives and aspirations.

The issue is wider than South Africa -- or Africa, as indeed was illustrated in a panel debate, soon after Mr Blair's talk, discussing the issue of 'resource nationalism'. Wherever significant natural resources are at stake, the terms on which these are extracted (etc) inevitably gives rise to large, difficult questions about the relative roles of the host state and foreign firms (some state-owned) -- how national wealth is developed inherently involves deeply ideological preferences and orientations.

For long-term investors it may be healthier if debates about the role of foreign investment or private capital take place in host societies (even if this causes discomfort or even some disinvestment) than that we pretend that business and development (which overlap when it comes to natural resource sectors) take place in some 'post-ideological' space -- only for the tide of history to take everyone by surprise.

Host governments will continue to struggle to articulate the role that private investors play in national development; corporates will continue to wrestle with when and how to become overtly or explicitly involved not only in developmental activities but also societal debates about their own role in countries where the overall ideological agenda remains contested. It remains contested precisely because we have not seen the end of history and universalisation of some final ideal form of human government.

(We did the briefing book for today's CEO summit -- here -- and I wrote a blog today for 'Business Africa' on the summit, including discussion of mining firms' relations with local informal mining communities in Africa -- here).


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