columnBy Caroline Kende-Robb
Countries rich in mineral wealth have an unprecedented opportunity to make a breakthrough in development - a breakthrough that could transform millions of lives.
Rising natural resource revenues could underpin investment in productive infrastructure, decent education and health systems, job creation, smallholder agriculture, and programs to alleviate poverty, vulnerability and insecurity that blight so many lives in Africa.
To date, though, the risks associated with natural resources provide an antidote to undue optimism. The alternative outcomes have been painfully apparent.
Instead of financing high quality education, natural resource revenue is often siphoned into private bank accounts of national elites. Instead of creating jobs, supporting productive investment, and creating opportunities for the many, revenues from oil, gas and metals can fuel speculative bubbles in property markets, create windfall gains for the elite, widen disparities, and leave the poor even further behind.
"Corruption and weak governance are critical issues for Africa's oil, gas, and mining sector," said Kofi Annan, Former Secretary-General of the United Nations and Chair of the Africa Progress Panel, at a consultation meeting last Wednesday in Geneva.
"These are human failings, but the world must do much more to tackle these issues not just within African governments but also in the foreign companies that pay the bribes and distort their accounts for profit at the expense of African peoples," he said.
Organised by the Africa Progress Panel and part of the preparations for next year's Africa Progress Report, the one-day meeting brought together a unique combination of representatives from the private sector, civil society, government, and academia.
The annual report highlights key development issues for Africa together with policy recommendations, and next year's report will be on Africa's extractive industries and how to harness the continent's natural resource wealth for human development.
"Because we all need Africa's immense resources, the continent now has an extraordinary opportunity to seize this century and use its natural wealth to build healthy, educated and dynamic societies," said Bob Geldof, musician, businessman, advocate, and Member of the Africa Progress Panel, who was present at the meeting.
"This will take three of Africa's other great natural resources - patience, brains, and courage," he said.
Accountability and transparency were key themes of the meeting, and part of the day's discussions focused on recent developments within the US and EU to force companies to declare payments made to governments for extracting natural resources.
"Transparency is key to transforming Africa's natural resource wealth into human capital," said Peter Eigen, Founder and Chair of the Advisory Council, Transparency International, and a Member of the Africa Progress Panel. The Geneva meeting was an important step forward for a stronger understanding on these issues, he said.
*Due for publication in May 2013, next year's Africa Progress Report will cover the oil, gas and mining sectors in Africa.
Caroline Kende-Robb is the Executive Director of the Africa Progress Panel, a group of distinguished individuals, chaired by Kofi Annan, dedicated to encouraging progress in Africa.