Thursday, March 26, 2009

A letter to The Natural Resource Charter from an oil-cursed citizen

Friends, you say in your precept 2 “Extractive resources are public assets and decisions around their exploitation and use should be subject to public oversight.”
Let me introduce myself. I am one of those millions of oil cursed citizens t and I do have some serious reservations with respect to this precept 2 draft. Let me explain.
Let us suppose that all the net results of the exploitation of any extractive resources placed by providence in a country had been equally divided among the citizens, those who arguably are the most legitimate owners of said funds. Let us then suppose that the central government requests the citizens to give to it all the net results in their possession... what would we have? We would have the mother of all the regressive tax systems, with the marginal tax rate for the poorest being 100%.
Would anyone of you in the Natural Resource Charter support such a regressive tax system? I don’t think so. And so why then do you take it as a big given, without even putting it up for discussion, that “extractive resources are public assets”?
In Venezuela, in 1974, the Oil Boom I of my time, Carlos Andres Perez´ time, as a rookie MBA I was appointed diversification manager in the Venezuelan Investment Fund that was being set up in order to safeguard the oil income that the country had no chance to digest in a reasonable way. It took me less than a month to discover that the whole set-up was doomed to fail and so I quit, the same day my new desk arrived. I thereafter worked as a financial and strategic consultant in Venezuela for 28 years.
In 2002 as a result of some almost inexplicable events, like being recruited for it on the web, I was appointed for two years an Executive Director at the World Bank. I have since suffered and witnessed in detail, though from a sufficient distance to see the forest, the Oil Boom II of my time, Hugo Chavez´ time. Frankly I know more than most what the oil curse is really all about and I pray for and do the most that I can in order to find a way for my country of not wasting Oil Boom III whenever it comes.
This week I assisted the “Improving Extractive Industries Benefits for the Poor” (those taxed at 100%) organized by the World Bank´s Oil and, Gas and Mining Policy Division. There were many interesting conferences but, with respect of how to avoid the oil-curse, I heard no new lessons derived from Oil Boom II that I had not previously learnt from Oil Boom I.
The main explanation for it might be very difficult for anyone who has not lived under the oil curse to really understand it.
Though it is great having transparency, like that promoted by EITI, whose efforts I fully support , the real oil curse is not about the lack of transparency; the real oil curse is about a nation of citizens sitting down and expecting their government to sow the oil revenues and harvest something good for them, without given the slightest thought about taking that responsibility upon themselves; the real oil-curse is the citizens handing over through elections the check book containing their own oil revenues to the chief in turn just in order to fight among themselves the next years for a larger share of these or to have to bow to the chief to get something of those net revenues back.
As I see it the only way we citizens have to escape the oil curse is by avoiding centralizing the net oil revenues in the hands of the government, at least during an oil boom. The way I, an oil cursed citizen, would start visualizing a solution, is in terms of having any net oil revenues that represents more than a percentage of GDP and that is distributed, being paid out in cash, directly to the citizens instead of to the government.
Friends, we oil cursed citizens have had enough with our government finding itself to be independently wealthy during an oil boom and therefore having no fiscal income incentive to even keep up the appearances of a responsible behavior.
May I therefore respectfully ask the Natural Resource Charter not to start tackling this issue as if the oil revenues were given to the States by God and instead try to side with the citizens. Frankly our politicians do not deserve having more policymakers endorsing their populist promises.
There is no such thing as an oil-cursed politicians, oil-cursed governments or oil cursed policymakers, on the contrary they are all most often shining examples of oil blessings... there are only oil-cursed citizens.