Foreign Correspondent: The Mining Indaba and extractive sector cooption of the development agenda

In the first week of February, mining executives, government delegates, non-government organisation staff and consultants walked the halls together at the Mining Indaba in Cape Town, South Africa. The Mining Indaba is described by organisers as the “largest mining investment conference” in the world. Scanning through the dizzying agenda of meetings and presentations in the four-day event, there is little mention of the meetings that have begun to grab the attention of human rights organisations – those involving development NGOs, mining companies and government aid and trade delegates.

Whether through initiatives such as the Devonshire Initiative in Canada, the Mining for Development Initiative in Australia and the Australia-Africa Mining Industry Group (AAMIG), in recent years the global mining industry has increasingly availed itself of the skills and good names of aid agencies and development NGOs. These groupings, some of them as “multi-stakeholder initiatives”, are part of the response by the global mining industry to do something to challenge the weight of literature detailing “the resource curse”, a phenomenon characterised by the relatively poor human rights, environmental and development track-records of those developing countries that have strongly embraced resource extraction as an economic model for development.

In the development and human rights world, partnerships between different stakeholder groups assembled to overcome challenging issues are not new. Sometimes these alliances can bring about progress towards the achievement of critical development, environment and human rights objectives. However, the groups involved are hardly without checkered reputations. AAMIG’s Chairman, Bill Turner, recently stepped down as CEO of Anvil Mining, a company with bases in Australia and Canada. The United Nations has documented how Anvil, under the leadership of Bill Turner, was complicit in the killing of 73 people in Kilwa in 2004. Anvil Mining's drivers drove the vehicles used by the army of the Democratic Republic of Congo that perpetrated these atrocities. The UN report also noted that “Anvil also admitted that it contributed to the payment of a certain number of soldiers”.

But there is more to the concerns about these multi-stakeholder initiatives than worries about mingling with folks with bad rap sheets. The notion that promoting mining is an effective or responsible approach to sustainable development is not self-evident. A recent “Reality of Aid” report critically examines the role of mining in development – casting real doubt over some of the proposed benefits of mining company involvement in development strategies.

The resource curse cannot simply be explained as a phenomenon of governments poorly managing resource revenues or community disputes. As has been argued repeatedly, companies have for many years made the most of the gaps in host governments’ willingness or capacity to impose stringent environmental and human rights requirements. As Paladin CEO John Borshoff, and member of AAMIG, has summed up publicly in an Australian newspaper, “Australia and Canada have become overly sophisticated … There has been an over-compensation in terms of thinking about environmental and social issues in regard to uranium operations in Australia, forcing companies like Paladin into Africa”.

While views of this kind from mining executives might not be a surprise, what has changed recently is the promotion by state aid agencies of “mining for development” approaches to sustainable development. The Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID) now has the aforementioned “Mining for Development Initiative” and the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) has directed funding to groups such as World Vision and Pact to partner with companies on corporate social responsibility activities, predominantly in Africa.

Australian tax-payer money is channeled through AusAID to the Department of Foreign Affairs to administer small projects in host countries – meaning it is therefore technically outside of AusAID’s “Mining for Development Initiative”. So while AusAID officials have stressed that none of the Mining for Development Initiative money is paid to companies, their overall development model is shifting in the same direction as CIDA’s. Some of these projects have supported the corporate social responsibility activities of Australian mining companies in Burkina Faso, Ghana and Niger. So while the funding of these activities may be more overt in Canada, the end result is the same – tax-payer aid and development money supporting corporate social responsibility activities.

These projects include schools, water facilities and the like. While the creation of a school may be a valuable contribution to a community, the ends don’t justify the means. Corporate social responsibility initiatives are about gaining community support for a mining project. State tax-payer aid money is for the alleviation of poverty and realisation of human rights. Companies profess to be ignorant of the skills necessary to adequately execute their corporate social responsibility projects, but they cannot claim they don’t have ample resources of their own to hire private sector development experts to assist them, so why should they access tax-payers’ money from their home governments to foot the bill?

Mr Julian Fantino, Canada’s new Minister for International Development, views things differently. From his perspective, expressed in a recent press interview, Canadian dollars should be used to bring benefits to Canadians. “We are part of Canadian foreign policy … We have a duty and a responsibility to ensure that Canadian interests are promoted” Mr Fantino said. “This is Canadian money. ... And Canadians are entitled to derive a benefit”. This approach is commonly referred to as “tied aid”. Aid agencies around the world have a history of wrestling with this problem. With the approach advanced in Canada and Australia, it seems we may be in an upswing of appreciation of Mr Fantino’s view, with the mining sector being the big winner.

International human rights obligations require States to regulate the actions of their companies abroad, ensuring the protection of human rights. In 2012, the United Nations Committee that oversees adherence to international legal obligations to uphold the rights of children noted that “the Committee is concerned at reports on Australian mining companies´ participation and complicity in serious violations of human rights in countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Philippines, Indonesia and Fiji, where children have been victims of evictions, land dispossession and killings”. The Committee recommended that Australia “examine and adapt its legislative framework (civil, criminal and administrative) to ensure the legal accountability of Australian companies and their subsidiaries regarding abuses to human rights, especially child rights, committed in the territory of the State party or overseas and establish monitoring mechanisms, investigation, and redress of such abuses, with a view to improving accountability, transparency and prevention of violations”.

In 2010, the equivalent United Nations Committee that oversees adherence to international legal obligations to eliminate racial discrimination noted “with concern the absence of a legal framework regulating the obligation of Australian corporations at home and overseas” and the impacts this oversight can have on “rights to land, health, living environment and livelihoods”, in this case for Indigenous Peoples. So far the Australian Government has failed to implement these recommendations.

Instead of accompanying mining executives to Indaba events and lending legitimacy to them through provision state aid funding and partnerships, Australian and Canadian Government officials could better use their time examining how mining affects communities, ensuring that mining companies uphold their human rights obligations and supporting local civil society groups to hold mining companies to account. As for mining companies, they should foot the bill for their own corporate social responsibility activities and leave aid money for non-commercial activities that have the primary aim of alleviating poverty.

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The Corporate Accountability Working Group of ESCR-Net promotes and undertakes collaborative initiatives that advance accountability of corporations for human rights and environmental abuses. This piece is a collaboration of groups monitoring the relationship between state aid agencies and extractive industry corporations. ESCR-Net, AID/WATCH, CAOI, Citizens for Justice, Human Rights Law Centre, Mineral Policy Institute and MiningWatch Canada participated in the creation of this piece.

If you’re interested to participate in this initiative, please contact Dominic Renfrey at