By Kiana Wilburg
At the heart and soul of any well-functioning democracy is civil society; a body of individuals and organizations which defend the rights of the citizenry while ensuring checks and balances against the excessive of the State are always in place.
As the nation inches closer to oil production, the role of civil society becomes even more important. And whether the discussions in the next five, 10 or 15 years will be centered on the need for more fiscal reforms or how to address an oil spill, the voice of civil society must be heard.
This was essentially the message that was delivered by Attorney-at-Law and 14th Premier of Alberta, Canada, Alison Redford.
Guyanese and stakeholders in the oil industry heard this speaker during the inaugural Guyana International Petroleum Business Summit (GIPEX). It was held over three days from February 7 with a number of topical issues in oil and gas being fleshed out by several brilliant local and international minds.
Redford was part of the panel which dealt with the effective management of Guyana’s Oil and Gas Resources. For this former politician, it was important to highlight the power of trust among stakeholders; the significance of civil society’s input and the partnership that is needed among Government officials, persons in the industry and the citizenry.
The lawyer said, “It is very pleasing to see the number of people who are prepared to come to the table to challenge conventional thinking and to talk about what this development will mean for Guyana. Whether we are talking about how to manage those expectations or resources, the one thing that I would like to say is that this is not an exercise in communication.”
Redford continued, “During the summit, there were some very interesting comments with respect to the power of communication when it comes to oil and gas and how it is important for citizens to understand the industry. But I will tell you that regardless of whether citizens understand the industry, they will have opinions about how it should be developed.”
“So it is very important for Government, industry and civil society to be in the discussion and for the government and industry to be prepared to educate the communities. But at the end of the day, this national resource can be developed for the betterment of the nation in partnership with civil society.”
The lawyer also commented that one of the many issues which came up during the summit is that without participation; without trust between government, civil society and the industry, it is going to be very hard to move ahead, hence the importance of forums like GIPEX.
Redford said, “I would like to deal with two things. One of them is the way the resources come out of the ground and the way in which they are used to develop the country. This will have to be a dialogue between politicians, policy leaders, and civil society and communities.
“Be it the Sovereign Wealth Fund (SWF) or mitigating environmental problems, these are all issues where dialogue must be something where civil society must have a voice.”
“At the end of the day, it is civil society’s opinion that will determine whether the country and government of any political strength, is actually going to be able to develop that resource. As we have this conversation, and you continue to have it for the next 25, 50 or 100 years, the one strategy that will not work is (one that says) it doesn’t matter if civil society doesn’t understand.
“It is true, oil and gas matters and environmental matters are very technical. But at the end of the day, whatever civil society does not understand is what they would want to talk about. That is how they would participate in the conversation.”
Redford’s next point was; at the end of the day, it is important for government and the industry stakeholders to have a strong partnership to develop the resource.
Based on her extensive knowledge of the sector, the lawyer said that industry stakeholders would also indicate that it is important for the government to understand that it needs to set incentives, local content laws, environmental management plans etc., that will allow them to develop the resource for the benefit of the country.
She commented that given the role of the government as the trustee of the resource, it is important for it to demonstrate that it is managing the resource for the benefit of the people.
Based on what she has heard thus far, the former politician said she believes that such an understanding is present.
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