Categories: Crisis management / CSR reality check / Energy issues / Trust and reputations

18 May 2010


Let’s interrogate Shell’s CSR in Nigeria

Note: This piece needs to be treated with care. I was the victim of a sophisticated hoax. I apologize to anybody who was mislead. But I’m leaving the post here as a spoof of a spoof. It shows how even if the anti-Shell campaigning trickesters got their way, it would not address the problems in Nigeria in a sensible or realistic manner but would actually make things worse.

Yesterday “Shell” (go to hoax press release) said it was going to clean up the Niger Delta, compensate local communities for past injuries, and institute a local stakeholders’ program that will help lift the region out of poverty. That sounds like good news. But what if the real victim is the truth?

There was something very panicky about what Shell called its visionary remediation plan for Nigeria. The press release partly explained the company’s motivation thus:

“The expected hurricane of regulation and policy change across industry, resulting from the negligent practices [in the Gulf of Mexico] by one pair of companies especially, means that all of us need to try to push harder in the interests of long-term survival. Shell will therefore distinguish ourselves by being the first oil company in history to cease taking risks with important delta ecosystems.”

But Shell has no more idea what caused the accident in the Gulf of Mexico than does BP. There’s been some discussion as to likely causes at a Senate hearing (dubbed the blame game by President Obama) but there’s been no conclusive evidence revealed that negligence sparked the accident. It is highly indecent, opportunistic and disrespectful of a rival for Shell to say or suggest otherwise right now.

Let’s get back to Nigeria. There is a blinding omission in Shell’s picture of its work in the Niger Delta. It has completely ignored the truth of the damage it is supposed to have done. Instead, it has scapegoated itself. It has seemed to accept responsibility for stuff it didn’t do. Maybe the “truth and reconciliation” work it is funding will start to reveal the rights and wrongs of all the parties in Nigeria, but I frankly doubt it. This is a pity. Nigerians have the right to know the truth about their country’s workings.

Poverty won’t be dented much

Shell proposes to spend $8 billion over the next two years followed by $1 billion per year over the following ten years to clean up the Niger Delta. That’s a region in which more than 30 million people live. So there’s no way that an investment of $2.50 per person per week for two years, followed by $0.62 for ten is going to lift the region out of poverty.

Such an expenditure might help clean up the Niger Delta. Equally (perhaps more than likely) it might not. Shell promises to use locally-sourced suppliers and staff in a region in which it was and remains responsible for just a small proportion of the overall oil pollution, and in which it has little power to tackle the problem of leaks at source. Moreover, the Niger Delta is the most corrupt region in one of the world’s most corrupt countries (the world’s 130th most corrupt state, and falling) as I recently explained in my personal account, CSR: it’s not the same in Lagos as in London.

Shell also said yesterday that it proposes to establish a $4 billion fund earmarked for compensation for perceived injustices in the Niger Delta caused by its operations since 1958. In describing its intentions, Shell borrowed emotive language from post-apartheid South Africa. It talked about creating a $45 million “truth and reconciliation process” fund, which will assess and award reparations. That’s likely to create a feeding frenzy centred on locals involved in the fund in which those that win bank in Zurich, and those that lose reach for their guns and head back to the Niger Delta’s creeks.

To glimpse the trouble Shell might encounter, we need only examine how hard it has been for Pfizer to handover around $30 million worth of compensation to 100 or so so-called victims of its meningitis-related drugs trial in the north of Nigeria. Unlike Pfizer, however, Shell possesses no DNA data-bank of the people affected by its activities (regardless of the evidence, Pfizer has been unable to convince the other side of who is entitled to compensation and who is not).

China seeks to replace Shell

But there was also some more weird stuff wrapped up in yesterday’s press release from Shell. I say weird because it strikes me as unreal, and therefore as untrustworthy. Shell promised to:

“…cap oil production at current levels until 2015, and then to gradually reduce production to 10 percent of current levels by 2050, while compensating for this reduction through the development of renewable energy sources.”

Yet Nigeria has just concluded a deal with the Chinese to construct three oil refineries at a cost of $23 billion. It is clear from this that Nigeria is dreaming of an oil-filled future, not one based on renewables. But this deal might explain Shell’s warped CSR strategy, as the WSJ says:

“For the Nigeria government, the deal represents a victory of sorts over U.S. and European oil companies, which have long turned a deaf ear to Nigerian government calls to operate refineries in the country because of the poor financial returns.”

The real prize for China is getting its hands on Nigeria oil reserves. To do so it needs to displace the Western companies already established there with their rights to exploit the resource. So that perhaps explains why Shell took the bold step yesterday to cease:

“…deepwater drilling off the coast of Nigeria until the conclusion of a full independent safety review by our local government partners with international oversight.”

This will, as Shell explained in its release, ensure that it has a secure long-term licence to operate in the region (assuming it jumps this self-made hurdle). This pro-active move might well strengthen Shell’s grip on the Nigerian market in the face of stiff competition. It might well explain Shell’s CSR flannel. But yesterday’s announcement is not so easily dismissed. Hidden away, low down in the release was this very significant global commitment to create:

“…local stakeholder program [s] that gives decision-making and veto capacity over new and ongoing projects to communities affected by Shell and SPDC projects worldwide, pending more formal control at the level of local government.”

Exactly how this will be implemented is not explained. Whether Shell would really give, say, the spokespeople of 500 000 local Ogoni tribes people in the Niger Delta region the right of veto, when it has the support of the Nigerian government representing 150 million citizens, remains to be seen.

Lending Goodluck a hand?

There’s a new President in Nigeria. Goodluck Jonathan’s chances of remaining President come the next Presidential election depend in large part upon whether or not he can secure peace in the conflict-ridden Niger Delta region from where he hails. So one suspects Shell has a two-pronged approach. Its latest strategy looks like a ruse to see off Chinese competition and to curry favour with the new President. As I see it, Shell simply decided that its survival in Nigeria depended upon it helping to fund the peace process through its CSR initiative.

Much of yesterday’s announcement came wrapped in today’s obligatory language of sustainability:

“The unique geology underlying these deltas have sustained our shareholders very well, but we must not let that kind of sustainability come at the the expense of the biodiversity, carbon absorption and O2 production that are their true worth.”

But Nigeria’s economic future and sustainability depends upon oil revenue. The sustainability of Western economies also in large part depends upon continued oil supply. China’s future economic growth depends upon cheap energy much of which it hopes to obtain from Africa.

Some home truths

Sure, nobody can doubt that the Niger Delta needs cleaning up and that Shell should have stopped gas flaring years ago, which it announced it was ceasing immediately. Sure, it is also welcome news that Shell now proposes to exploit the surplus gas instead to provide free energy to local people. Sure, nobody can argue with a commitment to protect the region’s biodiversity. Actually, though, Shell has wanted to reduce gas flaring for many years and for several years (I cannot speak for the very recent history) its investment was bedevilled by the failure of its Nigerian government partners to cough up their share.

The issue I’m exploring right now, however, is what’s really driving Shell’s new strategy.

We immediately meet the oldest problem in discussing CSR. When a firm claims to be interested in environment and society, does it matter if these are cloaks for its own self-interest? Is it morally and strategically sort of OK for firms to claim an interest in being virtuous when, after all, it happens that the wider human and planetary good happens to flow alongside their own advantage?

I would not want you to think I am too much of a purist. Hypocrisy and humbug are often valuable. We need lots of sleeping dogs to have their peace.

But when a firm announces a CSR programme, half-way sensible people start digging (it’s better than running straight for the doors). Maybe we’ll never know what Shell’s motives really are. One casualty of the CSR process is honesty: outsiders will never now know what Shell is really thinking. We have to speculate.

Using Nigeria as a poster child

My main guess is this: Shell has decided that it will turn the Niger Delta into a poster child. It will do a very great deal to buy itself a good global reputation by its work there.

I believe that Shell’s imprudent comments on the Gulf of Mexico disaster reveals boardroom-level angst about the likely consequences of the spill for the entire petroleum industry. That will have tempted the company to over-hype the virtue of its CSR spend in Nigeria and throw into the mix some loose global commitments to listen more to stakeholders.

There must also be a very big Nigerian dimension. It takes very little cynicism to speculate that locally, regionally and nationally in Nigeria, these new CSR schemes have been designed to do some quite shabby or at any rate covert and unseen work whilst flying the CSR banner.

So I can’t help feeling that Shell’s response is a self-interested and cynical abuse of CSR and all that it should stand for.

Peter Voser puts his foot in it

There is something comic in hearing CEO Peter Voser say:

“At long last the words ‘stakeholder’ and ‘sustainable’ will actually mean something. CSR-ND means planning not just for short-term profits, but for what actually matters, including the viability of the planet itself.”

It’s as though he’s admitting that CSR has been hogwash so far, and this time it isn’t, honest injun. But maybe his successor, and his successor’s successor, will be making similar declarations that CSR is at last the real clean, saintly, truthful thing.

Shell’s stunt may work on most levels. The Niger Delta may be a slightly nicer and happier place. Shell may secure its place in Nigeria’s tortuous political economy. The firm may acquire a global bloom at tolerable cost. It may be able to feel better about itself.

I still think it matters to say that corporate culture is polluted when the necessary, expedient and self-interested are dressed-up as outward looking, transformative and virtuous. I don’t know how much narrow self-interest and canny show-boating lies behind this new strategy of Shell’s, but my guess is that there’s a fair bit of it. Anyone interested in the well-being of Shell, but especially of Nigeria, ought to keep watching and inquiring.

Maybe we should be asking Shell to archive its discussions on this CSR programme, and promise to publish them in 30 years. In the interests of intellectual and moral sustainability, you understand.

6 responses to “Let’s interrogate Shell’s CSR in Nigeria”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Arun Sudhaman, paulseaman. paulseaman said: On my PR blog now: Let’s interrogate Shell’s CSR in Nigeria […]

  2. tim says:

    Not much to say from me but that you nailed this one, nice post. Firmly agree with you, a lot of smoke and mirrors are at play and the environment in which they wish to tread is one that is murky, complicated and has many strands.
    Shell would do well to start with understanding the local environment on a human level rather than one of just a resource to be drained. As with most oil companies here they do not hire local PR firms rather deliver from overseas. Much the same as other International corporations who have a stake in Nigeria they do not truly care about the perception here on ground, rather that of shareholders and the international media. If a story breaks globally you can be rest assured they will run to paper over the cracks on ground in country.
    Maybe time will tell and I am jaded from time here. In a way I hope so and in turn hope I’m wrong

  3. Nelson says:

    Try getting your facts right. Lagos is not in the Niger Delta. Also, how did you come up with the conclusion that the Niger Delta is the most corrupt part of Nigeria, when oil revenues are controlled by the Federal Government? You cannot in one breath say the entire Shell exercise is some hogwash and in another breath express optimism that Shell will succeed in cleaning up the delta. Your conclusion is not borne out of the facts you earlier highlighted.

  4. Paul Seaman says:

    Dear Nelson,

    Thanks for the comment. I’m certainly not anti-Shell. May I also suggest that you read the article about Lagos (link embedded in text above) and it will reveal that I know Nigeria and its geography well.

  5. […] what BP is spending to clean up the Gulf of Mexico, to clean up the Niger Delta (see my: Let’s interrogate Shell’s CSR in Nigeria). It seems that Shell is prepared to take responsibility for the clean up, despite, and with the […]

  6. […] funds.  Once money is being thrown at a problem, it is pointless to debate whether this a knee-jerk response to Deepwater, an admission of guilt, or a company following through with Corporate Social Responsibility.  At […]