Does transparency kill 99% of despots

BBC business editor Robert Peston on a clash of interests

There is an argument that's fashionable among the class of do-gooding plutocrats - the George Soroses, Mo Ibrahims and Bonos - that the developed world might not have to be bombing Libya, if only a brighter light had been shone on payments made by multinationals to despotic regimes and if banks had been less enthusiastic to open offshore personal bank accounts for the relevant despots.

And today there's this statement from one of the campaigning groups in this area, Global Witness:

"The governments that have frozen funds controlled by Gaddafi, Mubarak, Ben Ali and their cronies should name the banks holding their assets...Those banks holding dirty money should be publicly named and then regulators need to devise a new system which stops banks from taking suspect funds in the first place."

Before assessing whether transparency and the bright sunlight of publicity would in fact kill 99 per cent of all known despots, let's see what kind of cash flow we're talking about in the case of Tyranny Incorporated.

For Libya, I am told by a government source that Britain has frozen £12bn associated with the Gaddafi regime. Now the vast bulk of this takes the form of assets controlled by the Libyan Investment Authority and the Central Bank of Libya - or institutions which are perceived to be controlled by Muammar Gaddafi and his family.

The amount of money identified and frozen in bank accounts belonging to named individuals - accounts with titles such as "Mr M Gaddafi" - is relatively small, I am informed. So millions of pounds rather then tens of millions of pounds.

The point about drawing this distinction between personal bank accounts and the assets of the Libyan central bank, for example, is that it would have been quite hard for a big international bank to tell almost any central bank to take its lucre elsewhere, especially when the previous British government invested a lot of time and effort cozying up to Mr Gaddafi.

But that doesn't mean to say banks should ever have felt comfortable taking substantial personal deposits from Gaddafi or those linked to him.

At a time when money laundering rules make it an administrative nightmare for the likes of you and me to open a bank account that contains even a few bob - and only investment bankers can transfer a few million into their accounts without anyone wondering whether that's a bit fishy - questions are legitimately asked about why household-name western banks should feel comfortable allowing tyrants and their associates to open accounts holding a few million squids.

And if I doubted that this was an issue about which the banks feel a bit vulnerable, those doubts were dispelled when I asked the chairman of a bank what checks were in place to prevent his organisation servicing evil dictators who expropriate their people's money and then re-invest the wonga in Hampstead and Kensington mansions.

It was the colour he turned (a bit redder) and the pause before he answered that gave some of the game away - as did his admission that the bank did what it could not to aid and abet political wrong 'uns, but it was tough.

Even so, there is some evidence that British banks (though who knows about others) have been complicit in petty theft rather than grand larceny from the Libyan state.

Here's the main question. If the Libyan people knew what kind of money went into Libyan state coffers from overseas multinationals, and if they could see precisely how much left the country, would they have turfed out the Gaddafi dynasty by now and installed a proper democratic parliamentary system?

If Facebook and Twitter could shout out how much multinational oil companies such as Shell and BP were paying pay the Gaddafi regime for exploration and development rights, would every son and daughter of Libya make jolly certain those funds were being used for their benefit and were not being sequestered by an unelected, unaccountable elite?

Well we should have a real life test before too long. In the US, the Dodd Frank Act will from April force all "extractive" companies - oil, gas and mineral businesses - with a US stock-market listing to reveal precisely what they pay governments for mining and extraction rights.

And here in the European Union, there is a good chance that a new directive will impose the same disclosure obligations on their European peers (it has the backing of George Osborne, the British chancellor, among others).

Some mining and oil companies don't like it. For example the chief executive of Royal Dutch Shell, Peter Voser, recently complained that the Dodd Frank provision "may even require companies to violate sovereign laws to disclose information that the laws do not allow."

Multinationals' main concern however will be the absence of a level playing field: a Russian or Kazakhstan miner may not feel quite the same moral obligation to disclose its financial relationship with a smelly regime as a western company may.

There is also a point to be made about why the disclosures should apply only to extractive industries.

Governments award all sorts of valuable licences. So when Vodafone or Telefonica obtain a licence to provide mobile services in country with a dodgy record on human rights (for example), why shouldn't the licence agreement in that case be a public document?

Also, if the argument runs that democracy is more likely to flourish in the Middle East and Africa if the peoples of those regions can see how their mineral wealth is being exploited, why hasn't the US Congress voted to disclose any financial agreement between a multinational - a pharmaceutical company, a bank, a computer manufacturer - and the one-party Chinese state? Why would the establishment of democracy be more important in Africa than in China?

You can even make the case that to guard against the propensity of any British government to waste taxpayers' money or reward friends, you would probably want every page of every outsourcing or PFI contract published on the internet.

Here's the thing. There is almost always a public interest in publishing commercial agreements with governments wherever they sit on the spectrum from parliamentary elective democracy to corrupt military junta.

But against that public interest comes the national economic interest, which - whether we like it or not - is occasionally served by allowing businesses to operate under a dank fog of partial disclosure.

You can keep up with the latest from business editor Robert Peston by visiting his blog on the BBC News website.

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