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How a renewable energy approach can help countries improve their reputation

While the importance of a good reputation in the private sector has long been recognised as a key enabler to be success, countries and governments often still lag behind the depth and understanding of reputational value. It is changing slowly, however. A good reputation has an impact on virtually every stakeholder in a country. There is the inside-perspective: For citizens being associated with a positive country offers emotional value (self-esteem). And then there is the external perspective: there is a lot of money at stake for the export industry (including tourism), attracting foreign direct investment (FDI) and much more. Especially in an increasingly transparent and intertwined world, governments can hardly look away when their good reputation is at stake - or, conversely, not acting when their reputation is already suffering. Reputation - as opposed to self-perception - is the perception that other people have of you. This can lead to quite big gaps between the perceived ‘self’ and reputation, e.g., the awareness and understanding by others. Russia, the USA, and since BREXIT also the UK are all experiencing pretty wide gaps between their very high self-perception and their not so great perception abroad.

So, what drives the reputation of a nation?

In recent years, the Reputation Institute has measured the reputation of the 55 largest economic powers in the G8 countries. The top positions were usually held by all Scandinavian countries, Canada, Switzerland, Australia and New Zealand. The Reputation Institute identified three factors that promote or reduce a nation’s reputation:

  1. Environmental perception (openness of the inhabitants, national beauty, lifestyle and also environmental protection measures)
  2. Government affairs (security, ethics, international responsibility, social and economic policies)
  3. Economy (education and reliability of the workforce, contribution to global culture, and the quality of products and services)

These three factors combined provide for increased esteem, more trust, as well as better feelings and more admiration towards a country. To play in the top league of nations, all three factors need to be considered.

What does renewable energy have to do with this?

"Australia ranked worst of 57 countries on climate change policy" (The Guardian), “Australian government continues to put coal production ahead of climate protection” (NZZ). These are definitely not the headlines that promote a country's reputation, and yet, Australia has to accept such articles over and over again. And rightly so, because Australia's government continues to promote its coal industry (Australia is the world's largest exporter of coal, which is the worst energy source for our climate). While other First World countries are setting themselves (ambitious) climate targets and trying to rely on more renewable and clean energy sources, Australia is sticking to the old status quo. The same article in The Guardian, on the other hand, praises Portugal's ambitions for its efforts to achieve a net-zero emission economy by 2050. For Australia, this has several negative consequences: firstly, the country is portrayed as backward and ruthless - in other words, it loses its impeccable reputation, and secondly, it is about to lose its allies on the global stage (especially its closest ally, the USA, as the Biden government is determined to take decisive action against climate change). Thirdly, it misses a great opportunity to get a piece of the renewable energy cake and fourthly, future Australian governments will be faced with a huge problem: The moment China stops buying coal from Australia, the entire coal industry in Australia – employing some 50,000 people - is at threat.

Who gains reputational value through a renewable energy approach?

"Solar power reflects Morocco's energy ambitions"(Financial Times). The Kingdom of Morocco is an impressive example of how things can get much better. The country has understood that renewable energy sources (especially solar power plants in the Sahara) increase Morocco's energy security (reducing dependence on foreign energy) and can be exported and commercialised in the future. Positive side effect: according to the Climate Action Tracker, Morocco (and The Gambia) are the only countries that will meet the climate targets of the Paris Agreement. This, in turn, is causing much applause in the international arena and results in countless positive media articles applauding Morocco, as the above example from the FT shows. Morocco has understood the signs of times and knows how to play its cards: Marrakech organised the COP22 - the UN World Climate Change Conference in 2016 - where Morocco, once again, proved to be an African leader for a greener world. In fact, Morocco is playing its environmental card so well that political unrest around the Western Sahara conflict, a severe imbalance between men's and women's education and other internal challenges are being pushed out of the public eye.

Anyone who thinks that Morocco is an exception is mistaken. Plenty of other countries are investing in renewable energy for their own future and their reputation. Costa Rica, the small Central American country with about 5 million inhabitants has been causing sensational headlines for years with its climate efforts: "Costa Rica is moving towards carbon neutrality faster than any other country in the world", wrote Vox. This makes the country shine in the public spotlight. But the prime example par excellence is probably Norway. "Why is Norway so far ahead of the rest when it comes to renewable energy?" is the question asked by National Geographic. And indeed, Norway's internal greenhouse gas balance is excellent thanks to almost 100% green electricity and an exemplary electrification model on roads and even in shipping traffic. The question why Norway has progressed so far is in fact easy to answer: the country's entire prosperity is based on the export of its (climate-damaging) oil and gas deposits. Norway thus shows that also the reputation of a fossil fuel exporting country can be perceived as a leader for a more climate-friendly world if the country visibly invests in renewable, clean energy sources. And, again, Norway is by no means the only net-exporter of fossil fuel investing into its green future and “green-reputation”. Saudi Arabia recently launched a $28 billion renewable energy funding initiative, and the United Arab Emirates are hosting the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA).

Looking at these findings makes it actually pretty easy to advise Australia: If they want to uphold its great reputation it might be wise to do a bit more in terms of renewable energy investment and a bit less in terms of coal subsidies. For its reputation – and for the climate.

Learn more about how we can help you, your company or your country when it comes to reputation.

Why you should be transparent – and why not

The Internet made the world more transparent, transparency creates credibility, credibility increases reputation – and a good reputation is the essence in todays’ age of the internet. The formula of this cycle is easy to understand. But is it also correct? What if transparency complicates business, what if published information is misunderstood, and what if your stakeholders prefer to withhold information? Will transparency suddenly become a curse rather than open, good intention? This article shows the importance but also the consequences of transparency in the often-criticized extractive industry.

Transparency is the "Swiss army knife of policy tools". A description that is often made – and not without good reason. Transparency challenges the privacy of companies and state sovereignty over and over again. Invoked in many highly critical areas such as security, financial policy, economics, corruption, human rights, and the environment, to name but a few. Thus, industries involved in all these areas are the most challenged. This applies, among other sectors, to the raw materials industry – regardless of whether gold and diamonds are extracted, oil drilled, or gas shipped to foreign countries: this is about safety for employees and the environment, about technological leadership, about human rights – and about money. A lot of money.

Being a winner thanks to transparency

Particularly in developing countries and emerging markets, the management of natural resources can generate revenues that are important for economic growth and social development. However, failure to disclose information on these revenues can lead to mistrust, weakening of administrative and governance standards, or even conflict. If it leads to conflicts or disregarded human rights standards, bad publicity is awaiting around the corner for the companies involved; damaging their reputation, followed by financial losses. Transparency with regard to the management of raw materials is an important prerequisite for ensuring that a country's natural resources benefit the population. Because publicly accessible information promotes an informed debate on the management and use of natural resources. This way, the citizens of a country may hold accountable those being responsible in politics and businesses. Local politicians may show how they deal responsibly with the environment, international companies show that they behave legally, economically and (hopefully) morally correct, and the home countries of the involved companies may check that international standards are being observed.

Many companies are pro-transparency...

When it comes to transparency, involved companies often have to balance interests, because many of them advocate disclosure of the money flows to promote their own credibility, especially in their countries of origin – mostly OPEC countries – where commodity traders often have to listen to a lot of criticism. Transparency helps to reduce prejudices, correct misinformation and fight fake news. The own employees stand behind the company, and the cooperation with NGO's becomes easier and more fruitful for both sides. At Exxon Mobil for instance, this is expressed as follows:

"We are committed to sincere and ethical behaviour and to fighting corruption by promoting transparency initiatives. In the countries where we do business, we are actively committed to signing transparency agreements to disclose government revenue. In detail, these are: Azerbaijan, Chad, the joint development zone of Nigeria/São Tomé and Príncipe, Kazakhstan and Nigeria." ExxonMobil, 2019

ExxonMobil proved that these are not just empty words when back in 1998 they led a consortium of Western oil companies asking the World Bank to jump on board for a planned pipeline project in Chad and Cameroon. The idea was that the Bank's involvement offset the reputational risk posed by investing in a conflict-prone, undemocratic country through a project drawing high levels of NGO attention. The bank agreed to draft a plan on how Chad should manage its future returns. In addition to protections of the environment and local communities, the resulting legislation required transparent and development-focused revenue expenditures monitored by oversight bodies which included civil society, legislative, and international members (Gillies, 2010).

... but are being slowed down by governments

Yet, implementing transparency does not always achieve its desired outcomes. Studies have found that despite the EITI auditing requirement (I’ll explain this later), member states (and companies) may not produce complete and reliable data (Van Alstine, 2014).Also, the lack of a strong and educated domestic civil society that can actually understand "transparency" may hinder the effectiveness of revenue transparency. In many countries, residents do not even know which rights they actually have. Thirdly, there is no scientific evidence that a transparent cash flow actually contributes to better and more resource-oriented growth. And finally, there are also quite trivial reasons why governments have little interest in transparency: corruption, money laundering and self-enrichment occur again and again. In order to counteract these unpleasant aspects, global initiatives have been in place since the late 1990s to achieve greater transparency – By the way: at the same time, the term CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) became increasingly popular.

International initiatives

The Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) is probably the best-known and largest global initiative for greater financial transparency and accountability in the collection and disclosure of revenues from natural resource extraction. The standard is implemented in some 50 countries around the world by governments in collaboration with business and civil society. Information on tax payments, licenses, production volumes and other important data relating to the extraction of energy and mineral resources must be disclosed. Many large corporations are active members of the initiative, including Swiss based Glencore for example:

"Glencore is committed to high standards of corporate governance and transparency and welcome increased transparency around the redistribution and reinvestment of such payments. We seek to maintain long-term, open, transparent and cooperative relationships with tax authorities in our host countries." Glencore, 2019

Of course, there are countless other organizations and social movements promoting more transparency. For example, Transparency International, which fights corruption worldwide. And “Publish what you pay” (PWYP), founded from an alliance of London-based NGOs, including Global Witness, Open Society Institute, Catholic Agency for Overseas Development (CAFOD), Oxfam GB, Save the Children UK, and Transparency International UK, now includes more than 650 civil society organisations in over 50 countries.

In summary: Transparency yes, but...

Ironically, some companies are afraid that too much transparency will make them vulnerable because their value chains are complicated. This can lead to public shaming, which in turn creates complex reputational dynamics. For instance, a company could perceive that bad press scares off consumers, attracts legal investigations, lowers employee morale, and threatens shareholder confidence. Nevertheless, the benefits of transparency clearly outweigh and will become even more important in the future. Because “not to inform” is much more likely to cause negative publicity. And in the age of the Internet, a multinational company can simply no longer afford this.

Learn more about how we can support your business.

 

Sources

Gillies, A. (2010) ‘Reputational Concerns and the Emergence of Oil Sector Transparency as an International Norm’, International Studies Quarterly. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 54(1), pp. 103–126. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2478.2009.00579.x.

Van Alstine, J. (2014) ‘Transparency in Resource Governance: The Pitfalls and Potential of “New Oil” in Sub-Saharan Africa’, Global Environmental Politics, 14(1), pp. 20–39.

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