Why natural resources should help end poverty

The BP crisis in the Gulf of Mexico has laid bare the harm caused by the plunder of natural resource

Natural assets can be hugely valuable for the poorest countries. In Afghanistan, the Americans have used new aerial prospecting technology to scour the country for natural resources. So far they have found $1trn's worth. Properly used, this would be enough money to transform Afghanistan into a land of prosperity. It could finance the security, schools and infrastructure that are the foundations from which ordinary people can earn a decent living.

But natural resources can also generate huge liabilities. The distinctive feature of BP's catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico is not its physical scale - over the years, the Niger Delta has been similarly wrecked - but that, for the first time, the environmental costs of extraction have occurred within a jurisdiction where the perpetrator has legal liability for them. And environmental costs are a pinprick compared to the social costs that the struggle for control of natural assets can run up if it turns violent. Instead of attaining prosperity, Afghanistan could find itself repeating the history of Sierra Leone. Its $1trn of natural assets could merely morph the violence, turning it from being driven by a warped ideology into the probably more secure motivation of raw greed.

In the coming decade, the poorest societies in the world - home to the bottom billion - will need to manage the huge opportunities and risks posed by natural resources. Central Asia and Africa are the last frontiers for resource extraction, and with high global commodity prices and new prospecting technologies, the natural assets hidden beneath their territories will be discovered. Whether this leads to environmental degradation and violent plunder or a meteoric ascent out of poverty depends on the choices that these societies make. Not only are the stakes high, but the choices involved are complex. Harnessing natural assets for environmentally responsible prosperity is not just a matter of "good governance": the decision-makers need to know the underlying economics along a whole chain of decisions.

The chain starts with how resource extraction rights are sold. Past and present practices of secretly negotiated deals expose societies to the acute technical problems of agency, information asymmetry and time inconsistency. The agency problem is the simplest: ordinary citizens cannot readily control what their representatives, politicians and officials get up to. Information asymmetry is about the huge advantages that companies have in knowing the true value of prospecting rights and the many ways in which they can conceal true profits.

Time inconsistency is the most complex: it is about the difficulty that governments have in making credible commitments, and the consequences from companies not trusting the deals that governments offer. Or, as an industry insider recently put it to me, given the reputation of the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Chinese offer $6bn of infrastructure in return for $60bn of resource extraction rights was "quite reasonable".

Share and share alike

The next link in the chain is avoiding disasters such as that of the Niger Delta, in which neglect has generated a violent response. Risks must
be kept to a minimum by a combination of regulation and legal liability - whichever is the more effective and credible option in practice. Unavoidable environmental damage, which will often be extensive, should be compensated for generously. Extraction companies are tempted to give local communities a share in ownership of natural assets. This can be dangerous; a fairer use of natural assets should be for the benefit of an entire society, not just lucky local people. A commitment by a local popu­lation to participate fully in national sharing of the benefits is essential, but privileged local ownership can be a slippery slope.

For all citizens to benefit from resource extraction, a government must be able to collect rents through taxation. At present, national tax systems are often so poorly designed that this does not happen. Zambia is exporting some $3bn of copper, yet tax revenues from these exports are a mere $100m. The global copper boom has benefited the Chinese who own the copper company far more than it has benefited ordinary Zambians.

Effective taxation is difficult, more often than not because the extraction companies hire first-rate accountants, part of whose job is to conceal true profits. Such information asymmetry can be countered either by governments hiring the accountancy expertise they lack, or by redesigning the tax system to target things that are more easily possible to observe than profits - such as gross revenues.

Once a government succeeds in taxing resource rents, its next decision is what to do with the income. Because revenues are unsustainable, generated by depleting a natural asset over which the current generation has only limited rights, the ethical imperative is that they should not all be used up in the present day. This is the legitimate ethical insight from environmentalism - future generations have rights over natural assets that the present generation must not infringe.

The plunder of nature takes two distinct forms: the few expropriating what should belong to the many, and the present expropriating what should belong to the future. Both matter. But where romantic environmentalism goes awry is in insisting that respecting the rights of the future must take the form of preserving nature as it is. We are not, ultimately, curators of natural artefacts. Defining ethical behaviour in that way would be to put environmentalism in conflict with the struggle to end global poverty.

Natural assets are special, but that is because the future has rights over their value. When a poor society can rise out of poverty by using some of its natural assets, it is ethical to do so. The important political struggle is not to preserve nature, but to harness it for the benefit of future generations in the poorest societies. That takes us back to the decision chain.

The final link in the chain is what to do with revenues that are not used up. They should be invested in the domestic economy, not used to build up foreign exchange in a future generations fund - but the issue is how to do it. Too often in the past, attempts to have a big investment push have foundered on corruption and inefficiency in public projects. During the oil boom of 1974-85 the Nigerian government spent heavily on infrastructure, but it did not get much infrastructure for its money. The capacity to invest large amounts of money productively has to be built, within both the public and the private sector. I call this "investing in investing". Although it is the final link in the decision chain, it needs to be done early,
because without it revenues cannot be spent sustainably.

So, how is this complex decision chain to hold fast, not just once, but repeatedly for two or three decades (the minimum time needed for a poor society to achieve modest prosperity)? There is no substitute for the hard task of building a critical mass of informed citizens, society by society.By that, I mean a group sufficient in size to get these decisions right. Sometimes it may require a voting majority, but more usually in poor societies it will involve the few thousand people who directly or indirectly influence how senior officials and politicians think.

Taking on the tiger

Modern communication technology has vastly lowered the costs of knowledge and also enhanced the ability of citizens, once informed, to organise themselves collectively into pressure groups. The Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) shows what is possible. Less than a decade old, it has already shifted practice on transparency and is sure to achieve much more: for example, the new finance minister of Afghanistan was previously the EITI representative for the country. I realised the scope for reaching people when my 2007 book, The Bottom Billion, was translated into 15 languages and a related talk was posted on a website that had 35 million hits.

That is why I have written The Plundered Planet. The EITI, which focused on transpar­ency of revenues, was the right place to start - without such transparency, there is little hope that decisions will be got right. But it would be the wrong place to stop: citizens need to understand the entire decision chain, not just scrutinise revenues. The Natural Resource Charter, described in the book, is a civil society initiative that builds on the EITI and complements it. It is a website being built by a wide group of stakeholders, designed for citizens and governments of resource-rich countries.

In trying to break out of the history of plunder, initiatives that create specialist international organisations, books and websites may be peashooters aimed at a tiger. Or they may prove to be the stone that slew Goliath. Rather than mock our efforts, help to strengthen them.

“The Plundered Planet: How to Reconcile Prosperity with Nature" by Paul Collier is published by Allen Lane (£20)

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Are smart toys spying on children?

If you thought stepping on a Lego was bad, consider the new ways in which toys can hurt and harm families.

In January 1999, the president of Tiger Electronics, Roger Shiffman, was forced to issue a statement clearing the name of the company’s hottest new toy. “Furby is not a spy,” he announced to the waiting world.

Shiffman was speaking out after America’s National Security Agency (NSA) banned the toy from its premises. The ban was its response to a playground rumour that Furbies could be taught to speak, and therefore could record and repeat human speech. “The NSA did not do their homework,” said Shiffman at the time.

But if America’s security agencies are still in the habit of banning toys that can record, spy, and store private information, then the list of contraband items must be getting exceptionally long. Nearly 18 years after TE were forced to deny Furby’s secret agent credentials, EU and US consumer watchdogs are filing complaints about a number of WiFi and Bluetooth connected interactive toys, also known as smart toys, which have hit the shelves. Equipped with microphones and an internet connection, many have the power to invade both children’s and adults’ private lives.

***

“We wanted a smart toy that could learn and grow with a child,” says JP Benini, the co-founder of the CogniToys “Dino”, an interactive WiFi-enabled plastic dinosaur that can hold conversations with children and answer their questions. Benini and his team won the 2014 Watson Mobile Developer Challenge, allowing them to use the question-answering software IBM Watson to develop the Dino. As such, unlike the “interactive” toys of the Nineties and Noughties, Dino doesn’t simply reiterate a host of pre-recorded stock phrases, but has real, organic conversations. “We grew it from something that was like a Siri for kids to something that was more conversational in nature.”

In order for this to work, Dino has a speaker in one nostril and a microphone in the other, and once a child presses the button on his belly, everything they say is processed by the internet-connected toy. The audio files are turned into statistical data and transcripts, which are then anonymised and encrypted. Most of this data is, in Benini’s words, “tossed out”, but his company, Elemental Path, which owns CogniToys, do store statistical data about a child, which they call “Play Data”. “We keep pieces from the interaction, not the full interaction itself,” he tells me.

“Play Data” are things like a child’s favourite colour or sport, which are used to make a profile of the child. This data is then available for the company to view, use, and pass on to third parties, and for parents to see on a “Parental Panel”. For example, if a child tells Dino their favourite colour is “red”, their mother or father will be able to see this on their app, and Elemental Path will be able to use this information to, Benini says, “make a better toy”.

Currently, the company has no plans to use the data with any external marketers, though it is becoming more and more common for smart toys to store and sell data about how they are played with. “This isn’t meant to be just another monitoring device that's using the information that it gathers to sell it back to its user,” says Benini.

Sometimes, however, Elemental Path does save, store, and use the raw audio files of what a child has said to the toy. “If the Dino is asked a question that it doesn’t know, we take that question and separate it from the actual child that’s asking it and it goes into this giant bucket of unresolved questions and we can analyse that over time,” says Benini. It is worth noting, however, that Amazon reviews of the toy claim it is frequently unable to answer questions, meaning there is potentially an abundance of audio saved, rather than it being an occasional occurrence.

CogniToys have a relatively transparent Privacy Policy on their website, and it is clear that Benini has considered privacy at length. He admits that the company has been back and forth about how much data to store, originally offering parents the opportunity to see full transcripts of what their child had been saying, until many fed back that they found this “creepy”. Dino is not the first smart toy to be criticised in this way.

Hello Barbie is the world’s first interactive Barbie doll, and when it was released by Mattel in 2015, it was met with scorn by parents’ rights groups and privacy campaigners. Like Dino, the doll holds conversations with children and stores data about them which it passes back to the parents, and articles expressing concerns about the toy featured on CNN, the Guardian, and the New York Times. Despite Dino’s similarities, however, Benini’s toy received almost no negative attention, while Hello Barbie won the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood’s prize for worst toy of the year 2015.

“We were lucky with that one,” he says, “Like the whole story of the early bird gets the worm but the second worm doesn’t get eaten. Coming second on all of this allowed us to be prepared to address the privacy concerns in greater depth.”

Nonetheless, Dino is in many ways essentially the same as Hello Barbie. Both toys allow companies and parents to spy on children’s private playtimes, and while the former might seem more troubling, the latter is not without its problems. A feature on the Parental Panel of the Dino also allows parents to see the exact wording of questions children have asked about certain difficult topics, such as sex or bullying. In many ways, this is the modern equivalent of a parent reading their child's diary. 

“Giving parents the opportunity to side-step their basic responsibility of talking to, engaging with, encouraging and reassuring their child is a terrifying glimpse into a society where plastic dinosaurs rule and humans are little more than machines providing the babies for the reptile robots to nurture,” says Renate Samson, the chief executive of privacy campaign group Big Brother Watch. “We are used to technology providing convenience in our lives to the detriment of our privacy, but allowing your child to be taught, consoled and even told to meditate by a WiFi connected talking dinosaur really is a step in the wrong direction.”

***

Toy companies and parents are one thing, however, and to many it might seem trivial for a child’s privacy to be comprised in this way. Yet many smart toys are also vulnerable to hackers, meaning security and privacy are under threat in a much more direct way. Ken Munro, of Pen Test Partners, is an ethical hacker who exposed security flaws in the interactive smart toy “My Friend Cayla” by making her say, among other things, “Calm down or I will kick the shit out of you.”

“We just thought ‘Wow’, the opportunity to get a talking doll to swear was too good,” he says. “It was the kid in me. But there were deeper concerns.”

Munro explains that any device could connect to the doll over Bluetooth, provided it was in range, as the set-up didn’t require a pin or password. He also found issues with the encryption processes used by the company. “You can say anything to a child through the doll because there's no security,” he says. “That means you've got a device that can potentially be used to groom a child and that's really creepy.”

Pen Test Partners tells companies about the flaws they find with their products in a process they call “responsible disclosure”. Most of the time, companies are grateful for the information, and work through ways to fix the problem. Munro feels that Vivid Toy Group, the company behind Cayla, did a “poor job” at fixing the issue. “All they did was put one more step in the process of getting it to swear for us.”

It is one thing for a hacker to speak to a child through a toy and another for them to hear them. Early this year, a hack on baby monitors ignited such concerns. But any toy with speech recognition that is connected to the internet is also vulnerable to being hacked. The data that is stored about how children play with smart toys is also under threat, as Fisher Price found out this year when a security company managed to obtain the names, ages, birthdays, and genders of children who had played with its smart toys. In 2015, VTech also admitted that five million of its customers had their data breached in a hack.

“The idea that your child shares their playtime with a device which could potentially be hacked, leaving your child’s inane or maybe intimate and revealing questions exposed is profoundly worrying,” says Samson. Today, the US Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) said in a statement that smart toys “pose an imminent and immediate threat to the safety and security of children in the United States”. 

Munro says big brands are usually great at tackling these issues, but warns about smaller, cheaper brands who have less to lose than companies like Disney or Fisher Price. “I’m not saying they get it right but if someone does find a problem they’ve got a huge incentive to get it right subsequently,” he says of larger companies. Thankfully, Munro says that he found Dino to be secure. “I would be happy for my kids to play with it,” he says. “We did find a couple of bugs but we had a chat with them and they’re a good bunch. They aren’t perfect but I think they’ve done a hell of a lot of a better job than some other smart toy vendors.”

Benini appears alert to security and the credibility it gives his company. “We took the security very, very seriously,” he says. “We were still building our systems whilst these horror stories were coming about so I already set pipelines and parameters in place. With a lot of devices out there it seems that security takes a backseat to the idea, which is really unfortunate when you’re inviting these devices into your home.”

As well as being wary of smaller brands, Munro advises that parents should look out for Bluetooth toys without a secure pairing process (ie. any device can pair with the toy if near enough), and to think twice about which toys you connect to your WiFi. He also advises to use unique passwords for toys and their corresponding apps.

“You might think ‘It's just a toy, so I can use the same password I put in everything else’ – dog’s name, football club, whatever – but actually if that ever got hacked you’d end up getting all your accounts that use that same password hacked,” he says.

Despite his security advice, Munro describes himself as “on the fence” about internet-connected smart toys as a whole. “Most internet of things devices can be hacked in one way or another,” he says. “I would urge caution.”

***

Is all of this legal? Companies might not be doing enough ethically to protect the privacy of children, but are they acting responsibly within the confines of the law?

Benini explains that Dino complies with the United States Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) of which there is no real equivalent in the UK. COPPA says that companies must have parental permission to collect personal information over the internet about children under 13 years of age. “We’ve tried to go above and beyond the original layout of COPPA,” says Benini, when describing CogniToys transparent privacy documents. Parents give their consent for Elemental Path to collect their children’s data when they download the app that pairs with the toy.

Dino bears a striking similarity to Amazon Echo and Google Home, smart speakers that listen out for commands and questions in your home. Everything that is said to Amazon Echo is recorded and sent to the cloud, and an investigation by the Guardian earlier this year discovered that this does not comply with COPPA. We are therefore now in a strange position whereby many internet of things home devices are legally considered a threat to a child’s privacy, whereas toys with the same capabilities are not. This is an issue because many parents may not actually be aware that they are handing over their children’s data when installing a new toy.

As of today, EU consumer rights groups are also launching complaints against certain smart toys, claiming they breach the EU Unfair Contract Terms Directive and the EU Data Protection Directive, as well as potentially the Toy Safety Directive. Though smart toys may be better regulated in Europe, there are no signs that the problem is being tackled in the UK. 

At a time when the UK government are implementing unprecedented measures to survey its citizens on the internet and Jeremy Hunt wants companies to scour teens’ phones for sexts, it seems unlikely that any legislation will be enacted that protects children’s privacy from being violated by toy companies. Indeed, many internet of things companies – including Elemental Path – admit they will hand over your data to government and law enforcement officials when asked.

***

As smart toys develop, the threat they pose to children only becomes greater. The inclusion of sensors and cameras means even more data can be collected about children, and their privacy can and will be compromised in worrying ways.

Companies, hackers, and even parents are denying children their individual right to privacy and private play. “Children need to feel that they can play in their own place,” says Samson. It is worrying to set a precedent where children get used to surveillance early on. All of this is to say nothing of the educational problems of owning a toy that will tell you (rather than teach you) how to spell “space” and figure out “5+8”.

In a 1999 episode of The Simpsons, “Grift of the Magi”, a toy company takes over Springfield Elementary and spies on children in order to create the perfect toy, Funzo. It is designed to destroy all other toys, just in time for Christmas. Many at the time criticised the plot for being absurd. Like the show's prediction of President Trump, however, it seems that we are living in a world where satire slowly becomes reality.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.