Despite being American, I have been a big fan of the English football team Newcastle United since I was in high school. They are terrible, but teenagers often make poor life decisions and my misguided loyalty wasn’t a big deal until I came to Malawi. Malawi likes winners and my allegiance to a lousy team was a continual source of pity around my office. Things came to a head in April during a six-game losing streak. After the first few losses, a colleague started giving me kwacha (the local currency) because as he put it, “in Malawi you express your condolences with gifts.” Eventually, after yet another loss I walked into my office on Monday morning to discover a live rooster on my desk. It was Lil’ Alan Shearer the Newcastle Sympathy Chicken. My coworkers loved this and spent all day coming by to see it and tell me to come over to a winning club. You have no idea how hard it is to get work done with a rooster running around your office.
And there was so much work to be done. My Fulbright-Clinton Fellowship placed me in Malawi’s Ministry of Mines. Malawi, one of the world’s least developed countries, has historically been economically dependent on agriculture, but in the last few years there has been an emphasis on mining as an avenue for economic growth and development. This has only increased with the recent discovery of the possibility of oil under Lake Malawi. But while there is great potential, there are serious obstacles. The lake is a UNESCO World Heritage site that has to be protected. Malawi’s oil and mining legislation is old and outdated. Last year a massive corruption scandal rocked the government. If not developed properly, mining in Malawi could cause more problems than it solves.
It is quite a challenge for an overworked, understaffed, relatively new Ministry with no previous experience with petroleum. As the only lawyer in the Ministry, I had the chance to work on many of these issues at the highest levels, which was both exciting and terrifying. I drafted the model production sharing agreement (PSA) currently being used as the basis for negotiations with oil companies. I sat on the government teams negotiating those contracts as well as solid mineral agreements. I chaired workshops, helped update oil and mining policies and legislation, and coordinated the Ministry’s international expert consultants. It was a fascinating opportunity to work on governance, transparency and environmental issues from the perspective of an emerging producer’s government. I believe it resulted in my having a more well-rounded understanding of the issues which will be invaluable as I continue in this field.
Back in the United States, I find myself already missing Malawi. Newcastle is off to yet another terrible start and no one here has offered me so much as a sympathy pigeon.