Superheroes in Suits?

04/09/2012 09:49 BST | Updated 03/11/2012 09:12 GMT

I'm not saying everything I know in life I learned from Hong Kong Phooey. But somehow, it was the opening seconds of that legendary TV cartoon that sprung to mind recently when news broke from Washington of a big step forward in the fight for transparency in the oil, mining and gas industries, meaning African citizens can begin to ensure the rewards of natural resources don't end up in the wrong hands.

Who was this superhero? Sarge? No. Rosemary, the telephone operator? No. And this time, not even Henry , the mild-mannered janitor. (If you were born after 1980, go look it up and see what you were missing. Inspector Gadget had nothing on this, kids.)

The superheroes this time were the mild-mannered, quasi-judicial, definitely-cape-eschewing members of the Securities and Exchange Commission, the austere body that interprets and enforces laws relating to US stock exchanges and the companies that trade on them. The SEC published a rule requiring all companies listed on US stock exchanges to disclose what they pay to governments for extracting oil and gas, and for mining. It has to be said that the Commissioners didn't hurry to this view; the deadline the SEC were given by the US Congress to do this was 14 April last year.

Nevertheless, the wait appears to have been worth it. The SEC were clear and resolute. For all transactions of over $100,000 and for every project a company operates, US law will require transparency about who paid what to whom. No exceptions. The SEC had no truck with the argument that a special case could be made in countries where it would be illegal to publish such payments, wisely understanding that this "dictator's veto" would simply encourage rogue countries to pass just such a law and try to keep payments hidden.

So no wonder ONE's co-founder Bono called this a really big deal, describing transparency as "the best vaccine against corruption". The new rule will significantly improve the business environment, empowering all citizens, especially in Africa, with valuable information on government revenues that they need in order to hold their leaders accountable. It will make it harder for corrupt officials to divert revenues away from spending on vital services such as healthcare, schools and clean water.

It was also something of a relief. The ruling wasn't a sure thing, following concerted lobbying efforts behind the scenes from some major extractives companies in an attempt to considerably weaken this ruling. ONE members across the US raised their voices on the issue, concerned that the clear intention of lawmakers in Congress should be enforced. We should applaud the SEC for holding the line.

So: first move, USA. Now it's time for Europe to step up and do the same.

The good news is that there is currently a law being debated in the European Parliament which would require similar reporting by companies in the European Union. There are concerns, however, that the proposed measure does not go as far as the one laid down in Washington. There is a huge loophole in the proposed EU law, letting companies off the hook from reporting payments to countries where local laws may prohibit disclosure. The SEC comprehensively dismissed such a provision and for the EU to press ahead with it would be perverse and self-defeating.

A crucial vote on the law is coming up and by voting the right way, European parliamentarians could help African citizens to fight corruption and build a better future for all. But lobbyists from some of the world's biggest companies are now busy at work on this side of the Atlantic trying to weaken the draft EU law. The spotlight is on a small group of EU lawmakers. We're letting them know we want them to do the right thing and watching how they vote. You can join us and the 160,000 ONE members who have taken action.

In the next episode of this story, who will be the superheroes? A group of mild-mannered Brussels parliamentarians? Could be...

(Although, never write off Rosemary, the telephone operator. She always had something special.)