The UK's embassies and consulates in six sub-Saharan African countries accepted more than £57,000 in corporate sponsorships for parties and drinks events from oil companies, new figures obtained through the Freedom of Information Act have revealed.
The donations, received over three years by embassies and consulates in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Namibia, Malawi, and Ethiopia, are not declared on Foreign Office (FCO) annual reports or accounts, and highlight the close ties between oil companies in the region and the FCO's representatives.
The campaign group Greenpeace, which obtained the FOI data and shared the releases with BuzzFeed News, said the donations raise questions as to the revolving door and social ties between oil companies and the FCO, as well as over whether sponsoring social functions grants privileged access to support from the government department.
"This investigation into the shadowy world of corporate-sponsored parties and revolving doors raises urgent questions over the kind of influence British oil firms have over UK government officials," said Greenpeace UK executive director John Sauven.
"Many of these companies are pursuing controversial projects that could damage national parks, put endangered wildlife at risk, and will certainly drive more climate change in African countries that are already vulnerable.
"The UK government can’t have its cake and eat it. If Britain is serious about honouring the Paris climate deal, its government officials must stop acting like the oil industry's lobbying arm."
The FCO began accepting contributions towards embassy events such as the Queen's birthday celebrations as a cost-saving measure, BuzzFeed News understands, and as part of the department's role in promoting business interests overseas.
Embassies are only required to disclose the contributions in the Foreign Office's annual accounts if an individual contribution exceeds £5,000. If a company makes multiple contributions – whether to the same embassy or multiple ones – totalling above this figure, these do not appear in the accounts.
The £57,000 total in the FOI figures includes £12,500 from Shell subsidiaries, and around £8,900 from Tullow Oil.
Correspondence between FCO officials and oil executives shows warm relations between the two, and that business is discussed at the parties thrown by the companies and executives.
One such piece of mail was sent by an UK Trade and Investment official in Uganda to a Tullow executive. “Dear Dean, as briefly discussed on Friday (during the Tullow end of year party – which was amazing!) we write to request a meeting with you," it begins.
A party in Namibia in 2013 was hosted by the FCO on a Royal Navy battleship, where oil executives mingled with UK and Namibian officials at a visit that included a captain's lunch for the top brass.
Staff in Zambia, meanwhile, exchanged emails with Tullow Oil executives in the country, celebrating a deal – gained with Foreign Office support – giving Tullow oil exploration rights in some of the country's national parks.
Drilling in such areas is strongly discouraged by the international convention of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (a UN partner), which gives the parks category II protected status. Tullow hasn’t committed to not drilling in these areas, but has pledged to not drill category I world heritage sites.
A Tullow executive sent the UK's high commission an enthusiastic thank you for their support: “This great result for Tullow and hopefully Zambia is in no small part thanks to your BRILLIANT support.”
A spokesperson for the FCO said that supporting British businesses overseas was a key part of the department's functions and that sponsored parties helped fulfil this role.
"British embassies and high commissions around the world accept corporate sponsorship for events from a range of organisations and companies," she said. "This sponsorship helps reduce the cost of events to the British taxpayer while helping to boost British business globally."
A spokesperson for Tullow Oil said the company appreciates the support it receives from the Foreign Office, and stressed that the company voluntarily declares all payments it makes to governments in its annual reports.
"Tullow has worked for 30 years in Africa and has received valued assistance from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office ... throughout that time," they said.
"Along with other companies, we have sponsored FCO events through our local offices as part of our role as a leading British investor in the countries in which we work. We also received assistance from the British High Commission in Zambia as a potential investor as we applied successfully for a licence."
The spokesperson told BuzzFeed News the decisions on sponsorship were made at a country-by-country level in the company, not by its head office. He added Tullow had "very strict and clear procedures with regard to operating in protected areas including full oversight and sanction by our board".
A spokesman for Shell said the company considered sponsoring events when it received requests from the FCO.
"Like many international companies, from time to time Shell receives requests from the UK government to support local initiatives, such as celebrations to mark the Queen’s birthday," he told BuzzFeed News. "We consider each request on a case-by-case basis, in line with local laws and our own internal procedures."
None of the donations in the FOI data are declared in the Foreign Office’s annual reports, though BuzzFeed News understands a contribution of just over £5,000 to the British high commission in Tanzania should have been declared, but was omitted due to an FCO accounting error.
Greenpeace's John Sauven told BuzzFeed News the criteria on declaring donations should be widened in the interests of transparency.
"The government has urgent questions to answer on why donations from British oil firms to many embassies across Africa don't show up in the Foreign Office accounts," he said.
"Since embassy parties offer an opportunity for industry executives to gain access to senior UK diplomats, the government should be absolutely transparent about which companies are bankrolling these events."
James Ball is a special correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in London. PGP: here
Contact James Ball at James.Ball@buzzfeed.com.
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