Duncan Clarke: Economics and the Oil Game in Africa

Duncan Clarke is one of the best known names in the upstream oil industry as an advisor to governments and oil companies, the author of a number of books, founder and chairman of Global Pacific & Partners, and the co-host (with senior partner and chief executive, Babette van Gessel) of the landmark and highly-popular annual Africa Oil Week/Africa Upstream Conference, held in Cape Town. But how did an economist from Southern Africa get involved with the oil industry at all?
This article appeared in Vol. 11, No. 4 - 2014


Growing up in central Africa in the ’50s and ’60s gave Duncan Clarke an early appreciation of his surroundings and the wider environment – but very little indication of the significance the oil industry would have in his later life.

The Clarke family farmhouse in the Inyanga Mountains near the Mozambique border. The photo shows Duncan, aged five, with his older brother and sister. ”I was born in what was then known as Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, where four generations of my family are buried, three still walk the ground, and which I still think of as home,” Duncan explains. His father and grandfather had both been civil servants in the Rhodesian government, and as he says in his book Three Decades in the Long Grass: The Story of Global Pacific & Partners, “I never thought to leave this mix of lush high veld, arid low veld and seductive savannah.”

He went to St. George’s College in Salisbury (now Harare), the oldest school in central Africa, one strong on discipline and sport, where Duncan thrived. However, when he was in his final year in 1965, the Republic of Rhodesia made a unilateral declaration of independence from the United Kingdom, and life changed forever. The ensuing civil war lasted until 1980, when Zimbabwe declared independence.

Although, alike all, initially called up for military service after school, Duncan nonetheless went to Rhodes University in South Africa – and his travels began.

Political Upheavals

At Rhodes he studied economics under a number of notable South Africa economists, whose ideas remain significant in his life to this day. Equally influential were his travels round southern Africa: “By the time I left university I had covered about 50,000 km, mostly hitch-hiking, during which I observed the social and political pressures in the region at first hand.”

His first venture out of Africa was to the University of St. Andrews in Scotland to do a Masters degree, and later to explore Europe by motorbike, covering 7,500 km, thereafter taking a somewhat circuitous route back to Rhodesia. On returning home, he became a junior economics lecturer at the University College of Rhodesia and, as he says: “If things had been different, I should never have wanted to leave, neither home nor academe.”

  • Duncan Clarke at St. George’s College, Salisbury, 1964.

  • Duncan Clarke when a Lecturer in Economics at the University College of Rhodesia in the 1970s.

  • Duncan Clarke, 2014.

But things were different by 1975. Despite having converted his M.Litt. for a Ph.D., and after completing the research, Duncan’s post at the university was terminated. With the guerrilla war in the bush escalating, and another call-up for military service looming, he took up a post in economics in South Africa, but the political situation there was also in upheaval. In early 1977 he found himself on a plane with a ‘one-way ticket’ to Europe, with the clear implication that return was now excluded. He still does not know why: “possibly a piece written on a sensitive issue or just having the ‘wrong friends’.”

Duncan landed in Geneva on a stop-over, one lasting 11 years, and began to work in the UN’s International Labour Office as an Africa economics specialist, later as an independent advisor, with frequent visits made across that continent. Oil was inevitably part of Africa’s economic story and, as he puts it, “slowly the fragments of the oil game in Africa unfolded before my eyes.”

Global Pacific & Partners is Born

Being in Geneva and becoming interested in the economics of oil, Duncan inevitably drifted into the orbit of Petroconsultants (now absorbed into IHS). “After two joint ventures with them in the early 1980s, one on Western Africa and another on South East Asia, the company asked me join them in 1985, to head up an Economics Division and look at their offerings on Africa, while putting together a platform for a global economics advisory practice, and creating analytic tools for their oil industry clients thinking about moving into the area,” he explains. “It was a baptism of fire in the industry for me, but I ended up working with Petroconsultants in many countries throughout the world. I was also involved in developing many mulitclient products for them, such as the Giant fiscal evaluation software and the Country Petroleum Risk Evaluation service.”

By 1988 Duncan was getting restless in Geneva (“cold winters, northern hemisphere, dour Swiss!”) and he emigrated to Sydney, initially to head-up the new Petroconsultants entity there. Soon after, however, he left their fold to reconstruct his own firm, specialising in the economics of oil under the name of Global Pacific & Partners.

“One of our first projects was a major report on national oil companies worldwide, the first time such a compilation had been attempted,” he says. “We built up an enormous quantity of research – but we worked hard to obtain it. In the days before Google you had to go to each country and just talk to the right people. For example, when we decided to prepare a report on South America we visited and knocked on doors in every country in the continent. On the back of this and much other research effort on the developing world we were asked to work as advisors to JNOC, PTTEP and many other state oil firms, plus private players.”

Global Pacific & Partners has grown and morphed in different ways over the years, but some things remain, as Duncan explains. “We have never been in debt or called in investors; we are self-financed and re-invest in our business, operating with good people and partners. We’ve grown into areas that we are interested in and ridden the industry cycles with a unique portfolio, built on a model modified over time as done by the best oil companies.

“I was brought up in a landlocked frontier culture which encouraged self-reliance. In Africa the first objective is survival – a lesson which has proved very useful to me in our business life. Many people believe that business is a game of success, but it isn’t – it’s about survival first. This concept is embedded in everything we do.”

Conferences and Strategy Briefings

Senior Partners of Global Pacific & Partners, Duncan Clarke and Babette van Gessel, in 1994. In 1994, Duncan fortuitously met Babette van Gessel, a young South African organiser of events in Asia, and out of that meeting came the first Africa Upstream Conference, held in South Africa the same year. “It was a humble beginning,” he remembers, “with about 300 delegates in a large marquee in Camps Bay – very different from our 20th annual event in 2013, held in the large Cape Town International Conference Centre, which attracted 1,600 attendees from all over the globe.”

From this has developed one of the most significant senior management conference organisations in the oil and gas upstream business, with events held annually in many parts of the world, although there is still a strong emphasis on Africa.

"We believe it is very important to have a good knowledge base in a country or region when we organise an event," Duncan explains. "To ensure we continue to attract a high calibre of speakers and attendees, we visit the countries involved before an event and work with our relationships and key contacts.

"For the larger regional events, we like neutral venues like London, Rio de Janeiro, Singapore or Cape Town. There are less political or cultural issues in these sorts of places and they are easy for people of many nationalities to visit. Holding a conference in the US, for example, post-9/11, created some problems for many of our overseas or African delegates because it became difficult to obtain visas. We have never focused operations in China, India or Russia in our conferences, although we have done substantial research and advisory work on those areas.

"At our conferences we like to offer a wide range of themes, mixing strategy, new ventures, oil policy, history and geopolitics with economics. While our many speakers treat with the technical, we never do any geoscience, despite the fact that many geoscientists attend our events,” he continues. “There are many other conferences which cover those areas and we like to stay within our area of expertise."

In 2001 Global Pacific & Partners abandoned the old formulaic paper-based research model they had been using to deliver insight, knowledge and economic advice – "what I call 20th-century research" – in favour of dedicated strategy briefings closely allied to the events agenda. "The notion was simple," says Duncan. "We could not be everywhere, nor visit all the corporate and state entities enough – so henceforth we would bring the clients to us. At the same time the boom and the internet changed the face of access to data and information – if not quality analysis – so it proved a prescient move. Over the years we have worked for a range of blue-chip clients in an advisory capacity, from national oil companies to the majors and small independents, and our strategy briefings remain a unique offering.”

Five Books

A recent interest for respected economist Duncan Clarke is writing and he has now published five industry books. Despite having visited so many places in the course of this work, Duncan still enjoys travelling, particularly in Africa. He loves going into the bush and on safari – in fact, after one of the earlier Africa Upstream Conferences Global Pacific & Partners organised a trip into the bush for selected participants.

Another, more recent, interest is writing, and he now has five published industry books to his name – Africa Crude Continent: The Struggle for Africa’s Oil Prize most significantly, a 100-year historiography of the complexities of the oil game in Africa. “Writing books is a very different process from penning advisory reports and conducting briefings, which are obviously purely commercial," he explains. "I write more because of passion about the subjects and to convey original or interesting ideas. One was a critique of peak oil and another on worldwide corporate/state oil shifts, both done in order to give a different take on them, as I did, for example, in Empires of Oil, which compared the then-emergent trajectory of the global oil industry with analogues from Gibbons’ classic work on the rise and fall of the Roman Empire."

In another work, Africa’s Future: Darkness to Destiny, Duncan took an in-depth look at the economics of his home continent. "I decided to focus on what makes Africa tick, and how it was constructed," he says. "There are a lot of sound bites around on this topic, and I wanted to make a more profound analysis, looking at the topic from a longer-term, more Darwinian, evolutionary angle. It ended up going against a lot of the accepted analyses, which don't have sound economics or fundamental understanding behind them. It's not that simple in Africa; there are myriad contemporary challenges built on past and present complexities.”

Passion for Africa

Although Duncan has lived in Europe and Australia, and with Global Pacific & Partners has visited over 120 countries throughout the world, Africa always draws him back, and he recently was based in Johannesburg, often visiting Zimbabwe, and many African states. Now he has returned to London. “I have become a sort of nomad, I realise”, he says, “with over 2,700 nights spent so far over the last 30 years in over 200 cities on six continents.”

“Africa may be a cartographic reality – but other than that, it’s a convenient myth which cannot be thought of as a single entity. It is very diffuse and divided, with each country (55 at last count) or separate ecology (over 100 of these) having a different economic profile and trajectory, and it does not necessarily make things easier in diagnosis to just aggregate them,” he says. “Economic theory when applied to Africa has tended to be weak, with too many relying on cross-country economic regressions for empiricism in order ‘to explain’ realities, but without enough deeper-level historiography or understanding.

“People and many in the media also talk too glibly about the ‘resource curse’. Resources are per se not any inherent curse – it’s above ground where the basic problem lies. Companies moving into Africa now may have better regulations and laws than their predecessors, helping to avoid some of these difficulties, but they must still have stability to be successful. All countries have issues to be addressed, and even once-stable places, like Libya or Sudan, can easily or suddenly fall apart. The perils of history often return.

“There is a lot of talk too about ‘resource nationalism’ at the moment,” he continues. “I don’t consider it either a good or a bad thing: critical balance is what is needed. Yet many current initiatives in Africa may yet seriously undermine GDP growth and block the maximal flow of needed exploration capital from abroad. Shifting demographics too mean that these economies will have to support much larger populations, so unless countries are better managed we might encounter more fragmentation, often due to embedded socioeconomic or ethnicity issues. Many states in Africa also still have many legacies left over from Cold War divisions, plus new schisms shaped by post-independence turbulence. Most are seeking to create better structures for exploiting their hydrocarbon resources, but it is interesting to note that none of the national oil companies in Africa have been privatised, which is what has happened elsewhere.”

So what does the future hold for Duncan Clarke?

"Hopefully, I will go on doing what I'm doing now – working, travelling, and adjusting our strategy and portfolio in oil and gas while adapting to ever-constant change. We will continue to fine-tune the company, and probably focus more on our core in Africa, keeping risk well-balanced as we upgrade the organisation. We may also deepen our interests in selected arenas – there are several options.

"One thing’s for sure, I'm certainly not retiring!" he says. "I don't fish or play golf, so what would be the point? Age is just a state of mind."

Duncan Clarke.


Related Articles

GEO Profile Asia

An Unusual Route to success

A move from Drilling Fluids Engineering to Human Resources allowed Jatinder Peters to rise to one of the highest levels in ONGC - and gave her the opportunity to encourage other women to emulate her.

GEO Profile Worldwide

The Oil Detectives

By assembling an experienced staff and coordinating affiliates, in just four years, Marcio Mello has built a service company that has no boundaries. Along with his Vice-President, Nilo Azambuja, they are ready to tackle some of the industry's toughest problems in the search for new oil and gas deposits.