Concerns over suitability of Sunderland's new sponsor

Tullow spokesman says Invest in Africa 'not a front' as NGOs question club's new partnership

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The Independent Football

There are growing concerns surrounding the suitability of Sunderland's new sponsor, Invest in Africa, amid claims from the oil watchdog Platform that the initiative's founding partner, Tullow Oil, is responsible for damaging business practices on the continent.

In an announcement on Monday, the Sunderland vice-chairman David Miliband MP, the former foreign secretary, said the two-year partnership with the not-for-profit organisation was a "landmark" for the Premier League and the best commercially in the club's history.

Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in the UK and Africa have expressed concerns. They argue that the oil giant is trying to gain social legitimacy for a profit increase last year of 600 per cent by launching the campaign. They also criticise Tullow for not publishing contracts with African governments.

George Cazenove, head of media relations at Tullow, told The Independent: "We don't publish them [contracts] everywhere, because we're obliged to keep some of them private." He insisted that all payments to, and contracts with, the government of Ghana are declared.

A researcher for Platform, Ben Amunwa, claimed that Tullow's operations in Ghana, the site of the company's most fruitful rigs, damaged local businesses. He said: "Fishing communities in the western region most affected by the oil rigs have had their traditional livelihoods threatened. As part of the exclusion zone around the rigs, the Ghanaian navy has intercepted fishing boats and physically abused locals."

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) was high on the agenda at rhe January launch of Invest in Africa.

Amunwa said: "Tullow's CSR projects have a glossy image but local NGOs say projects are piecemeal and have not been integrated into regional development plans."

Critics claim that Tullow recovers CSR costs from governments. This was strongly rejected by Cazenove. "We claim back the cost of exploration when we discover oil, but costs for CSR work are not recoverable," he said.

Cazenove also said that applied to the company's contribution to Invest in Africa. "Invest in Africa is not a front company for Tullow Oil. The company is the founding partner and Aidan Heavey, our CEO, is intimately involved. It is the clear intention that other partners will join Tullow and Monday's launch was partly a call for partners. This won't work if it's only associated with Tullow. It needs other large, established companies and their networks across Africa to succeed and drive investment."

Some Sunderland fans are sceptical. Martin McFadden, a fanzine editor, said: "It is important to realise that it is not all about the money."

A message on the club website said it was "aiming to use the global reach of the Premier League to help spread prosperity across Africa and bring new opportunities to local businesses".