Monday, July 12, 2010

Are we simplifying the debate about Conflict Minerals?

Recently I posted a few entries on Conflict Minerals. I still have one more entry on the topic to post, but that entry will have to wait until next time. Right now I'd like to take a few minutes to share with you what I consider to be a very interesting discussion. In my previous entries I was discussing ways that advocacy campaigns like the Enough Project sometimes over-simplify the complex issues related to the conflict in Congo. Here is their response...

“No one is trying to over-simplify the issue, Shona. See our report on a comprehensive approach to dealing with conflict minerals, which offers policy recommendations on key security, governance, and livelihood issues.

Security sector reform, diaspora support for ... (armed groups) and land issues are also among the keys to dealing with the war, and those of us leading the conflict minerals campaign raise these squarely with policymakers. But dealing with these issues requires political will, something that has been lacking to date. But this political will can be generated through attention on conflict minerals, since everyone owns a cell phone and has some piece of Congo's minerals in their phones and laptops. The armed groups also generate far more money from minerals than they do from taxation of agriculture, as commanders have confirmed to us in meetings several times.

As former policymakers, our targeted aim is to generate the right momentum for a real solution to the war in eastern Congo, not offer silver-bullet straw-man solutions. Thank you.”

Thank you for your response, Sasha.
I appreciate that the Enough Project has published extensive reports on the many, complicated issues in Congo and solid, thoughtful suggestions for addressing some of the issues related to the conflict in Congo. My suggestion was not that advocacy campaign such as yours, do not understand the complex realities, but that unfortunately those complex realities are not always communicated in the “talking points” created around such campaigns.

You said that no one is trying to over-simplify things, but you didn't address the quote that I was referring to.

The quote I was referring to was from the Enough Project's website and the comment is attributed to
John Prendergast, the co-founder of the Enough Project. He says

“Our demand for cell phones, laptops and other electronics is ravaging the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The Congo is rich in the minerals that make electronics work, and the battle for the resources has left over 5 million dead. Hundreds of thousands of women have been raped in the Congo, making it the world's most dangerous place to be a woman or girl.
We, as consumers of products made from Congo's "conflict minerals," hold the key to the solution.

Although you say that no-one is trying to over-simplify the issue that seems to be the result in comments such as these.

I believe it is an over-simplification to state that “the battle for resources has left over 5 million dead”. The conflict in Congo can't be boiled down into a battle for mineral resources, as you are quick to agree throughout much of your research.

Likewise, I believe it is a large over-simplification to state that we as consumers hold the key to the solution to the conflict in Congo. As you well know, there are many complex factors involved in the conflict, most of which the average consumer in the US is unlikely to hold the solution to. You point out that most of these issues require political will that is currently lacking, and so by mobilizing consumer support for conflict mineral trade reform, you can then use that leverage to press other issues politically. I understand this strategy and I think it has some merit. But I think we need to be honest in its implementation, and in our eagerness to get people's attention, we still need to careful to reflect the situation accurately. Portraying consumers as holding the key to the solution crosses that line.

In its campaign geared at students, the Enough Project states

“If students use their collective power to pressure companies to stop buying electronics components made with conflict minerals, rebel and militia groups will no longer have funds to terrorize the civilians of eastern Congo.”

Wouldn't it be wonderful if it were that simple? If by cutting off funding we could put an end to groups terrorizing civilians all around the world. No doubt cutting off funding helps. But I am sure that you know how sadly little money it takes to terrorize civilians around the world. and I am sure that you know that cutting off the funds related to the mineral trade, even if it is possible, will not result in an immediate end to the banditry, armed robberies, pillaging and general disorder which ravages Eastern Congo.

In your policy paper you state
"There is no silver bullet solution to Congo’s conflict minerals. But if the Congolese and regional governments, the international community, and the private sector can align their efforts on the common goal of a revitalized legitimate mineral trade in eastern Congo, it would have a major impact in resolving the conflict”.

I appreciate the honesty of that statement. That is a lot of ifs, and unfortunately it is the reality. Bringing together all of those players in an honest commitment to reforming the mining sector is a monumental task, especially since most players are benefiting from the current system.

Encouraging students to demand “conflict-free minerals” is one piece of a large puzzle, and we need to be honest about that. Promising them that this lobbying for conflict-free products at their schools will end the conflict in Eastern Congo is misleading. And in the end where will that get us?

What happens when students succeed in their lobbying and the war and chaos in Congo does not end? If so much energy is to be spent on “raising public awareness” of the issues, it is imperative that the awareness reflect a genuine understanding of the issues or it will disappear as readily as it has come.

On Enough's blog there is an excellent piece by Laura Heaton, on the recent assessment of the failures of the Kimberly Process and the lessons that it can offer Congo. If there is one thing that the Kimberly Process has demonstrated it is how complicated the idea of “conflict-free” is and how lengthy and difficult a process it is to create effective change. 10 years into the process, Zimbabwe's diamonds are still not certified as “conflict free” and abuse and exploitation is still rampant.

On the Enough blog, you say
“The Brownback Amendment that is currently part of the financial reform bill will make companies accountable for making sure they do not source minerals from conflict areas. Companies that source from Congo or neighboring countries will have to conduct an audit to make sure that they did not source from a conflict mine. This tracing and auditing is possible - Intel and Motorola are already starting credible audits on one of the minerals, tantalum. Moreover, the process is inexpensive: the audits will only cost one penny per product, according to electronics companies...
But the real question that Americans asked themselves last week was: Is one additional penny for a cell phone really too much to pay for accountability? A clear majority said no...”

This, again, is a frustrating simplification. Unfortunately, as the Kimberly Process suggests, accountability is not easily bought and certainly not with a penny. The Brownback Amendment is one small step in a rather large battle. Effectively holding companies accountable for their supply chains is a long, and difficult task, but one which we should engage in with all companies not just those related to electronics. Identifying mines within Congo as "Conflict-Free" would be at least as difficult as it has proven in Zimbabwe. Your policy paper calls for establishing conflict free mines by “Properly integrated Congolese security forces—supported by MONUC and international military observers—should secure these mining sites and the transit routes associated with their trading chains, including select airfields, ports, and border crossings. To the maximum extent possible, this should be carried out via negotiation and with positive incentives for commanders willing to relinquish their hold over these sites and enter into DDR programs.”

Anyone having spent much time in Eastern Congo is aware how difficult such a task would be. In 2008 Congolese security forces and MONUC struggled to simply hold Goma in the face of advancing rebel troops. Legitimately securing mines across Congo in an orderly, non-corrupt way, so as to be able to certify those mines as conflict free, would be an incredible feat, and should not be glossed over as a simple and obvious step that we can ensure simply by paying a penny.

Ultimately I believe that using consumer products to draw attention to a larger issue is good. But I think we need to be careful not to commodify our call to activism. We, as consumers, and more over as global citizens have a responsibility to ask hard questions about where our products come from and to buy ethically made products. We shouldn't need to be promised that it will only cost a penny, or that we will single-handedly stop a war. The issues are complex. I know the Enough Project is willing to engage with those complex issues but I wish that you would expect the same from the consumers that you are trying to reach. By watering-down some of your communications to consumers, you may find that it is easier to draw attention to the issues, but is this really the type of sustained, thoughtful attention that such a long and difficult process will require?

No comments: