Thursday, July 1, 2010

Part II:Conflict Minerals in Congo

This is a continuation of my previous post. Please check it out here.

So what is it that bothers me about the lobby against "conflict minerals in Congo"?

I think it is the specificity of the argument.

By making the argument so specific, we are lying to ourselves about complex realities both in Congo and in our own backyard.

Myth #1:Congo Conflict=Mineral Trade

Enough Project claims...
Our demand for cell phones, laptops and other electronics is ravaging the Democratic Republic of the Congo...the battle for resources has left over 5 million dead...We, as consumers of products made from Congo's "conflict minerals," hold the key to the solution."

The conflict in Congo can not be boiled down to a battle for resources. The situation is far more complex than that.

The Enough project knows better than this. In other places they are more careful to state that the conflict minerals trade is one of many factors fueling the conflict.

But that is precisely the point. They know that the situation is far more complex. But that doesn't make a good advocacy campaign. Mobilizing support and outrage here, requires a simple villain. And a solution that we can control. So there it is... let's call them “conflict minerals”...or perhaps “blood phones” (hat tip to Lynn).

By doing this we lie to ourselves about the complexity of the situation in Congo, and about the types of changes that are needed to create real peace in Congo, and unfortunately we make the quest for peace far easier than it actually is. Besides which, even if controlling the mineral trade was a concrete solution to the conflict, this US legislation is unlikely to get us there. It relies on the idea that there can be meaningful verification, documentation and monitoring of mineral resources within Congo. This assumes the existence of structures that simply don't exist in Eastern Congo at this time. You have to build the structures first, or the paperwork is meaningless in Congo.

That is not to say that the legislation isn't important.

Legislation here in the US, requiring companies to be more transparent about and responsible for their supply chains is important and , and so is pressure for companies to produce and trade more ethically . But by limiting the problem to “conflict minerals” we make the argument so specific as to pretend that the larger problem doesn't exist. The supply chain problem isn't a Congo problem, and we aren't the heroes rushing in to save the day. Our corporate systems, our regulation systems, the types of products that make it to our shelves, and the amount of information we have about those products is deeply broken. By reacting in horror to the unjust, exploitative and irresponsible ways in which minerals are sourced, somewhere in the back of our heads, we assure ourselves that the rest of the stuff we buy doesn't have the same problem. This leads us to...

myth #2: The problem is limited to minerals.

But I'll be back next time to talk about that.

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