Painting by Cheri Samba

Lokuta eyaka na ascenseur, kasi vérité eyei na escalier mpe ekomi. Lies come up in the elevator; the truth takes the stairs but gets here eventually. - Koffi Olomide

Ésthetique eboma vélo. Aesthetics will kill a bicycle. - Felix Wazekwa

Monday, May 16, 2011

Is the focus on conflict minerals justified?

My article in Foreign Policy received several helpful comments from friends who objected to the emphasis on conflict minerals by some advocacy groups in the United States and elsewhere. There is a growing number of people - including friends and colleageus from Laura Seay (of Texas in Africa fame), Nicholas Garrett (of Resource Consulting Services), Mvemba Dizolele and Friends of the Congo - who are skeptical of this approach.

Thankfully, I have a blog, which allows me to soap-box about these kinds of things.

First, as I say in the FP article, minerals were not the source of the conflict in the Congo, not will severing the links between the mineral trade and armed groups bring an end to the violence. I have said this so many times on this blog (here and here, for example) that I am becoming a broken record. The excessive focus on conflict minerals has the perverse side-effect of believing that the war is driven by greedy warlords, can prompt irresponsible policy and lead people to believe that the violence is somehow inexorable and due to deep rooted antagonisms.

Photo: Daniel Pepper

The conflict in the Congo is complex, and is being perpetuated by a mixture of permissive, structural factors and active spoilers. The country lacks functional institutions to police the country, secure equitable property rights and courts to peacefully adjudicate disputes. It has suffered from outside interferences (indeed, the current president came to power through such an intervention) from Rwanda, Angola, the United Nations, Uganda, and the list goes on - with a mixture of motives. At the very local level, disputes over land and citizenship - complicated by crises in civil and customary authority - have fueled feuds and conflicts, often expressed in ethnic terms.

Given all of this, the war in the Congo requires a much more comprehensive strategy that looks toward the long-term transformation of Congolese society to become a less violent, more equitable place. In the end, this will be responsibility and purview of Congolese citizens, not foreigners. However, given the excessive amount of foreign intervention in the Congo for centuries, from Diogo Cao to Larry Devlin, we can help provide Congolese the tools to rebuild their political system.

Obviously, a strategy focused mostly on conflict minerals will not succeed in such a transformation. More efficient institutions need to be set up that are accountable to the people they service. A high order for a country where multiparty elections are just 5 years old and the logic of ethnicity and patronage runs deep. Noxious interference from neighboring countries - and I do not just mean Rwanda - needs to be batted down.

Foreigners can help with this, but we can also harm. The record of the United States and others supporting "visionaries" with misguided policies in the region is well-known. The perverse effects of excessive aid have been well documented, as well.

Many of us have been pushing for years for a more comprehensive strategy toward institutional reform in the Congo - just see these reports (1, 2) by the International Crisis Group, for example, from 2006, or the the Governance Compact hashed out by UNDP, the World Bank and other donors in 2006/7. This should not be an imposition of foreigners' ideas or interests, but rather a framework for engaging with the Congo that allows for meaningful reform. After all, donors give over $3 billion each year to the country through various channels. With that influence comes responsibility.

While some advocacy groups have harped a bit too much on conflict minerals, I think others are sometimes unfairly singled out. Take the recent letter to Secretary Clinton by 77 groups from the Congo and abroad - it clearly lays out a comprehensive agenda with emphasis first and foremost on elections, aid conditionality, reform of security sector and tackling impunity. Conflict minerals is mentioned, but at the very end and is in no way the main focus of the document. This letter was spearheaded by groups such as Enough, A Thousand Sisters, Eastern Congo Initiative and Human Rights Watch.

The question is then: Should we also be working on conflict minerals (for the record, I don't like the term and wish someone had a better alternative)? I argue - along with many Congolese from the Kivus - yes, because it can make a difference. Not only because armed groups in the Kivus make an enormous amount of money off the tin, gold and tantalum trade. But because this initiative works differently than other outside interventions.

The "conflict minerals" approach works through the market, not through clumsy aid conditionality or diplomatic finger-wagging, which have rarely been able to persuade the Congolese government to reform. It sends a message through market that companies will be unwilling to continue trading from the eastern Congo if reforms do not increase transparency and to sever links between the trade and armed groups - importantly, any reforms must also increase the capacity of state institutions to manage the local economy, which could be a crucial knock-on effect of successful reform. Of course, as mentioned here, the Dodd-Frank reforms could easily backfire, cause the trade to collapse or push it out to Asia. Hence the emphasis on successful and intelligent reform - two adjectives whose use is unfortunately not yet merited. But again, most of the advocacy groups working on these issues are aware of this and working on them (although these unforeseen consequences could have been anticipated earlier).

As I said in the FP piece, in an ideal world, these market incentives would pressure traders to pressure the government to demilitarize mining, which could decrease military presence in the region and remove mines as a key objective of the fighting (e.g. Bisie). In this Schlarraffenland, institutional reform could lead to stronger state administration and better customs revenues.

So I urge people to understand that the debate is not whether we should privilege conflict minerals or a thorough overhaul of Congolese institutions. Although public advocacy by some groups has been overly simplistic in the past and should indeed be criticized, these different policy initiatives do not necessarily need to be mutually contradictory.  The debate is more over while pushing for comprehensive state reform whether we should also attempt to pursue intelligent reforms of the mineral trade in the eastern Congo, both through the market and through aid. I believe we should.


Rich said...

Thanks Jason, once again you've taken words from my mounth! It could not be said any better.
Asante sana Mzee.

Rich said...

Any one thought about comparing artisanal exploitation of minerals in the Great Kivu to that of diamond in the Kasai or cobalt and many other related minerals in Katanga? Such study can help further identify something that is unique to east Congo tragedy.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jason,

Really enjoying your blog, a very relevant and b.s. free perspective.

I am on an MA programme at the University of Sussex in the UK, and am particularly interested in this article as I am currently conducting research for a dissertation on the role of conflict entrepreneurs in the Kivus. As this article points out, it can be all to easy to overly associate the driving force of this conflict on "greedy warlords", a mistake it would be unhelpful for researchers just starting out to continue promoting.

If you (or your knowledgeable readers) have any relevant sources of information that may point to a more accurate representation of the current role of conflict entrepreneurs within the conflict, I would greatly appreciate hearing about it.

Cheers for the dedication to truth,
Mike Houghton

Jason Stearns said...

@ Rich - spoken like a true statistician. No, I am not aware of a micor-level comparison of the different situations - there are of course many well-known differences between the provinces, historical, social and geographical.

Jason Stearns said...

@Mike: Thanks. The best source on current links between armed groups & minerals are probably the UN group of experts reports (just google UN 1533). On past links, there has been a lot written on coltan and armed groups, some on the Annuaire des Grands Lacs (has a website) volumes. Also check out Koen Vlassenroot's work.

David Aronson said...

But if, as you've reiterated several times, this focus on conflict minerals would only be effective in an ideal world, how much of a focus should we give them in the real world?
In this world, the idea that we'd be able to set up a mechanism capable of providing real-time information on the mineral trade in eastern Congo seems ambitious, to put it mildly. The idea that we could then incorporate the perspectives of the relevant stakeholders—including, inter alia, the Congolese government, Fortune 500 companies, international NGOs, Malaysian smelters, and Congolese miners’ associations—to make real-time decisions about which packets of minerals are "conflict"-tainted or not seems even less realistic.
It also seems unlikely that Western multinationals would be willing to fund an open-ended commitment to sort out good from bad in eastern Congo, when the minerals they need are readily available from safe-harbor countries like Brazil or Australia. And even if we could do all of these things, how would we stop Congolese war-lords and Chinese entrepreneurs from trading? And how would we stop gold—likely the most valuable commodity—from flowing freely into the international markets?
Your answer seems to be that it’s not the actual program, once implemented, that will be effective, but the threat of instituting one. This threat may pressure the commercants to pressure the central government to demilitarize the mining zones. But how long will it take before the commercants realize the threat is empty? And in any case, how much pressure can the commercants bring on the central government? They are hardly major actors on the national scene.
The entire argument for focusing on conflict minerals seems to me to rest on a set of increasingly dubious suppositions about how powerful people will react. On the other hand, it seems quite likely to me that the effort will cause some disruptions and temporary break downs in the trade—disruptions that will disproportionately affect the least powerful: the miners who depend on the dollar or two they make every day to feed their families.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Jason, much appreciated. I am familiar with some of Vlassenroot's work so will pursue it further, cheers for the UN info.
Currently reading a De Waal piece on the political marketplace within patronage systems, fascinating stuff.

Jason Stearns said...

@ David: Thanks for this. I don't think the steps should be symbolic. Simple things, such as joint DRC-international oversight mechanisms composed of independent experts can be set up in 2-3 months and have real impact. Certification can also be begun now, especially in places like Bisie, but it will inevitably take a lot of time to implement on a wide basis.

Yes, there is a risk that it can disproportionately impact low-income miners. But, then again, the current racketeering and profiteering from the mining by armed groups and politicians is also taking its toll on low-income communities. So I think we do need to act, but in an intelligent way, understanding the risks.

texasinafrica said...

Hey, Jason, I thought the FP piece was excellent and was glad to see the statement backed by more than just a token civil society group or two. One thing I want to push you on: what about the livelihoods question? Is it better for those low-income miners to be completely out of work (which is what seems to be happening now) than to be working in horrible conditions for horrible people? I'm not sure, but I do think we have to address it. PACT is reporting 300K out of work, with impacts on up to 1.5 million. That's a significant problem, could drive young miners to join violent groups, and is likely to be more destabilizing than not.

David Aronson said...

I'm not a big fan of long back-and-forths, so let me just make this one offer. I'm in Bukavu now, and will be for the next six weeks. What developments on the ground would tend to persuade or dissuade you of the wisdom of the conflict minerals legislation?

Jason Stearns said...

@TIA - We absolutely have to address the livelihoods question, and I think that some advocacy groups put the cart before the horse in this one: First, we should have tried to set up certification/auditing/oversight schemes THEN work on legislating due diligence. I should point out, however, that electronics companies were initially probably scaremongering, as well, as there is nothing in Dodd-Frank that says their supply chains have to be 100% conflict free or even tagged & traced (although some advocacy groups were pushing for that) .

As for the impact on livelihoods - I am sure it is happening (although I am a bit concerned that almost all the press on this is being pushed by the industry). Difficult to say how many people have lost their jobs. I have seen estimates for diggers in Bisie as low as 2,000 (other estimates for 10,000), which makes it hard for me to believe that 300,000 diggers are out of a job. But there has certainly been a huge impact that could have been mitigated.

@David & TIA: Some of the things we hoped would happen are beginning to materialize: MSC is looking at a deal that would give them rights to SAKIMA mines in the Kivus, which means most of the big tin mines. They would invest $10 million in tagging and tracing. This means that fears of pushing the trade out to India/China would probably not be justified, although it is of course far to soon to tell. Also, this weird investment by the biggest Indian jeweler in gold also suggests that people may be investing in certification in that much messier supply chain, as well.

On the downside, while FARDC units are slowly apparently withdrawing from Bisie and Omate, they remain elsewhere (like Misisi). In addition, Bosco's faction has probably benefited the most of the export bans, as he runs a lot of the smuggling rings across the lake and Ugandan border. So his power has increased.

David - I hope to see you in Bukavu, I'll be there in early July. Will you still be around?

David Aronson said...

I leave early July, unfortunately. BTW, I am staying with the Maheshe family, they remember you fondly & say Hi.

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