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Should you support the "conflict minerals" movement? - Chris Blattman

Chris Blattman

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Should you support the “conflict minerals” movement?

Laura Seay at Texas in Africa says no.

Jason Stearns at Congo Siasa says yes.

Both know what they are talking about. What’s a non-expert like me to to do?

Here’s the source of my concern. In my experience, advocacy groups like Enough create simple but problematic messages that get the attention of the US public and Congress, but eventually come back and bite good policy in the ass. The advocacy message drives aid, policy priorities, and national agendas to an amazing degree. Get it wrong, and  you focus policy attention on the right problem but the wrong solution.

Sometimes the correct message is complicated, and doesn’t sell well in the New York Times or Congress. Fair enough. People at Enough know a lot more about marketing than me. I think they’d argue that it’s more important to get attention than to get the message exactly right.

Let’s say they’re right (a point I don’t necessarily concede). Here’s my advice: If you’re going to run a vulgar campaign, have the nuanced message in your back pocket for the people in the field who actually have to take action.

I’m not yet convinced Enough is willing or capable.

People like Jason Stearns support the conflict minerals movement because making the mineral trade more transparent is a part of the solution. I agree. But, as Jason says, it’s just a small part of the solution:

…we must be sure not to reduce the conflict to minerals, minerals, minerals. The charcoal trade around Goma alone was estimated to total $30 million a year by the national park, and armed groups benefit from this, as well. Cattle herding plays a key role in the conflict, as the ex-CNDP in particular has deployed its soldiers to protect tens of thousands of cattle, worth $300-$900 each, many of which have crossed the border from Rwanda. And coffee, tea, fuel and timber also play a large role in the local economy. En bref, armed groups can benefit from any profitable trade in the region, not just from minerals.

My fear: oodles of energy get directed to the minerals issue, armed groups re-balance their portfolio, and not much changes in the way of rebel finance. “Conflict cows” doesn’t sell so well, and so Enough declares victory, seizes the next sexy issue (my prediction: “John Prendergast: Kony Hunter”); the US will continue it’s 50-year policy of supporting dodgy dictators in Kinshasa, all the while wondering why things never seem to get better; and the eastern Congolese go about their business of evading rapers and abductors.

Perhaps Enough can convince us otherwise? I await the nuanced message in the back pocket.

9 Responses

  1. The way to effect real change in this situation is to follow the flow of money. It is as simple as that.

    While I agree with Tim Worstall that the processors of tantalum are the ones who really would make the decision to stop purchasing conflict minerals, they would no longer have incentive to buy if the electronics industry didn’t keep BUYING. That is why IMHO emphasis has been put on the electronics brands.

    GlobalWitness recently released a report which many of you may find of interest. Here is the link:

  2. How about trying to look at the Eastern Congo in the light of Doug North’s last book?

    Firstly, we would be told that elites has a tendency to do whatever they can in order to create rents for themselves. When the capability to use guns, and the access to them, is what defines who is elite and who is not, then it is not exactly surprising that the basic mean in which to capture rents is through violence – hence rent seeking in the Congo will look a lot like a civil war.

    Further, elites will certainly try to find some way to formalize a privilege to capture rents, and, preferably, a privilege that will last for the foreseeable future. Hence, we will logically see a struggle for formal rights, secession, special status for some ethnic group, or other causes. Again, this may look like ethnic violence and civil war, while, in reality, the important motive is rent creation for elites.

    The capacity of humans to stir up hatred and divide people into groups is nothing new. We have done that since time immemorial. And this is a powerful tool at the disposal for any elite who wish to ‘represent’ someone in order to make their claims resonate with other powerful interest groups. Whether the divisions are based on class, religion, or ethnicity is irrelevant. What is relevant is that it looks like civil war, and calm times looks like times with massive corruption and little else, where the corruption part is simply elites exercising what is now their right – capture rents – while the peace is simply the effect of one coalition of elites agreeing to share the available rents in some way while restricting any other elites access.

    If we are to follow the logic explained by North, we would also expect any successful actions to limit corruption – which is basically the capturing of rents – to spark new conflict. Limiting what we understand corruption would certainly be understood as a violation of elite privilege by the ruling elites – those with guns – making them hostile towards whoever is violating their privilege.

    I am not sure if this framework make sense in the Eastern Congo, and I am not sure if we can derive a useful strategy for limiting violence and rent-seeking in Congo from it. However, it appears to me that, limiting elite privilege can be a double-edged sword.

  3. Surely the rather obvious (and yes, simple) point is that the mineral trade is what links western commercial actors and consumers to the war in the DRC. No, minerals might not be the only source of rebel funding, and yes, those rebels who do heavily rely on them may find alternatives. But the alternatives (cattle, charcoal, etc) are not linked to western consumption.

    The Enough Project is simplistic in its message, which is that western actors have a responsibility to not make matters worse through inadvertently financing war. Their analysis is not that minerals are the cause of the war, but this is because they are not seeking to stop the war. All of Texas in Africa’s arguments against the Enough movement are about that minerals is a simplistic way to understand the causes of the war. Despite the fact that this is a rather obvious point (especially coming from such an individual so keen to point out other’s simplicity) s/he’s also missing the point…. Or am I?

    Of course the war is driven by plenty of other variables, most fundamentally local, national and regional politics. Western leaders, yet alone western play-station consumers do not unilaterally cause these variables, they are not responsible for dealing with them and of most importance cannot control them.

    What they can do is not make things worse.

    Which is kind of simple, no?

  4. As someone involved in the rare metals trade (not usually tantalum or coltan but close enough to the market to know something about it) my criticism is rather that this is simply a boondoggle.

    Specifically with reference to columbo tantalite: companies like Apple or HP just aren’t the right people to be targetting. Yes, tantalum is used to make capacitors, but the electronics companies are simply the wrong people to be targetting.

    The industry has another, entirely different, choke point. The processors. There’s a very small number of companies that have the ability to take coltan and produce tantalum from it. No more than a handful globally. Cabot in the US, Fluminense in Brazil, Starck in Germany, a couple in China, Ulba in Kazakhstan. Perhaps a couple more.

    If you want to stop conflict tantalum entering the supply chain then these are the companies to target….and Cabot, for example, already states quite clearly that it refuses to purchase such. And yes, it is possible to analyse coltan and work out where it comes from….a lot of work has been done in Germany on how to analyse the residual elements in a sample and thus work out where it came from.

    By moving from these companies, easy to target, most of which are already onside, to the electronics companies all that’s happened is we’ve created a requirement for a large bureaucracy to process the paperwork from the electronics companies as they all insist that they don’t use conflict minerals. A bureaucracy which the cynic in me says will be filled with quite wonderful people from the Enough Project.

    Note that I’m not against (or for either) choking off teh mineral supply: just that the specific method of doing so seems to me to be grossly wasteful, one that ignores the structure of the industry being monitored. And one that has the, well, let’s be polite and call it an entirely unexpected side effect, effect of being a job creation scheme for the activists proposing it.

  5. I don’t know much about minerals, Congo, or the Enough Project — but I do know a little something about Capitol Hill, lobbying, and political organizing in the US. I know it’s really hard to get attention with a nuanced message. Anyone who watches US campaigns knows this. It can be very frustrating for well-meaning advocates, especially when others who care about the same issues are taking shots at them.

    I’d like some clarity from Laura or Chris: Is the legislation itself good? Putting the narrative aside, if you could snap your fingers and enact this policy into law, would you? If the answer is no, then I’m totally on your side.

    However, if the answer is yes, the policy itself is worthwhile, even if it’s incomplete … well, then the question is a lot tougher. Like any organization advocating for policy change, the Enough Project has to make trade-offs on which policies it pursues and how it pursues them. They have limited resources and strategies available to them, and a lot of other issues to compete with for attention.

    They’ve probably settled on this policy because of a combination of factors: American policy has some leverage over it; American voters/legislators/media can understand it; it resonates enough to have an emotional impact; it does little or no harm to American interests; they have reason to think they can actually win. Are the same factors true of (to cite Laura’s list) land tenure rights, citizenship rights, and the Congolese government’s ability to establish a monopoly on violence? That’s not a rhetorical question; as I said, I’m not an expert on these issues.

    Ultimately, I don’t envy the Enough Project’s position. It’s very hard to push policy on one side, while fending off allies who want you to do more on the other. I’d be willing to bet they do have that “nuanced message in the back pocket” that Chris wants, but their job isn’t to spread the nuanced message. That’s the job of academics and implementers. The Enough Project’s job is to make policy change happen.

    All that said, please keep criticizing them and pushing them to do better. But in the end, if you disagree with their strategic choices, you should leave academia and launch your own advocacy campaign: pick up the phone, raise the money, knock on the doors, and prove to them that a nuanced narrative can sell.

  6. I do wonder about the ‘back-pocket’ answer, and whether that would defeat the answer in plain view.
    I thought about this when all the Kiva mess was going about: it seemed like what Kiva was doing was necessary (ie, setting up necessary intermediaries between donors and financees). But people weren’t happy because they weren’t being transparent about what was going on. Would it have been enough for the to be ‘non-transparent’ in most of their dealings, but present the truth as the back-pocket answer.

    Can the back-pocket answer remain the back-pocket answer in the presence of bloggers who are aware of that back-pocket answer, can understand it, and deconstruct it for a larger audience?

  7. As I have previously said to Chris, it deeply saddens me to have read his post today and now your comment, Laura. You deride the Enough Project without understanding the complexity and depth of their work and the very committed and wonderful John Prendergast without ever having met him. How can you possibly find that fair. How do you see that helping the people of Congo.

    For two professors to behave in such a cruel and immature fashion is distressing and hurtful. I realize that you are not cognizant of this, but you are truly hurting yourselves in the process.

  8. Thanks for the link. Jason is more optimistic than I am, but I think at the core, we agree: the message is oversimplified and the legislation was oversold as a simple solution to what is an extremely complex situation.

    Sasha, for my part, I’d hope that Enough will make a commitment to continue to follow what happens in the region, to honestly evaluate the results of this legislation over time, and to be willing to modify the policy as necessary – even if that means acknowledging that you guys may have been wrong on some of this stuff.

    As for JP: Kony Hunter, well, we can only dream.

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