Chris Blattman

More of my negligent and shallow musings on conflict minerals…

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Every so often I blog something I know little about (i.e. daily) and I get excellent ripostes. Also some angry ripostes. Yesterday’s conflict minerals debate was no exception.

Commenters made some worthy points. Here are some reflections and rejoinders.

Enough detail? Sasha Lezhnev points us to Enough’s more detailed recommendations.

My reaction: I’m not a regional expert, but I see some good ideas in there. The diplomacy plan is vague (especially what to do about Rwanda) but at least one recommendation is unequivocal: “Implement a comprehensive counterinsurgency strategy”. Good idea, although its absence from the big advocacy campaign is striking.

One thing at a time, Lezhnev might say. I agree. But I wonder: will we see Enough put the same resources and energy into getting OECD nations to support the counterinsurgency?

But aren’t conflict minerals bad? Dave Algoso asks: “Is the legislation itself good? If the answer is no, then I’m totally on your side.”

Do I think a minerals movement is better than nothing? Yes. Do I hold the largest advocacy organizations for conflict and human rights to a higher standard than ‘better than nothing’? Also yes. This is why my original post was equivocal. It’s a tough call.

My fundamental point: we can’t look at a major piece of legislation and consider its marginal impact alone. We have to think about the general impacts. Will accomplishing something small and concrete make the great powers more complacent about the big and abstract objectives, or let them off the hook for harder policy choices? Will a focus on conflict minerals deflect resources and attention away from alternative sources of rebel finance?

On other issues, especially around child soldiering, I’ve seen painfully how hype can harm. Likewise, Laura Seay sees ways the conflict minerals ban may be ineffective or harmful.

Not their job. Algoso adds, “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.”

I couldn’t disagree more. If advocates pound a simple message at home, with millions in funding, and it turns out to be flawed, no skimpy pool of academics will change policy on the ground. These simple messages in Washington and Brussels have incredible echoes in Kinshasa and Kigali. If a wise and passionate implementer attempts a better policy, they may find few funders, or get slapped into the simple line by head office.

I see this all the time on children and youth issues in war. Advocates must be accountable for all impacts of their message.

(While we’re on the subject, who exactly are advocacy organizations accountable to? Please tell me it’s not bloggers.)

The other things are out of our control. We don’t buy conflict cattle or charcoal, so it’s outside our ability to act. Land policy is completely outside our control.

True. But it’s disingenuous to argue that, after 50 years of deep, deep US meddling in Congolese politics, that the rest of the conflict is out of our control. Out of immediate control certainly. But I return to point 1 (there are other, harder things the world could do–things that the debate has steered clear from) and 2 (conflict minerals legislation might help the world avoid responsibility for the harder things).

‘John Prendergast: Kony Hunter’. A cheap shot?

Possibly, but I would like to think that Prendergast would laugh too.

Final note. If you have read the posts and you think I am against the minerals legislation, I’ve done a bad job explaining, and you should take a second look. The aim is nuance.

3 Responses

  1. Jason Stearns: I do have a feeling that some people love to hate Enough and Eve Ensler because of their flashy celebrity style of advocacy more than for its content. Let’s keep our feet on the ground and our heads screwed on.

  2. The biggest complaint from Laura atTexas in Africa and you is that the campaign is oversimplified and the legislation is oversold. You really have to think about what it would mean to do advocacy with no simplification or selling. Go to a person in Congress. Tell them you have an idea for something. Tell them its an incomplete solution, may not even work. Tell them there are 15 other things that have to happen, 14 of which are out of your control, to bring peace. Then go tell their constituents this. You will never pass anything. Simplification and selling cannot be critiques of advocacy organizations. What you need to do is stipulate very clearly what was lost in the simplification and selling that could feasibly be included in an advocacy campaign, or articulate why such a campaign is more harmful than beneficial. What is not feasible is to include all the complexity of the world in an advocacy campaign.
    ENOUGH has clearly articulated other policy priorities in the DRC, AND ADVOCATED for them. And other very sophisticated advocacy/research NGOs back similar policies, including Global Witness.
    It is also worth asking whether you have looked what is in their FRONT pocket, which is actually a highly nuanced piece of legislation. There is a relevant distinction between policy and message. Your complaint is that simple message pushes simple policy. But read this legislation, and you will see simple message pushing complicated policy.

  3. I’m honored to be called out so forcefully in this post. I hope my reply wasn’t one that you considered “angry.” I don’t have a dog in this fight, but I come to EP’s defense because I understand what tough strategic decisions they have to make.

    You’re right that the impacts of a simplistic message can be far reaching, but that’s not limited to conflict issues. Just look at the hype around microfinance, or PlayPumps, or any number of other solutions du jour. I think it’s a general human fault to be drawn to simple stories. EP might be guilty of an over-simplified message, and you’re right to hold them (and anyone) to a higher standard — I’m just not sure anyone’s going to reach that standard in an advocacy campaign. I think they probably asked themselves the same questions about general impacts that you ask above (e.g. will a tiny victory on one aspect undermine progress on others?) and they had to make a judgment call. At this moment, I don’t know if they made the right call or not, and I don’t know how one would know.

    One aspect of your post here that resonated with me: the question of who advocacy organizations are accountable to. Like any organization, they’re accountable to whoever funds them, and the people who fund them want to see policy wins, which leads to simple messages. If nuance is going to enter this discussion, it will be from academics (and yes, bloggers) working in partnership with the funders and the advocacy groups to craft a longer-term plan that will address all the other points in EP’s detailed recommendations. I suspect many of those other points won’t be policy changes (at least not in DC) but will instead take the form of social service or other programs in the communities directly affected by the violence. This is where the nuanced analysis becomes a nuanced strategy, and it begins to involve elements that are not EP’s job. I think EP does the policy change, while the funders will need a lot of other actors involved (such as NGOs, CBOs, government bodies, etc.) for the other components.

    (But I’m also no expert on Congo, so I don’t presume to know what those things are. I’m looking forward to Laura’s other posts later in the week so I can learn a little more!)

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