Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Nick Kristof has another column out this week on the DRC, highlighting the role of "conflict minerals" in the ongoing violence.

I’ve never reported on a war more barbaric than Congo’s, and it haunts me. In Congo, I’ve seen women who have been mutilated, children who have been forced to eat their parents’ flesh, girls who have been subjected to rapes that destroyed their insides. Warlords finance their predations in part through the sale of mineral ore containing tantalum, tungsten, tin and gold. For example, tantalum from Congo is used to make electrical capacitors that go into phones, computers and gaming devices. 
This, sadly, is true: the conflict in the DRC is horridly brutal and violent, and some of the belligerents do derive funding from mining these minerals.  Kudos to Kristof and the ENOUGH Project, under the leadership of John Prendergast, for calling attention to the horror unfolding daily.

Image: Sasha Lezhnev/Enough Project


Unfortunately, the plaudits for their efforts end there, as their narrative of the conflict is one-dimensional and unrealistic.  Bringing pressure to bear on companies like Apple is a good thing, but it's nothing more than symbolic and will ultimately be impotent to halt, or even alter, the carnage in the Congo.  Kristof acknowledges that combating conflict minerals alone is insufficient,
It’s not that American tech companies are responsible for the slaughter, or that eliminating conflict minerals from Americans’ phones will immediately end the war. Even the Enough Project, an anti-genocide organization that has been a leading force in the current campaign, estimates that only one-fifth of the world’s tantalum comes from Congo.  “There’s no magic-bullet solution to peace in Congo,” notes David Sullivan of the Enough Project, “but this is one of the drivers of the conflict.” The economics of the war should be addressed to resolve it.
but he doesn't go far enough.  There are two problems with the notion that public pressure can change events.

First, as Kristof mentions, conflict minerals are not the main driving force behind the violence.
But he undersells the point: there are far more complicated and nuanced factors at play, from ethnic and regional rivalries to corruption and failed governance.  His lip service about addressing the "economics of the war" and President Obama putting pressure on Rwanda are entirely too simplistic.  If it was as simple as Obama leaning on Kagame, the conflict would already be over.  And "addressing" the economics of war is a meaningless phrase.  Conflict economies are notoriously complicated, interdependent, and difficult to unravel.  It's not as simple as going after the bad drug- and mineral-trafficking "warlords" to protect the innocent people.  When the state ceases to function, as it has in much of the DRC, people resort to activities that would otherwise be deemed criminal or illicit to preserve their livelihoods.  This doesn't make them criminal actors; it's merely a coping mechanism to ensure survival.  By simply writing that "the economics of the war should be addressed to resolve it" Kristof displays a stunning lack of nuance and appreciation for how difficult, perhaps impossible, a task that is.  Likewise, his assertion that Obama must pressure Rwanda glosses over the historical difficulties between the neighbors, the role of other regional states, and the myriad of issues in play.

Secondly, even among the small part of the conflict driven by the trade in conflict minerals, the role of the US and American companies is small and shrinking fast.  Our share of the global electronics market is falling as laptops, smartphones, and other modern technologies become ubiquitous in China, India, Iran, and much of the Middle East.  In other words, pressuring Apple and their peers only influences a small percentage of the companies using conflict minerals.  And you don't need me to point out that most Chinese companies probably aren't interested in divesting or shunning cheap minerals from the DRC.

I don't mean to be overly critical of Kristof.  The conflict the DRC is horrible, and American consumers need to be aware of what is happening and the part we play, however small it may be.  Any public awareness he raises about the DRC is positive.  Unfortunately, he falls prey to a classic American instinct - of course we can do something to fix this!  The sad truth is that in a regional conflict so vast, complicated, and entrenched, we, as mere consumers, have little role to play in the solution.

The only answer involves a sustained, serious, and well-financed commitment from the US, EU, China, and regional governments; but I'm not holding my breath for that.


KB said...

I think Kristof simplifies and sensationalizes just about everything he writes about but I appreciate what Mr. Reidy has to say about the complexities of the conflict. That said, the one line hopeless solution of financial aid from the US, EU, China, and local governments also ironically simplifies things a bit. (And, if Obama influencing Kagame and US consumers will have little effect on the conflict, will financial assistance from the US make any difference, at least in the present situation?)

I know this wasn’t the main point of the post, but if Mr. Reidy is going to criticize Kristof (which I think you should) for saying US consumers can make a difference, he should have more than a one sentence rebuttal solution. I would argue that, before the US, EU, and China go pouring money into rebuilding this long-terrorized state, the local government (national, local, even regional governing bodies) need to commit to rebuilding the state. This, like Mr. Reidy says, does not necessarily involve Americans who want to save the world. Without a stable local government, foreign aid of any kind – financing, capacity building, etc – will be useless. Even with a stable local government, foreign aid can go either way, depending on who is in charge of spending it and how closely the spending is tracked. So, while I agree a sustained, serious, well-financed commitment must come from all the actors eventually, they need to come in an order that will contribute to the rebuilding of a more peaceful, prosperous state. If the assistance comes out of order (for example, if money pours in from external actors before the government is stable, committed, and relatively uncorrupt), the well-intentioned finance could help continue the conflict.

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