Sunday, January 30, 2011

On Cell Phones and Conflict Minerals

Last week I read a post in Texas in Africa (naming, shaming & measuring) concerning the Enough Project's monitoring and ranking of electronics companies making an effort to create a conflict-free mining sector in the Congo. When finished I silently cheered, not because of the rankings or the Enough Project's efforts, but rather because I agree with Texas in Africa that the effort is largely futile. I normally remain quiet on the issue because I have felt guilty about my opinion, as though it made me a bad Africanist or only quasi-liberal. In Uganda I was often with good-intentioned volunteers or know-it-all travelers and it was easier to say nothing rather than contradict their grandiose statements; cowardly, I know.

But the idea of conflict-free cell phones (and electronics in general) is dubious and largely a display of American arrogance. According to John Prendergast of the Enough Project, "[a]merican consumers have enormous leverage over the companies from which we purchase our electronics." Furthermore, Americans "we need to use our considerable market muscle to demand evidence from companies such as Apple, Nokia, Hewlett Packard, and Nintendo that their products do not contain conflict minerals." Inspiring demands, but I don't believe that Americans choosing conflict-free electronics will affect the crisis in the Congo, mainly for two reasons.

American consumers cannot make enough demand for electronics companies to offer only conflict-free products; American and Canadian and European consumers combined cannot make enough demand. What they can do, however, is demand that conflict-free products be offered to them. This does not stop the exploitation of minerals in the Congo; it does not stop women and girls from being raped. It allows the Western consumer to ease their conscience about the suffering of others by believing that at least their cell phone did not rape someone. A balm is not a cure. Just because Americans may buy conflict-free products does not mean those same products are offered in Asia, the Middle East or Africa itself and it certainly does not mean that fighting over control of eastern Congo will end; there is more to the conflict than minerals.

The fact that President Kabila (of the DRC) placed a ban on the export of minerals last September yet violence continues makes it clear that there is more to the conflict (in the Congo) than minerals.Tension (read: fighting) between autochthonous and foreign groups over territory; lack of state control leading to fighting for local control; invasions of foreign forces, though not exclusively the Rwandan and Ugandan armies: the Lord's Resistance Army remains in threat in the Congo, attacking villages, abducting children and killing indiscriminately. And those are only a few issues of a conflict so complex that the balance of powers changes if you look away for just a moment. I can understand the desire to boil down the issues to something as clear-cut as mineral (and human) exploitation, but the Congo defies such attempts at simplicity. Furthermore, as Laura at TiA points out, even if companies do comply with attempts to obtain conflict-free minerals, there is no definite way to ascertain whether or not those minerals actually are conflict-free.

"The electronics companies are powerful actors in their supply chains. If they show leadership, they can fundamentally change the way these minerals are bought and sold, ensuring that the minerals don’t contribute to armed conflict and the continuation of the worst violence against women and girls in the world." (Enough Project) Maybe, but probably not. Besides finding it incredibly disingenuous to make a direct connection between systematic rape in the Congo and electronics - and rather offensive to rape victims - the purpose of pushing for conflict-free minerals is to shame consumers rather than change the situation in Congo, with the result that consumers may buy new products while the situation in Congo remains the same. I understand the desire to for effective action, but wanting a plan to work does not ensure it will.

Not to seem negative for grassroots activism (though I do not consider the Enough Project grassroots, at least not anymore), I do applaud electronics for listening to consumer demands and attempting to obtain and offer conflict-free materials. Conscientious conglomerates can not be bad thing. I only want people to understand that being conscientious is not the ultimate solution to Congo's problems. To that end, I encourage everyone to read more about the Congo, the conflict and its myriad causes and complications, and the work being done on the ground to make the area safe for all inhabitants.

Texas in Africa
Congo Siasa
Heal Africa
HRW Congo

Africa's World War, Gerard Prunier
The Congo Wars: Conflict, Myth and Reality, Thomas Turner
In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz, Michela Wong
The Dynamics of Violence in Central Africa, Rene Lemarchand

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

South Sudan Well on the Way to Independence

At the beginning of polling there had been fears of voter intimidation and violence, but the vote for independence of south Sudan was largely "peaceful and credible", with 95% voter turnout and 96% supporting succession and, so it seems, with Khartoum and Bashir fully supporting the southern decision for independence. Though media attention has turned to the uprising and subsequent establishment of a new government in Tunisia, the Sudan issue is neither resolved nor by any means over; it is has merely reached a checkpoint.

While George Clooney and his minions spent the week in Juba monitoring the voting process in order to point out any possible genocides-in-action (despite the inherent futility in the endeavor - but that is the subject for a genocide post, coming soon!), the time for monitoring will be in July, when the referendum takes effect and the status of southerners in the north (and vice versa) becomes uncertain. Or when (and if) the oil-rich Abyei district votes for succession of independence. Or if Darfur rebels, recently expelled from southern Sudan in an attempt to appease Khartoum, will now view the south as much of an enemy as the north. Or is opposition leaders in the north continue to call for reform and are continually silenced through arrests.

And those are only external possibilities of violence: in the various articles covering the vote last week I read one in which southern Sudanese believe a independent South Sudan will better protect them from the Lord's Resistance Army. The LRA has used Sudan as a base of operations for years and since at least 2005 has perpetrated attacks on Sudanase living in the south. Khartoum stands accused of supporting the LRA, especially during the north-south civil war in Sudan (to effectively weaken the south.) The general belief is that with Khartoum no longer in control of the south, the new government will be better able to protect its citizens from invasions and raids.

My worry - and I am sure I not the only one, Western, African, Sudanese, what-have-you - is that a new South Sudan will not be able to immediately assuage the concerns of southern Sudanese. Al-Bashir himself, in a non-pedantic, honest assessment, pointed out that the initial stages of countryhood will be rough and uncertain for South Sudan. Being an American in the age of Obama, I know how fickle a population can be, especially when demands are not immediately answered. While I hope the government of the new South Sudan will diligently fulfill the hopes and allay the fears of its populace, I also hope that populace will be understanding during the grace period any new country needs. It remains to be seen, but as long as an independent South Sudan remains true to the southern Sudanese our hopes can remain positive.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

What the F--k! Arizona?

I try not to be an emotional person but as I scrolled through the pictures of the shooting in Arizona yesterday (January 8th) I could not help myself. It is a tragedy on many different levels: a domestic terrorist attack resulting in the deaths of six people, including a 9-year-old girl; an attack on an elected official and member of the judiciary; and an indicator of the extreme hate and violence currently present in American politics. Tea Party supporters and those of the far right have been quick to state that the gunman (Jared Lee Loughner) was not a member of the Tea Party movement; that the Tea Party does not espouse violence; and that the left will blame the Tea Party and far right for the shooting in order to put politics first. Of course, when the Tea Party puts politics first it's a completely different matter:

“While we need to take a moment to extend our sympathies to the families of those who died, we cannot allow the hard left to do what it tried to do in 1995 after the Oklahoma City bombing,” he wrote. “Within the entire political spectrum, there are extremists, both on the left and the right. Violence of this nature should be decried by everyone and not used for political gain.” (from this article at The New York Times)

What needs to be remember now is that, yes, the Tea Party and far right do not officially condone violence or violent methods, but that does not mean they do hold responsibility for inciting violence. Sarah Palin's website included Gabrielle Gifford's (the congresswoman targeted and shot) district in a gun's cross hairs; Glenn Beck has warned that "it is only a matter of time before an actual crazy person really does something stupid" and "the war is just beginning", or, even more darkly, "[we are reaching] a point where the people will have exhausted all their options. When that happens, look out." Seriously, what the fuck? Regardless of whether Mr. Loughner was a member of the Tea Party movement or any other political faction is largely beside the point when violent rhetoric has become par for the course in American politics. It is not sufficient to claim innocence and hide behind the First Amendment: if you encourage and promote violent means to ends then you are indirectly responsible for the violence that may ensue. As my friend Foxy by Nature recently pointed out, the First Amendment does not protect against speech that causes harm to others. The Tea Party movement and far right may not have been directly involved in yesterday's shooting, but that does not absolve them from filling today's political climate with the "vitriol" that led to deadly violence. Until that responsibility is accepted, I do not think the violence is over.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Sudan Prepared for Referendum Vote

Tomorrow balloting begins on the referendum for southern Sudan independence. The process is will take 7 days and 60% is the percentage of "yes" votes needed to determine whether or not southern Sudan will become its own country. There have been concerns over security and the willingness of Khartoum to accept a possible yes for independence, but President al-Bashir visited Juba on January 4 and pledged to honor the outcome of the ballot and to work closely with the south on post-referendum concerns, such as whether north or south will control the oil-rich district of Abyei.  In face, Abyei faces its own referendum to determine its boundaries and future status in Sudan - north, south or unified. Oil is Sudan's main export and main contributor to the country's GDP; which side will benefit from this wealth?

The coming week is sure to be tense, but Covering the Globe hopes and believes that the balloting will occur will relatively little violence; events following the vote, however, may not be. Will Sudan remain united yet face renewed conflict from detractors in the south? What will happen to Darfur rebels if southern Sudan splits, yet retain positive diplomatic relations with Khartoum? Darfur rebels were recently expelled from southern Sudan in order to appease the north - in what way will separation affect the ongoing conflict in Darfur?

This sounds horrible, but this event is damn exciting; literally, it's quite historic. I'll keep a close eye on the situation and keep you informed as to results. You can also check out for up-to-date information.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Happy New Year! and Goodbye Kuwait!

 It's only been 1 1/2 months since I've posted anything - nice consistency with covering the globe. The biggest news on 2011 (the five days we've had of it) is that Seth and I are leaving Kuwait, me in early February, Seth around the middle. At first both of us were worried and I was slightly panicked, but at this point we are both excited for a variety of reasons, including my mental health.

Seth has asked me if I am depressed and I have repeatedly answered "no" because I don't feel depressed, sad, lost - any of the "telltale" signs of depression - but if I take time to think about myself I suppose I have fallen into a certain state of melancholy. I sleep cat's hours, find it difficult to write my thoughts even on my personal blog (I have several half-sentences save over the last 6 weeks), hardly leave the apartment. I say to myself (and Seth) that I have become a better cook over the past few months yet if I am honest with myself I would say I use cooking as a crutch, as a reason to not leave the apartment to go for a walk; to not leave past four in the afternoon; to keep my mind focused on that one easy detail: what's for dinner. I began the Master Cleanse today yet am considering making broths for tomorrow and juicing my lemons early because I am accustomed to planning my day around food preparation.

I know it's my own fault, that another person may have written four novels and started two businesses by now, all while sculpting a nymph-like body; I end up, as my friend Kerry described, floating, which is probably why I haven't considered myself depressed. I am floating, no rising in exuberance or sinking in despair - just here. In 2009 I spent months trying to find work while possessing only a tourist visa and was overcome with rejection; I came back in 2010 and began the job search again but just didn't have the heart to give the search as much effort as I had before because nothing had changed except the year. So I floated. And then I turned 30. I never thought I would have a problem with turning 30, but leading up to my birthday and then on the actual day I was struck with the thought that I have peaked, that if I haven't accomplished anything significant with life by now then I have lost my chance. That may have caused me to sink a little.

Leaving Kuwait will be a needed change for me, so Seth, for our marriage - hell, for this blog. I completely abandoned my genocide series for no reason other than I lost the drive. Screw that: I can cover the globe from anywhere, including the eclectic land of Austin. Bring it, 2011.