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

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