Is the focus on conflict minerals justified?

My article in Foreign Policy received several helpful comments from friends who objected to the emphasis on conflict minerals by some advocacy groups in the United States and elsewhere. There is a growing number of people – including friends and colleageus from Laura Seay (of Texas in Africa fame), Nicholas Garrett (of Resource Consulting Services), Mvemba Dizolele and Friends of the Congo – who are skeptical of this approach.

Thankfully, I have a blog, which allows me to soap-box about these kinds of things.

First, as I say in the FP article, minerals were not the source of the conflict in the Congo, not will severing the links between the mineral trade and armed groups bring an end to the violence. I have said this so many times on this blog (here and here, for example) that I am becoming a broken record. The excessive focus on conflict minerals has the perverse side-effect of believing that the war is driven by greedy warlords, can prompt irresponsible policy and lead people to believe that the violence is somehow inexorable and due to deep rooted antagonisms.

Photo: Daniel Pepper

The conflict in the Congo is complex, and is being perpetuated by a mixture of permissive, structural factors and active spoilers. The country lacks functional institutions to police the country, secure equitable property rights and courts to peacefully adjudicate disputes. It has suffered from outside interferences (indeed, the current president came to power through such an intervention) from Rwanda, Angola, the United Nations, Uganda, and the list goes on – with a mixture of motives. At the very local level, disputes over land and citizenship – complicated by crises in civil and customary authority – have fueled feuds and conflicts, often expressed in ethnic terms.

Given all of this, the war in the Congo requires a much more comprehensive strategy that looks toward the long-term transformation of Congolese society to become a less violent, more equitable place. In the end, this will be responsibility and purview of Congolese citizens, not foreigners. However, given the excessive amount of foreign intervention in the Congo for centuries, from Diogo Cao to Larry Devlin, we can help provide Congolese the tools to rebuild their political system.

Obviously, a strategy focused mostly on conflict minerals will not succeed in such a transformation. More efficient institutions need to be set up that are accountable to the people they service. A high order for a country where multiparty elections are just 5 years old and the logic of ethnicity and patronage runs deep. Noxious interference from neighboring countries – and I do not just mean Rwanda – needs to be batted down.

Foreigners can help with this, but we can also harm. The record of the United States and others supporting “visionaries” with misguided policies in the region is well-known. The perverse effects of excessive aid have been well documented, as well.

Many of us have been pushing for years for a more comprehensive strategy toward institutional reform in the Congo – just see these reports (1, 2) by the International Crisis Group, for example, from 2006, or the the Governance Compact hashed out by UNDP, the World Bank and other donors in 2006/7. This should not be an imposition of foreigners’ ideas or interests, but rather a framework for engaging with the Congo that allows for meaningful reform. After all, donors give over $3 billion each year to the country through various channels. With that influence comes responsibility.

While some advocacy groups have harped a bit too much on conflict minerals, I think others are sometimes unfairly singled out. Take the recent letter to Secretary Clinton by 77 groups from the Congo and abroad – it clearly lays out a comprehensive agenda with emphasis first and foremost on elections, aid conditionality, reform of security sector and tackling impunity. Conflict minerals is mentioned, but at the very end and is in no way the main focus of the document. This letter was spearheaded by groups such as Enough, A Thousand Sisters, Eastern Congo Initiative and Human Rights Watch.

The question is then: Should we also be working on conflict minerals (for the record, I don’t like the term and wish someone had a better alternative)? I argue – along with many Congolese from the Kivus – yes, because it can make a difference. Not only because armed groups in the Kivus make an enormous amount of money off the tin, gold and tantalum trade. But because this initiative works differently than other outside interventions.

The “conflict minerals” approach works through the market, not through clumsy aid conditionality or diplomatic finger-wagging, which have rarely been able to persuade the Congolese government to reform. It sends a message through market that companies will be unwilling to continue trading from the eastern Congo if reforms do not increase transparency and to sever links between the trade and armed groups – importantly, any reforms must also increase the capacity of state institutions to manage the local economy, which could be a crucial knock-on effect of successful reform. Of course, as mentioned here, the Dodd-Frank reforms could easily backfire, cause the trade to collapse or push it out to Asia. Hence the emphasis on successful and intelligent reform – two adjectives whose use is unfortunately not yet merited. But again, most of the advocacy groups working on these issues are aware of this and working on them (although these unforeseen consequences could have been anticipated earlier).

As I said in the FP piece, in an ideal world, these market incentives would pressure traders to pressure the government to demilitarize mining, which could decrease military presence in the region and remove mines as a key objective of the fighting (e.g. Bisie). In this Schlarraffenland, institutional reform could lead to stronger state administration and better customs revenues.

So I urge people to understand that the debate is not whether we should privilege conflict minerals or a thorough overhaul of Congolese institutions. Although public advocacy by some groups has been overly simplistic in the past and should indeed be criticized, these different policy initiatives do not necessarily need to be mutually contradictory.  The debate is more over while pushing for comprehensive state reform whether we should also attempt to pursue intelligent reforms of the mineral trade in the eastern Congo, both through the market and through aid. I believe we should.