Tuesday, June 20, 2017

My Story--or at any rate, one of them

Many years ago, when I was young and harbored the dream of becoming the next George Orwell, I lived for a year in a shanty town in eastern Congo--then Zaire. The idea was that I would gather the life stories and daily experiences of some of the town's residents, throw in a few of my own impressions and feelings, add a sociological note or three, and--voila, the next Road to Wigan Pier. So, for example, I spent a few weeks with a cart pusher, one of those fellows who work with three or four others pushing out-size wheelbarrows loaded with 50 kilo sacks of manioc or twenty-foot iron rods up and down the town's hilly roads. Those roads are steep. The landscape of the region is all rounded peaks and valleys, like the inside of a corrugated egg container, and colored an emerald green streaked with dusty roads that after the rains turn into grinding rivers of rust-colored mud.

My cart pusher was an uncomplicated person, somewhat baffled by my interest in the minutia of his daily life, and like many physically imposing men he gave off a feeling of great gentleness. I remember thinking one evening as we labored to account for the $5.75 or so he had earned that day--this much to the cart owner, that much to his laborers, a small amount for the cart-pushers association, and then his family expenses, the food, rent, school fees for his younger siblings, and some 10 to 15 cents left over most days for a smoke--that as long as he had his health and those tendons and muscles of iron he would be OK. I also remember thinking that it was a shame he had to spend 50 cents a day renting the cart when he could have bought it outright for 50 dollars; today, of course, we know all about micro-credit, but  it wasn't on my radar screen then or I'd have lent him the money to buy it.

My own plans didn't work out, of course, and within a few years Bukavu itself would go from being a palmy, Graham Greene-ish backwater to the epicenter of Africa's world war, without ever losing its seedy, backwater feel. Sometime before then, around the time of the Sovereign National Conference, when it was briefly possible to be hopeful for the Congo, I wrote the following: A Game of Hearts. The story's details are true, or mostly so, but the way I tell the story bears evidence of how young I was; here and there you can hear the squeaks of my voice changing. From time to time I've thought about re-writing the piece; I would be harder on myself; play it more for comedy; but then it wouldn't be a true bill of the experience. I wrote it over a month of stops and hesitations, like an inchworm flailing forward, looking for the next bit of leaf or ground to secure itself to, never quite sure what I could ask the reader to accept. It is my ur-story, such as it is.

This was published in a magazine called DoubleTake in the Winter of 1997, five years or so after being consigned to a drawer in my desk. Doubletake was an immensely ambitious, coffee-table fine art magazine, published by the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University under Robert Coles and Alex Harris. The magazine folded after a decade's work; the sincerity it exuded was not part of the zeitgeist, and if the age hadn't killed it the Internet almost surely would have. I remain grateful to them for publishing one of my earliest attempts. 

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

An Unpublished note to the Intercept

The Intercept published a long, not especially well-informed piece on Trump's proposed roll-back of the conflict minerals provision. I promptly fired off this note, which seven hours later still hadn't appeared in their comments section, although all sorts of profanity has.

[Update: Lee Fang, the author of the article, has promptly written to me to say he's looking into the matter. Update to the update: Yes, it's appeared.]

Here it is, FWIW:

A stopped clock is correct twice a day, and this is one of the rare times when the generally repugnant Trump regime has the facts on its side.
Advocates of Dodd-Frank 1502 said it would help end the conflicts in the region by depriving militia of the profits they derive from the "conflict mineral" trade.  What they won’t tell you is that virtually every serious scholar and journalist to have visited the region opposes the law, and that some of the most reputable organizations, like Human Rights Watch*, have silently withdrawn their support for the campaign, while others, such as the Center for Global Development, have written in forceful opposition to it.

For a round-up of the scholarly literature, see here: http://www.congoresources.org/2013/02/the-persistence-of-folly.html.
For a round-up of articles from journalists who have actually gone to the region, see here: http://www.congoresources.org/2013/01/press-round-up-on-conflict-minerals.html

Four key points:
1) The law hasn’t ended the conflicts because they're only secondarily about the minerals. Neither of arguably the two worst militia, the FDLR and M23 (originally known as the CNDP) is in it for money, and both have access to other sources of revenue.
2) By pushing the mineral trade under ground, Dodd-Frank actually drove it into the hands of the very militia the law was meant to hurt, earning them windfall profits (think what prohibition did for the mafia).
3) Advocates failed to disclose that nearly all local knowledgeable civil society groups opposed what they were doing and warned them of the harm it would cause their communities. By framing the issue as brave advocates versus rich multinationals, they effectively silenced the very people they were ostensibly championing: the Congolese themselves.
4) Most importantly, the subsequent embargo of the region's minerals has come at a tremendous cost to the miners and their families. This can’t be emphasized enough. Once the law came into effect, in April of 2011, the local mineral exporters shut down. Tens, possibly hundreds of thousands of artisinal miners, already among the poorest and most vulnerable people in the world, were suddenly deprived of their livelihoods, all-but overnight. When I visited their villages, in the summer of 2011, they were angry and desperate: They blamed "Obama's Law," as they called it, for the fact that they could no longer afford school fees for their children or medical care for their pregnant wives. By December of that year, some of those villages were reporting outbreaks of Kwashiorkor.
One more point: As far as I know, none of us who oppose Dodd Frank 1502 on humanitarian and intellectual grounds has any criticism to make of Dodd Frank 1504, which mandates disclosure of payments by resource extractors. On the contrary, we repeatedly warned the advocates that 1502, with its manifest cruelties, would be used as a cudgel by corporate interests to make the broader case against reform.  This is, of course, exactly what has happened. Why else did the incoming acting chair of the SEC make this provision the subject of his very first official statement?
Let me conclude by citing some of the Congolese who have been affected by the law, and whose voices have been all-but-ignored in the debate:
Serge Mulumba, president of the mining cooperative CDMC, in a letter to the SEC:
"We can not give you exactly the number of lives that are lost each day following the cessation of artisanal mining in the DRC and yet even if a child died or who is hungry or do not go to school because his father digger lacked money, this is a tragedy, it is a sad news that should challenge our humanity."
Pastor Raymond, in an open letter posted on Fair Jewelry Auction:
"Please listen attentively to our cries of weeping and anguish. Our families and us will be doomed to death if you do not hear these cries of alarm. Do not wait to rescue us when we will be already in the grave. Act in time to avoid the humanitarian catastrophe that would arise from the consequences of your suspension to purchase our minerals."
Heads of three South Kivu mining associations, in a letter to the SEC, begging them to reconsider DF-1502
"What is the refuge of all the Congolese jobless, around 85 % of the population. Is it to make peace or to trouble the peace, when the life is stopped for a population? No job, no life. Please imagine the consequences…"


Oh, and here's what the Intercept is publishing:

*HRW internally debated this issue some four years ago, and decided to drop it. But I see just now that Ken Roth, perhaps uninformed about that debate, just (2/9 roughly 7 pm) tweeted his condemnation of the possible repeal. That's a shame. HRW's better than that.

Friday, October 28, 2016

The Origins of AIDS


This is a draft of the first part of an abandoned two-part book review I wrote a while back about three books about the origins and spread of the HIV virus. They were Tinderbox: How the West Sparked the AIDS Epidemic and How the World Can Finally Overcome It, by Craig Timberg and Daniel Halperin; The Origins of AIDS, by Jacques Pepin; and The Chimp and the River: How AIDS Emerged from an African Forest, by David Quammen.

Early in the 20th century, in the southeastern corner of Cameroon in central Africa, a hunter killed and butchered a chimpanzee for meat, nicking himself in the process. That event, as trivial as a papercut, set in motion one of the greatest catastrophes in human history: The global AIDS pandemic, which has killed 30 million people to date and continues to infect two million more each year. (The only disasters that exceed it in scale are the Black Death of the 14th century, the 1918 Spanish flu, and World War II.) At each step in the spread of the disease entirely contingent circumstances came into play, many the result of well-intentioned humanitarian initiatives, that amplified the pandemic when it might have burned itself out. These books tell two stories: One is the story of the origin and global spread of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV); the second is the story of the dedication, ingenuity and sheer good luck of the scientists who figured it all out.
AIDS, like the flu or smallpox, is zoonotic, that is, it passes from animals to humans. Variants of the Simian Immunodeficiency Virus (SIV), from which HIV derives, have circulated for millennia among the primates inhabiting the tropical rainforests of west and central Africa. In fact, on at least at least eight separate occasions in the 20th century a far less transmissible strain of the virus, the HIV-2, passed to humans from a species of monkey called the sooty mangabey. The mangabey, memorably described by science writer David Quammen as looking like an “elderly chimney sweep of dapper tonsorial habits,” inhabits the canopies of coastal west Africa, some two thousand kilometers from where the vastly more dangerous strain of the virus, HIV-1, emerged.
HIV-1 has also infected humans on multiple occasions—at least four that we know of, three times via chimpanzee and once via gorilla. By far the most lethal variant is known as HIV-1 Group M--with “M” as in main. This is the strain responsible for 99 percent of AIDS deaths worldwide, and because its simian counterpart is concentrated among the chimpanzees of southeastern Cameroon, scientists believe it almost certainly originated there. Figuring that out took intrepid work. Chimpanzees are an endangered species: Killing or even tranquilizing them to secure blood samples is unacceptable. Scientists had to develop new ways of testing urine and faeces to determine if they contained SIV antibodies. Early on, a distinguished AIDS researcher wounded himself in the forest chasing down the animals’ excrement and died of malaria after he was medivac’ed to England.  (Incidentally, it was once thought that chimpanzees had evolved a tolerance for the virus, as the mangabeys have. In fact, research at Jane Goodall’s Gombe ape preserve would later show they sicken and die from the virus as humans do.)
HIV-1M in turn has spawned an array of subtypes that have become endemic to different regions of the world. That there are so many global variants of HIV is a function of the speed with which the virus reproduces and the frequency with which it errs in doing so. The virus evolves a million times faster than animals, meaning that in a mere decade it recapitulates the ten million years since humans, chimpanzees and gorillas last had a common ancestor.

Friday, March 21, 2014

The Price of Bad Governance

How much does the legacy of Mobutu and Kabila cost the people of DR Congo? One way is to compare the infant mortality rate to other neighboring countries. Here is a chart, drawn from UN statistics:

Click for full-size

You can see right away that the Congo is an outlier: It started the 1970s with roughly the same mortality rate as sub-Saharan Africa as a whole, but gradually lost ground. The Congo loses 109 children per 1000 live births, compared to only 64 for Africa as a whole.

But what do those numbers translate to in terms of real human beings? About 2,660,000 babies are born every year in the DRC. If some 116 out of every 1000 of them die[1] , that means roughly 309,000 perish each year. If DRC's infant mortality rates were the same as SSA, it would lose only 194,000--or roughly 114,000 less. Compared to Kenya, DRC loses roughly 149,000 infants. And if the DRC performed no better than Nigeria, it would still lose 70,000 fewer babies each year.

[1] I am using 2005 statistics rather than 2010, which are projected, not actual.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Quote of the Day

 From remarks John Kerry gave at the LiveAtState virtual press conference:

Question:
“What is the U.S.’s interest in South Sudan? And what’s the way forward for peace to prevail?”
Answer:
We also feel deeply committed, given past lessons, to try to prevent the chaos and the genocide that too often comes of the violence that can occur if things break down. We all have an interest – and everybody has an interest – in not letting that happen.

So here we have this new nation that is already in extremis, and we helped give birth to it. We feel this is the part of our responsibility. And we don’t want this to cascade into a more violent repetition of the past. So that’s why we’re committed. We believe this is part of the defining of the future of Africa, and we will remain deeply committed and personally engaged in an effort to try to help the people of South Sudan define their own future in peace and prosperity, hopefully.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Exclusive: Global Witness Outed as Sleeper Cell for the Chamber of Commerce*

In a dramatic turn of events,  one of the leading advocacy groups for the conflict minerals campaign has outed itself as a mole for the US Chamber of Commerce. Global Witness, a British NGO, published a report last week detailing the massive failure of Dodd-Frank 1502 to achieve any of its intended goals. The report documents how the conflicts have worsened since passage of the law and the SEC's promulgation of the implementing regulations. And it reveals how, by driving the trade underground, the law has benefited the very worst elements in the Kivus: rogue military groups and armed militia. (Other NGOs, including the Open Society**, had already revealed their fealty to the Chamber by publishing reports highly critical of Dodd Frank 1502, but none had previously positioned itself as a leader in the campaign.)

Here are some of the report's highlights:
The Man with the Golden Touch: General Gabriel Amisi
  • Up to 10 tonnes of gold from South Kivu is being laundered each year through Burundi and exported to Dubai--with an "almost complete absence of checks" on the trade;
  • FARDC forces redeployed to fight M23 rebels left a security void filled by armed groups moving in on the mineral trade;
  • General Gabriel Amisi, who was fired last year as the army chief of staff for selling arms to the M23 rebels, controls one of the richest gold mines in South North Kivu;
  • Changes in security dynamics in the past year have provided rebels and FARDC with opportunities to take control of mining sites previously considered candidates for conflict-free sourcing;
  • Formal exports of the three Ts--tin, tantalum, and tungsten--are low in South Kivu and virtually non-existent in North Kivu. The majority of these minerals are smuggled out of eastern Congo, laundered through Rwandan tagging system, and exported as domestic Rwandan product.
  • The financial incentives to smuggle Congolese tin ore across the border outweigh the risks of getting caught, since "tagged" tin sells for $9/kilo, compared to a mere $3 or $4/kilo for untagged ore.
  • The government-led initiative to certify mining sites initiated in 2011 is already out of date and defunct;
  • The conflict-free tin initiative at Kalimbi in Nyabibwe, widely viewed as a test case for responsible sourcing, is being exploited by a military-led smuggling racket.
To be sure, the report concludes with the standard advocacy-based recommendations, to wit: that companies implement OECD due diligence procedures in full; that the Congolese government enforce domestic due diligence law, remove and prosecute army officers involved in the mineral trade, and formalize the gold trade; and that the donor governments support capacity building for mining authorities.

But the report convincingly demonstrates that the government has neither the will nor the capacity to bring the illicit trade to heel, and provides overwhelming evidence that Dodd-Frank has exacerbated the very problems it was meant to resolve. The sparse recommendations tacked on to the conclusion of the report tacitly acknowledge the nature of the problem: A government capable of making the recommended reforms would not need to be told to undertake them in the first place. To put it another way: A government that is unable and unwilling to govern its territory or protect its people is not a likely candidate to administer a complex and dynamic mineral trade regime.

With the publication last month of the Pole Institute's highly critical No Kivu, No Conflict report, which concluded that the Kivus are "being asphyxiated" economically by Dodd-Frank 1502, this leaves The Enough Project as the law's sole remaining cheerleader. In late February, Enough's co-founder and public face,  John Prendergast, wrote this about the mineral campaign:
For decades all of the benefits of eastern Congo's vast mineral resource wealth have gone to those with the biggest guns -- the Congolese army, local militias or neighboring countries. These minerals include, among others, gold, cobalt, copper, tin, industrial diamonds and coltan, used in cell phones, laptops and other electronic devices.

But U.S. and European consumer demands for a conflict-free minerals trade, congressional legislation, International Monetary Fund aid suspensions, U.N. experts' reports, responsible investors and other influential voices are making it harder to profit violently and illegally from mineral smuggling.
*I am, of course, being ironic.
**See *. 

Monday, May 13, 2013

Monday, May 6, 2013

Quotes of the Day, from Mary Robinson

Statement by Mary RobinsonUnited Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on April 20, 1998:
Today's decision by the Secretary-General to withdraw his Investigative Team (SGIT) from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) was the inevitable result of a series of obstacles which have prevented the Team fulfilling its mandate.
I see this development in the overall context of the international community's commitment to fight impunity which is one of the major factors in the recurrent violence in the Great Lakes Region and elsewhere.
The withdrawal is a grave setback in this battle against impunity and underscores the need for an International Criminal Court with the political backing and resources to bring to justice the perpetrators of the worst violations of human rights and international humanitarian law. . . .
The people of the DRC, and of the broader region, are entitled to a future free from the violence and abuse of the past decades. An essential step in realising such changes lies in ending the cycle of impunity which has only encouraged inter-ethnic and other violence"
From an interview with Mary Robinson in The Spectator, on September 21, 2012:
Could you describe your visit to Rwanda after the genocide in 1994?
Even though it was a couple of months after the actual genocidal killing, you could smell the blood, and see it everywhere: you could see the little children’s shoes in every building you went into. There was also a huge prison population, and I talked to a number of widows who had been raped. It was devastating. I was determined the following year, when I was invited by Ireland to represent the country at the fiftieth anniversary of the United Nations, that I would bring Rwanda to the table of the UN if you like.
But you had difficulty with the President of Rwanda, Paul Kagame at a later stage?
That was when I went back to Rwanda as UN High Commissioner in 1998. At that stage I thought, they know me, but when I arrived, I was a UN official, and there was that coldness and distance, because the UN had betrayed Rwanda, and they were hurting.
I was caught up in that, and didn’t fully appreciate the extent of it. But I was also getting briefed about what Rwanda was doing in the Democratic Republic of Congo - understandably trying to catch those who had been responsible for the genocide - but subsequently killing civilians in the process. So I had to try and raise that issue at various levels.
Did you regret the press conference you gave that year as UN High Commissioner when you condemned the actions of the Rwandan Government?
I sounded at the press conference like a western person who was giving out to Rwanda, not like somebody who had been deeply supportive, sympathetic and engaged. That’s why when I was leaving Rwanda on that visit I was so upset with myself. I think I am regarded as someone who has had a lot of success in life, and I want young people who are reading this book to know, that there are going to be times when you are not going to be proud of what you did, but you go on.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Conflict Minerals: A Devastating Analysis from the Pole Institute


On conflict minerals, a devastating new analysis from the Pole Institute:
Thus, a pattern is emerging in which Kivu's mining sector is being asphyxiated in the name of reform. Before 2010, Kivu's mineral traders had willingly participated in moves to strengthen formal and legal channels and to safeguard Kivu livelihoods by creating “conflict-free” production and trading chains within Eastern Congo. The mining ban killed this off, and today the focus has moved to Katanga and Maniema, increasingly apparently favouring a nexus of mining firms closely linked to the power-holders in Kinshasa. Because they do not finance armed groups, these firms are seen as “conflict‐free,” but no criteria exists to judge the wider political ramifications of their activities, their benefits for local development and the possible exacerbation of local conflict caused by favouring certain firms in collusion with international partners to the detriment of others. 

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Coming Anarchy?

The Congolese state seems to me be teetering on the edge of collapse, about to forfeit even the appearance of control over the country. Consider: Outbreaks of localized violence in the east are increasing; an inadequately manned UN intervention brigade is on a collision course against a determined, Rwandan-supported rebel movement; Katanga is openly defying orders from the capital while dealing with its own rebellion; and Kabila's power base in Kinshasa is coming unglued. It's possible that Kabila's regime will continue to muddle through, absent an effective challenger. But the state's hold on power appears as fragile as it's been since the 1996-97 war, and I would not be surprised if there were a coup or some sort of temporary state collapse within the next Friedman unit or so.

Bukavu Online reports that 57 Congolese soldiers died fighting the Union des Forces révolutionnaires du Congo (UFRC), in a battle for control of Chisadu, in Walungu, a mere 60 kms from Bukavu on April 24. Civil society groups are warning that the Mouvement pour la restauration de la démocratie au Congo (MRDC), controlled by General autoproclamé Hilaire Kombi, is threatening to take Beni even as the town's mayor appeals for calm. Walikali has become a free-for-all in the mineral trade, says Christophe Rigaud with Afrikarabia, relaying a report from Prince Kihangi Kyamwami of the NGO, Le Bureau d’Etudes, d’observation et de coordination pour le Développement du territoire de Walikale (BEDEWA).

Meanwhile, negotiations in Kampala between the M23 and the Congolese government appear to have broken down, amid demands from the M23 for a blanket amnesty and reincorporation on its own terms into the Congolese army. Civil society groups are warning that M23 is reinforcing its positions in Rutshuru and Beni in preparation for battle against the UN's intervention brigade. And Congo365 wonders if a military confrontation inevitable.

If a confrontation does take place, it may not end well for the UN. Nadine Gordimer is among many South Africans voicing doubts about the wisdom of their country's participation in the brigade. Thirteen South African troops were killed in the Central African Republic in late March, and questions continue to swirl about whether they were there to protect South Africa's national interests or Jacob Zuma's family's personal investments with ousted president Francois Bozize. Major General Patrick Cammaert, a former UN Force Divisional Commander for MONUC in the DRC, raises a host of troubling questions about the brigade in an analysis authored by Fiona Blythe:
“No one has conducted an analysis of why, over the last five years or so, MONUSCO has been unable or unwilling to fulfill its mandate of protecting civilians, and until we have the outcome of this analysis we cannot determine if the solution is an intervention brigade.”

“The issue is not that proactive operations are not already authorized, but that troop contributors are risk averse, and show time and again a lack of political will to employ a full reading of the mandate, leading to accusations that it lacks robustness.” In the end, “the mandate is only as strong as the will of the leadership and the TCCs to implement it.”

“Is one brigade to be responsible for enforcing peace through the use of force and the other not? Is one set of rules of engagement to differ from the other, and if not, why deploy a new brigade with the same rules of engagement and force posture as the existing one?”
Reviewing the litany of potential pitfalls analysts worry may be facing the brigade, Christophe Rigaud concludes with one of his own: If the brigade focuses its energies on M23, the 20 or so other rebel groups operating in the Kivus may paradoxically end with greater room and freedom to maneuver.

And Jason Stearns raises the possibility of a re-internationalization of the Congo wars, this time featuring overt conflict between two African military heavyweights: South Africa  and Rwanda. The humanitarian consequences would be appalling.