Sunday, July 5, 2009

The Minerals Are the Problem—Can They also Be the Solution?

I wrote a longish paper in mid-June on two contending reports by Enough and Resource Consulting Services. In the interest of readers who might have been put off by the sight of so much type on the screen, here is a summary of that earlier paper.

The contest to control the mineral wealth of eastern Congo is behind much of the fighting that has ravaged that country over the past decade. But can a focus on minerals help bring about a resolution to the wars? In the paper, I argued that Enough, an American advocacy organization, and Resource Consulting Services, a British research firm, rightfully place minerals at the center of the conflict but don’t make the case that either restricting or engaging with the mineral trade is likely to help in the war’s resolution. Instead, I argued, what’s needed is a strong, legitimate state, capable of enforcing order and providing an environment in which legitimate differences can be resolved without recourse to violence. With the Congolese government neither capable nor interested in performing these duties, that leaves the international community, in the form of Monuc, as the sole possible guarantor of the lives of the people of eastern Congo. I recommended that Monuc be greatly expanded and strengthened, so that it is able of taking on this assignment.

I began by observing that considerable confusion exists about what Enough is calling for. Its public statements emphatically draw a link between minerals, war, and the most appalling consequence of the war: the ongoing level of sexual violence against women. But its main recommendation—that electronic companies monitor their supply chain more carefully, but not boycott Congolese minerals—seems either incoherent or too narrow to have much impact. I tried to imagine how to reconcile the gap between public advocacy and responsible policy recommendation:

What do we want? Greater transparency in the supply chain linking the minerals produced in eastern Congo to consumer electronic companies! When do we want it? At some point in the future, provided that the transparency we seek doesn’t have the inadvertent effect of dampening demand for Congolese minerals or contributing to the further immiseration of Congolese miners!
In the end, I was left wondering if Enough would have made consumer electronics their principal focus had they found more promising ways of galvanizing public indignation and channeling that concern into productive political action.

By contrast, RCS believes that the state in eastern Congo can be reconstituted by bringing regional stakeholders together in a broad-based, bottom-up effort to rebuild the economy on a more sustainable and equitable basis. I argue that the interests of these stakeholders are too kaleidoscopic and contradictory for that to be viable. In any case, the essentially predatory and patrimonial nature of the Congolese state makes it uninspiring model to emulate.

In placing minerals at the center of the conflict, these organizations follow an intellectual path laid out by Paul Collier, a World Bank economist, who argued that the likelihood of a civil war in any given African country depends on the feasibility of rebellion. In his concise formulation, greed, not grievance, lies at the heart of most African conflicts today.

Recently, a handful of US senators sponsored a bill that would require U.S. companies to track and disclose the country of origin of minerals used in common electronic products. If the bill passes, companies will face an unpleasant choice: either disclose that they are helping fund militia groups operating in the DRC, or demand that their suppliers purchase minerals from other, presumably more expensive sources.

And yet neither Enough nor RCS convinced me that the Congo’s terrible curse, its mineral wealth, can be successfully “instrumentalized” for peace. Collier’s observation that the incidence of civil war reflects the feasibility of rebellion led many of us to foreground the mineral trade. But while resources may make rebellions feasible, it is weak states that make them possible. And that, ultimately, is where the problem lies.

Nicholas Garrett, one of RCS's researchers,wrote to me that the “the Congolese state will remain ineffective if the international community shies away from developmentally effective engagement.” I think this formulation gets it backwards. Some eight years after Kabila junior took power, the Congo remains a dysfunctional mess, incapable of the minimal functions of a state. It can’t gather, account for, or expend the taxes it collects; it’s failed to provide social services for its citizens; and it’s done nothing constructive to improve the country’s infrastructure. Above all, it’s proven utterly incapable of defending its borders or fielding an army willing to take on the enemy rather than its own defenseless citizens.

That leaves the international community. It already has a substantial presence in eastern Congo in the form of the 18,000 MONUC troops. The total bill for maintaining those troops exceeds one billion dollars a year, of which the United States contributes over a quarter. That is a tremendous amount of money, but it is magnitudes less than what the US spends on Iraq or Afghanistan, countries whose main claim on our attention is that they harbored potential enemies. A cynic, I concluded,

might wonder if Congolese are destined to suffer because their people never hated us enough, despite our having imposed on them a dictator who robbed them blind for thirty years. Surely our historical responsibilities--and the sheer magnitude of their distress--dictate a larger response.

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