Monday, August 29, 2011

The Spurious Claims (Second of Several)

Defenders of Dodd-Frank make several arguments on its behalf: that it has done a great deal of good and has the potential to do much more good; that it cuts the Gordian knot tying mineral profits to conflict (and therefore rape); that, contrary to my assertion, it does in fact enjoy the broad support of local communities and Congolese civil society organizations; and that  miners have not been substantively harmed by the virtual elimination of the trade in minerals. I want to consider each of these arguments in turn, but before I do I want to deal with a few of the less serious objections to my op-ed.

Several critics impute eccentric positions to me and then suggest that my support for these positions proves I needn’t be taken seriously. Peter Rosenblum insists that the law could not have devastated the Congo because the Congo was already devastated. My encounter with the multiple tragedies of the Congo must have caused me to lose all sense of perspective, he says—a mistake that long-time Congo watchers like him wouldn't make.[2] Enough claims that I blame them and Congress for the Congo’s sorry state. I certainly agree with the premise: claiming that all of the Congo’s problems stem from Dodd-Frank would be ridiculous--even self-discrediting. In my own op-ed I wrote that the Congo was “devastated by 32 years of misrule under the kleptocracy of Mobutu Sese Seko … and that [it] is now just beginning to emerge from over a decade of brutal war and internal strife.” I don’t know how I could have been clearer. In any case, my op-ed focused on the artisanal miners: I stand by my claim that the law’s impact on them has been devastating.

Stearns at several points asserts that my op-ed “implies” this or that, and then takes issue with what he claims I have implied. For example, he accuses me of implying that no Congolese (among its sixty million!) agrees with the passage of Dodd-Frank. My claim was a more modest one: that respected Congolese civil society organizations—the ones who possess unparalleled depth of knowledge about local mining conditions—feel that the debate has been monopolized by two groups: Western advocates on the one side and multinationals on the other, in a way that leaves them feeling marginalized. I stand by my reporting that these groups feel marginalized and I agree that they are justified in feeling that way.

At another point Stearns says that I imply that doing nothing would have been preferable to pushing for greater transparency. I’m not sure what passage of mine makes him think that, since I quite explicitly wrote that “the people of eastern Congo agree that it would be beneficial to bring greater clarity and transparency to the mineral trade.”  Granted, I am reporting on Congolese sentiment, but in a manner that clearly implies my endorsement of it.

At least three of the critics (GW, Enough, and an anonymous blogger) claim that my criticisms of Dodd-Frank inadvertently echo industry rhetoric, but provide no specific examples of the overlap between my criticisms and theirs. But suppose industry representatives had predicted that the law would bring about a de facto embargo. Should I then be forbidden from reporting that fact, if I found it to be true, simply because industry representatives had predicted it would?

[2] I know Peter. I respect Peter. He seems to have responded more to the editor-chosen title of my op-ed than to anything I wrote. I hope he'll provide a more thoughtful critique in the future.

(This is the second of several responses I'll be giving over the next several days regarding my op-ed on Dodd-Frank.)

Sunday, August 28, 2011

What Should We have Known? (First of Several)

None of the people responding critically to my op-ed in the NYT letters section or the blogosphere denies its principal claim: that the law has immiserated a million or so highly vulnerable people. None of them, however, suggests this information has spurred them to reconsider their support for the law, slow their efforts to see it implemented, or make any effort to help the miners whose livelihood the law has all but eliminated. In fact, with one exception, none of them discuss the plight of the miners and their families at all: it's as if they don't exist.

Several critics seem to suggest that we shouldn’t judge the law by its consequences. That, at any rate, is the only sense I can make of Margot Wallstrom’s assurance that the law’s "intentions were admirable" and that “inaction is not an option.” Nor can I otherwise interpret Jason Stearns’ repeated insistence that Dodd-Frank doesn’t mandate an embargo—that “nothing in the law inherently calls for one.”[1]

I find that inadequate. Knowledgeable people on the ground and students of the region worried about the possibility of an embargo from the beginning, and gave increasingly urgent voice to those concerns:

·         In April 2009, the British group Resource Consulting Services published a study on conflict minerals funded by the British government, the London School of Economics and Belgium's Ghent University. Its co-author said this about Enough’s support for (what became) Dodd-Frank: "Most miners choose to mine for lack of livelihood alternatives, so stopping or disrupting the trade in minerals will hit the most vulnerable the hardest, and in all likelihood exacerbate conflict dynamics and retard development."
·         In October, 2009, Eric Kajemba, the well-respected chief of the Observatoire Gouvernance et Paix, observed that the UN December 2008 Group of Experts’ report stigmatized the mining sector in North and South Kivu for sustaining the armed conflicts in Congo. He continued:
         Since then, the actions of certain advocacy groups could entail dramatic consequences for the majority of actors in the cassiterite supply chain, from the miners to the buyers, and ricochet through the entire economy of South Kivu. Given the number of people who depend on the artisanal mining sector, and the amount of income they derive from it, it is quite simply dangerous to boycott this sector. This approach risks increasing fraud and smuggling into neighboring countries not under similar “due diligence” requirements. This will result in a reduction in tax revenues and make it even harder to implement good governance.

·         In June 2010, Assheton Stewart Carter of the American non-profit PACT, which was working with the tin industry to implement a tracing program for artisanal miners in eastern Congo, said this: “Restrictions or bans on conflict minerals may cause business to abandon the country, leaving many Congolese citizens who depend on mining for their livelihood even more vulnerable.” Later, Karen Hayes of PACT added this: “We fear that the timing [of the conflict minerals legislation] will mean that responsible companies will have no choice but to withdraw [from the DRC]. If they leave, the trade will get left to the warlords and the charlatans.”

·          In July, 2010, Dominic Johnson of the highly respected Pole Institute, a Congolese NGO based in Goma that specializes in the mining sector, wrote this:
There is in our opinion a real danger that initiatives like this will, through trying to eradicate illegal trade which feeds armed actors in the DRC, kill the entire trade. The efforts and costs involved in tracing, disclosing and verifying the exact source of mineral components and submitting to an independent aufit will lead international enterprises to either ignore the law or to turn their backs on the Great Lakes Region in order to reduce risk. Even if business plays by the rules, the legislation will make Congolese resources more expensive without any benefit to the Congolese themselves. The only beneficiaries will be the international consultants who carry out verifications, audits and mappings. It must be stressed that the economy of Kivu would collapse if mineral export revenues dried up… This situation may be deplorable, but Kivu's population will not find peace by losing its only own sources of revenue - in fact, quite the opposite is likely.

·         Even the International Crisis Group, which co-founded the Enough Project, warned about the danger of focusing on technical solutions like Dodd-Frank instead of dealing with the underlying governance issues: “No technical solution will stop the trade in minerals from promoting conflict. Only governance based on the rule of law will make the proposed technical solutions feasible. In the event of failure, there is a risk that one of the economic engines of the Great Lakes region will quite simply grind to a halt.”

 Although I’m quoting from close students of the region, it hardly took detailed knowledge of local conditions to worry about what might happen once Dodd-Frank passed. This was basic economics, as a post from Daniel Hamersh at Freakonomics observed: “I noted [when Dodd-Frank passed] the very simple economic point that it would create a surplus that would drive prices down, mostly harm local miners, but benefit buyers/countries without U.S.-level scruples about these purchases. I shouldn’t brag—any Econ I student could have seen this point.” (Amanda Taub makes this point more humorously at Wronging Rights, with a visit to Crazy Bob’s House of Tantalum.)

Over the age of seven or so, we become responsible for the predictable consequences of our actions, not just for their intent. Dodd-Frank’s consequences were not merely predictable, in the Monday morning quarterback sense of that word. (“He should have seen the rush coming.”) They were predictable in the sense that they were widely predicted. People who knew the region, people who thought about the issues for any length of time, immediately realized the danger Dodd-Frank would pose to the local miners and did all they could to make their concerns known. Yet that in no way deflected the advocates from their mission, nor did it move them to press for ways to mitigate the harm the law would cause to highly vulnerable people.

[1] Stearns also suggests that the electronic companies imposed the embargo as part of a cynical maneuver to get the law watered down. One has only to think for a moment to realize what a grave allegation this is. It would certainly transform my interpretation of what happened. My own op-ed, for example, would have lead something like this: “Electronic companies are holding hostage the livelihoods of a million miners in eastern Congo in an attempt to extort concessions from the SEC and to force advocacy groups to back off their campaign against conflict minerals.” I think Stearns needs to come forward on this. If he has evidence for the allegation he ought to present it, but if it's no more than speculation or chatter he ought to tell us that too. No one is served by putting forward this kind of allegation without further elaboration. 

(This is the first of several responses I'll be publishing over the coming days.) 

Saturday, August 27, 2011

SOS From The Small Scale Miners of the Congo Regarding The Dodd Frank Act

I'm reposting a letter I just came across from a Congolese pastor representing a community of miners from North Kivu. The letter was first published in April.

In Enough's telling, the conflict minerals campaign is a Manichean struggle between greedy corporate interests and a brave coalition of Western and Congolese NGOs seeking peace for the Congo. I wonder where people like Pastor Raymond fit in.

General Mining Cooperatives of North Kivu, Democratic Republic of the Congo.

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.

I represents all the legal registered mining cooperatives in North Kivu and president of the mining cooperatives of Mpama Bisie “COMIIMPA” in Walikale. I represent 50,000 artisanal miners of which support more 100,000 households.

We thank the U.S. for the sake of its characteristic humanism. No one opposes this Act DODD FRANK on the minerals of conflict. We welcome the opportunity to help improve and refine our practices. But we just urge everyone to apply in a gradual process so it is not considered a threat against the survival of populations of any region.

Last week we had a general meeting of our members to place a state of our socio economic condition. We have been plunged into disarray following the decision by American Airlines to suspend the purchase of minerals from the region of eastern Congo from 1 April 2011 because of Dodd Frank.

The decision to suspend the purchase and use of all minerals by final consumers and industries from electronics to April 1st is a misinterpretation of the law DOD-FRANC. There are certainly needs to comply with the traceability minerals to eradicate conflict, but we must recognize that there are sites that are spared from all conflicts that should not be struck. Widespread application of U.S. law must not penalize minerals from areas stable and without conflicts.

Consider that the survival of our families and for the purposes of this new system. There is need to continue uninterrupted with the beneficial mining and minerals trade. The process that must begin immediately but must be done gradually without endangering the lives of those that it is supposed to protect. We should not work in fear to comply with the date of 1 April, but we should continue with beneficial mining activities without interruption, with a view to improve trade ethics.

In this continuity of work, we will develop a communication strategy from the mines to the ultimate consumers of minerals to demonstrate the evolution of the situation, to avoid adverse effects on the population. We do not ask for an extension as some people think, but we ask the end users of our minerals to ignore the date of April 1st which will not be the end of the world because we as mining operators, we also have right to live before, during and after the date above.

We salute the efforts of the Congolese government in its efforts to improve mining conditions, through the construction of trading centers, training and retraining of the police mines to secure mining sites and the removal of illegal taxes in the supply chain of minerals.
We would also like the material and financial support of the major industries for the effectiveness of this process of certification and labeling, for without your assistance we will fail in this process.. Please support for the implement of our model of FAIRMINING which is based on social development, environmental protection, traceability and certification, and ethical trade. We are committed to work closely with ITRI in the process of Certification and labeling of all minerals of tin, tantalum and others.

Reposted: SOS From The Small Scale Miners of the Congo Regarding The Dodd Frank Act

Staying Classy

Reacting to my op-ed, Enough writes this about me in African Arguments, a blog maintained jointly by the Social Science Research Council and the Royal African Society:
Highlighting and embellishing the negative aspects of the current efforts to legitimize the mining sector in eastern Congo without providing historical context or highlighting positive developments raises questions of motivation and intention.
Can you imagine reputable organizations like Human Rights Watch or the International Crisis Group responding in a similar manner to an editorial published in the New York Times? It's very strange.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Two Interesting New Congo Blogs

Doudou Kajangu has started a new blog on political and social developments in Bukavu, called Bukavu, Ma Ville. He doesn't update frequently, but it's always worthwhile when he does. His photos, in particular, are first rate.

And Mvemba Dizolele has relaunched his blog, Eye on Africa. Most readers will know Dizolele as one of the most prominent voices on Congo in the United States, and for his frequent appearances on TV and radio.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Lil 'Ol Me?

I seem to have become for Enough what Rachel Maddow is for Newt Gingrich and gay terrorists are to the Family Research Council: a bogeyman to rally supporters around.

I don't mind. But I wish they'd spend less energy attacking me and more energy trying to figure out what to do about the million or so people they've helped immiserate.

Here's the first part of a letter they're sending around:

Enough Project
Dear Friend,
This past week, we've seen a flurry of debate surrounding the impact of the conflict minerals provision in the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act on the people of eastern Congo. Voices critical of conflict minerals reform provisions have seized on a New York Times opinion piece by David Aronson, which largely blames the current plight of eastern Congo’s local communities on Enough Project, Congress, and others.
I know you’ve been fired up by this intense debate and want to take action now.

Working in the Mine, Mine

3TAMIS, a Congolese film making company located in Bukavu, in association with Oxfam, produced a good short documentary in 2008 about cassiterite mining on Idjwi Island. I think it provides an almost tangible sense of what it's like to work in the mines in eastern Congo--and also of just how bleak the prospects are otherwise. It's only in French, unfortunately, but if you can follow along it's well worth it.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Lesson of the 20th Century

For people who write about "inevitable dislocations" or "foreseeable negative side-effects," one thought:

The omelet never turns out the way you imagine, but the eggs--they stay broken.

A Methodological Suggestion for Econometricians Working in Africa

When I was in Bukavu this summer, I tried to figure out how to measure the secondary economic effects of the de facto mineral embargo. It was clear how the embargo was affecting the miners and others directly involved in the mineral trade. A team of economists could presumably fan out throughout the province and measure those effects down to the decimal point. But how establish the impact of the embargo on the broader economy of the region--especially given the paucity (and likely inaccuracy) of the relevant data?

We have all sorts of ways to measure how well the economy is doing in the United States. There's the inflation rate, of course, and the unemployment rate. But there's also the monthly advanced retail sales report, the manufacturer's shipments and orders report, and the personal income and spending report, to name a few. Each of these require sophisticated data gathering techniques that have been refined over decades--the sort of intellectual infrastructure that obviously doesn't exist in a place like Bukavu. The question is whether there is any shortcut, any (relatively) accessible data that might function as a quick and dirty indicator of how well the economy is doing.

One thought occurred to me: Cell phone minutes. Cell phones are pretty ubiquitous, at least in town. Most people don't have monthly plans. Instead, they buy cell phone minutes in increments of one to five dollars at a time. When people aren't doing so well, they purchase fewer of those minutes. When they're flush, they purchase more. As a proxy for economic trends, then, minutes have several advantages. They aren't a requirement of life, like rent or food. But neither are they a lagging indicator, the result of pre-existing contracts and commitments, in the way that labor costs might be. Instead, they reflect how well people feel they are doing at the very moment the minutes are purchased. They are, to use an economic term I probably have no business using, highly elastic.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

A Response to Enough

The Huffington Post has published Enough's response to my New York Times op-ed. I think it's unconvincing, for several reasons.

1) The primary argument of my piece is that the Dodd-Frank Act is having a devastating impact on Congolese. Enough doesn't deny that; in fact they acknowledge that "dislocations are inevitable," and estimate that mineral exports from the Kivus have decreased by 75 percent as a result of the law. Some 200,000 to 400,000 people work as artisanal miners in the Kivus. Most of them are young men and heads of households, so it's probably fair to say that one million people, including women and children, depend directly on mining for their livelihood. If a million people one step up from absolute poverty have lost 75 percent of their income, that's a disaster. Those "inevitable dislocations" translate, as I said in my op-ed, to mothers giving birth at home instead of in clinics, children dropping out of school, families going hungry, and whole communities being cut off from the world.

2) Enough continues to maintain that the mineral trade is fueling the conflicts in the Congo. That was arguably true for the period from 2003 to 2008. It was during that period, between the official withdrawal of Rwanda and Uganda on the one hand, and the "global and inclusive agreement" on the other, that a large number of militia groups flourished. There is a serious, sometimes acrimonious debate about the role that minerals played in the conflicts during those years--a debate that feeds into a broader academic discussion about the root causes of civil wars.

But from 2008, nearly all of the militia groups that were once active in the Kivus were incorporated into the national army. The one exception is the FLDR, the remnants of the ex-genocidaires, who are responsible for about 75 to 80 percent of the rape victims seen by Panzi hospital each year. Embattled and hunted down, they have taken refuge in the vast untouched forests of Shabunda, where they make their money by kidnapping and extortion.

The bottom line: while there may have been a time when you could plausibly have argued that the mineral trade fueled the conflicts, that time is past. Most of the militia that participated in the trade have been neutralized, and the one that hasn't been neutralized isn't involved in the trade.

Monday, August 8, 2011

The New York Times Op-Ed

For an even more critical view of the Dodd-Frank conflict minerals provisions than mine, see TexasinAfrica.

For a good interview with Eric Kajemba, the NGO leader mentioned at the end of this editorial, see CongoSiasa.

It is probably worth mentioning that while I and a lot of other scholars and students of African affairs are deeply concerned about Section 1502 of the Dodd-Frank Act, regarding conflict minerals, we generally favor Section 1504 , which requires American companies to disclose the payments they make to foreign governments.

How Congress Devastated Congo

IT’S a long way from the marble halls of Congress to the ailing mining towns of eastern Congo, but the residents of Nyabibwe and Nzibira know exactly what’s to blame for their economic woes.
The “Loi Obama” or Obama Law — as the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform act of 2010 has become known in the region — includes an obscure provision that requires public companies to indicate what measures they are taking to ensure that minerals in their supply chain don’t benefit warlords in conflict-ravaged Congo. The provision came about in no small part because of the work of high-profile advocacy groups like the Enough Project and Global Witness, which have been working for an end to what they call “conflict minerals.”
Unfortunately, the Dodd-Frank law has had unintended and devastating consequences, as I saw firsthand on a trip to eastern Congo this summer. The law has brought about a de facto embargo on the minerals mined in the region, including tin, tungsten and the tantalum that is essential for making cellphones.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Learning about the Congo

If you're a newcomer and want to know more about the Congo, the best place to start is with Jason Stearns' recently published Dancing in the Glory of Monsters. It provides a clear, well-written account of the wars that took place in 199697 and 19982003 and of the Congo's breakdown in their aftermath. Stearns manages to streamline the story without making it simplistic; he conveys the episodic horror of those years without dehumanizing the victims or the victimizers; and his prose is lively and detailed. While Rwanda and Uganda emerge as the book's primary antagonists--their plunder-driven invasions left the eastern half of Congo in chaos--Stearns makes it clear that it is ultimately the Congo's own lack of political leadership that accounts for the country's continuing problems. A more detailed study is Gerard Prunier's Africa's World War. Prunier is the author of an outstanding account of the Rwandan genocide, but in this book he sometimes loses the narrative thread as he exhaustively details the alliances and divisions of the country's mitotic rebel groups.

OF course, before the wars there was Mobutu, African Machiavel, kleptocrat, and American Cold War ally. An excellent journalistic account of his excesses and ultimate downfall is Michaela Wrong's In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz. A shoutout is due as well to Howard French's A Continent for the Taking, although only a couple of the book's chapters focus on Congo. The best documentary is Thierry Michel's Roi du Zaire--only in French, unfortunately. Still the best scholarly treatment of Mobutu's reign is Crawford Young and Thomas Turner's Rise and Decline of the Zairian State. Unfortunately, it was published in the mid-1980s and so doesn't cover the last decade of the regime.

Quote of the Day

It is relatively uncomplicated to guard oneself against cruelty and greed, if one wishes to do so. But detachment, a half-willed blindness to the suffering of others, is one of the inescapable conditions of life on earth. Between 1998 and 2003, about as many people were killed in the Congo War as died in the Holocaust. Our ability to live placidly through this and so many other atrocities lies in a combination of ignorance and helplessness: it happened far away, we didn’t pay attention as it happened, and even if we rent our clothes over it, there was nothing we could do to stop it. 
                                  --Adam Kirsch in "Can You Learn Anything from a Void?," from this week's The New Republic.
I find I'm seeing more of this, the invocation of the Congo as a place whose problems we're never going to do anything about. The Congo's become rhetorical shorthand for the inevitable limits of our humanitarian instincts, limits wiser to acknowledge than protest. A few months ago, for example, the discussion among Very Serious People was about whether we pay too much attention to the suffering of the Palestinians and not enough to the suffering of, say, the Congolese. On one side were those who argued that we care comparatively little about the Congo; to make it right, they said, we need to care less about the Palestinians. On the other side were Equally Serious People who felt that both groups get the attention they deserve: not too much, not too little, but just right.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

What We Talk about when We Talk about Rape

I interviewed these women one afternoon in late June, 2011, in the back lot of a protestant church outside of Uvira. All volunteered their names and agreed to have their photographs taken for possible publication. By telling their stories they hoped to provoke action to reduce the continuing toll of rape in their country.