Sunday, September 18, 2011

Were Congolese Excluded? (Third of Several)

In my NYT op-ed I reported that knowledgeable Congolese felt excluded from the conflict minerals debate. It was, they told me, a dialog dominated by Western advocacy groups confronting Western electronics companies. As a result, they said, immensely important decisions about the lives of millions of Congolese were made without any input from them.

But it's always possible for Dodd-Frank advocates to find, or hire, Congolese who will say the opposite. At a recent event on Capitol Hill, for example, Enough introduced Fidel Bafilemba, their field research consultant, as the person who would "finally tell the truth" about how local people felt about Dodd-Frank.

This poses a dilemma: how can I persuade fair-minded readers that the people I spoke to in Congo represent the consensus view among knowledgeable Congolese, while the Congolese the advocates cite are the exceptions? Short of going there themselves, readers might have to conclude that they lack the knowledge needed to make any conclusions.

It happens, however, that an organization with impeccable credentials for supporting the rights of workers in Third World countries wrote a contemporaneous paper about this very topic. The organization describes itself this way: "MakeITFair is a European project focusing on the electronics industry, especially on consumer electronics like mobile phones, laptops and MP3 players. We want to let young people across Europe know about the labour abuses and environmental problems that are going on right now around the world – just to satisfy our demand for all the latest electronic gadgets." You would think that a group like this would be enthusiastic supporters of the work from Enough and Global Witness. Go look at their website to check out their bona fides. Yet in an October 2010 report, they wrote the following:
Recently, numerous efforts and initiatives ranging from legislation to certification have focused on the link between the conflict and the trade in minerals from Eastern DRC. The makeITfair project, however, deplores the lack of communication with local stakeholders when formulating what should be done. The report entitled ‘Voices from the inside’ presents local views on mining reform in Eastern DRC. Although civil society groups welcome policy makers who are trying to ‘clean up’ the mining business in Eastern DRC, they want to have a stronger voice in the debate and more input into the initiatives that are currently taking shape. 
"When high level institutions and industry are busy drawing up standards, local views and priorities are in danger of remaining unheard. The makeITfair project wants to channel the voices of people and civil society in Eastern DRC," says Päivi Pöyhönen, researcher at Finnwatch and coauthor of the report.
They go on to say:
Recently, numerous efforts and initiatives ranging from legislation to certification have focused on the link between conflict and the mineral trade from Eastern DRC. Despite the fact that all such initiatives aim to end the mineral trade funding armed groups in Eastern DRC, there is growing concern that there is a boycott in practice on minerals from Eastern DRC, which may lead to worse consequences for the people on ground.
 In the field interviews it was demonstrated that all members of civil society groups in Goma and Bukavu welcome the attempts of policymakers to ‘clean up’ the mining business in Eastern DRC. However, they want to have a stronger voice in the debate and more influence over initiatives that are currently taking shape. Most of the respondents rejected the idea of an embargo on minerals from Eastern DRC, while they expressed their concerns about the feasibility of traceability mechanisms, the lack of sensitization and organization of stakeholders at the grassroots level, and the lack of attention to social problems associated with the exploitation and trade in mineral resources. These problems include land disputes, forced labour and sexual violence. During interviews in Goma and Bukavu in May 2010, IPIS encountered very few representatives of civil society groups who were in favour of an embargo on minerals from Eastern DRC. By far most informants questioned the usefulness of an embargo.  
So to summarize:  We have hard evidence, in the form of a contemporaneous report from a credible source, that local experts felt excluded from the debate, and that these local experts were warning anyone who would listen that the conflict minerals initiative was about to result in the imposition of an embargo on the minerals, with disastrous consequences for their own people. Which is exactly what happened.

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