Friday, November 18, 2011

Yay Us! The Private Public Alliance for Conflict Minerals

There's nothing like watching diplomats at work to make me feel like Holden Caulfield. Last week's launch of the Private Public Alliance at the US Institute of Peace is a case in point.

The PPA, for those not in the know, is a modest $3 million effort spearheaded by USAID and the State Department to support the development of "conflict-free" supply chains within the Congo. They're looking to get an additional $2 million from the private sector; so far, multinationals and trade associations have pledged  $800,000 or so. What precisely the PPA is going to do with that money is not entirely clear. Some of the literature suggests it will mostly function as a coordinating mechanism for initiatives already underway. But at today's event I heard everything from developing a scalable pilot program to building roads. (It's not clear how many yards of road they think that amount of cash will buy them.)

The day's launch featured speakers from State, AID, and a doylt of multinationals, and was held at the U.S. Institute of Peace, a half-block down from the State Department. (Full disclosure: I worked in a service capacity at USIP a few years ago, before they moved into their new building. For my thoughts on USIP, see here.)

The meeting's MC--yes, there was an MC--was Stephen D'Esposito, the president of Resolve, a company with a mission statement so obtusely idealistic (or simply obtuse) that it sounds like the Trilateral Commission's idea of what GreenPeace does. He began by urging us--all of us--to give ourselves a hand for the work we'd done in helping bring about the conflict minerals laws. "Yay us," as I wrote in my notebook, for the first of seven times. He then turned the podium over to George Moose, who praised the Institute for its "profound" commitment to the Congo--as exemplified by the fact that it had conducted a survey of Katangese business owners two years ago--and, yadi yadi yada, something about the Institute and the government and shining symbols, and here was Under Secretary Bob Hormats.  Another round of yay us ensued, then "Bob" got serious: "Minerals represent a great moral issue of our time. All of us feel a moral outrage at the illegitimate exploitation of natural resources and we're all powerfully engaged on the issue." (This from a guy who in his Goldman Sachs days handled the IPO of a Chinese oil company based in Khartoum.)  Then it was back to the yays. Yay to USAID. Yay to all the companies that are helping. And yay to the ngos, none of whom he would name because they were the same bastards that went after him when he got nominated to be under secretary he didn't want to leave anyone out.

Richard Robinson of USAID, feeling, I imagine, like a heavily disguised sheep in a den of wolves, then provided a brief and modest overview of the PPA's goals before giving it up to Jay Celorie of Hewlett Packard, who sang an aria to the love that dare not mention its name: the partnership between government and industry. Then it was off to the races. Someone introduced someone else to introduce the next four speakers, each of whom went through the by-now obligatory yay-us motions. Deputy Assistant Secretary for Africa Donald Yamamoto, later baptized "Dan" by Under Secretary Maria Otero--ah, the prerogatives of power--gave what I have to say was the afternoon's most enthusiastic version of yay us, declaring that we had all worked tirelessly to accomplish this and that we were going to end the suffering, stop the militia, and try to do good. (That's more or less a direct quote.) I've seen Yamamoto before, and he's always like this. His mother must have dropped him in a vat of effexor when he was a baby.

Assheton L Stewart Carter Ph.D. of Pact spoke next, providing (along with Robinson) the only sober analysis of the afternoon. "It's easy to focus on the human rights abuses, but it's important to remember that mining can also be a great source for development," he said. And then--angling for a bit of the lucrative consulting business to come--he spoke about how important it would be to develop supply chains that inspire confidence.

Maria Otero closed out the day by yaying Hilary "for charging us, with outrage in her voice, to find innovative solutions" to the problems of eastern Congo. "Innovative" here meaning cheap, I assume. A final round of Yay us ensued and then, for reasons not entirely clear to me--or to many of the participants, from what I could tell--there was some sort of signing ceremony to make the PPA official.

Motorola was yaying us with a cocktail hour on USIP's Kissinger Balcony overlooking the Lincoln Memorial, but much as I wanted a shot of something stiff I couldn't stay. I had parked my car in a two-hour spot and in DC the parking cops will zap you every time. On the walk back, still processing the dissonance between the self-congratulatory remarks of the diplomats and the cruel realities in Congo, I spotted a headline in the newspaper bin: "Report: It All Some Kind of Sick Joke." The Onion, of course, but how did they get the news out so quickly?

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