Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Moral Obligation to be Accurate

So it's official: Dodd Frank has had a "considerable but not disastrous impact" on local livelihoods in eastern Congo. So says the UN Group of Experts on the DRC, which gave a long, two-part interview to Jason Stearns at Congo Siasa last week. 

This would appear to settle the matter. The Group of Experts is a multi-national, disinterested body of experts on eastern Congo. Like Human Rights Watch, or the Centers for Disease Control, it provides the final word on the relevant facts in its area of expertise. As it rightly states:  
[We are] not in the business of making unsubstantiated allegations, but rather reporting information as objectively as possible to the Security Council and seeking to corroborate, document, and/or disprove information based upon what we’re able to obtain through first-hand observations, witness testimony, extensive interviews with current and former combatants, documentary evidence and government cooperation.

Still, I was curious to learn how the group had reached such a definitive conclusion on the impact of DF-1502, so I left a note on the blog asking what methodological tools the GoE used to gather its data on the well-being of the artisinal miners. I was delighted to be contacted by one of the GoE members soon thereafter and had the chance to put my question directly to them. (I am being ungrammatical here to disguise the person's gender.)

I learned that while the GoE’s last mandate did not include researching the well-being of the miners, its members had visited dozens of mining zones, interviewed hundreds of people, and followed the SC-approved methodological practices as outlined in the GoE’s interim report. 

Well, that’s great, I said, but what did all those visits and interviews and methodological practices reveal about the well-being of the miners? What data did the GoE gather on that question and what evidence could it share about its findings?

I should hit the pause button for a moment here and say that I am summarizing what was in fact a surprisingly lengthy and tiresome exchange of emails. Eliciting this much information required me to ask questions in a variety of ways and in a succession of emails, each of which received a quick, courteous, and for the most part unilluminating reply. For example, when I asked what methodology the GoE used, I was told they had used the one outlined in the interim report. When, after reviewing the report, I pointed out that it says nothing about gathering data on artisanal miners, I was told that the GoE had conducted interviews, visited sites, reviewed documents, and so on, as per the report's general methodological statement. And when I then asked, repeatedly, what all those interviews had taught them about the miners’ welfare, I received a promise of a personal visit--but nothing on the facts of the matter.

All of which left me wondering what is going on. Why was the GoE unable to present me with a straightforward account of how it had come to its determination about the miners' welfare?  After all, the obvious first question any journalist asks researchers is how they arrived at their conclusions. Does anyone doubt that if I were to ask the IRC how it determined that the wars in the Congo have resulted in 5.4 million excess deaths, or NASA how it concluded that global temperatures have increased by 0.3 degrees Celsius since 1980, they would give me all the information I would need?

I find the GoE's inability to do the same deeply troubling. The GoE is not some random collection of people who all happen to have opinions. It's an august and serious and authoritative body. Yet it doesn't appear to be behaving like one. You can't 1) make definitive statements about the impact of the embargo on the well being of the miners; 2) refuse to make clear the nature of the research you've conducted on the topic; and 3) expect to be taken seriously.

Perhaps everything will become clearer during the personal visit. I hope so. But in the meantime, it certainly appears to me as if the United Nations' Group of Experts has given a verdict on a matter it has not properly researched, and that it remains unable or unwilling to admit as much. That is troubling not only for the sake of the miners, but for the credibility of the GoE itself. After all, if it has rendered judgment on an important subject like the welfare of the miners without having made a serious effort to gather and consider the evidence, then on what other matters has it felt free to substitute its opinion for considered fact? And how will it respond the next time critics accuse it of making things up to suit its political agenda--and point to this episode as an example?

The miners, and the UN, deserve better. A GoE that has lost its reputation for doing precise and careful work is worse than useless; it becomes a liability, a shield for those who would exploit the Congo for their own ends. Let us hope that the GoE proves better than this exchange would lead me to believe.

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