Thursday, February 9, 2012

Transparency for Thee, but not for Me

Ten Questions Enough and Global Witness Refuse to Answer

Global Witness and The Enough Project pride themselves on their hard-hitting, pull-no-punches research into malefactors around the world, from African warlords to corrupt Western bankers. Central to their ethos is a belief in openness and transparency--in the idea, as the cliche goes, that sunshine is the best disinfectant.

Yet when I tried to find out what they knew about the potential harm Dodd-Frank 1502 might cause local populations, they clammed up faster than congressmen before a grand jury. (To see their "non-response responses" to my queries, click below the fold.) When I urged them to answer the actual questions I posed, they either stopped returning my emails and phone calls entirely or claimed that they weren't going to respond because the questions themselves were biased and intellectually unfair. The questions follow below; you can judge for yourself how unfair they are.

I find their refusal to answer my questions not just hypocritical, but troubling. Hypocritical, of course, because you don't get to demand that companies and governments open their books to you and then refuse to answer perfectly straightforward questions from your critics. Troubling, because their refusal undermines the legitimacy of an ideal I hold dear. If organizations whose foundational principle is transparency refuse to answer questions about their work, why should companies such as BP or Union Carbide, to take two companies not entirely at random? If transparency becomes a flag of convenience, to be hoisted at times and places of our choosing, what happens to its moral force?

We have a right to find out what Global Witness and Enough knew before they undertook this campaign. A million or so people in eastern Congo--among the poorest and most vulnerable on earth--have been affected by their work.  Though it was done in their name, they had no meaningful say in the elaboration of the law or in the public campaign that preceded it. Nor is there any authority, legal or moral, to which they can now appeal.

Here are the questions I posed the advocates. Some seek to establish a common frame of reference, others to determine--to coin a phrase--what they knew and when they knew it. I encourage other journalists interested in the "conflict minerals" controversy to see if they can get elicit answers from these self-appointed watchdogs.

1) It has been widely reported that electronic companies instructed smelters to cease accepting mineral shipments from eastern Congo beginning April 1 2011. Is that reporting correct, in your opinion? If it is correct, what do you think prompted the companies to do so?

2) What portion of the mining industry in eastern Congo is characterized by slavery and child labor, in your opinion? What research can you refer me to on that question, specifically?

3) What impact has the decline in mineral exports from eastern Congo had on the miners and their families, economically and socially? Have they been able to sustain themselves through alternate livelihoods, such as agriculture, for example? What research can you refer me to on that question? What research are you conducting on that question?

4) Why do you refuse to call for further research on the current economic well-being of miners? Surely you must want to know what is happening to the very sort of people your organization exists to defend. Do you think this question is either irrelevant or trivial?

5) When did you become aware of local and international voices warning that Dodd-Frank 1502 would have deleterious consequences for the local populations? What research did you conduct to examine the validity of that concern?

6) What consultations did you undertake with local actors in the Kivus before deciding to champion Dodd-Frank? Please give me as many of the names of the Congolese civil society leaders you spoke to as you can. Along those lines, did you speak specifically to researchers at the Pole Institute, OGP, or BEST? What did they tell you?

7) Did you anticipate the law would result in a decline in mineral exports? If so, what social and economic impact did you think such a decline would have on local populations?

8) Did you undertake any prospective economic/social impact assessment before supporting the law? If so, what were your findings? If not, why not? In retrospect, don’t you think it advisable to determine the likely impact of your advocacy campaign on local people before engaging in one?

9) What measures did you call for to support the people whose livelihoods would be undermined by the passage of Dodd Frank? Did you insist that these measures be put in place prior to or simultaneously with the passage of Dodd Frank?

10) Do you believe that the current economic conditions of local miners caused by Dodd-Frank demand any sort of exigent response from US policymakers? If so, what are you doing to ensure that one is forthcoming?

Finally, here's one extra question, in which I try to probe into whether there's any way to rectify the damage done:

11) Were companies to begin to accept minerals from eastern Congo now, without having first put in place adequate mechanisms to screen out minerals that profit warlords or rogue army units, would that elicit any protest from you?

Here is an exchange of emails I had with Corinna Gilfillan, of Global Witness, followed by a similar exchange from Enough. In both cases, my queries elicited standard boilerplate about the conflict mineral campaign that at no point substantively addressed the questions I had actually posed. When I persisted in asking for on-point responses, I was met with silence or with accusations that the questions themselves were biased and unworthy of a serious response. Needless, to say, I am entirely comfortable letting you decide who is being intellectually dishonest: The person posing these questions, or the ones refusing to answer them.

From: Corinna Gilfillan
To: David Aronson
Sent: Wednesday, December 21, 2011 4:17 PM
Subject: RE: A few questions

Dear David,

Below is a response to the issues you have raised in your emails.

Global Witness has worked on various aspects of natural resource management in
Democratic Republic of Congo since 2002, including those concerning
forests, diamonds and industrial-scale mining, as well as the trade in
conflict minerals. Since giving renewed attention to the conflict
minerals issue from 2008 onwards, we have considered the impacts of
action to demilitarise the minerals trade and also the impacts of
arguing for maintenance of the status quo or ignoring the situation
altogether. We have also considered the consequences of overlooking a
rare period of international interest in a region and an issue that had
been neglected for several years.

The approach we have taken has been informed by our experience of
working in DRC and other countries, and our discussions with
organisations (including those you mention and many others) in Congo and
also internationally. Our view has been and remains that ending the
control of the minerals trade by armed groups - state and non-state - is
a crucial step towards bringing stability and development to the east of
DRC. This is in line with the views of the UN Security Council,
governments in the region and many Congolese civil society

Bringing about this change requires action by the Congolese government
and by companies that use these materials. Global Witness has argued that the key
steps the Congolese authorities need to take are ending the illegal
involvement of their own armed forces in the minerals trade and holding
accountable those that have committed serious human rights abuses or
other crimes. We have engaged not only the Congolese government, but
also international donors to Congo on this need to end the predations of
the FARDC on the civilian population in and around mining areas.

At the same time, we have advocated for companies to carry out due
diligence on their supply chains to the standards that were developed by
the OECD and UN Group of Experts with input from NGOs, industry and
governments. Our view is that these supply chain controls should be
made a legal requirement in countries that trade or use the minerals concerned in order to ensure that companies implement them. We are
urging the SEC to take this step in their development of regulations to
accompany Dodd Frank 1502 and align US legislation with existing
international standards.

Global Witness supports the introduction of Dodd Frank 1502, however we do not
endorse either the presidential mining ban which precipitated the slump
in Kivus minerals trade or the minerals purchasing policy of leading
electronics industry bodies that came into effect in April. We have
argued for the establishment of trade in conflict-free minerals from
demilitarised areas of eastern Congo because we regard this as crucial
to peace and development in the region. Through this year, we have held
a number of discussions with companies about how this can be done.

In recent weeks we have approached a number of leading companies and
industry bodies that have significant influence over the minerals supply
chain to ask them whether they would buy more minerals from Congo during
a delay or a phase-in of the law. None have given any assurance that
they would do this. Some have told us that rapid publication of the
rules by the SEC would remove uncertainties about the measures they are
required to take and thus make it easier for them to purchase Congolese

Based on the information we have, we believe that the most effective way
of improving economic conditions in the Kivus mining sector is for the
regulations accompanying the law to be announced as soon as possible.
This can focus the attention of businesses and policymakers alike on how
to establish trade in conflict-free minerals from the Kivus at the
earliest opportunity.

Corinna Gilfillan, Head of U.S. Office, Global Witness

From: David Aronson
To: Corinna Gilfillan
Sent: Wednesday, December 21, 2011 4:30 PM
Subject: Re: A few questions

Thank you very much for this Corinna.
I'm afraid I'm not seeing clearly where you respond to the specific questions I asked.
If the responses to the specific questions I asked are in fact contained in your statement, could you perhaps cut and paste the relevant portion below each of the questions?
That way I'll have a clearer understanding of how, specifically, you've answered them.
Thank you,

From: David Aronson
Sent: Thursday, January 05, 2012 3:59 PM
To: Corinna Gilfillan
Subject: Re: A few questions

Hi Corinna,
I hope you had a fine holiday season.
I'm hoping that I'll be hearing from you soon. I do look forward to having a chance to review your responses to the actual questions I asked.
Many thanks,

Several further inquiries yielded no on-point responses.

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