Monday, March 26, 2012

Where Now with DF-1502 and the #ConflictMinerals Campaign?

A conference on conflict minerals at the Center for Global Development last week revealed that the gulf between advocates and critics of DF-1502 remains as wide as ever. The speakers were Corinna Gilfillan of Global Witness,  Mvemba Dizolele of Stanford, Laura Seay of Morehouse, and Enough's Sasha Lezhnev. To my mind, the most revealing statement of the day came from Corinna, who at one point plaintively asked the room, "Can anyone honestly say that having people with guns running around in mining communities is a good thing?"

I won't attempt to summarize the meeting, mostly because I was in and out for chunks of it. I'll cover a couple of the highlights in a bit, but let me go straight to the bottom line: With all props to CGD for sponsoring this debate, I don't think that discussions about DF-1502 are particularly relevant any more.

Let me explain. Western-oriented firms more or less stopped sourcing minerals from eastern Congo in April 2011. That's when they instructed the two or three dozen smelters of the world that turn the mineral ore into tin and tantalum to stop accepting shipments from the region. The firms can't yet officially certify that their products don't contain Congolese minerals because they haven't got the policing mechanisms in place to prove it. The shouting match you are hearing right now between them and the advocates is over just how much policing they should be required to do. But the fact that companies don't want to spend money proving a negative doesn't mean that they are surreptitiously doing it. They're not. On the contrary, companies are getting all the minerals they need from safe-harbor countries such as Australia and Brazil. And nothing--absolutely nothing--is going to induce them to go back into eastern Congo any time soon. Quite apart from what the law says, the companies are immensely worried about their public image. It will be years before they're willing to turn the Congo spigot back on. [1]

So, yes, we can debate what impact the law has had on local communities; we can argue about whether civil society groups were properly consulted; we can have our Talmudic discussions about whether companies need to file rather than furnish their reports or whether mining can properly be said to be a form of manufacturing. But nothing that we decide regarding these questions is going to make any appreciable difference to what is happening on the ground in eastern Congo--either for the better or the worse.We have taken ourselves out of the game, and it shouldn't be a surprise to anyone that we are no longer able to affect the outcome.

Which is a shame. Because, as I've argued at length elsewhere, there was at one time a realistic alternative to DF-1502. We could have focused first on establishing mechanisms on the ground capable of distinguishing clean from dirty minerals, and used those mechanisms to delegitimize and slowly push to the perimeter the involvement of armed groups. How much that would have helped end the wars I don't know. But it certainly wouldn't have made things worse, which is exactly what DF-1502 has done.

With that bit of bellyaching out of the way, let me make a few random observations:

First, it seems clear to me that if we'd had the debate we are having now about DF-1502 while the bill was still under discussion, it would never have passed out of committee. The idea that wiping out one of eastern Congo's only viable economic sectors on some highly questionable theory that it might help end the wars there would have been laughed out of the room. Congress just flat-out failed to do its due diligence here, which is why the responsibility for this mess belongs far more to them than the advocates.

Second, I sort of regret that public policy students aren't required to take more English classes. They might learn a little about the seductions of rhetoric. For example, if I had a dime for every time I heard from an advocate that DF-1502 was "never meant to be a panacea," I'd buy a coffee at Starbucks. If I had a second dime for every time I was told that the legislation was never meant to be more than "one piece of the puzzle," I'd make it a grande. And if I had a third dime for every time an advocate justified DF-1502 by explaining that the situation was so dire that something needed to be done--well, in that case, I'd ditch the coffee and buy a bottle of tequila.

The problem with saying that a policy was never meant to be a panacea is that it implies that the policy's critics are holding it to an impossible standard. It shifts the focus away from the policy's merits and towards its critics' (clearly unreasonable) demands. As a rhetorical device,  it can get you out of nearly any fix. [2]

In reality, of course, no one is condemning DF-1502 as a failure because it hasn't brought about an immediate and complete cessation to the violence in eastern Congo. What we're saying, to continue with the medical analogy, is that DF-1502 is not even the right drug, and that it's having some extreme adverse effects for the patient. (We're also saying that the prescriber's diagnosis is wrong and that the side-effects were foreseeable, but you've heard this already.)

 Third, I could be wrong, but the advocates looked awfully glum to me. It can't be fun to be constantly put on the defensive. The proliferation and prestige of their critics must be starting to drag them down. Look at the list: The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Economist, African Affairs, the Center for Global Development, the Harvard Business and Law Review, the Open Society Institute. Not to mention the innumerable Congolese who have criticized their efforts as uninformed and harmful. [3]

I suppose that Global Witness and Enough are in the end answerable to no one but their funders, and that as long as they keep them happy don't have to worry about their critics. But they didn't get into this business to cause Africans harm, and no one likes to be told that they've made a hash of things, and cognitive dissonance is stressful even for the most well-grounded among us. The campaign must have been fun for a while: Advocates had the public galvanized and the biggest multinationals in the world dancing to their beat. I doubt they're enjoying themselves so much anymore. [4]

Fourth, I was grateful to Laura for having the courage to say what I have often thought but not quite said: that the tenor of the debate has come to resemble a political campaign more than a search for knowledge. [5] I would add one wrinkle to that. It seems to me that the debate about DF-1502's merits is being fought at two very different levels. One is at the level of the broader, interested public, the sort of folks who watched Kony2012 without irony. It's easy to make fun of this group: their knowledge is shallow, their attention fleeting, their willingness to let celebrities guide their thinking just a little ludicrous. But the truth is that if we are ever going to have a foreign policy that reflects the basic underlying decency of most ordinary Americans, these are the people we need to reach.

At this level, critics like Laura and me are losing the debate--and not just losing it, but being crushed. The conflict minerals story qua story is instinctively appealing. It implicates us [6] directly in the suffering of eastern Congo. It resonates with those bits and pieces of knowledge we have about Africa. It confirms everything Hollywood has ever taught us about multi-national companies, from BuyNLarge to Stark Enterprises.  It reminds us of the movie Blood Diamonds and that handsome Leonard De Caprio fellow. Not least, it gives us something to do. No wonder Corinna could ask, without any apparent self-consciousness, "Can anyone honestly say that having people with guns running around in mining communities is a good thing?"

We critics, on the other hand, have our work cut out for us. We have no ready narratives, no analogies, no hopeful yet simple solutions to offer. All we can say is, "Well, it's complicated." Let me offer a personal anecdote, by way of explaining how hard our task is. Sometimes, as I start to explain the conflict minerals debate to friends and family, they naturally assume I am on the advocates' side. I have yet to find a way of explaining to them why I am not without boring them.

There is, however, another level to the debate, one by and among that relatively small number of people with some depth of knowledge and experience in Africa. These people work in universities and think tanks and development organizations and foundations. They may have done detailed ethnographic and economic studies of city or village life. They may have run AIDS programs or micro-credit associations or agricultural cooperatives. They  know enough about Africa, in other words, that they are able to think about the issue on its own terms, and without recourse to those free-floating ideas that the minerals narrative draws on. And these people, almost to a person, get it.

The contest over the wisdom of DF-1502 will no doubt continue for a long time, but it will be a largely academic question. That is, it will have consequences for how we think about DF-1502, but not for what happens on the ground. So the question now is what, if anything, we can do that might make a practical difference. I have been urging that a team of researchers be dispatched to the region to find out how the miners are faring and to determine what emergency and remedial help they need. It has been nearly a year since we stopped buying from eastern Congo and it is scandalous that we still have no good answers to these questions--and that we haven't even bothered to try to find out.

Beyond that, I think we have to think long and hard about how to institutionalize impact assessments and incorporate local voices into our decisions about how and when to intervene abroad. Because this, finally, is what astonishes me the most about the conflict minerals campaign: the advocates' disregard for the warnings that came from credible local civil society leaders that the campaign could cause their communities enormous unintended harm. Daniel Solomon has a discussion about the need for human rights impact assessments over at his blog SecuringRights. Some one or other of DC's think tanks needs to pick up this idea and run with it.


[1] To be sure, a small amount of smuggled minerals continues to leak via neighboring countries into the Western supply chain. It's possible we might find ways to tamp that down. It's also true that various companies are launching small-scale initiatives here and (mostly) there to encourage the re-establishment of mineral exports from the region. The PPA is shuffling along as well, or so I hear. But this is marginal, small-bore stuff, and I just don't see any of it affecting what happens on the ground in eastern Congo.

[2]  You can make a game out of this. Fill in the blank: "No one ever said that . . .  was going to be a panacea." Here are a few to get started:

 trading Babe Ruth to the Yankees
accepting the Trojan's gift
invading Russia in the middle of winter

The other devices are equally dodgy. Defending a policy by claiming that it is merely "part of the solution" deflects questions about the quality of that part. By that reasoning, you could claim that Twinkies are part of a nutritious breakfast, provided the breakfast also include a fruit smoothie and an egg-white spinach omelet. And no intensity of need justifies a policy that only makes things worse--for the same reason that no one ever gets so sick these days that people believe that bleeding him is a proper response.

[3] It's true that they've lined up a number of big-name endorsements. But getting sister-groups to sign your petition doesn't really counter criticism from research and journalistic organizations that have done their own independent investigations on the subject.

[4] In their literature, at least, GW and Enough still like to pretend that they are bravely facing down the Chamber of Commerce and its band of one-eyed ogres. But I don't think that even they believe it anymore. Compare DF-1502's checkered record to the near-universal support DF-1504 has received. That's a provision whose only critics really all are from industry. The contrast is edifying.

[5] I'm writing a whole other posting about this.

[6] And when I say we or us, I mean "we" or "us".

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