Connecting the Congo, Conflict and Consumers

Image: ENOUGH Project
Image: ENOUGH Project

Given Rwanda’s status as an “aid darling” in the eyes of Western donors (who like to present the country’s social and economic progress since the genocide in 1994 as a triumph of foreign aid), the suspension of aid by several donors in 2012 delivered a strong message. The suspension was a response to UN findings that Rwanda was arming and supporting a violent uprising by rebel group M23 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

In what looks like a positive development, the Congolese army declared victory over M23 on November 5th, 2013; putting an end to a bloody deadlock that it had been engaged in since April 2012. Although the Congolese effort was buoyed by significant support from a UN peacekeeping mission in the country (which had a mandate to use deadly force), the decisive factor in the victory is being attributed to Rwanda’s decision to pull the plug on its support of M23. Maybe international pressure had the desired effect.

But in terms of changing the fortunes of a country where a scramble for resources has become intertwined with ongoing poverty, conflict, and mass rape, is it enough to focus solely on the local and regional actors involved? In other words: are we in the West looking closely enough at our own role in fuelling the conflict?

In theory, the Congo should be a very wealthy country. In addition to its abundant supply of water and fertile soil, it sits on a vast store of valuable minerals, including oil, diamonds, tantalum, tungsten, gold, and the ores that produce tin. The latter four of those minerals are used in electronic devices such as mobile phones and computers that are sold worldwide.

The tragic reality is that the Congo is followed only by Niger at the bottom of the Human Development Index. In a country ravaged by poverty, more than five million people have died as a result of conflict since 1998, and millions of others have been raped. At the same time, militias earn hundreds of millions of dollars each year by smuggling conflict minerals to neighbouring countries, from where they are shipped abroad and smelted.

The implication is clear. Consumers of electronic devices (myself included), the substantial majority of which live in developed economies, are fuelling the conflict in the Congo and financing its perpetrators and the atrocities they carry out.

Producers of electronic devices, such as Apple, claim that they have little control over whether or not conflict minerals are used in their products. They argue that the supply chains are too complex for transparency because of the number of actors involved. Without transparent supply chains, these companies cannot guarantee to consumers that the products they sell are free from conflict minerals.

Is it good enough to say “it’s too complex” and leave it at that? I don’t think so. I find it hard to believe that electronics giants like Apple, who pride themselves on being innovative market leaders, would not be able to respond to market pressure to ensure their products are conflict mineral-free.

It certainly wouldn’t be the first time that consumer pressure resulted in changes in the supply chain policies of large corporations. In the 1990s Nike was forced through pressure from its customers to address the use of child labor in its factories. Earlier this month, Coca-Cola announced that it would cut off any suppliers that do not follow guidelines designed to protect the land rights of rural communities.

While there an obvious need for a coordinated effort to address how we source minerals in the Congo, fortunately some action is being taken. The ENOUGH Project, which has worked extensively on the issue of conflict minerals, argues that through tracing, auditing and certification, companies can ensure that the minerals they source are not coming from mines controlled by armed groups. In addition, the organisation has launched a campaign, Raise Hope for Congo, which aims to build awareness of the role of conflict minerals in the conflict, and to develop policy recommendations for the U.S government. Have a look at the video below for some more information.

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