Conflict minerals and Kony2012

Everyone who cares about African development has surely heard both sides of the Kony2012 debate by now, and frankly the sight of another #stopkony hashtag is enough to make me close my browser tab at this point.  Thus, this is not a post about Kony2012!  It is, however, a post about an analogous phenomenon: the way in which the Enough Project used an oversimplified and inaccurate narrative about the conflict in eastern Congo to “raise awareness” in the West, and translated that awareness into  harmful policy on the ground.  Laura Seay recently wrote an excellent report [PDF] on this topic for the Center for Global Development.  It’s a timely reminder that this type of poorly informed Western activism can have very real consequences for ordinary Africans.

The central problem with Enough’s narrative about conflict minerals is this: whilst rebel groups in the eastern DRC were profiting from mineral sales prior to the September 2010 ban on exports, minerals certainly weren’t causing the ongoing conflict, and they weren’t the rebels’ only source of funding.  Cutting off one source of funds has done nothing to resolve many rebels’ underlying grievances about land use and citizenship, or to fill in the great vacuum of state authority in the Kivus which is so conducive to armed violence.  Furthermore, most rebel groups have access to funds from other activities, including logging, agriculture, and informal taxation of local populations.  (If anything, they’ve probably increased their levels of extortion from Congolese citizens since the mineral export ban in an effort to compensate for revenue shortfalls.)  Whilst mineral exports were one of the factors perpetuating the conflict, the belief that they were its linchpin is clearly inaccurate. Effectively banning mineral purchases from the DRC has thrown hundreds of thousands of miners out of work, with few prospects for alternative employment, for the sake of a policy that has done little to reduce levels of violence in the region.

Interestingly, mineral exports may have actually facilitated the event that did significantly reduce the frequency of violence in the Kivus: the January 2009 arrest of Laurent Nkunda, leader of the CNDP militia and a key political actor driving the conflict in eastern DRC.  Laura notes that President Kabila’s seemingly inexplicable decision to ban mineral exports (an activity from which many top Congolese politicians profit) ahead of the passage of the Dodd-Frank Act was likely driven by two factors: a desire to convince eastern voters that he was paying attention to the region’s problems, and an interest in consolidating FARDC control over mines to ensure Rwanda’s continued access to minerals.  This latter consideration appears to be a key element maintaining the continued cooperation between the DRC and Rwanda.  This same detente, of course, led to Nkunda’s arrest.

Laura also makes several other points about the political economy of Congolese mineral exports which I hadn’t heard before.

  • The much-cited figure about how the DRC has 80% of the world’s coltan supplies is likely inaccurate; the real statistic is probably less than 10%.  However, mining revenues (from all minerals) still play an outsize role in the country’s economic life.  They “[account] for 80% of the exports, 72% of the national budget and 28% of GDP according to the latest available statistics.”
  • “If minerals cause or drive conflict in a failed state, then we would expect to see most, if not all, of the Congolese mineral trade to be militarized and/or the object of competition between armed groups. This is far from true, however. The mines of Kasai and central Katanga are completely free of violence, as are many mines in the heart of the conflict regions in North and South Kivu and Ituri.”

It’s a report that’s well worth reading, for a contextualized take on the conflict minerals narrative as well as a pointed reminder of the dangers of misguided Western activism.

6 thoughts on “Conflict minerals and Kony2012

  1. Rachel, thanks for your kind words and for your careful reading of my paper. I’m working now to secure funding to do field surveys on the effects of this narrative in the Kivus and hope we can continue to have a productive, evidence-based discussion on the best way to move forward.

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  2. …and I’m foreshadowing my future posts here, but I’ll add this anyway: the most important similarity between the Kony narrative and the Congo conflict minerals narrative is that both proposed policy solutions that were already well-argued and well-supported, but they *rushed* the solutions to the point that they backfired.

    In the Congo case, a lot of people agreed that transparency in the conflict minerals trade would be a good thing, BUT it would take time — a couple years maybe. Then the Congolese government and the tech industries felt pressured by Western advocates, so they bit down way too hard, way too early, on an export ban (the government) and an embargo (the tech industry) respectively. Thus badvocacy poisoned a perfectly viable, and even popular, policy proposal.

    In the Kony 2012 case, a lot of people likewise agree that the U.S. military should train, equip, and advise the regional militaries. But the Kony2012 campaign is very explicit about demanding Kony’s arrest THIS YEAR — even though the paper they point to as the “best researched paper supporting the policy position of Kony 2012” doesn’t actually state that this is a good idea. The risk is that some regional military, or perhaps even the U.S. military, might bite down too hard, too early, and repeat earlier military mistakes by missing Kony and provoking LRA reprisals. Thus badvocacy might poison, right next door to the Congo, yet another perfectly viable, and even popular, policy proposal.

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    1. Hey Jacob – I think you’re totally right about how rushing to implement reasonable policies can backfire badly, and that’s a point I haven’t really seen made elsewhere about Kony2012. (Laura also made the same point about minerals in her CGD report, but I didn’t focus on it in my blog post because I felt like that aspect of the article had been covered elsewhere.) I’m looking forward to reading your blog post!

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  3. Thank you so, so much for bringing up that report. It’s so relevant that frankly I’m sort of surprised I haven’t seen anybody do so already.

    Right now I’m working on a blog post that states the risks posed by Kony2012’s narrative very explicitly, in terms of a specific set of the worst possible outcomes of the campaign. To be fair, on Monday I published a post describing the *best* possible outcomes of the campaign. After that I plan to publish a post about what I actually do expect will happen (spoiler alert: it’s somewhere in between the best and worst case scenarios, but that doesn’t excuse the faults of the campaign). I’ve been planning to use the conflict minerals story as a cautionary tale in that final post.

    Laura (among others) did something similar for the conflict minerals wwwaaayyyy before the events described in her paper actually came to be, which was really powerful, even if she (and they) were Cassandras. Instead of just generally describing the characteristics of badvocacy (oversimplified narrative, focus on celebrities, focus on the advocates themselves, etc.), I think it’s important to explicitly describe the consequences down the line.

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