Eastern Congo: conflict, minerals and political activists

There’s been a good debate on conflict minerals activism today. The debate revolves around the recent US legislation that requires greater due diligence in supply chains of minerals coming from eastern Congo. This legislation was pushed by advocacy groups like the Enough Project. Critics say that the advocacy framing over-simplified the conflict in eastern Congo, presenting the minerals trade as the only driver of violence and suggesting that the legislation would end the fighting.

Here’s the Cliff Notes version of the debate, to bring you up to speed. First, the points of agreement:

  1. The legislation won’t stop the conflict in eastern Congo.
  2. The legislation will have some impact on the finances of violent groups there.
  3. The simplistic narrative with which the legislation was pushed could create a “problem solved” attitude among policymakers that could hurt other efforts to address the violence.

Now for the fun part — the disagreements:

  • Turns out, the Enough Project actually has a detailed set of policies for addressing the conflict posted on their website. Those policies don’t make it into the narrative they tell for advocacy purposes.
  • Laura Seay at Texas in Africa comes down hard on the legislation and the conflict minerals movement, arguing that the focus on minerals distracts from other drivers of the conflict, such as land rights, citizenship rights, and lack of state capacity. She says that any impact the legislation has on the finances of violent groups will be small, and that it won’t impact their capacity or motivation for violence. She explained why in today’s post.
  • On the other side, Jason Stearns at Congo Siasa argues that the legislation is a good thing even if it won’t comprehensively solve the conflict, because minerals play an important role.
  • Chris Blattman (who confesses to being a non-expert on the Congo, but knows about conflict and is an all-around smart guy) weighs the evidence and tentatively sides with Seay.
  • That’s when I joined the fray. In a response to Blattman’s post earlier today, I defended the Enough Project on the grounds that advocacy groups have to push simplistic narratives or they won’t get anywhere. Nuance isn’t part of their job.
  • That earned me a spot in Blattman’s follow-up post, which prompted me to revise and extend my remarks.

If I can attempt to summarize and pass my own judgment, the open question is the balance between two factors. We’re trying to assess the net between:

  1. How much good will be done by the legislation: Stearns says it will do a little good. Seay says it will do none. I don’t find Seay’s arguments convincing; see my comment on her post today for more. However, I should point out that she knows eastern Congo and I don’t. Then again, Stearns knows eastern Congo too. Seay has dubbed this “Minerals Week” and promises more posts. Be sure to follow along here. I hope Stearns will bring us more as well.
  2. How much harm has been done by the simplistic narrative used to pass it: Seay and Blattman say it’s done a lot of harm. I say: who knows, and how would we know? Advocacy groups are in a tough spot when evaluating the broader impact of the framing they use. It’s hard enough to evaluate the impact of a given frame on the issue at hand, let alone its impact down the line. They made a call based on the politics of the moment, and they did it with more knowledge of the political landscape than I have, so I don’t have much evidence for doubting their call.

And that’s where the debate stands at the moment. I’m sure there will be more coming in the next few days. Stay tuned…

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