had enough

Oh, my word.

I heard that Keith Olbermann sang "Plastic Jesus" on Countdown last night, so I clicked over to YouTube. And this is what I saw.

Sweet land. How on earth does having the kids make YouTube videos about "the link between our cell phones and the violence in Congo" in hopes of winning a trip to Los Angeles help anyone?

I've already written about my view that the war in Congo is not primarily a resource war, but is rather a complex conflict that at this point is driven primarily by longstanding conflicts over land tenure rights and citizenship issues. While access to the minerals is one problem, it is but one among many, and it is certainly not the engine driving violence there.

Clearly the folks at Enough disagree with my assessment. That's fine. We all recognize that the situation in Congo is multifacted and requires a response on multiple levels.

What's not fine, however, is oversimplifying the nature of the situation to advocates, as this campaign is now doing. The act of buying a cell phone does not cause war in the Congo, and it's downright misleading to suggest otherwise. Why? Because it implies that if we could just stop the conflict mineral trade, the situation would markedly improve.

That could not be further from the truth. Ending the conflict mineral trade will do nothing to address the complete breakdown in governance that makes it possible for armed militias to terrorize local populations. Ending the conflict mineral trade will not end the culture of corruption and debrouillez-vous that defines Congolese life from top to bottom. Nor will it rebuild the justice system, reform the security sector, or rebuild the border security regime. Ending the conflict mineral trade will not settle any questions regarding the citizenship status of Kinyarwanda-speaking Congolese civilians. Nor will it settle the fights over who owns the plantations and smaller plots of land in Masisi.

Most of these problems predate the 1996-2003 wars, which is when the fights to control the mines began. These old issues are not going to go away just because some kid in Peoria makes a spiffy video about coltan.

I respect what Raise Hope for Congo and the Enough Project are trying to do by drawing attention to the Congo conflict. There should be a concerted effort among people of good will to pressure the United States government to take the Congo conflict seriously.

But simplifying a very complex situation by calling it a consumer-driven resource war does a great disservice to those they are trying to help. And I fear it will have very little impact.


  1. Don't get me wrong, I also get EXTREMELY frustrated with the over simplification of issues in central Africa. But unfortunatley when it comes to this area of the world isn't any form of advocacy better than none?

    I would argue that outside of at a policy wonk level, that up until the past several months(during which the resource component has really been emphasized) there had not really existed a larger public advocacy for Congo here in the United States. It seems to me that only now that this larger public advocacy is starting to gain momentum.

    So let me pose this question to you. Do you think this current round of advocacy focusing on the conflict in Congo as a resource driven war is worse than no advocacy at all?

  2. "Do you think this current round of advocacy focusing on the conflict in Congo as a resource driven war is worse than no advocacy at all?"

    Anon, that's a very fair question and one to which I don't have a great answer. On one hand, of course it's good if more people are paying attention, and there's an argument to be made that no one will pay attention unless they feel a personal connection to the conflict.

    But on the other, as many others before me have pointed out, advocacy needs to be intelligent. When you present information that isn't accurately descriptive of the dynamics of the situation, advocacy groups can sometimes do more harm than good (See: Save Darfur, Invisible Children).

    Well-intentioned but off-base advocacy tends to lead to bad policy (and to celebrities traipsing around regions pontificating on issues they don't really understand). If advocacy doesn't help to solve crises and if it does little or nothing to improve the lives of those who are suffering, then, no, I don't think it's better than nothing.

  3. Very well said.

    The whole ENOUGH, IC, Save Darfur, high-profile advocacy groups is interconnected, and thus, it's not surprising to see this from all of them.

    For example: IC and ENOUGH work closely. ENOUGH and Save Darfur have the Prendergast connection, and it really could go on and on.

    It's more of a "cool kids club" that you have to "care" about the issues to join. It's a problem when you "support" a cause because it's the hip thing to do. It leads to unintelligent advocacy, which is one of the greater problems out there.

  4. Like it or not, these kinds of well-meaning advocacy programs often end up being the face of international development in the public eye. The real challenge here is to wait, what? Did you say that Olbermann sang Plastic Jesus last night?

  5. Wonderful post and even better comment. People have asked me the same thing (uneducated advocacy/media attention vs. none at all) regarding northern Uganda and how I feel about Invisible Children. You've articulated my answer better than I could.

  6. One difference between IC and Enough is Enough's level of access to power. They're under the umbrella of Podesta' Center for American Progress, which by all accounts Obama holds in high regard. They have good access to people like Susan Rice who are making the decisions about these issues. I'd argue that means that Enough has a responsibility to get it right.

    (And I know from talking to them that they want to do so. Why their public advocacy campaign is so focused on this one aspect of the issue probably has to do with the fact that it's easy for people to understand, able to attract celebrity attention, and friendly to things like making YouTube videos. Just try making an easy-to-understand, 1-minute clip that explains the real nature of the war there.)

    Andrew, apparently yes. I'm on it.

  7. I agree with you: war in Congo has so many reasons and Coltan is only a little part of it.
    What is clear is that many are ready to put their hands on this country which basically is without government and without rules.
    Congo is rich of land, people, resources, international aid,... Those who are going to prevail in Congo will increase in political and strategic power... China, Rwanda, Usa, France, Uganda, Europe and many other hope to earn something from this situation.

    Focusing only on Coltan is unhelpful but don't you think it would be better to pay attention to EVERY commodity that comes from Congo? I'm talking not only about Coltan which is mainly extracted in different areas of the world (i.e. Australia, Canada and Brasil). Many other mining products are available in DRC such as Cobalt, Uranium, Oil, Diamonds, Gold, Copper, Manganese, Coal... see the map on my blog (http://majority-world.blogspot.com/2009/04/lento-cammino-di-pace-in-kivu.html)
    Above all it is definitely not correct to blame only mobile phones and their users: new generators capacitors (made with Coltan or similar Tantalum based minerals) can be found in laptops, printers, cameras and videocameras, medical devices, defibrillators, radars, power supplies, TVs, implantable devices,... and in a huge number of electronic devices which require high efficiency and low cost.
    Congo Conflict Minerals Act by Senators Brownback, Durbin and Feingold (http://www.brownback.senate.gov/public/press/record.cfm?id=311956) is poor and probably unfeasible (how can you monitor every capacitor produced?) but can bring some results: Congo does need something more than this but it is a little chance to prevent some more disasters.

  8. Whether the illicit commodity trade is a driver of the Congo conflict is, I think, highly debateable. But it is certainly fuelling the conflict. If the commodity trade was to magically stop it seems certain that the current "franchaise-network-forces" operating in the DRC could not sustain operations at their current levels. The self-sustaining beast that is the DRC conflict needs an influx of funds from commodity trade. I do however agree with a part of your statement, that this is but one prerequisite for the current state of the conflict dynamics in north DRC.

    Anyway, what I really wanted to say is that the irony of this campaign reminds me of the old fundraising dinner for the famine victims of Ethiopia. In their eternally misplaced wisdom the organisers of that even decided to call it "Eat for an ethiopian"... priceless :-).

  9. You might be interested in this video by AI