Early Friday evening, the Enough Project's David Sullivan and Laura Heaton posted a response to their critics on the conflict minerals issue. They didn't name or link to the "corner of the blogosphere [that] has been subsumed with posts pointing out the merits and the perceived flaws of the new law," but I think we can safely assume that I'm one of the unnamed troublemakers to whom they are referring.
Sullivan and Heaton's key points as I read them are as follows:
- Enough has not oversimplified the message, and it is inaccurate to say that they've promoted a narrative that suggests that ending the conflict mineral trade will solve the DRC's problems.
- It's virtually impossible for American legislation to effect change in drivers of conflict like land reform or citizenship rights, so it's better to focus on the consumer electronics angle as that might have an effect on outcomes.
- Their views are supported by Congolese civil society and government actors.
- The regulations currently being developed by the SEC will provide a "demand shock" that will eventually unravel the militarized mineral trade.
This is really important, and it's an area in which I'd argue that Enough has misled advocates and policy makers by overstating the importance of Congolese minerals in the global economy, as well as the extent to which supply chain regulation in the DRC is possible given current institutional limitations.
It's been interesting to watch Enough backtrack on the claim that minerals are a key driver of the conflict in recent weeks. Unfortunately for them, much of their advocacy material makes clear that this is exactly the message they sold over the course of the last few years. While the reports have gotten more nuanced over time, the central message that stands out to uninformed observers is still very simple, and very wrong. I've seen what I assume is one of their standard presentations given to a group of college students late last year. Along with pictures of the horrible conditions in the mines and of Congolese victims of violence, the presentation featured a diagram of an iPhone. It showed what parts of it contain which minerals, and left students with the clear impression that they are carrying around Congolese minerals in their pockets, and that this was what drives the conflict in the DRC.
Back in December, Enough's David Sullivan ran a post suggesting that I had constructed a straw man with regards to this issue. I forwarded his post to a knowledgeable friend, who replied, "Have they read their own reports?" Indeed, Enough's own advocacy materials belie that claim. Take, for example, John Prendergast's April 2009 "Can You Hear Congo Now?" piece:
The time has come to expose a sinister reality: Our insatiable demand for electronics products such as cell phones and laptops is helping fuel waves of sexual violence in a place that most of us will never go, affecting people most of us will never meet.Or Prendergast's May 2009 testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations:
But one of the biggest drivers of the conflict—and on in which most Americans are unknowingly but directly involved—has long been clear: competition over the extraordinary natural resource base.Or videos like this.
Anyone encountering these materials without prior knowledge of the situation quickly comes to the conclusion that cell phones cause rape. There's no way around it, and for Enough to claim otherwise is disingenuous at best.The fact that only a small percentage of the minerals used in cell phones actually come from the DRC, that the region is largely at peace now, and that the situation defies easy solutions, if mentioned at all, is typically buried in the group's more complex reports, or brushed aside.
I will say that the advocates have gotten better at mentioning this complexity over time, but the bulk of their materials are still very misleading, and give advocates the impression that this small step will make a big difference in the situation. Also, it's not a good sign when even experts who support your position and whom you cite agree that you've oversimplified the message.
Look, I get it. It's not easy to build up an advocacy platform around such a complicated situation. I recognize that a real explanation of the DRC's problems won't fit nicely onto a t-shirt or a bumper sticker - or even in a blog post. Some simplification is necessary in order to reach a broader audience. I get it. But the problem arises when simplification results in distortion, which is exactly what has happened here.
This is probably why, despite being able to claim support at the national level from the country's Catholic bishops and a civil society organization or two, the conflict minerals platform lacks meaningful support from most CSO's in the Kivus.
Why does it matter if Enough focused the debate too narrowly? Blattman closes his analysis with a key point:
You also have to consider unintended consequences. What if victory on a high-profile, sexy, but ultimately limited issue keeps Congress from acting on the important things? If the price of victory is complacency, it is a price too dear.Bad facts lead to bad policy. My fear is that, as a direct result of Enough's narrowly focused advocacy campaign, Congress will now think it has taken sufficient action to end the conflict in the eastern DRC. That couldn't be further from the truth.
There's also the problem of the likely disillusionment of advocates here. I give Enough a lot of credit for mobilizing grassroots effort around the DRC. But as they've focused on the wrong lever for moving towards peace, what's going to happen to those grassroots actors if and when this legislation doesn't change the situation? Odds are they'll move on to the next sexy advocacy movement, wherever that may be.
Everybody involved in this debate wants the same thing: to end violence in the eastern Congo. I want to believe that Enough's leadership and staff began their campaign with the best of intentions. But by overstating the extent to which American consumers are actually using Congolese conflict minerals - and the extent to which it is actually possible to change the way minerals are traded there - they've given Congress, the Congolese government, and the electronics companies an easy way out. All three groups will come out looking good here, while Congolese government officials will continue to benefit from the mineral trade, electronics companies will source the tiny percentages of Congolese materials they've been using elsewhere, and Congress won't feel obligated to support meaningful security sector reform, help sort out the country's land tenure issues, or significantly fund the hundreds of Congolese civil society organizations that have been working for years to bring about meaningful change in the region.
When it came down to it, Enough decided that the minerals issue made a compelling story that would result in action. The problem is that it's the wrong kind of action. Which, from where I sit, makes it look like an awful waste.