24 January 2012

Feeling Conflicted

By John Bowman

On October 4, 2011 the Duke Chronicle published an article addressed to Coach K, otherwise known as Mike Krzyzewski, Duke’s men’s basketball coach and the university’s best claim to fame. The article, penned by two well-respected Duke students, vented frustration over the university’s refusal to let the Enough Project advocate and Entourage star Emmanuelle Chriqui judge a dunk contest in Cameron indoor stadium as part of “Countdown to Craziness,” the first Duke basketball event of the year. 

Chriqui’s appearance was to be the highlight of an event to showcase the efforts of Duke students to implement the Enough Project’s Conflict-Free Campus Initiative. The initiative seeks to scale down the investments of universities in companies with ties to “conflict minerals,” minerals mined in the Congo that are valued for their use in electronic devices, so named because of claims that they are fueling the current violence in the Congo. 

The article’s primary frustration is that the decision to exclude Chriqui seemed financially motivated. Many of Duke’s donors are being targeted by the Enough Project for using Conflict Minerals in their products, donors who might balk were Duke to feature an organization that all but accuses them of funding mass murder so publicly.

The article was hugely popular. Hundreds of students posted the article to their Facebook pages and hundred more “liked” it or commented to show their support. I followed suit, outraged at the apparent injustice and underhandedness of Duke’s actions. After all, the issue seemed so simple: because I think the murder and rape of civilian women is intolerable and because electronics manufacturers finance the rape and murder of women in the Congo, I should use my purchasing power to support products that don’t fund the violence in the Congo in order to starve those carrying out the murders of funds. 

It seemed like a simple solution to a pressing moral problem. In fact, the article piqued my interest so much that I decided to pursue a research project in one of my classes on the conflict minerals and their role in the Congolese conflict. But my project proved difficult. Few sources on the conflict in the Congo mentioned conflict minerals and those that did downplayed their role in the conflict. Instead, a confluence of political and ethnic factors dominated the books and articles that I read. 

So what began as an inquiry into the role of conflict minerals the Congolese conflict became an exploration of their role in American discourse on the Congo. I wondered why talk of conflict minerals dominated the discussion if the minerals themselves did not dominate the conflict. If political ambitions and ethnic tensions played an equally large role in the Congolese conflict, why were they not included in its videos and advertisements? The answers I found were frustrating and disappointing.

The Enough Project succeeds in garnering such widespread support because the strife in the Congo is unequivocally branded morally intolerable and unjust, as opposed to other international conflicts, in which Americans can identify political motivations and implications. 

Conceptions of peace in politically sensitive regions like the Middle East run a broad gamut. For example, some view peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the creation of a Palestinian state while others see it as the complete eradication of Palestine. Any organization lobbying for peace in Israel-Palestine would face questions about its political agenda, and yet the media ignores the limits of Enough Project’s advocacy for peace in the Congo, instead lauding it as courageously humanitarian. 

Even the name of the Raise Hope for Congo campaign glosses over the Enough Project’s specific objectives in the Congo; the Enough Project’s zeal to meaningfully “raise hope for Congo” substitutes a generic and nebulous desire to alter the status quo for a concrete goal and a clear means to achieve that goal.

By painting the DRC as a pit of senseless violence, sadistic rape and human rights abuse, the Enough Project strips the Congo of political viability. The Enough Project thus distills the Congolese conflict so as to cast it purely from the perspective of human rights and humanitarianism. Such a characterization of the conflict casts the Enough Project’s cause as sacrosanct—few Americans would not wish to save helpless women and children from rape and death.

The implications of the Enough Project’s oversimplified characterization of the conflict are far-reaching and potentially devastating. The Enough Project seems all too willing to ignore by failing to acknowledge the political and ethnic intricacies of the conflict in its promotional material (Mamdani 2009). One example of such a misunderstanding of appropriate policy mechanisms is the Enough Project’s recent backing of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform act, which was created to increase the accountability of electronics companies so as to discourage them from obtaining minerals tainted by the Congolese conflict. 

Because the Enough Project “succeeded in framing the debate as a contest between [itself] and greedy corporate interests,” it marginalized the economic needs of the Congolese civilians that it purported to be defending (Aronsen 2011).The bill’s passage resulted in a steep drawdown in the presence of American electronics companies in Congo and an equally steep decline in the livelihoods of local miners uninvolved in the conflict who were stripped of a reliable source of income.

I do not intend to cast aspersions on the Enough Project’s aims or motivations. Much of the Enough Project’s work brings valuable American attention to an issue that might otherwise remain ignored. Despite the fact that some experts have dubbed it the deadliest conflict since World War II, the conflict in the Congo has remained largely untouched by the mainstream media. Though awareness does not constitute meaningful change, it certainly begins to muster the political will necessary for systemic reform. The Enough Project itself recognizes that “there’s no magic-bullet solution to peace in Congo,” as noted by Enough Project associate David Sullivan, but it continues to vaunt itself as the broker of such a remedy (Sullivan in Kristof 2011). 

The Enough Project not only draws American attention to the Congo with its promotional materials, but also attempts to educate consumers about conflict minerals, providing them with a spurious sense of information. While these materials are not entirely inaccurate, theirs is a characterization of the conflict fraught with an imprecision that denies Africa substance and complexity. The videos convey an American ascendency over Africa, characterizing conflicts in Africa simplistic and caused by American consumerism, while simultaneously imploring Americans to sacrifice a small piece of their First World privileges to help the innocent victims of the Congo. 

Though this portrayal does not necessarily paint Africa as inferior, it nevertheless fuels an American sense of entitlement and fosters a modern-day “white man’s burden” that it expects American consumers to shoulder. This moralizing and guilt mongering doubtlessly proves valuable for both consciousness-raising and fund-raising, for what it lacks in exactitude, it compensates for with an ability to rouse the viewer to action while failing to relate a comprehensive understanding of the conflict.

In order for a comprehensive solution that truly alleviates the violence in the Congo to be designed and implemented, meaningful discourse is necessary, discourse that the panacea-peddling of the Enough Project precludes. In order to truly raise hope, and not merely hype, the Enough Project should acknowledge the complexity of the Congolese conflict to allow for broader and more meaningful dialogue on how to understand the Congolese conflict and how to prevent it from claiming more lives.

Works Cited
Aronson, David. 2011. “How Congress devastated Congo,” The New York Times, August 7. http://www.nytimes.com/.
Kristof, Nicholas. 2010. “Death by Gadget,” The New York Times, June 26. http://www.nytimes.com/.
Mamdani, Mahmood. 2009. Saviors and Survivors. New York: Pantheon Books.

Born and raised in Charlotte, North Carolina, John Bowman is a Robertson Scholar at Duke University. Yet to declare a major, John hopes to chart a course of study that will allow him to explore the ethics, economics and environmental considerations of international development. He is particularly interested in how sustainable development in the Global South can address both humanitarian and environmental needs. You can contact John directly at jtb27@duke.edu.