16 May 2012

Obscuring the Conflict Mineral Debate With Simple Stories

Update: A response to this post from John Bagwell in the Enough blog is both informative and respectful.

A blog post by Annie Callaway appearing on the Enough Project blog yesterday reviewed May 10  hearing on Dodd-Frank section 1502 by the House Financial Services Subcommittee on International Monetary Policy and Trade. Section 1502 is the part of the bill that addresses the issue of what the Enough Project, Global Witness and others have labeled 'conflict minerals.'

The advocacy organizations successfully lobbied for the inclusion of the provision to ethically source minerals. The SEC is taking a hard look at the section to determine if it causes an undue burden on the mining industry. The mining industry says it will cause a steep financial burden on the industry to implement the regulations in 1502.

The Enough blog post addresses these concerns, saying
The argument that the cost of implementation is too high for businesses has already been challenged by companies such as Motorola and Intel who are making great strides in developing responsible supply chains using minerals sourced from Congo. As Representative Jim McDermott (D-WA) noted during the hearing, “Industry has already moved to clarify this issue [of conflict minerals] because they realize the justice in it.”
As the post progresses, it sets up a pair of opposing forces. One on side are the advocates for the bill who are trying to stem the violence in the eastern DRC. On the other side are industry giants and lobbyists who care only about the bottom line. Or, as the title of the post says, it is "Profits vs. People."

Unfortunately, that obscures some of the legitimate concerns about 1502. Academic Laura Seay and activist Mvemba Dizolele also testified during the hearing. The Enough blog posts puts them into the 'profits' side of the argument saying that they
sided with House Tea Party Caucus member and Chairman of the Subcommittee Rep. Gary Miller (R-CA), as well as with industry lobby groups such as the National Association of Manufacturers by testifying against 1502.
Such a connection is unfair to Dizolele and Seay. By taking a stance that someone is either on one side or the other, the Enough Project is dismissing genuine concerns about the implementation of 1502. From what I have gathered, there is not much of a question that there are members of the mining industry who are far more concerned with maintaining their bottom line at the cost of artisinal miners and the safety of people in the DRC.

Such an abhorrent attitude rightly should be condemned. However, suggesting that people who believe that 1502 is an inadequate bill that may cause more harm than good are more concerned with mining profits that the Congolese is also wrong.

The post attempts to set Congolese expert Jason Stearns in direct opposition with Seay and Dizolele who have raised concerns in regards to the impact the legislation will have on the employment status of the artisinal miners.

It quotes a post by Stearns from this past August where he argues why he supports 1502. Stearns estimates that the numbers of jobs lost will be in the tens of thousands not the estimated hundreds of thousands that David Aronson claimed in his NYT article. One might get the impression that Stearns and Seay are in direct opposition, but just a bit of scrolling down the post reveals a discussion between the two that shows that they are largely in agreement. Stearns writes:
I fully agree with David that these action have caused a lot of pain for local mining communities. That's awful and the US & Congolese government should have thought of that. But what do you think should have happened? I know you want SSR (as do I) and the governance reform. But we have been yelling and shouting about that for at least 5+ years now. For all its flaws, the Dodd-Frank approach has shifted incentives for local politicians and businessmen so that institutional reform and demilitarization makes economic sense for them.
Seay responds saying:
I think it would have made a lot more sense for the approach to have started at the level of trying to legitimize the mines through pressure on Kabila rather than trying to reduce demand for Congolese minerals. That's admittedly an extremely complicated way to do it (especially on the question of demilitarizing the militarized mines), but it would have avoided the livelihoods problems we're seeing now, and would not have interrupted operations at non-conflict mines.
The difference of opinion about the legislation between Stearns is not very wide. Further, Seay's comments make it clear that her goals are exactly the same as that of Stearns, the Enough Project and other advocates who want to see the end of the long conflict in the eastern DRC.

It is vital that everything possible is done to get this right. The debate over 1502 is as complex and multi-faceted as the issue itself. Pure and impure interests do exist, but casting the discussion as merely people vs. profits is a rhetorical way to prevent dissent by individuals and groups that are concerned and motivated by the people side of the equation.

The Enough post ends with a video of Maxine Waters from the hearing who issues a rambling 5 minute statement in support of 1502. What stands out in her argument is the idea that there is a moral imperative to act, yet less of a concern about the impact of such actions. I have written too many times that doing something is not sufficient. Doing something can lead to harmful actions.

Certainly something needs to be done in order to alleviate the conflict in the eastern DRC. The solutions put into action should minimize damage and affect positive change. The actions of the international community have in some part contributed to the current state of the region. Further action can make it better or worse to varying extents. The least we can do is ensure that proposed actions do not cause harm.