Searching for Logic in Conflict Minerals Advocacy

While evidence had been mounting for quite some time, Lauren Wolfe’s article in Foreign Policy this week made Dodd-Frank 1502 even harder to defend.  Conflict mineral advocates overestimated the role of minerals in the conflict and the ability to track them, underestimated the costs it would have on the Congolese economy, and made changes too quickly without adequate preparations.  However, their reaction to mounting evidence against Dodd-Frank 1502 has actually been more worrying.  It suggests that conflict mineral advocates did not just misunderstand the conflict in the DRC, but that they have forgotten the proper role of advocacy organizations.

The Enough Project’s response to Lauren Wolfe’s article fails to address many of the arguments against Dodd-Frank 1502 and instead uses selective evidence to support their claims.  While I cannot adequately address all their points, I will describe a few which demonstrate their failure to accept evidence contrary to their claims.  First, Enough supports its claim that Dodd-Frank 1502 is reducing armed groups’ opportunities to benefit from conflict minerals by repeatedly citing statistics of the number of mines verified as conflict-free.  This misses the point.  The ease of smuggling and the frequent movement of armed groups mean that we struggle to know whether minerals that are certified as conflict-free actually are.  The US Commerce Department, which is supposed to enforce the law, confirmed in September that they cannot determine which minerals benefit armed groups.

As evidence for their claims that Dodd-Frank 1502 has reduced violence in the eastern DRC, Enough points to the fact that there is no longer a Rwandan-backed armed group in the region.  However, M23 was the last armed group supported by Rwanda.  They did not try to control mines and many leaders even left mining areas to join the group.  Despite Enough’s claims, M23’s defeat cannot accurately be used to justify Dodd-Frank 1502.  Also, fatalities from conflict have increased slightly since the 2010 passage of the bill and conflict has increased in mining areas, so any claims that Dodd-Frank caused reduced violence are dubious.

Rather than fully accept that Dodd-Frank 1502 unintentionally caused a de facto embargo of Congolese minerals far outweighing the legislation’s benefits, Enough argues that they are encouraging positive investment in the DRC.  Conflict mineral advocates sometimes use the phrase “conflict-free, not Congo-free” to describe their goals.  This approach has become the centerpiece of their conflict minerals strategy but is an extremely weak argument.  Enough expects companies to spend $7.93 billion trying to verify that their supply chains do not contain conflict minerals through a process that the regulatory agency in charge of it has said does not actually determine whether minerals benefited armed groups.  It is not hard to imagine why companies have preferred switching to suppliers from other countries.   Yet rather than accept that conflict mineral advocacy is a huge disincentive for companies to buy minerals that are central to the Congolese economy, Enough insists that they can accurately identify conflict minerals, stop their purchase, and keep companies from leaving the DRC.  While it is a welcome step that they now acknowledge that there must be efforts to help mining communities hurt by the legislation, their proposed livelihood measures are no more than a band-aid.  In any case, this entire strategy of verified supplied chains and support to miners is in an effort to stop the purchase of conflict minerals, which are not the main cause of the conflict.

Why, then, have conflict mineral advocates adopted a hugely unrealistic strategy and maintained that their past actions have succeeded despite large amounts of evidence to the contrary?  I will rule out two possibilities: that they are unintelligent or that they have bad intentions.  Advocacy organizations are typically made up of extremely smart and motivated people and conflict mineral advocates are no exception.  Instead, their misinterpretation of the purpose of their organizations has blinded them to their faults of their approach.  If conflict mineral advocates acknowledged the flaws in their narrative, they would not only have to admit that they were wrong but they would also have to accept that there is not much they can do about the conflict in the DRC.  Advocacy organizations exist to draw attention to problems and encourage action to address them, but sometimes this is not needed.  While it is important that Americans know about the DRC’s situation, there is little that this awareness can do to solve the conflict.  The conflict is far too complex for simple narratives and solutions.  While Western actors can nudge the domestic actors key to peace in the right direction, it is largely out of their control.  Advocacy organizations do not have a way to generate attention, action, and meaningful progress in the DRC.

Conflict mineral advocates have forgotten the true purpose of their organizations.  Attention and legislative action are means, not ends.  DRC advocates struggled to generate awareness and action, and when they found a way to do so they were too attached to it to accept that the awareness and action they achieved did not actually help the DRC.  Advocacy organizations that deal with mass atrocities and genocide needed to make the unpleasant realization that the largest mass atrocity in the world was one where their organizations could have only a very limited impact.  Instead, they advocated for what could create awareness and action without accepting the consequences of what they were advocating for.  I firmly believe that advocacy organizations can make meaningful positive impacts against genocide and mass atrocities but they absolutely must know when they can help and when they become a hindrance.  Conflict mineral advocates forgot this in a conflict where Western advocacy organizations were not particularly needed.  Unfortunately, they have now created a need for themselves: to fix the damage they did.