Assessing Three Statistics in Support of Dodd-Frank 1502

In the debates over conflict minerals and Dodd-Frank 1502, a couple statistics are frequently used to point to Dodd-Frank’s success.  I did some research into these statistics, tracing back citations and looking through reports to assess the significance of these statistics and what they say about the success or failure of Dodd-Frank 1502.  I decided to compile my findings into this blog post, in the hope that it can be a public resource that supports informed debate about conflict minerals.

The three statistics I examine are perhaps the most commonly used statistics used in campaigning supportive of Dodd-Frank 1502.  They are:

  • “Armed groups and the Congolese army are no longer present at two-thirds (67 percent) of tin, tantalum, and tungsten mines surveyed in eastern Congo’s North Kivu, South Kivu, and Maniema provinces.”
  • “As of May 2014, nearly three-quarters (74 percent) of 3T miners were working in mines where no armed group involvement has been reported.”
  • “The Dodd-Frank law and electronics industry audits have created a two-tier market for tin, tantalum, and tungsten (3Ts) from Congo and the region. Minerals that do not go through conflict-free programs now sell for 30 to 60 percent less, thus reducing profits for armed groups trying to sell them.”

To examine these statistics I primarily used three reports: the one in which they originated, the Enough Project’s June 2014 report, “The Impact of Dodd-Frank and Conflict Mineral Reforms on Eastern Congo’s Conflict”; the IPIS report that provided much of the information to the Enough report; and the 2015 UN Group of Experts (GoE) report.  The Enough report relied heavily on the 2014 UN Group of Experts report, and although Enough could not have used the 2015 report as it was released well after the Enough report’s publication, I chose to use the 2015 version due to its more up-to-date information and its extensive focus on armed group revenue.  I supplement these three reports with past research on the subject.  I start by looking at the shift from 3T (tin, tungsten, and tantalum) mining to gold, then assess the three statistics, and finish by discussing a few important points about the conflict mineral trade and what a more complete perspective on the three statistics implies about the success of Dodd-Frank 1502.  Much of the information I rely on is several years old and could now be less applicable, and it is also constrained by the extreme difficulty of conducting research in the eastern DRC, though it should be noted those problems apply to the three statistics as well.

Christoph Vogel has discussed these statistics before, arguing that they are incomplete and not an accurate reflection of the situation in the eastern DRC.  This is primarily true, and much of this blog post discusses why these statistics do little to suggest Dodd-Frank 1502 is working.  Above all, the use of these statistics to support the success of Dodd-Frank is limited by the decline of 3T mining.  All three of the statistics focus on 3T mining, which now constitutes a small portion of natural resource exploitation in the eastern DRC, and as a result the statistics are relatively insignificant.  While the shift from 3T mining to gold mining can largely be attributed to Dodd-Frank, the last section of this blog post will discuss why that does not mean Dodd-Frank has been successful.

The shift from 3T mining to gold mining:

While neither Dodd-Frank 1502’s supporters nor its opponents have devoted a great deal attention to this shift, a major consequence of the legislation and related efforts to reduce the purchase of conflict minerals has been the decline of the importance of 3T mining and the increase in the importance of gold mining.  IPIS writes that “while 3T mining used to attract more miners…gold mining is currently by far the most important subsector in Eastern DRC’s artisanal mining sector… Out of an estimated 221,500 artisanal miners active in the mining sites visited in the framework of this research (1088 in total)… four out of five artisanal miners work in the gold sector.”  The GoE report tells a similar story, estimating that annual net profits of gold are $40-120 million while just $7.5-22.6 million for 3T minerals.  IPIS points to multiple reasons for this shift: “international regulation, low demand, low prices paid for the minerals, the growth of a semiindustrial mining sector and the depletion of certain deposits.”  Dodd-Frank 1502 and other traceability efforts are certainly major factors, and the growth of gold mining makes sense in this context.  While conflict-free regulations have put a major dent into the 3T trade, gold’s small size makes it easier to circumvent regulations.  It is hard to overstate just how much gold evades regulations; the GoE report estimates that official gold exports constitute just 2% of the actual figure, while 98% is smuggled.

As a result, the use of only statistics on the 3T trade reveals relatively little about the mineral trade in the eastern DRC and the success of Dodd-Frank 1502.  Regulations have stifled the 3T trade but have struggled to contain the gold trade, and it should be noted that Enough has acknowledged these problems.  Seeing the difficulties of the 3T trade, both miners and armed groups now focus more on gold as the trade seems almost entirely unaffected by regulations.  With the minor importance of the 3Ts in mind, I will now address the three statistics.

“Armed groups and the Congolese army are no longer present at two-thirds (67 percent) of tin, tantalum, and tungsten mines surveyed in eastern Congo’s North Kivu, South Kivu, and Maniema provinces.”

There are several shortcomings with this statistic.  First is the use of the phrase “no longer present,” implying that at one point armed groups were present in all the mines.  Enough does argue this, almost always referring to the same sentence originating the 2010 GoE report: “in the Kivu provinces, almost every mining deposit is controlled by a military group.”  The report does not include a great deal to support this claim, nor is it a major focus of the report, but says the finding is based on MONUC mapping exercises.  One major source of armed group involvement reported is the CNDP, which disbanded before the implementation of Dodd-Frank and was succeeded by M23, which did not seek to control mines.  Also, it should be noted that the report finds the omnipresence of armed groups at mines in the Kivus, while saying that armed groups are present to “a lesser extent” in Maniema.  The 67 percent statistic now used by Enough includes Maniema as well as the Kivus, and even the GoE report the Enough Project cites denies that every mine in Maniema was once controlled by an armed group.  As with all these statistics, the correlation between Dodd-Frank and reductions in armed group presence does not mean causation, as other factors, such as the improvements in the Congolese military and the use of FIBs, could be behind the changes.

The statistic also relies on the IPIS survey that, while very thorough, is incomplete.  It surveyed 1,088 mines.  There are at least 800 mines in South Kivu alone, and while the figure is not known for North Kivu, between the Kivus and Maniema there were certainly many mines that were not surveyed.  It also seems logical that mines controlled by armed groups would be less likely to be surveyed, as increased security concerns would make them more difficult to reach.  In addition, as with all statistics on armed group presence, it is not exactly clear how reliable the statistic is.  The IPIS report does not detail exactly what “present” means.  Though it includes some forms of taxation, it almost certainly does not include taxation at roadblocks, which is one way armed groups have sought to get around increased regulations.  Given the direct and indirect ways armed groups benefit from minerals in a militarized economy and the fluid movement of armed groups, it is very likely armed groups could have benefited from a mine in a manner not visible to IPIS surveyors, especially as their visits to each of the 1,088 mines could not have been particularly lengthy.  Finally, as with the other statistics, the 3Ts are not all that significant.  Dodd-Frank 1502 may have led to low armed group involvement in 3T mines because of the difficulty of acquiring conflict-free status, but looking beyond just 3T mines, IPIS found armed group involvement in 79% of all mines in North Kivu, 58% in South Kivu, and a small amount of mines in Maniema.  The 2015 GoE report estimates an armed group presence at 57% of mines in the eastern DRC, while around 25% of mines when just looking at the 3Ts.

“As of May 2014, nearly three-quarters (74 percent) of 3T miners were working in mines where no armed group involvement has been reported.”

This statistic is probably the most meaningless of the three.  As with the above statistic, it is limited as IPIS did not visit many mines and it would have been very easy for armed group involvement to evade the IPIS researchers.  Similarly, the statement that “no armed group involvement has been reported” does not definitively mean there was no armed group involvement, just that it was not reported to IPIS researchers.  The statistic is relevant from a worker safety standpoint and while that is important- conditions in Congolese mines are truly horrific-, it reveals little about the impact of Dodd-Frank on ending the conflict.

Yet the statistic also reveals relatively little about conditions for miners.  Perhaps the best explanation of why this is the case comes from the discussion that immediately follows the statistic in the IPIS report in which it originates, though this discussion has gained far less attention than its first sentence:

“The data on our map even shows that almost 74% of 3T miners are currently working in mines where no armed group involvement has been reported. As discussed above, however, the number of 3T miners has declined, as many of them have turned to gold mining. Consequently, less than 20% of artisanal miners are working in the Eastern Congolese 3T sector. The positive developments in the 3T sector stand in contrast to the gold sector. Gold mining in Eastern DRC is plagued by security problems and fraud. According to the data gathered during our teams’ field visits, 57% of gold miners are working in mines with armed group presence.”

“The Dodd-Frank law and electronics industry audits have created a two-tier market for tin, tantalum, and tungsten (3Ts) from Congo and the region. Minerals that do not go through conflict-free programs now sell for 30 to 60 percent less, thus reducing profits for armed groups trying to sell them.”

While this statistic seems to be valid, it is not clear this is good news.  First, as stated multiple times, 3Ts constitute a small portion of the mineral trade, and while there may be a two-tiered market for the 3Ts, there is not for gold.  Yet additionally, although certified conflict-free minerals may sell for more than uncertified minerals, they both seem to sell for less than the original price.  The 2014 Enough report cites that in 2009, tantalum, conflict-free or not, sold for $132/kg, but in a later section of the report it cites, seemingly positively, that now conflict-free tantalum sells for $40-45/kg and untraceable tantalum sells for $25-35/kg.  The global price for tantalum actually seems be higher now than in 2009, with a price of $122/kg.  While I have not seen reports of such dramatic drops elsewhere, the figures in the Enough report are worrying.  The Washington Post reports that tin previously sold for $7/kg and now non-certified tin sells for $4/kg, while Enough finds that conflict-free tin sells for $5-7/kg.  The global tin price has risen since the implementation of Dodd-Frank 1502.  It seems Dodd-Frank 1502 has led to lower competition and for companies to attempt to compensate for the price of tracking their supply chains, resulting in lower mineral prices, conflict-free or not.

And while the statistic focuses on the fall in armed group revenue, a significant effect has been the fall in the revenues of miners.  Whether or not the conflict-free price is also lower than the original price, a two-tiered market does not suggest clear benefits to the majority of miners.  Even though most miners do not contribute to armed groups or do so because they have no other choice, these miners still struggle to benefit from the higher prices for conflict-free minerals.  Only 141 mines in the eastern DRC have been certified as conflict-free out of well over a thousand, meaning that the vast majority of miners suffer from the lower prices for 3T minerals just because of the slow pace of the certification process, a key consequence of the “guilty until proven innocent” approach of Dodd-Frank 1502.  As a result of the inadequacy of conflict-free certification processes to cover any significant portion of the Congolese market, it should be noted that the argument for Dodd-Frank 1502 is often implicitly that a “de facto embargo” is better than the alternatives.  With conflict-free products rare and even then not necessarily actually conflict-free, the idea that the Congolese market can be accessed and mineral profits can be largely stopped from going to armed groups is barely foreseeable in the near future.

Since the number of 3T mines controlled by armed groups has fallen while armed group control is much more common in gold mines, the Enough Project’s arguments would suggest more miners should move into 3T mining.  Instead, following the implementation of Dodd-Frank, miners have overwhelmingly moved away from 3T mines towards gold mines.  Despite the greater armed group presence in gold mines, it seems miners are driven away from 3T mines due to the extreme difficulty of achieving the conflict-free label and to the gold trade where smuggling is much easier.

Although the Enough Project finds that former 3T miners have been able to “find other work and generate income,” this is not particularly convincing.  The three primary sectors Enough points to are “gold mining, farming, and small business such as fishing or motorcycle taxi driving.”  As discussed, gold mining suffers from extensive armed group involvement.  Enough says that motorcycle drivers can make as much as five times as much as they did mining.  However, it seems few miners would have enough start-up capital to buy a motorcycle and business would suffer in a service trade in the eastern DRC, especially when the largest industry, mining, has been disrupted.   And as with farming and fishing, if the profits and conditions are much better, one wonders why the miners were not in those sectors in the first place.  Finally, due to the militarization of the economy and the variety of taxation schemes, ex-miners could very well still contribute financially to armed groups even when in other sectors.

Are Conflict Mineral Regulations Working?

The three statistics alone certainly do not provide evidence that Dodd-Frank 1502 and related traceability efforts are working.  However, while we know the 3T trade has fallen, a key question is how much other sources of revenue have replaced it.  The implied argument of proponents of conflict minerals efforts seems to be that this revenue has not been replaced, though they have rarely fleshed it out.

This is an exceptionally difficult question to answer, not least because of the wildly varying figures one can see between credible estimates on the volumes of resource trades, and the answer to this question would best be answered by someone with more expertise than I have.  For me, it seems highly unlikely the gold trade itself has made up for the 3Ts.  The 2015 GoE report’s estimates of gold production are fairly similar to the ranges of estimates prior to 2010, rather than rising substantially to compensate for the fall in the 3Ts.

Additionally, IPIS found 221,500 miners in their survey.  This is almost certainly an underestimate, as they did not survey all mines and it seems likely they recorded fewer miners at the mines they visited than the actual figure.  However, this figure is well below past civil society estimates of the number of miners, suggesting that the gold trade is a long way from compensating for the fall in the 3T trade despite its gain in relative importance.  This is in line with the Enough Project’s finding that some miners have moved from the 3Ts to gold mining while others have moved away from mining altogether.  However, it is also in line with arguments of a de facto embargo on Congolese minerals and huge unemployment among miners.  Congolese minerals are now certainly very difficult to sell due to the difficulty of obtaining conflict-free status and low prices, and while gold can circumvent these problems due to smuggling, the 3T trade has certainly taken a major hit.

I do not believe these findings suggest traceability efforts are working.  I think it is nearly unquestionable that armed group revenue is lower now than it was before Dodd-Frank 1502.  However, especially as the 2015 GoE report estimates that organized crime makes more money from other sources of revenue- such as charcoal, timber, and wildlife- than the 3Ts and gold combined, and there does not appear to have been a dent in the gold trade, it does not seem armed group revenue is dramatically lower than it was before Dodd-Frank.

Proponents of Dodd-Frank argue that it is has succeeded in diminishing the 3T trade and now additional efforts must be made to combat the gold trade.  Yet it is not clear that the gold trade can be combatted.  The ease of transporting gold due to its small size and the complete failures of any efforts to eliminate smuggling cast doubt on the possibility of regulating the trade.  Even with the 3Ts, there are serious doubts about the accuracy of minerals labelled conflict-free, especially with the problems in the bag and tag system.  Additionally, it seems highly unlikely that charcoal, timber, and even general taxation of the local population- as M23 used extensively- could be eliminated.  We also have not seen evidence of armed groups disbanding or being particularly weakened as a result of Dodd-Frank 1502.  It should be noted that minerals were not a primary cause of the conflict, and local conflicts over land, conflicts of identity and citizenship, and an absent state are major causes that will not be resolved by reducing mineral revenues.

The group that we do know is suffering from losses in revenue is miners.  The reduction of armed group presence in 3T mines has done little to help miners.  Those remaining in the 3T trade suffer from low prices and exclusion from the market.  Many have moved on to the gold trade where armed group presence is high, many others have been forced to move into other sectors that one would guess are less lucrative, and it seems likely that hundreds of thousands are unemployed.  In a context with almost no safety net and where miners have many dependents, I seriously doubt that the seemingly moderate reductions in armed group revenue lessen human suffering more than the costs to miners increase it.

Can Cash Transfers be the Key to Developing Effective States?

Perhaps the largest challenge in development is the transformation of weak states designed to preserve the power of elites into competent bureaucracies serving the needs of society. Without a state that serves this purpose, substantial poverty reduction is exceptionally difficult. There are a number of theories as to what are the key factors in the development of effective states, and two of the most prominent explanations are that of war and the development of a middle class. Both theories depend on the idea that when citizens depend on and are brought into closer contact with the state, they will hold it accountable and push the state towards successful administration and service provision. However, few things bring citizens and the state together as much as cash transfers, even more so in the case of a universal basic income. As James Ferguson’s Give a Man a Fish describes, cash transfers are on the ascendancy throughout the developing world, and there is significant reason to believe they could have the transformative effect on weak states that has been so highly sought after.

The theory that wars are the key to developing effective states is a popular one, perhaps most famously articulated by Charles Tilly’s quote, “War made the state, and the state made war.” This theory draws heavily on the European experience, arguing that the existential threat of war and the resulting need for greater revenue causes rapid evolution in the relationship between state and citizen and the state’s bureaucratic capacity. Jeffrey Herbst developed on this line of thinking in “War and the State in Africa,” arguing that the international trend away from interstate warfare has led to the continuation of weak states in Africa which, due to the lack of war, do not face sufficient pressure from their citizens to develop. He states, “War caused the state to become more efficient in revenue collection, it forced leaders to dramatically improve administrative capabilities, and it created a climate and important symbols around which a disparate population could unify.”

However, examining Herbst’s quote more carefully, why would any of that not apply to major cash transfer programs? Such programs already exist in developing countries: Brazil’s Bolsa Familia reaches 25% of the population, 30% of the South African population receives monthly cash transfers from the government, and multiple other southern African countries have implement similar programs. In order to pay these grants to a large proportion of the population, governments inevitably have to find sufficient revenue to fund them. It is also a significant administrative undertaking to reach so many people, and depending on the state for sustenance is certainly a good way to bring states and citizens together. Furthermore, in terms of accountability, what simpler signal is there to citizens that the state is not doing its job than to be able to see that they did not receive their money this month? It is true that consistent poverty does not produce a shock to the system in the way that war does, which Herbst argues is crucial to enabling significant change. However, the risk that poverty presents to the health and safety of citizens in many developing countries is certainly comparable to that of war.

A growing middle class has also been speculated to be a key factor in the development of effective states. In this argument, the middle class relies on a strong economy and government service provision. Benefits provided to a small group of elites are not broad enough to serve the needs of the middle class, and the benefits broad enough to serve the middle class end up benefiting the rest of the population. The Center for Global Development’s Nancy Birdsall has argued that focusing on supporting the development of a middle class can actually be more beneficial to the poor than specifically pro-poor policies. This argument rests on the idea that the middle class supports policies that create growth, and that growth then comes to benefit the poor. Yet instead of relying on growth to end up meeting the needs of the poor, why not just give cash transfers, which provide for the basic needs of the poor, in the first place? It is also not clear why an accountable and transparent government, a strong economy, and effective service provision would appeal to the middle class and not the poor. And like the way a desire for growth is theorized to lead the middle class to sustain pressure on states to develop, cash transfers could cause a similar tightening of the bond between the poor and the state. While the middle class does have greater means to channel political pressure, there is little reason to think the poor could not participate in effective political movements that lead to improved states, especially as they generally constitute a larger segment of the population. In fact, India has had reasonably successful development gains and democracy, and poor Indians are actually more likely to vote than middle class or rich Indians. In any case, if cash transfers target a wide enough segment of the population, as would certainly be the case in a universal basic income, they could strengthen the demands for accountability and effective governance from both the middle class and the poor.

Of course, while cash transfers could have this transformative effect on states, they first have to be implemented. A significant barrier to implementation could be finding sufficient funding for the programs. However, funds could be found by moving government budgets towards service provision and cutting down on corruption. While it could be difficult to convince wealthier citizens to pay higher taxes for programs that would overwhelmingly benefit the poor, they do represent a significant potential source of revenue, and reducing tax evasion by foreign corporations would give developing country government large increases in revenue while causing less anger from domestic citizens. Also, cash transfer programs that start relatively small in scale could start the process of citizens holding the government accountable. This would cause a decrease in corruption and increased bureaucratic capacity, which would then enable greater revenue for expanded cash transfer programs. Funding has also not been an insurmountable barrier to large cash transfer programs even in poor countries such as Namibia and Zambia.

When examining why developing countries would choose to implement cash transfers in the first place, several reasons come to mind. The threat of a country’s large poor population growing angry, difficult to govern, and pushed towards desperate means in order to survive is a common one for governments in poor countries. That seems to have been at least partially the case in the development of southern African cash transfer programs, where Ferguson argues the context of evaporating wage labor has been a key factor in the expansion of social payments. Fear of the poor turning towards communism was a significant motivator of community development programs, and that same fear of a radicalized poor could lead to cash transfer programs. Yet while community development was designed to pacify the poor and create further distance between the poor and the government, cash transfers bring citizens and the state into closer contact, allowing for further pressures for effective states. According to Ferguson, southern African cash transfer programs seem to have led to increased political pressures, defying fears that they would purchase citizen compliance.

Governments would also receive encouragement to implement cash transfer programs if they were promoted as one of the developmental norms that developing country governments are expected to follow. While this remains a somewhat distant goal, cash transfers are receiving positive feedback from mainstream development actors, with even the World Bank giving limited support to state-run cash transfer programs.

Still, the best and perhaps most likely cause of cash transfer implementation is organized domestic political movements demanding them. Concerted political pressures led by organized citizens will help push states in the right direction by themselves. If they do win major cash transfer programs, it is likely that these programs will cause further increases in transparency and accountability, improve the state’s ability to collect revenue and deliver services, and help transform the meaning of the state from a removed predator to a valued provider, not to mention significant reductions in poverty. Major cash transfer programs are too recent a development to provide clear evidence on their long-term effects on the state, but they might just be able to alleviate poverty in the short-term and create a state that enables prosperity in the long-term.

Questions for a Military Intervention in Syria

The world’s refugee crisis is, deservedly, getting a great deal of attention at the moment. The photo of the three-year-old Syrian Aylan Kurdi, dead on a Turkish beach, has served as a major catalyst of attention on Europe and the US’s failure to aid refugees, primarily Syrian but also from a number of other conflicts. However, this attention to Syrian refugees has also sparked a number of responses in a different vein, arguing that the focus on helping refugees is only addressing a symptom, while the focus should be instead on resolving the real cause, the Syrian Civil War. Those making these arguments have also used this surge of attention to revive calls for additional military intervention in Syria through the form of a no-fly zone. While this argument correctly asserts that the war itself produces far more human suffering than the inadequate aid to refugees, just because a problem is larger in scale it does not mean it is necessarily the one that we (by which I- and as far as I can tell, they too- mean the West) have the most power to solve.

In terms of refugees, the prospect of resettling Syria’s four million refugees does not seem insurmountable given that the population of the EU, US, and Canada is upwards of 850 million. Even without resettling all the refugees, the funding to support Syrian refugees in neighboring countries has been abysmal, but the funds needed are extremely small in comparison to the massive size of government budgets. As far as military intervention, I am often frustrated by the ease with which the human rights community allows moral outrage to turn into support for military action without nearly enough diligence. That is not to say that military options could never help, and we would be doing a disservice to suffering populations if we did not consider them. However, other nonmilitary options must be considered with the same seriousness and there must be the consideration that we could do more harm than good.  For Syria, I tend to think that when we are very unsure what the effects of a military intervention will be, even though the country is utterly destroyed at the moment, it will be better off if we don’t add more bombs and armed parties to the mix.  My perspective is motivated largely by the fact that I don’t know the answers to the conflict, but I’m not saying no one else does, and the most popular answer at the moment is a no-fly zone. I’m willing to be convinced though, so if your plan for a military intervention- which I’m assuming is a no-fly zone, but these questions apply to other military interventions as well- answers these questions, I think it’s worth trying.

  • How will the military intervention impact the political solution to the conflict? Are you planning on leaving the political situation to sort itself out and the intervention is just to lessen Assad’s ability to kill civilians? But won’t the no-fly zone also make the Assad regime militarily weaker, and therefore more likely to fall?
  • The three most powerful military actors in Syria are Assad, ISIS, and Jabhat al-Nusra. Are you prepared to have one of them take control of the country? Or are you trying to defeat them all? Assuming that is even possible, then who will lead? (“The people” is not an acceptable answer). If a tolerable party acquires control of the government, will they be able to survive, or will Syria collapse right back into war? Maybe you think a Syria in the Somalia mold, where it is nearly stateless but has relatively low-intensity violence, is preferable to what we have now, but will other parties lessen fighting after the removal of Syria’s largest military actors?
  • Barrel bombs dropped by the Assad regime are the biggest killer of Syrian civilians. But will a no-fly zone actually lead to reduced violence from the Assad regime against civilians? Will use of ground attacks increase, or might chemical weapon attacks launched from the ground increase? Also, might other rebel groups be emboldened by increased weakness in the Assad regime and launch aggressive offensives?
  • External interventions tend to increase the length of civil wars, and we’re currently seeing in the Middle East that the heavy involvement of foreign powers is leading to more violent conflicts. Why will additional Western intervention in Syria be an exception to this trend? And Iran, Russia, and China have all backed the Assad regime, including using UNSC vetoes in the case of the latter two. A no-fly zone has almost no chance of getting UNSC approval. Will these powers step up action in support of the Assad regime in response to Western intervention and further escalate the conflict?
  • Especially with the 2016 elections coming up, a military intervention in Syria would be a much debated American political issue. Even if there is a careful plan to ensure the success of a military intervention, with a strategy for addressing Syrian political institutions and including a withdrawal strategy, what happens if a new President decides he/she wants to change it? Or if in the middle of the intervention the public decides it is tired of a foreign war? And might a no-fly zone’s formal declaration of war against the Assad regime making it far easier for hawks to later implement poorly thought out aggressive military actions?
  • Of course, the most recent major US military intervention was to remove an oppressive dictator in Syria’s neighbor, Iraq. The last time the US implemented a no-fly zone was after an Arab Spring revolution had morphed into a civil war, in Libya. Both countries are now disasters. Why will Syria be different?

Of course, no military intervention will solve all Syria’s problems, and the standard should be whether it will make the situation better for Syrians. If these questions are answered carefully and responsibly, and we can be reasonably sure it won’t make things worse, then a military intervention is the right choice. But although a military intervention may help assuage our guilt at the nearly unbelievable suffering taking place in Syria, if we get it wrong, Syrian civilians will be the ones paying the price.

The Promise of Welfare States in Middle-Income Countries

Raj Desai has a fascinating post up for Brookings comparing the history of the development of welfare states in today’s rich countries with the status of welfare states in today’s developing countries. He writes,

“India today is already richer than Germany was when it introduced social insurance for all workers in the late 1880s. Indonesia is richer than the United States was in 1935, when the Social Security Act was passed. And China is richer than Britain was in 1948, when the National Health Service was introduced… Although the industrial revolution had dramatic effects on poverty in today’s rich countries, the end of extreme poverty only occurred in those countries after the creation of modern welfare states in the post-World War II period. These welfare programs raised the living standards of the most destitute citizens while establishing a “social floor” that protected all members of society. Today’s lower and middle-income countries, despite their significant progress, are actually lagging behind in their fight against poverty when compared to countries that industrialized before the 20th century.”

 Desai then shows this table:

Table 1. Extreme poverty rates of today’s rich countries, when they were at similar levels of development (%)

raj table 1v2 

The point is clear: welfare states were essential to ending extreme poverty in today’s rich countries, but today’s developing countries are yet to create these programs despite similar levels of development. For many countries with significant numbers of people in extreme poverty, the possibility of a welfare state remains far in the future. For example, it is hard to imagine the DR Congo implementing a functioning national social security program.

Yet for many middle-income countries, major welfare programs are entirely possible. As Desai notes, today’s rich countries were able to do so at similar levels of development. Amartya Sen has written about how developing countries have been able to implement universal health care, and Bolsa Familia’s success also demonstrates the ability of middle-income countries to implement massive poverty-reducing programs.

Furthermore, the majority of the world’s extreme poor live in middle-income countries. The four countries Desai included in the table- China, India, Indonesia, and Nigeria- have 675 million of the world’s one billion people living in extreme poverty. While Nigeria has a relatively weak state and suffers from conflict, the other three do have quite well-developed states. All four countries have higher GDPs per capita than Rwanda and Bangladesh, countries that Sen points to as having extensive health coverage. If welfare states are the key to ending extreme poverty, and the majority of the world’s extreme poor live in middle-income countries that seem capable of implementing significant welfare programs, shouldn’t developing welfare states in middle-income countries be a major focus of efforts to reduce extreme poverty?

For NGOs to push this process forward, it will require a “beyond aid” focus and a willingness to act politically. While NGOs can try to frame welfare programs as technical advice, they will usually be too political and too expensive for that approach to work. As major welfare programs are internal solutions to poverty and represent significant changes in the role of the state, NGOs would be better off working through internal agents of change. One option is for NGOs to expand use of a confederation approach, allowing national branches of the organization to act as domestic advocates rather than foreign actors. Yet NGOs can also expand connections with and funding for local civil society organizations, giving them greater ability to push their own governments towards welfare programs.

One potential problem for domestic efforts to push for a welfare state to reduce extreme poverty is the role of the middle class. Desai found that the key to today’s rich countries developing welfare states was an alliance between the lower and middle classes. That coalition generated power but also affected what types of programs were implemented, leading to programs such as social security and universal health care that benefited all citizens, not just the poor, since the middle class wanted to receive benefits as well. Desai notes that the focus on reducing poverty in today’s developing countries, rather than providing universal benefits, has tended to cause the middle class to distance themselves from the poor. This would suggest that instead of working with civil society groups that just focus on the poor, to effectively push for welfare state policies, NGOs would also have to work with groups promoting the interests of the middle class. This policy would require NGOs to take a much more circuitous route to ending poverty than their usual policy of targeting the poor. It also presents a risk that middle class groups would co-opt the agenda to focus exclusively on policies that benefit themselves, instead of universal policies that help both the poor and the middle class. These challenges demonstrate that it will by no means be easy to get middle-income countries to move towards welfare states, but given this approach’s massive promise in reducing extreme poverty, it is a topic warranting significant exploration.

Black Lives Matter is Taking a Page Out of Amnesty International’s Book

Since its founding in 1961, and particularly during the 1970s, Amnesty International has played a central role in bringing human rights from an often ignored abstraction to a key factor in international politics.  Crucial to Amnesty’s success has been its prisoner of conscience strategy.  Amnesty highlights the case of a political prisoner- or as they call them, a prisoner of conscience-, publicizes the human rights abuse, and pressures the government responsible to release the prisoner.  This strategy has led to the international shaming of abusive governments, the release of prisoners, and the creation of iconic symbols of human rights abuses.  Amnesty has expanded to focus on a wider range of human rights issues, but its approach to these issues builds on the prisoner of conscience strategy rather than replacing it.

Recently, the Black Lives Matter movement’s uses of symbolic, information, and accountability politics have been remarkably similar to Amnesty’s.  Especially given Black Lives Matter’s decentralized structure, it is unlikely that the movement intentionally adapted Amnesty’s strategy.  Nevertheless, there are many close parallels between its tactics and Amnesty’s.  Perhaps the most significant is their shared focus on individuals.  Where Amnesty uses prisoners of conscience, Black Lives Matter uses African-Americans killed by police.  The prisoner of conscience strategy exists on two levels.  The first level is to improve the condition of the prisoner and ultimately secure their release.  The second, however, is to use the prisoner as a symbol of broader human rights abuses, typically focusing on pushing the country’s government to stop abuse of others in similar positions.  This two-level approach to individuals is also used by Black Lives Matter, and Dara Lind writes that in Black Lives Matter’s development since Ferguson, “the focus on individual cases has remained- both as a way to remind American of the actual victims of the status quo and to demand justice for individuals at the local level.”  The symbolic level is particularly important to Black Lives Matter, as individuals killed by police become tangible representations of the multitude of abuses of African-Americans that go ignored.  Michael Brown is not just an 18-year-old killed by Darren Wilson; he gives a name and a face to a system of oppression.  Indeed, individuals are so central to the strategy of Black Lives Matter that key organizer of the movement Deray McKesson regularly writes tweets such as this one: “We remember you Mike. We remember you Pearlie. We remember you Mya.  We remember you Aura. We remember you Renisha. We remember you Tamir.”  Lind notes the utility of an individual-centered strategy.  She writes that “tactically, this makes sense.  It’s easier to mobilize people in response a particular injustice than to get them to prevent injustices across the board.”

Yet in addition to their focus on individuals, Amnesty and Black Lives Matter share an emphasis on documenting and publicizing abuses.  Repression of political dissidents and police violence against African-Americans are not rare occurrences, but they are typically invisible.  Amnesty and Black Lives Matter have gained prominence because they make the prevalence of these problems difficult to deny.  Research and documentation are core parts of Amnesty’s activities, and Jan Eckel writes that Amnesty attempts “to produce facts by building up channels of information, carrying out investigations, and verifying allegations.”  Black Lives Matter, too, has focused on producing information.  It has led to projects such as the Guardian’s “The Counted,” which documents all people killed by U.S. police.  Significantly, a major effect of Black Lives Matter has been increased filming and attention to videos of police officers, and a number of killings have been caught on tape.  In a recent article on why Michael Brown’s death led to such a sustained focus on police violence against African-Americans, Jamelle Bouie writes that “in the months after Ferguson, Americans viewed a steady stream of images from police stops gone wrong. The victims were almost always black, the offenses were almost always minor, the outcomes were often death, and—most importantly—police accounts never quite matched the footage.”  This type of documentation is particularly important as the public has strong bias towards the police officers that kill African-Americans, and while even videos have not always caused convictions of police officers, visible proof makes it much more likely that victims of police violence will be seen as victims.  For Amnesty, especially since states make extensive efforts to deny the existence or innocence of political prisoners, “high-quality research was an essential part of Amnesty’s political capital, providing credibility as well as informational advantage.”

Another important parallel between Amnesty and Black Lives Matter is the demands they place on states, which are conceptually noncontroversial but radical in their application.  Both groups are eminently focused on abuses perpetrated by states, and almost all states have established obligations to their citizens.  The state’s responsibility to protect human rights was already fairly well-established in intellectual thought, and after World War II human rights began to become legally enshrined, most notably with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.  Despite this recognition of human rights, few states seriously considered them as something that should constrain their behavior prior to Amnesty’s rise to prominence.  The novelty of this assertion made Amnesty’s demands quite radical, yet their strategy often consisted of holding government accountable to treaties they had already signed.  Similarly, no one would deny that black lives matter; even the use of “all lives matter” as an attempt to subdue Black Lives Matter accepts the view that black lives matter.  Also, rights to equality and justice are unequivocally granted in the Constitution.  Yet this has never been the reality in the U.S., and meaningful steps towards justice and equality often find themselves outside the bounds of mainstream American politics.

Given the chasm between existing reality at the time of Amnesty and Black Lives Matter’s founding and their goals of human rights and African-American equality, both focus on creating normative shifts rather than implementing linear theories of change.  Amnesty tends to focus much more on the fact that states should respect human rights than how they should implement them.  For Black Lives Matter, Jay King writes that “the movement does tend to shy away from specific policy prescriptions.  Instead, the work seems to be aimed at an abrupt, wide-scale change in consciousness.”  Crucial to these groups’ attempts to create a normative shift is their promotion of a language with which to express their aims.  Activists have often struggled to find a way to link seemingly different events rooted in the same cause.  By popularizing terms such as ‘white supremacy,’ ‘violence against black bodies,’ ‘unlawful imprisonment,’ and ‘prisoners of conscience,’ both groups have made it possible to articulate the norms they seek to implement.

Yet while Amnesty and Black Lives Matter have pursued very similar strategies, the organizations themselves have a number of differences.  In addition to its large grassroots membership, Amnesty has a strong central organization that Black Lives Matter does not.  Also, Amnesty’s tendency to take an apolitical stance in response to human rights abuses is not matched by Black Lives Matter’s leftist orientation.  While Amnesty is a global organization and works closely with local civil society groups, its members tend to be concentrated in the West while the human rights abuses they address are often in developing countries.  Black Lives Matter, on the other hand, draws a large majority of its members from the oppressed population it focuses on.  This makeup means that Black Lives Matter will find it easier to empower and accurately reflect the desires of the people they advocate for, yet Amnesty’s closer proximity to power means it has a greater ability to leverage it.

Nevertheless, both groups have managed to implement similar tactics despite their organizational differences.  Both have caused individuals to become well-known representations of systemic problems, documented the extent of the abuses, and put the abuses in the context of the norms they seek to promote.  Yet, ultimately, the goal of their promotion of symbols, information, and norms is for the power they gain from these factors to cause tangible improvements in the lives of oppressed populations, and this effect is exceptionally difficult to measure.  This challenge means that the exact extent of Amnesty’s success remains up for debate, but I think few would deny that its fifty years of action have caused a greater application of human rights.  Black Lives Matter has undoubtedly generated massive attention, and hopefully this attention will quickly translate into greater racial equality.

When Never Again Becomes You’re Either With Us or Against Us

Yesterday, I attended an event at the Capitol sponsored by the Holocaust Memorial Museum that exhibited photos taken by the Syrian photographer Caesar of torture committed by the Assad regime.  Yet along with the demonstration of the bravery of Syrian activists and the atrocities committed by the Assad regime, speakers said the Iranian nuclear deal was at fault for these atrocities, that the U.S. could have stopped the atrocities with military action in 2013, and that removing the Assad regime will lead to the fall of ISIS.  I was jarred by this spirit underlying much of the event, one in which passion to protect others from atrocities is poisoned by blind faith in military force and American power.

The consistent message propagated by the speakers- primarily Congressmen- was that the U.S. was not doing enough, encapsulated by the hashtag created for the event, #ObamaMustActBut what would they have him do?  Anger at the lack of military action against the Assad regime often fails to consider what that military action would actually look like.  Leaving aside non-military options, some of which could help but are excluded by the clear assumption that only military action counts as real action, there is an assortment of bad or unrealistic options available to Obama.

Perhaps the action called for by #ObamaMustAct is the forceful arming of Syrian rebels, but that has been a failure when implemented, with arms invariably ending up in the hands of rebel groups they were not meant for.  Bob Corker and others suggested that the problem was that Obama did not act early enough, but there is little reason to think arming Syrian rebels early in the war would have led to a better result.  Probably, a few of the speakers would want an all-out invasion, in an indefinite mission intended to nation-build and expected to easily win over a population due to widespread dislike of an authoritarian leader.  The parallel is obvious and the unintended consequences would be extensive.  Many of the speakers meant a no-fly zone designed to stop Assad’s air raids.  First, as a formal declaration of war against the Assad regime that will not get UN Security Council approval, there is little to no chance of it happening, and Congressional Republicans probably know that and are using the option to score political points.  Still, although there is a case to be made for a no-fly zone, there are also many reasons to think that it would not be the easy fix that it is made out to be, such as the fact that external interventions lengthen civil wars, that it would have no end date and an unclear mandate, and that it seems unlikely that Syria’s allies would not escalate their support for the Assad regime in response.  Likely, once implemented, the same people promoting it now would denounce it as not enough and call for more extensive military actions.

Indeed, this hawkish vision of Syria is littered with ideas that are extremely difficult to defend.  There is of course the jaw-dropping hypocrisy of Congressional Republicans pointing to pictures of torture as proof of the immorality of the Assad regime (with John McCain a notable exception).    The event also displayed the speakers’ blind faith in Syria’s moderate opposition as a reasonable political solution, despite the fact that the FSA controls less than 5% of the country’s territory, struggles to conduct operations without the support of the Islamic Front, and has always been highly fragmented.  Considerations of Assad and ISIS’s status as the two most powerful actors in Syria were calmly swatted aside without looking next door at what can happen when there is a power vacuum filled by a weak government propped up by Western actors.  Indeed, at an event where multiple Iraq War supporters called for aggressive U.S. military intervention as the solution to a Middle Eastern conflict, Iraq was not mentioned.  The last time the US implemented a no-fly zone, Libya, was similarly ignored (liberal interventionists should not be let off the hook, either).  Representative Kinzinger’s speech included a claim that “no nuclear deal is worth 230,000 lives,” vastly overstating the role of Iranian action and U.S. inaction in Syria’s violence, discounting that the U.S. will have increased leverage over Iran with the deal, and making the far-fetched assumption that Obama would have intervened militarily if not for fear of upsetting Iran.  Above all, the majority of the speakers rested on the assumption that the simultaneity of Syrian atrocities and U.S. military inaction is evidence enough that military action would have prevented them, a logic that is used so frequently I forget how shockingly weak it is.

But that those who push their hawkish views towards Syria are perfectly able to make these claims without evidence to defend them is kind of the point, because in their minds, the U.S. is strong enough and righteous enough that if it responds forcefully to an atrocity everything will work out.  What saddens me the most is that this is what the message of “Never Again” is largely taken to mean.  The atrocity prevention community often falls for these pernicious ideas, letting the way the world has ignored atrocities so regularly convince it that any action is beneficial.  But preventing atrocities means, well, preventing them, and preventing atrocities requires a clear idea of how you are going to do that.  Approaches that scorn non-military actions, considerations of unintended consequences, and the recognition that we are not all-powerful allow moral outrage to turn into calls for aggressive military action with little to no evidence in between.  Don’t fall into the trap.  It will do nothing to help those whose suffering we seek to stop, and could very well make it worse.  “Never again” is a goal to aspire to but one that must be implemented in the real world; assumptions that the U.S. can solve any problem with enough force are pure fantasies.

Causal Stories and When Not to Use Advocacy Strategies

I recently read Activists beyond Borders by Margaret Keck and Kathryn Sikkink, and although the whole book is great, I found one argument to be particularly important.  They write that “in order to campaign on an issue it must be converted into a ‘causal story’ that establishes who bears responsibility or guilt.  But the causal chain needs to be sufficiently short and clear to make the case convincing.”  While this dilemma is often overlooked, I think it is perhaps the key factor in advocacy campaign success, and it should be a central determinant in the choice of tactics.

You can find effective causal stories in –as far as I can think of- every successful advocacy campaign.  In the buildup to the arms trade treaty, advocates brought attention to how arms dealers would sell to human rights abusers that would then use the weapons to harm civilians.  In the case of King Leopold’s Congo, the Congo Reform Association focused on Leopold’s ownership of the Congo and the massive atrocities he orchestrated.  Both these cases provided compelling harm to individuals, actors to target, and solutions that were not excessively difficult to envision.

Yet in both these cases it is also the case that for the problems the advocates sought to fix, the causal chain really was quite short in reality, not just in the stories the advocates presented.  Yet many problems have roots so complex that they are nearly impossible to put in a simple causal story.  One such case is racism in the US.  While it would be unbelievably ambitious for a campaign to take on all of American racism- all movements, the Civil Rights Movement included, have incremental targets on the way to a larger goal-, even for many targets advocacy strategies will fall short.  An effective causal story could be crafted around voter ID laws, and the focus on police brutality has attempted to utilize a causal story.  Yet although police officers killing unarmed people provide a clear problem and target, it is extremely difficult to extend this to an effective solution.  The easiest solution would be target “bad cops,” but this totally misunderstands discriminatory policing.  Extending the story to lead to body cameras and other policies that could partially mitigate the impact of discriminatory policing have been effective, but the primary cause, implicit bias, is simply impossible to put into a causal story and advocacy campaign.  The target would be just about everyone, and what solution could the campaign possibly propose?  Beyond policing, many crucial issues of institutional racism, from housing policies to political representation, do not lend themselves to causal stories, even when aiming for incremental progress.

This drives at what I find such a necessary discussion to have alongside causal stories, which is what to do when they cannot work.  An effective advocacy campaign will have an easily understandable causal story that leads smoothly to a proposed solution.  Yet there are so many important problems that do not have a simple chain of responsibility that cause them.  The danger is that a campaign will be so attached to advocacy strategies that they will create an effective causal story, but then advocate a solution that fits into their causal story but does not actually address the problem they sought to fix.  This is what I think happened in conflict mineral campaigning.  They condensed a massively complex conflict into a story of Western consumers buying minerals that cause violence in Congo, and that story led to Dodd-Frank 1502.  Yet that solution addressed their causal story, not the reality of the conflict, and as a result they caused further harm to the Congo.

Advocacy strategies have great potential and there are countless problems that need to be addressed.  But advocacy strategies are a tactic, not the only route to create social change.  When the problem cannot be converted into a simple causal story that leads to an effective solution, then advocacy strategies should not be used.  Other routes, such as legal processes, academics and policymakers working for institutional reforms, or broader efforts to change hearts and minds rather than driving directly at a solution, should be used instead.  Contorting problems into simple but inaccurate causal stories will only cause more harm.