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Coltan, Congo and a missed opportunity July 3, 2014

Posted by Tomboktu in Business, Choice, Ethics, FairPhone.

You might have seen the article in the Irish Times about a conference at NUI Galway, on the subject of women and leadership in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Apart from a one-paragraph nod towards Mary Robinson’s contribution, the Irish Times reported only about a plenary speech by Thomas Turner, who is a specialist for Amnesty International on the DRC.

Turner has written a number of books on the Congo and the war there. His message for the participants at the NUI conference dealt with campaigns on boycotting electronic equipment like mobile phones and games consoles because of the claims that the coltan, a mineral used in capacitors in small devices, contribute to rape and mass killings. His abstract for the conference is pretty clear on why that simplistic picture is a problem:

The latest such oversimplification, imposed by outsiders, concerns conflict minerals, mass killing and sexual violence. The Congo war is the bloodiest since World War Two, and the country is the “rape capital of the world”. However, there is a magic bullet that can put an end to the atrocities and that is banning “conflict minerals”. In recent weeks, it has been reported that most of the mines in eastern DRC are no longer controlled by warlords or militias, yet the level of rape and sexual violence remains high.

The Irish Times reports:

Mr Turner also cited the Kony 2012 campaign as another example where the public had been confused, with young people believing that if they bought a plastic bracelet they could eradicate use of child soldiers.

And this line that simple steps by western consumers and concerned citizens will not solve the underlying problems is reported in a review of Turnder’s book Congo:

avoiding the purchase of coltan-laden cell phones or mineral-containing gaming consoles is somewhat incoherent and unlikely to resolve the substantive issues

This has been a missed opportunity. I cannot tell if it was Turner or the Irish Times who missed it.

It is valid to point out the inadequacy of boycotts or of clocking up online views of the Kony video (99 million views since 2012).

But offering only criticisms of simplistic solutions is to do a disservice to those who engage with the messy complexities and work within them to try to bring real change. For example, Fairphone, a Dutch social enterprise, instead of boycotting coltan from the DRC has sought to secure sources of the mineral that reflect the concerns of the simplistic activists Turner criticises. And those who follow Fairphone’s work know that they are neither naive nor simplistic. They know full well that in a complex product like a mobile phone there are limits to what an organisation can do. But they also see the work they have done as only a first step.

By not exploring viable solutions and concentrating only on criticising those who are simplistic, Turner or the Irish Times, or both, missed an important opportunity.


1. eilisryan - July 4, 2014

Thanks for picking up on this. I was at the conference on Wednesday and went in expecting a lot of talk about peripheral issues and was very impressed in the end.

You are right that Turner’s analysis was somewhat truncated – mostly because he ran out of time. In comments later in the day, his major point is that the way we define “conflict minerals” in the new European regulations, defines them as minerals sourced from mines which are run by rebel, non-state armed actors.

He argues that there is no evidence that simply installing either official Congolese authorities in the mines, or indeed multinational companies, does anything to alter the cycle of violence in the country.

His point was continued in an excellent presentation by a woman from the Institute of Social Studies in the Nederlands called Serena Cruz. Cruz talked about how, often, we conceive of the conflict in Congo as something which emerges from a broken economy when, in fact, it is better to see violence, including “rape as a weapon” as something which has since colonial times been an integral part of how anybody amasses wealth and influence in the Congo. To the extent that it is fairly impossible to conduct business in the DRC, ie to become part of the economy, without in some way perpetuating that system.

Ending “conflict” in the DRC, then, will do little to challenge the violence which underpins the economy.

Again, like Turner, she pointed to the danger of understanding the problem of violence as one related to the conflict between state and non-state groups – instead, they argued it was deeply linked to how the economy is fundamentally structured.

I think in another context you would be right to criticise Turner for not pointing to good examples of campaign actions. However, in this context, in a conference heavily dominated by NGOs engaged in and talking about decent campaigns, it was a strength that two presentations were dedicated to, in a fairly moderate fashion, critiquing campaigning and outlining the broader structural context.


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