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Coltan, Congo and a missed opportunity July 3, 2014

Posted by Tomboktu in Business, Choice, Ethics, FairPhone.
1 comment so far

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.

Would you want to set up FairPhone? January 14, 2014

Posted by Tomboktu in Choice, Community, Employment Rights, Environment, Ethics, FairPhone, Human Rights, Technology, Workers Rights.
5 comments

Who in their right mind would want to set up FairPhone? Obviously you can check out their site to find out who actually did set it up as a Dutch social enterprise, but would you want to?

Park, for a moment, the ‘fair’ bit and think about what is involved setting up a company to make a new smartphone. Smartphones are complex products, with chips, capacitors, resistors, glass, sensors, casings, displays, batteries, cameras, speakers, antennae, sockets and other bits and pieces that I don’t know about. And you’d need software. You would also need to design all of this, or get people to do that for you, and to set up or find a factory to make it.

If you did do it, you would be going into a market with big brands like Samsung, iPhone, Sony, Nokia, HTC, and so on, so you would need a pretty strong selling point to attract customers from the products offered by those heavy-hitters.
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