Searching for a New Narrative in Congo's Conflict Minerals Debate


Last July, the Obama administration’s financial reform legislation — informally known as the Dodd-Frank Act — included an amendment mandating that the Securities and Exchange Commission audit public companies to assess the presence of minerals from eastern Congo’s Kivu provinces. The audit system is intended to create a measure of accountability and transparency in eastern Congo’s mining industry, with the eventual goal of industry formalization.

The debate over advocacy surrounding the nexus of mineral extraction and violence in eastern Congo — that is, concerning the region’s so-called “conflict minerals" — has escalated in recent days, following the publication of a New York Times op-ed by David Aronson, noting the destructive impact of last July’s financial reform bill on the mining industry in the Kivu provinces. According to Aronson, as well as a smattering of Congo experts and civil society leaders, the law has had unintended consequences for the artisanal mining industry in eastern Congo: unemployment; the emboldening of militia leadership; and restrictions on education and food access.

For critics of the legislation, the unintended consequences were an easily anticipated result of a lack of consideration for institutional development and governance dynamics in eastern Congo, as well as a simplified advocacy narrative that identified conflict minerals as the sole conflict driver. For advocates, the unintended consequences are part and parcel of the dialectical progression toward a formalized, legitimate mining industry in eastern Congo.

Neither side is entirely accurate. The Congo advocacy community, myself included, approached Dodd-Frank’s potential implications in eastern Congo from a simplified perspective. Advocates gave little consideration to the complex interplay between short-term limitations in governance and security sector institutions and long-term frameworks for industry formalization and conflict resolution. The dialectical logic is insufficient; as has been stated many times before, human rights advocacy is a Hippocratic enterprise: “first, do no harm.”

Critics of the legislation have failed to recognize the lessons-learned by the Congo advocacy community from the Dodd-Frank snafu. As soon as public companies began to get cold feet about their continued engagement in eastern Congo, the advocacy community switched gears, from isolation to engagement. The Congo advocacy community’s present multi-stakeholder effort, incorporating activists, institutional investors, corporations, and actors on the ground, offers greater hope for the effectiveness of conflict resolution efforts.

The multi-stakeholder effort, however, will do little to reverse the initial advocacy shortcomings without a strategic revision of the Congo advocacy narrative. As has become eminently clear, the conflict minerals approach only addresses a particular component of eastern Congo’s conflict dynamics. Instead, advocates will need to complicate their narrative, incorporating governance reform, comprehensive security sector reform, civil society training and empowerment, and rule of law programming into preferable policy outcomes. A nuanced approach is the only way forward for sustainable conflict resolution in eastern Congo.

Photo Credit: ENOUGH Project