Over at Foreign Policy, Africa activist and celebrity-whisperer John Prendergast says there is a “Light at The End of the Tunnel in Congo“. Prendergast thinks the two bills before the House and Senate about extractive mineral regulation in the DRC and increasing consumer consciousness about coltan could radically change the dynamics of the conflict. Why?
For decades, this illegal economy has thrived in the shadows. Atrocities committed against Congo’s civilian populations are both a means of social control and retribution for the perceived support of military (and hence commercial) opponents. It’s all about controlling the minerals and gaining a handsome profit. And until this logic of unaccountable, violent, illegal mineral extraction changes, all the peacekeepers and peacemakers in the world will have very little impact on the levels of violence there.
But, what’s the mechanism at work that changes this reality?
If these stars align, it may well be the opportunity that Congo needs to finally bring transparency, legality, and security to its minerals trade. Together, all this would fundamentally alter the incentives that are today fueling conflict. Commercial actors might change their behavior, worried that a potential boycott would cut profits and make things more difficult for everyone who is currently benefiting. Central African governments could clean up their act or face International Criminal Court indictments, United Nations sanctions, and other scarlet letters. Electronics and jewelry companies would demand best practices or face increasing negative publicity about their “hear no evil, see no evil” mentality when it comes to the cries of Congo’s women and girls.
Prendergast is on shaky ground. While consumer activism can be powerful, it rarely stops wars, especially when luxury goods with substitutes aren’t the target. Which is why coltan is entirely different from diamonds. There is no good substitute for coltan, which is a super-conductor found in near all technology. Consumers can’t voice their power over industry by opting-out of the market. Prendergast isn’t going to stop making cell phone calls because he can’t and because he can’t, consumer activism becomes mere tokenism.
Compounding the inability to make consumer activism credible is the fact that coltan is alluvial. Mining coltan does not require intensive industry. Rather, small shops can set up fairly profitable extractive rings, which are mobile and require little capital. Regulating these types of industries effectively is like playing the whac-a-mol game – as soon as one provider is regulated, he’ll be forced to leave in order to compete with other providers.
This makes it nearly impossible to effectively certify coltan in the same way diamonds were certified by the Kimberely process. In other words, the idea of genocide-free cell phones is basically whimsical. Prendergast does get the underlying argument right: you have to change the incentives on the ground to stop the war. However, catchy activism isn’t enough, you’ve actually got to understand the economics behind the argument.