Sunday, November 4, 2012

Crisis in the Congo and Economic Imperialism

If you live in Vermont you can count yourself among a lucky few in the world to have most of your needs taken care of, no impending threat of danger, and to have access to an above-average education. We are very privileged here but it is important to know that as hunky-dory as everything seems there are still problems that are being kept from us, as educated and informed as we like to think our citizenry is and as unbiased and uncensored we like to dream our media are.

We are not being told the whole story.

85 people in the US and 71 in the Caribbean died as repercussions of Hurricane Sandy last week and the country scrambled to get crying songstresses on TV to raise relief funds.

6 million people have died as repercussions of the slave-driven mineral trade in the Congo since 1996 and it remains unregarded by the main stream media of the United States and other first world nations. It's not just a mix of racism, geographical distance, weariness of 'poor Africa', and the idea of helplessness that keeps this out of the news, but economic and political repercussions that come from disparaging US foreign policy and corporate clout.

The United States has two very strong allies in Rwanda and Uganda (for whom much of GDP is hustled conflict minerals), so strong that the US is building up a new military base in Rwanda. In an age where most of the major news networks are conglomerated into the hands of a few people, who might have interests in seeing that the purveyors of telecommunications and technology view them favorably and vice versa, I do not think it is a wild conspirator's imagination that dreams up the idea that perhaps public awareness of the conflict in the Congo is so low because it is not in the interest of policy-makers, industry, or the economy for the public to care.

Let us imagine a scenario in which there was widespread public knowledge of the conflict:

  • Public dismay, especially on the part of women's groups, African Americans, and human rights activists
  • Push for the end of foreign aid to Rwanda and Uganda and rejection of any affirmative ties
    • Shorter funds for militia
    • Puts new US military base plans in jeopardy
  • Boycotts on new technology without certified sources
    • Supply chain loopholes form as exporters get creative
  • Push for more UN peacekeepers to protect citizens
  • Higher prices for cell phones, computers, flatscreen televisions, and most technology
  • Higher overhead for businesses and government (including schools)

Are circuit-board minerals the new oil? Have we based a society on cheap access to incredible labor-reducing technology again? What happens when pressure is put on our supply of that resource? In August the Securities and Exchange Commission adopted a rule mandated by the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act to require companies to publicly disclose their use of conflict minerals that originated in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) or an adjoining country.

"The SEC initially estimated the conflict minerals regulation would cost companies $71.2 million, but Reuters recently quoted an SEC official’s estimate that it will cost $3 billion to $4 billion. The National Association of Manufacturers has put the cost far higher, at $9 billion to $16 billion." According to Treasury and Risk.

Surely manufacturer's will take their lumps and not pass this on to consumers... when it starts raining gold. This is just the beginning. This legislation only says they have to disclose if their minerals come from the Congo, Uganda, or Rwanda. This legislation is a cursory nod to human rights groups. It says nothing about Turkey or any other other major mineral-trading centers on the way to manufacturers in Asia. Think about how disorganized and crooked the electronics recycling business is in the US and then imagine how outlaw that would go in a series of undeveloped nations with even less accountability if there were real money to be made. To keep the cost of technology down traders and exporters will engineer all sorts of shenanigans so that our labels could say conflict-free. It's only a bandaid to the bleeding wound of the Congo. It doesn't stop the problem at the source and it will only serve to wipe the blood off the labels for the consumers eyes, so we can feel empowered and guilt-free about that new iPhone with the revolutionary new headphone jack on the bottom, not the top like the last one.

Harping on about conflict-free supply chains is not going to stem the tide, it will only shield our eyes. I believe the Dear Hillary campaign is a good start, thus I have registered Champlain College Environmental Policy as a chapter of the Dear Hillary Campaign for the Congo and ordered 250 postcards from them.

I believe the best start, however, is spreading knowledge of the conflict, the conspiracy, and the causes. I would advocate a short speech to Globalization and Technology CORE classes, as well as Capitalism and Democracy classes for a start.

I have uncontrollable thoughts that like to linger on the idea that we are Rome and Africa is once again our resource-cursed outpost of economic imperialism (like most less-developed nations are to the US these days) and that we use our alliance with Rwanda and Uganda to maintain the status quo so we can continue to import cheaply and keep our citizens content with bread and circus.

Good links for more information: