For the last decade, deep in the heart of the African continent the Democratic Republic of the Congo has laid claim to one of the most devastating humanitarian crises in history. Since the beginning of the Second Congo War (also known as Africa’s World War) in 1998, an estimated 5.4 million people have died, making the war and its ongoing six-year aftermath the deadliest conflict since World War II. Equally appalling is the fact that only 10% of deaths are attributed to violence, with most resulting from starvation and easily preventable disease. An estimated 45,000 people are still dying each month – more than triple the mortality rate at the peak of the Darfur crisis in 2003 – and, according to both the World Bank and the IMF, the Congolese people are, quite simply, the poorest in the world.
The extraordinary level of Congo’s suffering is perhaps only rivaled by the conflict’s own complexity. Congo’s eastern provinces contain massive mineral deposits that are the source of the metals used in the cell phones, laptops, mp3 players, and digital cameras we use every day. But the minerals are mined in horrendous conditions under the watchful eye of many ambiguously interrelated militant factions, earning the lucrative natural resources the name “conflict minerals”.
Recently, strides have been taken toward achieving transparency of the origins of the minerals with the introduction of the Congo Conflict Minerals Act, co-sponsored by Senators Brownback, Durbin, and Feingold. The legislation would require all U.S.-registered electronics companies selling products containing columbite-tantalite, cassiterite, or wolframite to annually disclose the country of origin – and, if derived from Congo or an adjacent country, the mine of origin – to the SEC. Through oversight by the State Department, the intended outcome of the bill will be to sever the funding of the armed groups at the source. By modeling the effort on the Kimberley Process – the regulatory policy that has brought relative stability to the diamond trade in Liberia and Sierra Leone – the plan hopes to achieve the same results.
But Congo’s crisis is fundamentally different from the one that rocked much of West Africa for the better part of the last twenty years. The scenario of mining-at-gunpoint, as depicted in the film “Blood Diamond”, does occur – particularly by the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), the same Hutu rebel group that earned international infamy for the 1994 Rwandan genocide. However, the system more often takes the form of a subtle taxation scheme imposed by the militants, which then steer the revenue into a “shadow economy” and smuggle the minerals across the borders into neighboring Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi to be exported. The taxation system traps the Congolese workers in appalling conditions and extreme poverty, but they have no alternative. So, in order to ensure the livelihood of millions, any attempt to disrupt the mineral trade must be an extremely delicate process. The investigation into the militant groups must be, as Senator Feingold said, “sensitive to the complex reality” of the crisis to avoid inaccurately casting all of the factions in the same light and prompting an implicit blanket sanction on all metals derived from the region by a wary consumer electronics industry.
The situation is complicated by the fact that the “conflict minerals” are as much a symptom of the crisis as they are a cause. Congo’s suffering is cyclical – weak governance gives rise to the inadequate security that allows for the exploitation of the minerals which, in turn, fuels the persistence of weak governance. Therefore, sanctions on the mineral trade must be complemented by proportionate measures to address the lack of a functioning central government. Currently, the militants essentially operate autonomous fiefdoms in the east that lie well beyond the realm of the Congolese government’s minimal authority. To make matters worse, the Congolese National Army often facilitates the illicit trade with support drawn from the very same UN funding intended to suppress the conflict. The only way for the government to achieve some semblance of legitimacy is to initiate a comprehensive development strategy that accounts for the Congolese state’s ineffectiveness. In the words of Jeffrey Herbst and Greg Mills, “the only way to help Congo is to stop pretending it exists.”
Although the conflict has dragged on virtually unchecked, it is not as if Congo has gone unnoticed. Despite the remarkable lack of media attention, Congo is actually home to the world’s largest UN peacekeeping mission (MONUC). The UN Security Council also adopted Resolution 1857 in December 2008, enhancing sanctions on the “conflict minerals” trade. The U.S. Congress has acted as well. The self-explanatory Democratic Republic of the Congo Relief, Security, and Democracy Promotion Act of 2006 – introduced by then-Senator Barack Obama with support from a group of 12 high-profile bipartisan co-sponsors – passed by unanimous consent in the Senate. But, thus far, the act and all other attempts to establish stability have failed largely because of a fundamental lack of cohesion in Congo’s development strategy. In its recent Congo strategy paper, the Enough project lamented, “there has been no coherent approach to alter the incentive structures that keep Congo’s institutions weak and dysfunctional.” Nicholas Garrett echoed the need for a strategy that will “lay the foundation for a large reform process.”
The U.S. global development capacity is currently spread haphazardly across 12 departments, 25 agencies, and nearly 60 government offices, and are still predominantly governed by an outdated law passed in 1961. But the timely Initiating Foreign Assistance Reform Act – introduced April 29th by Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Rep. Howard Berman – calls for the first National Strategy for Global Development (NSGD). The proposed legislation would provide a long-term “centralized decision making” framework for U.S. development efforts. Such a comprehensive framework is the key to ensuring that an effective approach to relief and development in Congo is finally realized.
Congo is the victim of an intricately intertwined array of problems, from “conflict minerals” to deep insecurity to incompetent governance. We must form a cohesive development strategy to tackle all facets of the country’s complex instability. Most importantly, we must not lose sight of the critical role played by “conflict minerals” in the crisis. Just as the militants’ “shadow economy” hinges on the continued flow of the minerals, the trade’s vast wealth must also be harnessed and redirected into a legitimate Congolese economy. There is no quick fix for Congo. Debates about the root of the crisis are irrelevant because Congo’s suffering is not a chain that can be broken when one link is detached. Rather, Congo is a balloon that can not be popped – squeezing one side only swells the rest even more as the air flows throughout it. But by applying careful and coordinated pressure on all sides, Congo’s air of suffering can, slowly but surely, be released.