For all of the supposed lack of attention paid to the Congo, pretty much anyone who reads the news could probably recount the common story that is told to explain the country’s suffering over the last several decades: Incredible mineral wealth has spawned a lawless quest for enrichment in the East. Rebels pillage and burn to earn their cut, and sexual violence is rife. If only Western companies would stop buying those minerals — and if only the world would pay attention to the heinous sexual crimes — Congo could finally break the cycle of violence.
That story is simple, easy to follow, and makes a lot of sense. It has allowed journalists, activists, and even politicians to raise the profile of a conflict that has left more dead than any since World War II.
But according to newly published research by Columbia University’s Congo expert Séverine Autesserre, that narrative might also be making things worse—not better in the Congo:
…the focus on these narratives and on the solutions they recommended has led to results that clash with their intended purposes, notably an increase in human rights violations.
The specific consequences?
In the case of conflict minerals in particular, the critique is biting:
By focusing exclusively on one cause of violence, and one solution to it, the proponents of this narrative have inadvertently exacerbated the very problems they were combating. The dominance of this narrative has diverted attention from much-needed policy actions, such as the resolution of grassroots antagonisms, the ﬁght against corruption, and the reform of the state administration.
Furthermore, in 2010 and 2011… international pressure enticed Kabila to impose a temporary ban on mining operations in the Kivus and Maniema … as these measures were not accompanied by broader political, economic, military, and social reforms, they actually fuelled the problem they purported to combat. Since military leaders remained the principal power brokers in rural areas, and since corruption persisted, the application of the technical measures deprived vulnerable populations of their sole means of livelihood while allowing armed groups to continue and even expand their mining operations.
The full paper is well worth a read here. It’s worth saying that fellow Congo expert Laura Seay has made similar points in the past. And this one is h/t Chris Blattman, who, in addition to being quite good on this subject himself, happens to be one of my favorite bloggers.