Friday, July 9, 2010

Technology: Fuelling Conflict or Potential for Action?

Read the news story that inspired this poston GPF's website.

In his recent op-ed piece for the New York Times, Nicholas D. Kristof describes the efforts of the Enough Project. Playing off of an advertising campaign of the Apple Corporation, this group of activists has effectively used YouTube and Facebook to raise awareness of conflict minerals in common gadgets like iPhones, PC computers, and Blackberrys

Most people have heard about “blood diamonds,” but “conflict minerals?”

Conflict minerals, like coltan, tungsten, and gold, fuel war in places like the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Virtually all parties to the conflict have fought to control natural resources to fund their ongoing campaigns in brutal ethno-political conflict (I talked about this “resource curse” in a previous blog). These resources find their way into common daily appliances like cell phones, computers, and soda cans – iPhones are not the only gadgets potentially linked to conflict.

In his op-ed, Kristof quotes an organizer of the Enough Project.

“There’s no magic-bullet solution to peace in Congo,” notes David Sullivan of the Enough Project, “but this is one of the drivers of the conflict.” The economics of the war should be addressed to resolve it.

Sullivan and Kristof hit the nail on the head, but their analysis of this issue can be taken a step further.

As Sullivan said, conflict in the DRC is extraordinarily complex: it is ethnic, political, and economic. Natural resources are not the cause of this war, per se, but they certainly sustain the carnage. And as Kristof reminds us, the dollars and cents of war often go unnoticed in the dramatics of mass atrocities, elusive rebel leaders, and crushing disease.

The United Nations has attempted to address these scourges, by sending its largest-ever peacekeeping force to the DRC, by financing numerous reports on the situation, and by promoting action on justice and reconciliation in the region. However, the UN is has been unable to sever the links between minerals and conflict. The United Nations cannot alter insatiable consumer demand for the minerals that buy weapons, pay foot soldiers, and pad the pockets of warlords.

By pressuring corporations to avoid using conflict minerals, people can highlight the consequences of our consumption patterns in conflict zones. While it remains difficult for people to meaningfully get involved in the high-level security issues involved in resolving conflict in the DRC, this is something that ordinary people could do from so far away. The Enough Project is effective because it uses consumer culture to empower people without treading the murky waters of armed humanitarian intervention.

Of course consumer “pressure” is not enough. Activists should consider concrete steps that the private sector, governments, and consumers alike might take to ensure that corporations are fully and legally accountable for their sourcing.

In “pressuring” corporations, activists should consider how they might link their critical discourse to international organizations like the UN, national politics, and the work of other NGOs. At a certain point, high-level action – whether it is an international regulatory framework on minerals or stronger national laws ensuring human rights standards for corporations using minerals – will be needed to enact the measures that enforce real accountability on corporations. Activists can get the ball rolling, but unless they coordinate their activities with high-level political processes, their work may not succeed.

Technology allows us to pressure corporations, governments, and international organizations. If conflict minerals are the dark side of technology, then the democratic space opened up by technology is the bright side. We must do the utmost take advantage of the opportunities it presents. The Enough Project is on the right track.


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