Also: 42

Oh dear.

It’s that time of year again. It’s time we all wring our hands about an ill-advised advocacy initiative in Washington.

As someone who has worked on advocacy initiatives in Washington—none of them ill-advised, of course—I would like to say before we get into any serious business: don’t panic.

This is Washington. This is Congress. Name the last important thing Congress did for foreign policy. PEPFAR? And that took $25 billion dollars over five years to make an impact. So there is a bill in Congress, so what? Don’t panic.

I am not an expert on the DRC, but fortunately, this being the internet, I can point you in the direction of a few. There’s Jason Stearns at Congo Siasa who reminds us that the conflict in the DRC is not all about minerals. There’s Laura Seay at Texas in Africa who reminds us that cell phones don’t cause rape. For the purposes of this blog, we will stipulate to those facts.

Let us look at the legislation that is causing the current kerfuffle. The legislation is a short title attached as a rider to the big financial reform bill. It’s three sections. I’ll summarize:

  1. Congress thinks minerals cause conflict because someone told them this is true.
  2. Companies will have to tell the SEC if their minerals come from the DRC unless the President thinks this rule is stupid.
  3. The SEC will have to write a report about how Congress ended the war in the DRC by forcing Apple to tell everyone where their minerals come from.

See why I said “don’t panic”? I hear you saying, “But this is just laying the groundwork for really terrible legislation!”

After Sudan divestment legislation was signed into law—and full disclosure, I was a big supporter of that—a few Members of Congress wanted to forge their own legacy of stringent Sudan legislation. The divestment legislation targeted U.S.-held stocks of foreign companies doing business with the government in Khartoum, ultimately not a significant hit to Sudan’s economy. Certain Members of Congress saw that a much more significant hit to Sudan’s economy would be in banning the import of gum arabic, a ubiquitous substance used in everything from soft drinks, to M&Ms, to newspaper printing (so maybe the last one isn’t so ubiquitous anymore.) Their solution to ending the genocide in Darfur was banning the import of gum arabic. Really dumb idea.

For one, we truly cannot live without peanut M&Ms. Also, banning the import of gum arabic would negatively impact the lives of Sudanese farmers more than it would positively influence the government of Sudan to stop endorsing the kidnapping of aid workers or attacks on refugee camps. And guess what? The legislation didn’t go anywhere. It was a bad piece of legislation and it died a quiet death in committee.

Professor Seay at Texas in Africa is right to call the current DRC legislation “symbolic.” That’s what it is. It likely won’t have any effect on the mining industry in the DRC or on the technology companies that purchase their minerals or, ultimately, on the conflict itself.

But what will promote peace and stability in the DRC?

As there is no consensus among advocates, academics, and anonymous bloggers about the primacy of mineral mining in fueling the conflict in the DRC, there is no consensus on solutions. And as an advocate, I have to ask—what role in any solution would the United States play? If history is any indication, Congress will only make a cameo appearance as it’s holding an oversized check and shaking hands with Ban during the photo opportunity.

That’s the best case scenario, that they actually write the check.

Even then, to whom do we want the check made out? Ten months ago, Hillary Clinton visited the DRC and the State Department announced a $17 million initiative to fight the rape epidemic there. Ten months later, where has that money gone? To the usual suspects—the International Rescue Committee, EngenderHealth, and “to be determined.”

The more things stay the same in Washington, amirite?

In the end, we all know there is no silver bullet for the DRC and if there were, it certainly wouldn’t be in Washington (although we are quite well armed here.) Promoting peace in the DRC means promoting grassroots organizations and individuals changing lives in their communities. It’s realizing that in Washington and capitals around the world, we don’t always know the solution, but we’re a part of the equation.

We’re just the multiplier. I’m okay with that.

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