Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Economics of Chaos – Who really benefits from the conflict in the Eastern Congo?

The bubble of instability in the eastern Congo burst this week with the arrest of the renegade General Laurent Nkunda by Rwandan authorities and the co-opting of his rebel group by the Congolese government. This would seem to be a cause for celebration by the UN and the various NGO’s who have done so much hand wringing over the issue.

Instead, many of the NGO’s as well as the UN have sought to minimize the significance of the events and instead keep the conflict alive in the media. But why, and at what cost?

Its no secret that the eastern Congo is minerally rich, as is the entirety of the Congo, and much of sub-Saharan Africa. Artisanal mining, codified in the Congolese Mining Code written with the help of the World Bank, provides employment and opportunity for hundreds of thousands of Congolese who would otherwise be living in much worse conditions. True, artisanal mining is dirty, hard work, but it provides employment and supports a large percentage of the population in the Congo. Studies have demonstrated that artisanal mining has provided much greater wealth to the region’s population than industrial mining did under the corrupt and ill-managed state owned mining companies.

Instead of focusing on the benefits of artisanal mining, a recent UN Report, as well as various NGO’s, most prominently Global Witness, have attempted to demonize the trade in its entirety. Certainly there are some fairly small, politically and militarily irrelevant rebel groups who are benefiting from the trade, as they also do from extortion and illegal taxation. But the evidence demonstrates that, by and large, the vast majority of the trade is not only legal, but highly beneficial to the economy of the region.

So who really benefits from the conflict?

The first is the United Nations. The UN mission in the Congo is the largest in the world with an annual budget of over a billion dollars. There are 17,000 peacekeeping troops in the Congo, and thousands more civilian support staff. Should peace, God forbid, actually break out the raison d'être for their mission would suddenly evaporate. Demonizing artisanal mining and the small, militarily insignificant rebel groups provides justification to the UN headquarters to continue its mission, and the fat expatriate salaries of thousands of Westerners.

The second group are the NGO’s themselves – many of which have made a name for themselves publicising the conflict in their media campaigns to raise funds for further research, development programs and refugee work. Should peace suddenly break out their jobs too are at risk. The most recent example of this is Global Witness, whose exaggerated statements on the economics of the mineral trade serve only to further their own cause and consequently, their funding. Carina Tertsakian, a researcher at Global Witness who studies the relationship between conflicts and natural resources stated in the South African Mail and Guardian that “At the moment it’s a free for all in the Congolese mining trade…You have different armed groups controlling mines throughout the region.”

This is not exactly how the UN Security Council report put it – but don’t let the facts get in the way of superficial sound bites.

The last group that benefits from the conflict are the legions of journalists who cover the issue for all of the Western media outlets. While in the larger sense, the conflict is actually quite small and localised, journalists are naturally incentivised to paint a much darker picture than reality would suggest. Journalists, while hiding under the banner of independence, are in fact pursuing their own agenda of self-interest. Reporters don’t get promoted for balanced reporting – they get promoted for selling newspapers.

In the end, these three groups while publicly decrying the conflict, privately benefit from it and in an even more sinister and hypocritical way, actively promote it as a means to further their own agendas. Sadly, the ones who lose out are the very ones they claim to be helping – the Congolese people.


Charles said...

Great blog. Really hits the nail on the head w.r.t. who benifits from the chaos in the DRC. Sad but true.

Simon Smythe - UK said...

This is the most informed blog I've read on the Congo. It really lays out the issues well. I'm tired of NGO hyperbole.

Charles said...

So here is the million dollar question. How do we change the current state of affairs?