Rarely has so small a law stirred so much debate about so distant a conflict. Over the past several months, debate about legislation requiring companies to disclose any use of conflict minerals in manufacturing, has dragged a bunch of seemingly unconnected people into its orbit: from Green Bay Packers’ quarterback Aaron Rogers and members of the U.S. Congress to Washington think tanks and thousands of American companies.
At issue is whether Section 1502 of the Dodd‐Frank Act of 2009 has hurt or helped people in the target country – the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Advocates pushing for the provision called attention to what they saw as the complicity of the American consumer and their ‘blood cell phones’ in Congo’s ongoing conflict. Critics claim the law has drained the country of much needed investment, throwing millions of Congolese further into poverty. Ultimately, the debate about the legislation in Washington has drowned out the Congolese voice. But new technologies offer new ways for their voice to be heard.
Mobile phones, apps, tech-supported citizen action and user-generated imagery provide different avenues for the Congolese to generate more information and data that might better inform the debate. Until now, companies haven’t seen mobile phones as an opportunity because technology hasn’t been framed as a solution – it’s been framed as the problem.
Ironically, the same tools that led to this law’s creation can now be part of the solution.
Recognizing the challenges
Much of the debate about the legislation revolves around whether to repeal it. But since it is unlikely to be repealed in its entirety, focusing on addressing the operational challenges its implementation poses offers a more constructive line of dialogue.
On-the-ground challenges in the DRC and surrounding areas will continue to complicate efforts to collect information about conflict mineral supply chains. The DRC’s recovery since the end of the civil war in 2003 was set back by the re-‐emergence of conflict in the eastern part of the country, which has only recently abated. Clashes between armed groups continue, particularly on the border between Rwanda and the DRC, despite moves towards increased stability in the region.
Ongoing conflict presents a significant operational constraint for stakeholders seeking to reduce the trade in conflict minerals. The DRC also faces one of the most challenging infrastructure deficits on the continent, with about half the existing infrastructure in need of rehabilitation. To rebuild the country and catch up with the rest of the developing world, the DRC needs to spend $5.3 billion a year over the next decade, or 75 percent of the 2006 GDP.
The country currently has less than 30 miles of paved road per one million people. Insufficient infrastructure is perhaps the biggest difficulty foreign businesses, non-‐profits and other organizations face in the region.
The combination of ongoing civil disruption and conflict, with limited infrastructure presents enormous obstacles to the implementation of the legislation. But new methods of data acquisition present unique new opportunities to shed light on a growing challenge.
What is Compliance?
One of the challenges revolves around what constitutes compliance. Currently, companies are required to due diligence their supply chain to determine whether they are directly or indirectly supporting the conflict in their supply chain. (See the Securities and Exchange Commission Fact Sheet: Disclosing the Use of Conflict Minerals)
However, guidelines on due diligence offer, at best, little more than best practices for supplier surveys and training. At worst, they pass along the requirement to third party auditing firms who are either ill equipped to implement due diligence in the Congo or overly reliant on ‘tracking and tracing’ technologies that are not easily adapted to local circumstances.
As a consequence, over 1000 companies were unable to determine whether they were sourcing conflict minerals. Moreover, even for those that have made the effort, the evolving nature of the conflict and the changing sources that fund it, mean their compliance could quickly be reversed if the conflict changes course.
A new approach that leverages information from the ground from individuals working within the minerals trade is necessary.
At its core, conflict mineral sourcing is about access to information. Only with detailed and reliable data can companies be sure that their value chains are ‘conflict-free’. The aforementioned barriers to information in the DRC are huge.
In addition to the country’s poor infrastructure, the ongoing conflict makes it very hard for companies to collect data on the ground safely, reliably and with some sense of confidence in the data’s integrity. Even the US government acknowledges that it’s short on data.
In 2014, the Department of Commerce issued its long-awaited list of conflict mineral processing facilities. Understandably, the Department recognized that it does not have “the ability to distinguish” which facilities process minerals that are used to finance conflict in the DRC.
In order to bridge this information gap, innovative data aggregating and reporting solutions are needed. Fortunately, new methods of data acquisition present unique new opportunities to address this challenge.
Mobile phones, which are made with tantalum, were once perceived as the primary vectors of conflict mineral trade. Today, mobile technology has become one of the solutions to the lack of available data in frontier markets.
A growing number of apps aggregate data that is submitted by users in order to measure localized price increases, corruption, criminal activity and labor violations. With the amount of mobile phones in Africa growing rapidly, these platforms can enable the average Congolese citizen to report bribes, deforestation sites, informal tolling stations, border wait times and other secondary effects of the conflict mineral trade.
Put together and at a large enough sample size, these multiple data points could allow a company to statistically estimate the likelihood that its suppliers are operating in a conflict minerals zone.
Congolese civilians are the primary stakeholders in the fight against the conflict mineral trade. Regardless of whether or not the law is repealed, the United States should work to increase the role that the Congolese people can play in reporting criminal behavior on the ground.
In order to do so, the U.Ss government should promote entrepreneurial solutions that would put mobile technology at the forefront of conflict mineral reporting.
Eliot Pence is director of Africa Practice at McLarty Associates, a Washington-DC consultancy firm. He is the founder of AXN, an Africa-focused expert network.