Minerals and Conflict in Africa

Over the past week, a number of bloggers have pointed out a number of problems with the convenient “minerals = conflict” thesis.  These stories have mostly been inspired by the recent CBS 60 Minutes news segment on “Congo Gold”.

Dan Fahey lays out three criticisms of that story in an African Arguments blog post:

  1. the gold mine that we see is not part of the problem….  and in fact there are many gold mines in Congo that are not part of the problem
  2. it presents an analysis of the Congo conflict that is too simplistic; we should realize that there is more to this conflict than gold
  3. ….  I won’t steal all of Dan’s points, be sure to check out his post

Meanwhile, Texas in Africa pairs the CBS story with the more general story that is out there which links “cell phones/minerals” to rape in the Congo.  “Show me the data”, Texas in Africa demands.  Indeed, solid data is not there.

One common concern that underscores both of these bloggers attention is that often “misinformation” is worse than the “inattention” these problems generally get.  As Africanists, it is easy to bemoan the fact that much of the world has barely noticed the largest war since World War II; that family members and friends believe politics in Zimbabwe is representative of politics everywhere in Africa; and so forth.  So it is easy to get excited about anything that brings attention to Africa.  The problem comes when the stories people finally hear about Africa include incomplete or erroneous information.  In such cases, the consequences (unintended or intended) can be unfortunate.  Stopping the flow of gold from the Congo can cut out legitimate Congolese businessmen and women, Dan Fahey warns; focusing on the minerals used in cell phones might connect American consumers to the conflicts but there are likely better ways to use our resources to stop the conflict in the Congo, Texas in Africa suggests.

So I agree with these bloggers’ concerns for the most part.  That said, I think it would be wrong to swing too far away from acknowledging the important roles resources can play in conflict situations.  Michael Ross has written persuasively on the types of mechanisms that make resources matter for conflict (see, for instance, here).  David Leonard and Scott Strauss’ book, Africa’s Stalled Development, demonstrates that the economies surrounding resources (and foreign aid) can have profound consequences for the development of good governance in Africa.

So let’s not decide that a couple bad news stories means we should ignore the importance of resources in conflict situations, just that we need to be more careful about defining the precise ways in which they matter.  And if you decide that you want to act on the information you hear/watch on the news, then please take the time to do a little research on the issue before getting carried away.

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