Conflict minerals: some progress in the Congo?

The US government is kick starting an effort to get a 'conflict free' certification program off the ground for electronics manufacturers who sources minerals in the Democratic Republic of Congo. But does this thing have legs?

At the heart of the conflict minerals issue is the regulatory mandate that electronics manufacturers must carry out supply chain due diligence yet there has been no corresponding governmental led schemes to certify that source mines are indeed conflict free. Some firms have simply pulled out of the region altogether rather than try to cross over a high hurdle of operational & brand risk with compliance complexity. As a result these poverty stricken regions of eastern Congo have seen their incomes drop further.

See also - Unwatchable: dial R for rape. How much does your handset really cost.

Now the US State Department is stumping up some cash and expertise to try and kick start a certification programme. Yesterday Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs Maria Otero while visiting Kinshasa, announced the formation of the Public-Private Alliance for Responsible Minerals Trade (PPA) and a $3.2 million grant from USAID with the expectation that the industry will cough up another $2 million.

The PPA will focus on three main priorities:

  • assist with the development of pilot supply chain systems that will allow businesses to source minerals from mines that have been audited and certified to be ‘conflict-free.’ 
  • provide a platform for coordination amongst government, industry, and civil society actors seeking to support conflict-free sourcing from the DRC. 
  • establish a website designed to serve as a resource for companies seeking information regarding how to responsibly source minerals from the DRC.

It's a good start but there are some open questions and concerns. First, so called public-private partnerships can be unstable working devices with a multitude of stakeholders working as much against one another as with. Manufacturers, above all, need to guarantee their consumers that products sold are conflict free and to be able to do so quickly. Governmental aid agencies are in the business of long term humanitarian assistance and basic economic development. These two objectives maybe conflicting, at least in the short run. Secondly, its not at all clear who will develop the audit protocol, by when it will be developed and which agency exactly will have the skill, security and authority to carry out the audits & provide certification.

Certainly, the US government has legitimate trade interests in helping the predominately US based industry work through this problem. It remains to be seen though whether USAID is just providing air cover for the industry or actually does have the know how and will to see this process to a workable solution for the long run. $5.2 million may seem like a lot of money but with producers and manufacturers outnumbered by almost two to one with NGO's, think tanks, network operators, industry groups and government agencies, it's a veritable conga for the Congo.  There is serious risk that the pool of money will be burned through quickly in exhaustive talking phases without much in the way of robust & actionable process coming out the other side. Colour me sceptical.

Still, kudos to all below for signing up although Dell, Microsoft and Apple are curiously absent given that its a US government process. The kick off event for the PPA will be in Washington in November and after that we should soon see if this thing has legs.

Advanced Micro Devices Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition (EICC) Enough Project Global e-Sustainability Initiative (GeSI) H.C. Starck HP International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR) Intel ITRI on behalf of the iTSCi project Jewish World Watch Motorola Solutions, Inc. Nokia Pact Partnership Africa Canada / Partenariat Afrique Canada Responsible Sourcing Network Sony Corporation Sprint Telefónica Toshiba Corporation Verizon Communications World Gold Council