In April 2012, the M23 rebel group (also known as the Congolese Revolutionary Army) launched a rebellion in the resource-rich eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Since then, over 800,000 people have been displaced, and the conflict shows no signs of abating.
Minerals from the DRC are used in the manufacture of everyday mobile technologies such as cell phones, tablets and games consoles. This should be great news for the people of the DRC. But illegal mining is rife, and the resource wars in the country mean that its people are denied the peace, stability and prosperity that would flow from the ethical management of its natural resources. Instead, they are faced with armed struggle, forced labour and high levels of sexual violence.
Congo Calling is a diaspora-led organization formed in 2012 to campaign for the development of technologies that use ethically sourced, conflict-free minerals from the DRC. Its strategy is to address illegal mineral mining by lobbying technology companies and their customers.
A key element of this involves working with organizations and student bodies across Britain. At the University of Exeter, for example, Congo Calling supported and mentored students in their successful campaign to encourage responsible technology procurement. This is now written into the formal policy of the whole university.
Working with students is vital to harness the enthusiasm and energy of young people who are committed to social change and development in Africa. Student bodies often perform as activists as well as consumers, and they represent a constituency dangerous for technology companies and policymakers to ignore.
The success at Exeter led to a motion being passed by the National Union of Students (NUS), demonstrating a commitment to highlighting issues associated with conflict minerals in the DRC. It has now enshrined a conflict-free declaration into its own procurement process. This motion commits the NUS to support their member Guilds and Unions – over 600 in total – to adopt similar procurement policies and campaigns.
But it’s not just student groups which are crucial to campaigning against the conflict in DRC. The diaspora is also central to this effort.
Equipped with valuable expertise and skills, the diaspora is vital in channelling resources back to the DRC, and in mentoring and supporting other activists. They understand the social and political contexts both of the DRC and the countries in which they live. As such, they are well placed to mobilize social change, as well as communicate between different communities.
Now is a critical time in terms of achieving real change in the DRC. In the last year we have seen the appointment of the UN Commission, the emergence of organizations committed to conflict-free procurement, and the start of a popular movement focused on conflict-free technologies. At the same time, much hangs in the balance. The key policy decisions currently being debated in the US, the EU and elsewhere could either move things forward quickly or hold progress back for a long time.
This is why it is so important for us to keep the pressure on everyone involved, from governments and corporations taking major policy decisions to consumers making everyday choices about what phone to use. If we can make conflict-free, ethically sourced technology the norm, we will help to end the devastating violence in the DRC.