As we graduate from Harvard amidst the pandemic, we reflect on the juxtaposition of our relative privilege with the systematic marginalization of the artisanal miners in the Democratic Republic of Congo. As we go into the real world, we have to recognize the contribution of their labour to our education and commit to improving their lives.
While the COVID-19 crisis significantly disrupted the education of billions of individuals, as students attending higher education at Harvard in Boston, US, we were among the fortunate minority of people who continued to pursue their education and activities online.
We accessed the best courses on Zoom from the comfort of our bed and stayed connected to our families and friends through Snapchat,TikTok and Netflix Party. But while we celebrated the birthdays of our young nieces and nephews via FaceTime, thousands of children of the same age across the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have lost their childhood, working in mines to enable the world’s screen addiction.
DRC and artisanal miners
At the heart of the modern technological economy is the DRC, a resource-rich country with minerals like tungsten, tantalum, tin, gold, and cobalt. The DRC produces 60% of the world’s supply of cobalt, a super mineral that is found in integrated circuits, semiconductors, and rechargeable batteries in devices like smartphones, laptops, and electric cars. Of the cobalt that the DRC exports, 30% comes from artisanal miners, who work independently from the mining companies.
Artisanal miners lack the proper equipment and resources to protect themselves adequately against hazard conditions. There are documented cases of child labor, and countless stories of miners, adults, and children, being buried alive when tunnels collapse.
As Harvard Kennedy School graduates who understand the roles of institutions within solving the world’s biggest pressing issues, we also acknowledge the individual responsibility and our complicity in the suffering of the Congolese people.
A recent study discovered that children living near mines in a neighborhood outside of Kolwezi in the southeastern part of the country had elevated levels of cobalt in their urine and blood samples, as well as evidence of DNA damage; newborns of miners were at increased risks for birth defects. Miners risk death or becoming permanently injured for less than $2 a day while tech companies make billions annually in revenue.
A lack of accountability allows these conditions to flourish. It’s easy for different actors, including the government of the DRC, Chinese joint-ventures, and the tech companies to blame the labour violations on other parts of the supply chain until ultimately, nothing is done. Consequently, the most vulnerable people suffer the consequences of inaction while the world profits from their misery.
Individual responsibilities to acknowledge
As Harvard Kennedy School graduates who understand the roles of institutions within solving the world’s biggest pressing issues, we also acknowledge the individual responsibility and our complicity in the suffering of the Congolese people. As consumers, future policymakers, and executives, our future is interconnected with the most vulnerable communities in the DRC, despite the distance between us.
As tech continues to conquer the world, we need to increasingly think about its supply chain. Just as in the West we fight for better working conditions of warehouse workers and ad-hoc workers who work off ride-sharing apps, we should also fight for the laborers at the start of the tech supply chain, those forgotten men, women, and children of the DRC.
Advocating to improve conditions for artisanal miners is not in direct opposition to the goals of tech companies. In negotiation terms, it is not a zero-sum game that results in one winner and one loser.
In light of our graduation, let us … strive for economic justice and social equality.
Companies under the OECD Due Diligence Guidance are asked to “set-up due diligence policies, monitor their supply chains for risks to human rights and other harms, and take steps to mitigate them.” This allows them to fulfill their legal and ethical obligations while still having access to these minerals and maximizing revenue.
If artisanal miners were treated according to those guidelines and given due respect rather than exploited for maximum profit, they would earn more money, be able to send their children to school, and benefit from the resources within their communities.
The digital revolution can be achieved without the suffering and misery of the Congolese people.
Simple, but profound recognition
What advocates are asking us to do is to simply recognize the humanity of the Congolese people and end their exploitation in a current system that deems some lives worth less than others.
We, as consumers, should not underestimate our power to make a change, even from home. We are the economic force, and while it is unrealistic for most of us to live without phones, computers, and tablets, holding onto old ones and repairing them instead of upgrading them is not only cost-effective but also more ethical.
In addition, we can use those blood-tainted electronic devices as tools to raise awareness on social media, share resources, engage in conversations, but also call on companies to hold them accountable.
We can also financially support local organizations that work for the reintegration of child miners into the school system and address their health, physical, economic and psychological needs.
Tools to change lives
While our ability to perform our job depends on the exploitative labour of Congolese people, our Harvard education has equipped us with tools to change their lives. Organisations like Amnesty International are pushing companies to conduct human rights due diligence on their mineral supply chains and publicize results. Anti-slavery economist Kara Siddarth, filed, along with Congolese families, a landmark legal case against the world’s largest companies.
As future policy makers and executives, we can build on these interventions to hold companies and states accountable for protecting human rights. When we have the responsibility for designing policies, we need to ensure that we collaborate with researchers, victims, and advocates who work on the ground, to bring their voices to the table and provide solutions that do indeed address the issues they face. And more generally, applying a human right lens to our work can make a huge difference.
Call to the next generation of leaders
We may think we are too small to make that difference, but nobody is too small. In addition to the power of being consumers, we are educated policy makers who have been taught not only to observe, listen, empathize, but also to think of what we owe to each other.
During these past two years at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, we have been surrounded by incredible faculty, inspiring speakers and audacious activists that showed us through their actions that no battle is too big for us. We know going forward that our classmates who come from different countries are the next generation of leaders who will continue these battles.
Bottom line: In the coming months and years, we will be debating on how to honour the essential workers that made our lives easier during this pandemic. This includes people like delivery warehouse workers and ad-hoc employees, such as those offering grocery purchase and delivery services. They are fundamental parts of the tech supply chain. However, we must remember that this supply chain is global and includes Congolese artisanal miners.
This pandemic has exposed how weak links in our system nationally and globally condemn us all. In light of our graduation, let us not forget that and strive for economic justice and social equality.