In the Congo: Applying Research to Issues of Poverty and Servitude


Apr 17, 2024

Artisanal miners sit outside a cobalt mine-pit in Tulwizembe, Katanga province, Democratic Republic of Congo, November 25, 2015, photo by Kenny Katombe/Reuters

Artisanal miners sit outside a cobalt mine-pit in Tulwizembe, Katanga province, Democratic Republic of Congo, November 25, 2015

Photo by Kenny Katombe/Reuters

The Congo faces a series of seemingly intractable issues that have left much of its population in poverty and servitude to multinational mining interests, but international engagement and research could help.

A complex and protracted crisis marked by political instability, armed conflict, human rights abuses, and economic challenges has gripped the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) for decades. An estimated 6 million people have died from conflict in the DRC since the First Congo War of 1996–97 following the Rwandan genocide in 1994 and associated refugee influxes. The U.N. reports that there are over 6 million internally displaced people in the DRC. A brutal history of colonial rule by Belgium and its quest to exploit the Congo's natural resources produced corruption and weak governance post-independence in 1960. This has left large segments of the population with limited access to health care and education and struggling to thrive.

The battle for control over the country's vast natural resources, such as gold, tin, tantalum, and tungsten, remains a core part of the Congo's crisis today. Congolese and foreign armed groups have exploited these resources, leading to territorial and economic conflicts.

A boom in industrial-scale cobalt mining in the DRC has led to mass forced evictions and human rights abuses.

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Meanwhile, the critical raw mineral cobalt has become entangled in controversy over labor practices. Cobalt is essential to the production of electric car batteries and other green-energy technology and more than two-thirds of the world's supply of cobalt is in the DRC. A boom in industrial-scale cobalt mining in the DRC has led to mass forced evictions and human rights abuses as mining companies force entire communities from their homes and farmland.

A researcher at Harvard University who has studied the DRC describes other aspects of its cobalt mining industry as “modern-day slavery.” Poverty is so dire that freelance miners (including thousands of children) use crude tools to dig in dangerous conditions. Various multinational companies reportedly source some of their cobalt from freelancers for penny wages. Chinese companies are increasingly cited for this practice after acquisitions in the past decade allowed them to supplant a generation of American ownership of cobalt mines in the Congo.

International efforts to address the crisis in the DRC have included peacekeeping missions, diplomatic initiatives, and development assistance. However, the underlying causes of the crisis remain unresolved in part because political power struggles fueled by ethnic and regional tensions have hindered efforts to achieve lasting peace. Neighboring countries such as Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi have been entangled in the DRC's armed group conflict to varying degrees—to include providing direct and indirect backing for some rebels—and are motivated by a range of political, ethnic, and economic interests.

The evolution of this conflict has broader implications for international engagement with Africa. Forty percent of the world's population will live in Africa by the end of this century. Yet persistent conflict deprives the continent of its potential to exercise commensurate leadership on the global stage and is a drag on growth and development. China's disciplined, deliberate strategy to dominate access to green energy resources—even if at the expense of local communities and the supply-chain needs of the global economy—adds to the urgency in addressing the DRC's situation.

Map of the Democratic Republic of Congo, image by Peter Hermes Furian/Adobe Stock

Image by Peter Hermes Furian/Adobe Stock

The intractable issues facing post-colonial Congo require broad and sustained international engagement. Dovetailing interests in elevating the role of the African Diaspora and satisfying demand for reliable access to critical minerals present an opportunity for a global call to action. The United States has a nascent policy framework that could help. The Biden administration issued an executive order in December 2023 that established a presidential advisory council designed to strengthen engagement with the African Diaspora in the United States (both the descendants of formerly enslaved people and the nearly 2 million African immigrants who maintain ties to their home countries).

Some areas where the Diaspora could be influential include advocacy, awareness, and political engagement. Social media can be a tool to help advocate for international consumer attention and action on behalf of the Congolese affected by mining. The African Diaspora can also advocate for policy initiatives to protect human rights. As one example, the Enough Project launched Raise Hope for Congo in 2008 as a campaign to boost activism toward ending the conflict in the Congo.

The African Diaspora can also lead efforts to contribute financial resources to humanitarian agencies, NGOs, and community-based organizations working in the Congo. This support can help provide health care, education, and livelihood support to those trapped in subsistence mining. Moreover, the African Diaspora can initiate or support grassroots initiatives such as cultural exchanges, educational programs, and economic empowerment projects.

More multidisciplinary research is needed to provide transparency into the cobalt supply chain in Congo.

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More multidisciplinary research is needed to provide transparency into the cobalt supply chain in Congo by examining labor practices, environmental degradation, and gaps in investment into local infrastructure. Another potential area of research is the extent to which Chinese and other international companies are bound by Congolese government oversight and regulation of the mining industry or circumvent such protections through corruption.

There is also a need for economic policy research that provides recommendations to address the lack of employment opportunities in the DRC. Such work could identify alternatives to artisanal mining and examine the feasibility of making artisanal mining safer given that it is an economic lifeline for some. The findings might be applicable to other resource-rich countries grappling with protecting local communities from exploitation. Finally, more research is needed into how consumer nation governments can implement programs such as recycling to recover critical metals from used devices.

This combination of research and international engagement could help to set the DRC on a path toward stability and resilience.

Marie Jones is a senior international and defense researcher at RAND, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research institution.