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COVID-19 and Conflict | Economic downturn, precarity, and coping mechanisms in the Eastern DRC

The Kivus in the Eastern DRC do not seem to be getting a break. Besides facing a protracted armed conflict, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused an economic downturn in the region as mining activities have been limited or shut down completely. In light of this intersection of crises, the region’s inhabitants have had to find ways to cope, defying lockdown measures in the process. Yet, the social ties of the region is what is keeping it alive, write Christo Gorpudolo and Claire Akello.

"TwangizaArticanalMiners" by USAID_IMAGES is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has faced a long period of protracted conflict, situated in a part of Africa that at one point in time has faced multiple conflicts or genocides, making the region highly volatile (Buscher, 2018: 194). The Kivu provinces in the Eastern DRC are facing a protracted armed conflict that has been widely reported on and has also been discussed on Bliss (see this article, this one, and this one).

As part of a research project hosted at ISS called ‘When Disaster Meets Conflict‘(Discord), we conducted a brief study of COVID-19 responses in the DRC, trying to find out what the responses were and how these were viewed and experienced on the ground. We conducted desk research and interviews with Congolese living and working in the Eastern DRC and the Kivus. We found that the intersection of the ongoing conflict and the COVID-19 pandemic has given rise to great uncertainty in the region that people have sought to counter in their own ways.

Besides the prevailing economic situation as a result of violent conflict, the DRC has also experienced a new outbreak of communicable and highly infectious diseases, like its tenth Ebola outbreak in 2018, (see this WHO news article) as well as measles, yellow fever and, most recently, the outbreak of COVID-19, which occurred amidst the worst Ebola outbreak on the continent at the time (Mobula et al., 2020: 3). With the coinciding occurrence of COVID-19 and Ebola and an ongoing conflict, many Congolese families and miners feared the loss of their livelihoods and were at a greater risk of falling further into poverty due to dwindling incomes and severe health risks.

Following the recording of the first COVID-19 case (GARDAWORLD, 2020) on 10 March last year, on 24 March the DRC government announced a state of health emergency, declaring a nationwide lockdown to be observed in all of the country’s 11 provinces. Since then, the lockdown has been extended five times by the national assembly, with various forms of preventive measures introduced (Atlantic Council, 2020). The lockdown measures have immensely affected mining activities in the DRC (IPIS, 2020) a country where residents rely heavily on income from the mining sector. According to a report by the European Network for Central Africa (EurAc), insecurity in the mineral supply chain due to the outbreak of COVID-19 has had an impact on the Congolese economy in general, with the country preparing for a potential catastrophic economic downturn in the mining sector (Business and Human Rights Resource Center, 2020).

Mining activities in the Kivus and the Eastern DRC are conducted in person, with a strong reliance on human or person-to-person interaction. Thus, with the introduction of preventive measures, the livelihoods of miners and people living in Eastern DRC have been negatively impacted, as these preventive measures according to respondents run contrary to the somewhat informal practices in the DRC, particularly in the mining sector. Some prevention measures introduced by the government included the prevention of the movement of people, the closing of borders, and the limitation of legal mining activities, which forced small-scale miners to cease their operations that provided them with incomes necessary to survive.

One of the respondents participating in the research stated that with no definite time of earliest recovery in the mining sector, there is increasing anxiety and fear amongst miners and people living in the Kivus of little chance of a swift economic recovery as the situation moves from a short-term health crisis to a prolonged economic downturn.

In the Kivus, some areas such as Biholo, Nalucho and Kalehe have suspended mining activities, while in other sites artisanal miners continue to work amidst strict guidelines and awareness campaigns about the containment of COVID-19 by different civil society organizations. However, the situation is far from ideal. It was also highlighted by respondents that the closure of mining activities affects the wider population in the Kivus because many people rely on the income from the mines.

Defying lockdown measures to counter anxiety

These economic impacts have caused distress among families, miners, and people living in the Kivus. As a coping mechanism, the population in the Kivus find social gatherings important (although these gathering are not permitted) as a form of mental support. According to four of the six respondents interviewed for this study, families and residents living in Eastern DRC and the Kivus meet in what they referred to as ‘secret bars’ operating undercover. These bars usually appear closed or isolated from the outside, but are booming inside. Respondents also stated that most of the friends/or families meeting inside these ‘secret bars’ have a mutual agreement, as these gathering places remain secret to those outside the trust circles. These gatherings involve the sharing of drinks and friendly conversation. It is considered a way to handle anxiety that comes with uncertain times, including the current state of the Congolese economy.

A major risk factor posed by this form of coping mechanism is that it makes the population more vulnerable to COVID-19 and increases the risk of widespread COVID-19 transmission due to increased social interaction. Yet people felt that they had to defy lockdown measures to cope and were willing to take the risk. Consequently, social gatherings still take place, serving an important function in a time of economic precarity and great uncertainty. This form of coping may be the lifeline for many in the Eastern DRC and elsewhere, and its value should not go unrecognized.


References

Atlantic Council. 2020. “Shaping the global future together.” Accessed 25 July 2020 https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/about/

Büscher, K., 2018. “African cities and violent conflict: the urban dimension of conflict and post conflict dynamics in Central and Eastern Africa.” Journal of Eastern African Studies 12 (2): 193-210.

Business and Human Rights Resource Center. 2020. “Mining minister warns against the social and economic impact of mine closure during the COVID-19 pandemic.” https://www.business-humanrights.org/en/latest-news/drc-mining-minister-warns-against-the-social-and-economic-impact-of-mine-closures-during-the-covid-19-pandemic/

GARDAWORLD. 2020. “DRC: authorities declare state of emergency March 24/3.” https://www.garda.com/crisis24/news-alerts/326271/drc-authorities-declare-state-of-emergency-march-24-update-3

IPIS. 2020. “The impact of COVID-19 on the artisanal mining sector in Eastern DRC.” https://ipisresearch.be/publication/the-impact-of-covid-19-on-the-artisanal-mining-sector-in-eastern-drc/

World Bank. 2020. “World Population: DRC.” Accessed on 16 June 2020 https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.POP.TOTL?locations=CG-CD

Mobula, L. M., H. Samaha, M. Yao, A. S. Gueye, B. Diallo, C. Umutoni, J. Anoko, J. P. Lokonga, L. Minikulu, M. Mossoko, and E. Bruni, 2020. “Mobilizing the COVID-19 response in the DRC.” Accessed on 23 June 2020 https://www.path.org/articles/mobilizing-covid-19-response-drc/

About the authors:

Christo Gorpudolo is a development practitioner who has been working in the development sector since 2014. She is an early career researcher with an academic interest in topics including humanitarian aid, gender, peace, and conflict. She has a Master’s of Arts Degree in Development Studies from the ISS.

Claire Akello graduated from the ISS in 2019 with a major in Human Rights, Gender and Conflict studies. She has been engaged in both media and development work for local and international organizations for over five years, focusing on issues related to health, education, and access to justice.

 

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The End of the African Mining Enclave? by Ben Radley

During much of the twentieth century, the African mining sector was seen by many as an enclaved economy, extracting resources to the benefit of the global economy while offering little to meaningfully or sustainably advance social and economic development on the continent. Yet recent mining industry restructuring has fuelled fresh hopes that the sector now carries the potential to drive industrialisation and structural transformation across Africa’s 24 low-income countries. However, empirical evidence from this country group has been lacking, with a focus instead on middle-income African countries (in particular South Africa) and the historical experiences of today’s high-income countries. So what relevance, if any, does the idea of the mining enclave continue to hold for Africa’s poorest areas today?  


Since 1980, the World Bank has loaned more than $1 billion to low-income country governments across Africa to liberalise, privatise and deregulate the mining sector, resulting in the en masse arrival of transnational corporations (TNCs) to lead a foreign-controlled, industrial mining economy across the continent. The process has been theoretically sustained, in part, by an emergent group of Global Value Chain (GVC) scholars, who take ‘as their point of departure the flaws of the literature on the enclave nature of extractive industries in Africa’ (Ayelazuno, 2014: 294). The enclave thesis was initially established by Prebisch (1950) and Singer (1950), who used a centre-periphery framework to argue that capital intensive resource extraction in the global periphery has little articulation with local and national economies, and that the benefits accrue largely to the foreign countries and TNCs providing the industrial technology and capital.

Two of the most influential policy papers from the GVC literature challenging this thesis, Kaplinsky et al. (2011) and Morris et al. (2012), observed that the global mining industry has recently restructured away from vertical integration and towards outsourcing the supply of goods and services to independent firms. Historically, so the argument goes, foreign-managed industrial mines in Africa were enclaved productive structures, which tightly managed and controlled all of their activities internally. Yet today, by subcontracting to and procuring from domestic firms and entrepreneurs, these same mines can ‘provide a considerable impetus to industrialisation’ (Morris et al. 2012: 414). For Kaplinsky et al. (2011: 29), ‘the enclave mentality in low–income [African] economies is an anachronism’.

Yet to what extent does this claim about the end of the African mining enclave hold up in reality? This was the motivating question behind my recently published article, which explored the issue through a case study of Twangiza, an industrial gold mine located in South Kivu Province of the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, and managed by the Canadian corporation Banro. The answer, in short, is that the empirical data painted a very different picture to the expectations laid out by the theory.

While Banro did outsource a range of activities and services at Twangiza to independent firms, as foregrounded in the GVC literature, it internally managed the procurement of its mid- to high-value supplies – which heralded almost entirely from the Triad states,[1] South Africa and Australia – and subcontracted mostly to foreign firm subsidiaries. Banro only outsourced procurement to Congolese suppliers at the lowest-value end of the chain, mostly for office equipment and stationery, worker safety equipment and basic construction materials (such as steel bars and concrete). As elsewhere in the procurement chain, none of these low value goods were manufactured or procured domestically.

In the realm of subcontracting, in 2017, Banro subcontracted 15 firms to provide 13 different activities and services to the Twangiza mine. Of these firms, outside of the provision of labour, only two were Congolese. This was despite the presence of existing Congolese firms operating in the same areas (such as security, catering, road maintenance, fuel and transportation). Considered together, foreign firms captured an estimated 87 per cent of all value accruing to Twangiza’s subcontractors. In addition, some foreign firms had used their arrival through Banro to consolidate and expand their presence in the Congolese economy, by securing further subcontracts in the country’s mining and other sectors.

Moreover, while the position of labour is not considered by GVC enthusiasts, it proved highly relevant in this case, as corporate outsourcing at Twangiza had altered the nature of the relationship between workers and managers, as well as between different groups of workers themselves. Subcontracting at Twangiza led to the mine’s workforce being split across 15 different firms. This high level of organisational fragmentation weakened the collective power of workers by reproducing and further entrenching pre-existing social divisions between them. Individual firms recruited along certain class, ethnic or territorial lines, that functioned to hinder worker organisation and unity across them. This helps explain the near total absence of labour militancy at the mine, despite the fact that a large segment of the mine’s workers experienced low and declining wages, and poor access to benefits.

While the case of Banro’s Twangiza mine reflected global mining industry restructuring away from vertical integration and towards corporate outsourcing, there was little evidence to suggest this restructuring had invalidated the foundations of Prebisch and Singer’s original enclave thesis. On the contrary, the general picture seemed to confirm this thesis, whereby resource extraction in the periphery has few domestic linkages and is generally disarticulated from local and national economies due to the periphery’s dependence upon external technology and industrial capabilities in the centre.

Drawing on these findings, the wisdom of earlier neoliberal mining sector reform is questioned. Rather than taking a laissez-faire approach to mining industrialisation, African governments would be better served adopting interventionist measures via pro-labour and industrial policy to counter the observed twin tendency of corporate outsourcing to marginalise domestic firms and weaken the collective strength of workers through the organisational fragmentation of labour.

[1] The EU, the US and Japan.


References:
Ayelazuno, J. (2014) ‘The “New Extractivism” in Ghana: A Critical Review of its Development Prospects’, The Extractive Industries and Society 1(2): 292–302.
Kaplinsky, R., M. Morris and D. Kaplan (2011) ‘A Conceptual Overview to Understand Commodities, Linkages and Industrial Development in Africa’. London: Africa Export Import Bank.
Morris, M., R. Kaplinsky and D. Kaplan (2012) ‘“One Thing Leads to Another”: Commodities, Linkages and Industrial Development’, Resources Policy 37(4): 408–16.
Prebisch, R. (1950) ‘The Economic Development of Latin America and its Principal Problems’. New York: Economic Commission for Latin America.
Singer, H. (1950) ‘U.S. Foreign Investment in Underdeveloped Areas: The Distribution of Gains Between Investing and Borrowing Countries’, The American Economic Review 40(2): 473–85.

Picture credit: Ben Radley. It shows cranes at Banro’s Twangiza mine that look out across the surrounding hills.


About the author: 

BR Portrait.jpgBen Radley is a PhD student at the International Institute of Social Studies in The Hague. His research interests centre on the political economy of transnationals and development in low–income African countries, with a focus on the DRC. He’s a Leverhulme Trust grantee, and an affiliated member of the Centre of Expertise for Mining Governance at the Catholic University of Bukavu in the DRC.