Monthly Archives: March 2012

Opaque not pure: Global Witness and the Kimberley Process


In December 2011, Global Witness left the Kimberley Process with a shouting letter from the NGO’s chairman: “The Kimberley Process’s refusal to evolve and address the clear links between diamonds, violence and tyranny has rendered it increasingly outdated”, writes Charmian Gooch in the press statement on the NGO’s webpage. She then goes on to list all the failings of the Kimberley process, from governments who have used violent means to extract diamonds to companies who haven’t put in place decent labour conditions for miners and are benefitting from the violent coercion of governments. This all sounds very right and righteous. Obviously, a NGO which is supposed to monitor the good practices of an agreement must withdraw if it esteems that these good practices are not kept to. There is only one hitch in Mrs Gooch’s outrage; it was never the objective of the Kimberley process to restrict governments or government licenced companies to brutally exploit diamond mines. Actually, it was never the violence of diamond mining as such that was at stake but only violent mining by some, namely those which were in standard narratives of international agencies and Western governments labelled as “rebel” or even “terrorists” (and which keep being reproduced for instance in the Uppsala Conflict Encyclopedia, see my post). Those “rebels” were those, who deprived both, governments and big international companies from huge profits, and it is this the only reason why they agreed to the Kimberley Certification Scheme.

The program of certifying diamonds had been started on the distinction of legitimate and illegitimate diamonds (see for instance here), and all UN resolutions, whether of the General Assembly or the Security Council, whether on Angola or Sierra Leone, argue that certificates shall stop “conflict diamonds” or “rebel diamonds”. Never, anywhere, was diamond trade as such in question! The foundation document of the Kimberley Certification Scheme is even more explicit: “CONFLICT DIAMONDS means rough diamonds used by rebel movements or their allies to finance conflict aimed at undermining legitimate governments”. The Certification Scheme was never about the methods of mining, the fairness of governmental concessions, labor rights or the like but solely about the question who has the right to exploit diamond mines. And the answer is unambiguous: governments and the companies concessioned by them. By the fiat of this text, those governments additionally become “legitimate governments” although one could believe that the shere fact of having a major rebellion in the country could mean that these governments are anything but legitimate.

The entire logic of the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme is, in an essential and fundamental way, built upon two constitutive beliefs. First, an absolutely unquestioned liberal belief that the diamond industry is an industrial activity, which is as legitimate as any industry and ultimately creating wealth for a larger group than solely the immediate stakeholders, i.e. that the diamond industry will benefit the country in question (as illustrated in a number of overly optimistic reports of Western development agencies like DFID or USAID). In this belief mining is the exact contrary of that activitiy which, by its very conception, can only exist because it brutally exploits people and the environment for the sole and exclusive benefit of a couple some. Yet, mining was not beneficial for those countries  before the wars and there is little reason to believe that it would be so after. Diamonds have little, or actually no use value. The only reason people are willing to pay thousands of dollars for them, is that they have become pricy tokens for “eternal love” as they symbolize rarity, purity and exclusiveness.  However, diamonds are, in fact, abundant and they are, contrary to other mineral resources, easy to produce as large quantities can be found on the surface and do not need large upfront costs of prospection. It often needs only a shovel and sieve to dig for diamonds. Consequently, diamond traders have a strong, indeed a very strong interest to control the quantity of diamonds available on the market in order to artificially create scarcity– this is what De Beers has understood very early on, and why they have in fact built up a powerful cartel through which they control the entire chain from production to polishing passing by several stages of trading. Although De Beers has lost market shares to competitors over the past 20 years, they still control the large majority of the market and have kept the number of competitors low. The Kimberley Process Certification Scheme is a formidable tool to exclude potential competitors from the big deal. Additionally, the huge profit margins of several 1000% percent in the diamond industry are only possible if all costs at the very beginning of the production chain remain significantly low. Diamond miners in Africa are paid commonly between 1 and 4 US Dollars per day…A 1-carat engagement ring at Tiffany‘s is sold for anything up from 9,000US Dollars. Obviously, it would be a pity to loese those formidable profits just for some labor rights or environmental protection costs…

The second necessary belief is the conception that the civil wars in those countries — Angola and Sierra Leone foremost, but also Liberia, Congo and others — were not political struggles which were caused by social grievances but in any respect “diamond-fuelled” as Charmian Gooch herself asserts — the “greed” wars that World Bank economists Paul Collier and Anke Hoeffler had fuzzed about in the 1990s (and whose oh-so statistic proves have been, nowadays and luckily, widely disavowed even by their fellow positivist friends); as they claimed,  the wars were not financed by diamonds, they were basically and firstly fought for diamonds. Yet, as many area experts have already pointed out during the wars, “greed” has, if ever, been only a marginal motive. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Sierra Leone emphasizes (a quote worthy to be reproduced in full lenght): “There is a widely held belief in the western world that the conflict in Sierra Leone was initiated and perpetuated because of diamonds, the country’s most important mineral resource. According to this version, the RUF, backed by Charles Taylor and the NPFL, initiated an armed rebellion in Sierra Leone to gain control of its diamond resources. In the years following the initial attack, it is alleged, the proceeds from an illicit diamond trade enabled the RUF to finance its war effort through the purchase of weapons abroad. In the Commission’s view, this version of the conflict is simplistic. It fails to capture numerous complexities, the reasons for the decay of the state in Sierra Leone and the role minerals played prior to and during the conflict. It also does not reflect what unfolded on the ground in Sierra Leone. There were multiple causes of the conflict and reasons for the involvement of Liberian and other foreign actors. Although it is true that the RUF partly financed its war effort through diamond trafficking, diamonds did not yield significant revenues for the movement before 1997.”

Rather these countries had been caught in complex social conflicts, which had been fuelled by a large variety of sources, not least by the agendas of third states like the former colonial powers, neighbouring states or the US. Ironically, one of motives in these wars has been, at least in Sierra Leone, the fury of young men and women who had been brutally exploited in a largely dysfunctional state and difficult economy (see here for this argument). Yet, if diamonds were not in any way causes of the wars but merely a way of financing them, then, of course, there is no reason to expect that a certification scheme would set an end to the conflict or to violence.

Charmian Gooch, who prides herself of the extensive research she and Global Witness did for the Kimberley Process, and her colleagues know all this, of course. So, why now this indignated hue and cry? Did they really think that this scheme would set an end to the exploitation of diamond mining or end civil wars in Africa? Difficult to believe, maybe true, and yet hardly convincing. It rather seems that this is just one more case where a NGO has found for some time an wonderful topic to build its reputation and existence with a nice cocktail of cheap morality (who would not pity diamond mining boys, whether in war or peace?), glamour (blood diamonds and Leonardo di Caprio) and pompous talks (norms and world politics), all of which needs just as little regard for what is really happening on the ground as do all those other celebrity projects like Live Aid or Angelina Jolie’s UNICEF ambassadoring. For sure, the Kimberley Process was hailed by researchers (also here) and politics alike as huge step in global corporate responsibility and the new governance of the world. Since its foundation in 1993 the organisation has grown to over 60 members and has offices around the world. Members of Global Witness were regular guests at the meetings of the World Diamond Council (which certainly were not hosted in Johannesburg’s YMCA hostel). Global Witness and Partnership for Africa were also consultants on the Hollywood blockbuster “Blood Diamond”. And Charmian Gooch was elected “Young global leader” by the World Economic Forum. All that red carpet and fame, however, have faded as media and public eyes have turned to other humanitarian horror shows and that neither child soldiering nor blood diamonds are really flashy anymore. Charmian Gooch’s sudden realization that this scheme is a bad joke now sounds like a hollow pretext to get rid of this issue which now, as the glitter has come off, is nothing but ugliness and misery.


Violence and Social Orders, a conceptual framework for interpreting recorded human history, by Douglass C. North, John Joseph Wallis and Barry R. Weingast, CUP, 2009


Is this again another book that promotes the ideology “The West is the Best!”? Yes. Do the authors really account for recorded human history as they say they do? Of course not. Do the authors prove convincingly that democracies are less violent? Again, no. Is it still worth a read? Yes, it is.

The authors do develop some interesting ideas about the relationship between violence and the inclusiveness and exclusiveness of social, economic and political institutions, even though the book is a, at times comic, tentative to rewrite Eurocentric modernization theory without writing Eurocentric modernization theory. Indeed, the book’s subtitle is a misnomer as the cases cited are mainly and predominantly those of the US, England and France, and what is discussed of the “rest” (the Atzek Empire for instance) is quite rushed, vague and superficial.

It is also full of omissions and superficial readings of other scholars who have already tempted before them (and more successfully) to decipher why modernity in the West has created very different political, economic and social systems in which most people (but by far not all as the authors imply!!) live in relative physical security, economic comfort and political stability. It is for instance stunning to see that North, Wallis and Weingast (NWW furtheron) take up all three of S.N. Eisenstadt’s core topics (civilization, modernity, patrimonialism) without citing him even once. The rendering of Max Weber is also disturbingly superficial and weak, particularly the claim that Weber would not have accounted for varieties of what the authors call “natural states” ignoring Weber’s painstaking analysis of Hinduism, the Chinese Empire and other works. And of Tilly, they seem to have read not more than his “Capital, coercion, states” so that they couldn’t notice that they talk about exactly the “opportunity hoarding” and “exploitation” mechanisms Tilly identifies at the origin of most social orders. Indeed, both concepts resemble a lot, a lot the limited access definition of NWW!

And, indisputably, there remain serious problems with the categories the authors develop. As Jean Bethke Elshtain observed in her review of the book, using economists’ (one needs to add: liberal economists) language does not really help. Yet, the bone that is the most hard to swallow is the author’s arbitrary and extremely limited definition of the problem of social and political violence.

But let’s start at the beginning. The authors’ core argument postulates that “limited-access orders” are more likely to produce inter-social violence than “open-access orders”. The reason is that open access orders have monopolized violent means under one central institution of which the control is, in principal, open to all; there is, consequently, no need for different groups to employ violence to rule over, fend off or compete with other groups. This central institution is commonly the state but the authors argue that other institutions are imaginable. Open access orders have importantly institutionalized the principle that all members of the society can become members of the ruling elite – “elite” hence changes its meaning from a group whose members are there because of their personal status (like the nobility) to a group whose members are there because they worked their way into the group, independently from their personal status. NWW call this depersonalization of the elite. As means of violence are now subject to a depersonalized institution (the state) to which access is universally open, all members of the society will compete peacefully to either become members of the ruling group or they will, out of their choice, accept not being member of the ruling group, always keeping the option that they could in mind.

In limited-access orders such peaceful competition is not possible because different groups in society, which are based on exclusive membership, have not given up their means of violence  in order to be able to forcefully compete over access to rulership. This is what the authors call “the natural state”, a rather confusing term in political science as they certainly do not mean the natural state of political philosophy. Natural states can be peaceful but if they are so it is because the ruling elite is in a balance: „The natural state reduces the problem of endemic violence through the formation of a dominant coalition whose members possess special privileges. The logic of the natural state follows from how it solves the problem of violence. Elites – members of the dominant coalition – agree to respect each other’s privileges, including property rights and access to resources and activities. By limiting access to these privilege members of the dominant coalition, elites create credible incentives to cooperate rather than fight among themselves. Because elites know that violence will reduce their own rents, they have incentive not to fight. Furthermore, each elite understands that other elites face similar incentives. In this way, the political system of a natural state manipulates the economic system to produce rents that then secure political order.” (p. 18)

Contrary to that, open access orders are peaceful because they are structurally organized in a way that the use of violence for competition is impossible (given that there is a state monopoly of violence),  unnecessary (given that individuals or groups can participate in the ruling elite by peaceful means), and unproductive (given that violence can destroy the advantages all groups have, so there will be no interest in using violence).

Now, the authors contend that all recorded human history has been the history of natural states apart from the past 150 years in North America and parts of Europe. They go to some lengths to show that the United States, England and France have successfully muted from natural states to open-access orders in the 19th century and they contrast this with a couple other cases of “fragile”, “basic” and “mature” natural states. It is in this discussion where modernization theory and “the West is Best” creeps in again and readers who are more sensitive than the authors to other historical periods and cultures will be shocked by the cavalier way they treat complex civilizations like the Aztecs and how they happily, unreflectively jumble them around with others like the Carolingians.

These comparisons throw up a major methodological problem and an essential ontological question. The question is very simple but sheds fundamental doubt on the entire enterprise: how can the authors compare the past 150 years of the US, England and France with let’s say, to take their own example, 2700 years of Aztec Empire, or, to take other examples, 5000 years of Chinese Empire, a couple of hundred years of Ashanti kindom, more than a thousand years of Byzantine/ Ottoman Empire, or simply and more recently 300 years of Japan’s Tokugawa rule? Maybe those open access orders have simply not been around long enough to have their share of major intersocial violence?

Of course, this question only makes sense if we are to accept the ontological claim that these countries were peaceful. The fundamental problem is that we can only accept this claim if we are willing to see American, English or French society as being restricted to white, Christian, adult, middle-class, straight men. Women, homosexuals, native American Indians, slaves and former slaves, underclasses of all colours and colonial subjects would certainly have another story to tell about the peacefulness and the open access of US-American, English or French political and social institutions. While the US are, according to NWW, consolidating their open-access regime in the second half of the 19th century they are also committing what can be safely called a genocide on the Native American Indians and violently abusing thousands and thousands of black slaves. While England is building its open-access regime it is also starving millions to death in Ireland, India and China (see Mike Davis “Victorian Holocaust”). And what to say of France, where as late as the 1960s hundreds of Algerians could be massacred in the middle of Paris without anyone caring?

It is a shame that the authors do not confront this violence up-front. It would have forced them to think a bit more in detail about the relationship between impersonal rule (rule by law), economic free market institutions and social inclusion. As it stands, the authors simply posit that open access orders are those where all three go hand-in-hand and the limited access orders are nothing else than coalitions of violence entrepreneurs who carve up the cake of economic opportunities among themselves, violently fending off any competitors. Yet, there are a number of historical cases where impersonal rule and economic free market have gone along with violent exclusion of parts of the population. The above cited cases belong to those but of course there are more, from minor violent incidents to full-blown genocide like in Nazi Germany (indeed, if we follow Hannah Arendt’s Eichman study, then the Holocaust was only possible because of the impersonality of the bureaucracy). The argument that open access orders are less violent actually hinges on the postulate that impersonal rule, monopoly of violence and free market allow social inclusion. This goes counter to some arguments, mostly of Marxist following, that the free markets of today were only possible on the grounds of violent exclusions. The authors do not offer any argument to solve this debate, actually by not addressing the violence cited above they simply avoid it.

And yet, they do make an interesting argument about the self-sustainability of peaceful competition once the “open access order” is established. According to the authors, states that can offer markets with many opportunities for all (or most) actors in society to gain their live, make a living and/ or become rich are more likely to be stable. They also tend to create and reproduce equalising and stabilising political institutions as any actor trying to diminish these opportunities will, over the short or long term, encounter political resistance. If this resistance can be formulated peacefully and successfully, e.g. in elections, then the economic openess and political openess stabilize and reinforce each other.

Two points are particulraly interesting in this argument. For one, the emphasis is on opportunities and institutions that make an economy offer such opportunities and not on the individuals. In this view, people are neither greedy or lazy if they choose between rebellion and let’s say exploitative diamond mining (Sierra Leone) or precarious coffee planting (Columbia) but they simply lack other opportunities to gain a living. In the current neoliberal paradigm of rebellions the usual story says that rebellions offer greater incentives and awards than “normal” activities. Consequently, people rebell for material motives. However, the Fearons, Colliers and Hirshleifers of conflict analysis and their ideological heirs never analyse why an economy is structured the way that risking one’s live can be a better way to gain one’s living than growing coffee. In NWW’s account of the economy, it is obvious that rebellion is only then a viable alternative if there are no alternatives; and there are no alternatives because the institutions of the economy are not open to create such opportunities. The authors make a Schumpeterian argument that open access economies allow for “creative destruction” competition which allows turning over ideas, projects and people without violence in order to find appropriate solutions for social problems. Unfortunately, their analysis stops here as they do not go further into detail of the relationship between for instance property rights, dispossesion and economic opportunities (which could, actually, have led them back to the American Natives in the 18th and 19th century…).

Second, NWW contextualize economic structures and choices. Although society does not exist in their account, at least not as analytical category, their institutionalist vision contends that free markets never exist as “free” markets, which would be only directed by magic forces like invisible hands. They nicely explain how economic and political institutions go hand-in-hand (with an interesting and and, nowadays, rare defense of the welfare state), pointing by the way to the risks of violence contained in much of the current statebuilding practices and development policies. The authors contend that free markets can only work if they are combined with impersonal institutions (institutions that decide by the law and not the person) and institutionalized accountability and pluralism through which discontent can be voiced and the government’s critiques can become the ruling class themselves. Separating these three elements and installing only one, let’s say elections without free markets with many opportunities, will commonly lead to disaster and a revival of patron-client politics based on personalized rent-seeking.

NWW make therefore also an interesting argument about what they call “natural states”, i.e. states in which access to political and economic institutions is restricted. Arguing over the interconnectedness of economic opportunities and political institutions, they assert that “Natural states are not sick. Natural states have their own logic; they are not dysfunctional” (269). For readers of Joel Migdal’s or S.N. Eisenstadt’s work, this does not really come as a surprise but it is, nevertheless, nice to see that an institutionalist analysis can lead to the same conclusion as a sociological analysis.

For conflict analysis, NWW make a major contribution in contextualizing the use of violence and the (non)monopolization of the means of violence in a larger analytical framework of the institutions in society, state and market. This can redirect research in the political science mainstream to look at the importance of inclusiveness in political, economic and social arrangements, and to shift the attention from the indivdualist “greed” interpretation of most research in the past. However, NWW leaves a lot to wish for, not at least a clarification of the concrete relationship between institutions and violence: which institutions lead to which types of violence? The distinction between natural states and open-access orders becomes much less convincing, once this is considered even with the historical narratives in the book. And as Elshtain points out in her review, the utter neglect of politics from below, of social movements and non-elite actors is not only startling but a major methodological weakness as it clouds the relationship between “access” and violence.




United Nations Day for Women’s Rights and International Peace and how women’s rights and peace do not always go together


Since 1977, the United Nations celebrate the 8th of March as United Nations Day for Women’s Rights and International Peace. The combination of women and peace is flattering and yet starteling. How come women’s rights become associated with international peace? Will there be peace on earth when the last woman is liberated of male oppression? Or shall we read this title as a sort of disclaimer, a reassurance that the fight for women’s rights is not a violent one, not in any way comparable with war? The ambiguity of this title and the cloudiness of the association of women with peace is in any case rather typical for the discussion of the relationship between women’s lives and war violence. The question what role women can and do play in acts of collective violence such as wars touches deeply and painfully on fundamental issues of feminist theory and practice, most particularly upon the question of female agency in situations of violence. The dilemma of feminist theory is obvious: if women are more peaceful than men (whether by nature or nurture be left undecided for the moment), then they can only be passive victims of war. This is the position radical feminists like Catharine MacKinnon defend, having found their ultimate prove that women have always been, are and always will be mere objects of male sexual abuse in the war rape victims of this world. Yet, if women can only be victims of war and particularily of war-related sexual violence, then they cannot be subjects determining their own lives. If women in war are reduced to their role as sexual objects, then female agency in wars becomes inconceivable. Not only does this eliminate the question how much agency women exercise in using their sexuality and their feminity to survive wars and to save their own and maybe the lives of others, but it most importantly represses the existence of women soldiers. In the imaginary that women only exist as victims of war, women cannot be agents of violence. Correspondingly, the UN security council resolution 1325 (2000) does not talk of women as soldiers at all, and the Report on the Impact of Armed Conflict on Women as well as  the Secretary General’s reports on The Impact of Armed Conflict on Children mention girls only as victims of violence.

It should raise a feminist’s scepticism if a male-dominated organisation like the UN conceive of women’s destiny in wars only as of that of victims. And indeed, careful studies by anthropologists on the ground have not only found that many girl and women take active part in soldiering and fighting, they also retrace women’s destinies in subservent positions with much more sensitivity to women’s agency than the UN standard narrative of the woman-war-victim allows. Rachel Brett’s report for the United Nations Office of the Quaker Union, Yvonne E. Keairns study on girl soldiers, or Chris Coulter’s, Mariam Persson’s and Mats Utas’ study of women in civil wars, all show that women and girls not only participate in fighting but that they do so willingly, purposefully and consciously. Chris Coulter also offers an extremely sensitive and balanced account of “bush wives” in the book “Bush Wives and Girl Soldiers”, just as Mats Utas in his contribution to Alcinda Honwana’s and Filip de Boeck’s “Makers and Breakers”.

These studies show that women are far from being helpless victims of war and merely objects acted upon, although they often do experience extreme forms of violence, indeed. And yet, there are many, many who do develop coping strategies, who do manage their environment, who do decide and act upon the events befalling them and who do take their destiny into their hands.They do so on coercion, certainly, but they also do so because their personal history has bestowed with the agency to do so by instilling the will (might it be for revenge, might it be for booty, might it be for shere survival), as well as the capacity and the intelligence to find their way in the male world of war. Rather often than not, girl soldiers chose fighting as the better alternative to(more)  submissive forms of exploitation.

The often fatal disempowerment then does not come forcibly in the war but, worse, in the post-war times, those of peace where the plethora of international development agencies get together with all these other men to huddle women back into the house, into “rehabilitation” in form of sewing or nursing classes, and into trauma counselling. Demobilization projects rarely, probably never, take women’s roles in fighting into account, up to the point that major studies on demobilization dispense with gender questions alltogether. The girls who had managed to fight for their lives in the war, are thrown back into the agentless position of victim and object of development assistance and trauma counselling so that peace, in the end, means disempowerment and less rights and entitlements. If those anthropologists are to be believed, then women’s rights and peace do not go together.