IPP Program Journey: Congo Calling Rebooted

Guest blog written by Bandi Mbubi

This is a blog series written by the alumni of the Implementing Public Policy Executive Education Program at the Harvard Kennedy School. Participants successfully completed this 7-month blended learning course in December 2019. These are their learning journey stories.

With President Felix Tshisekedi at the School of Oriental and African Studies – University of London – December 2017

At the beginning of 2019, Harvard Kennedy School invited me to apply for its executive program in Implementing Public Policy. The letter was timely as it arrived when I was reflecting on my life and considering my next moves. The more I read about the course, the more I was convinced that it was meant for me. It promised to teach effective techniques of policy analysis and implementation, with a particular emphasis on policy solutions to wicked problems, which greatly appealed to me. I faced a dilemma though: which of the two projects, I am involved in, should I focus on, as part of my learning experience? From the outset, I was required to choose one policy challenge to work on for the whole duration of the course. 

Initially, I intended to work on policy solutions which would help reduce the rapidly increasing homelessness in the United Kingdom. This fitted well with my role as Director of the Manna Society, which runs a day centre for homeless people, in London Bridge, catering for 150 people, seven days a week, with approximately 1200 people, per year, receiving welfare and housing advice.

But then I changed my mind and chose to focus on another policy problem: conflict-minerals fueling armed conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo, my home country. Although the DRC has enormous natural resources, with 1,100 minerals and precious metals and over 80 million hectares of arable land, it ranks among the poorest in the world at 176 out of 187 countries. And since 1996, a series of armed conflicts have resulted in over 6 million people dead and 4.5 million internally displaced.

In eastern DRC, where armed conflicts are prevalent, rebel groups and rogue elements of the national army use the illicit trade in minerals for personal gain and to finance their armed activities. These minerals are usually extracted artisanally and are referred to as conflict-minerals because of their use by armed groups. They consist of Tungsten, Coltan (from which Tantalum is extracted), Tin and Gold and are all important to the manufacturing of modern-day electronics.

‘Conflict-minerals’ was not a new policy challenge to me, at all, as I have worked on it since I launched Congo Calling, a UK-based NGO, in 2012 at TEDxExeter Congo Calling has three aims: (1) to stop mineral wealth from fuelling conflict, (2) to encourage responsible and environmentally sustainable exploitation of Congo’s natural resources, and (3) to use Congo’s vast natural resources to promote economic development for Congo’s people. I am proud of the fact that we have been able to work with fifteen universities across the UK to advocate that they adopt conflict-free technologies.  And five of these universities credit Congo Calling as the reason why they changed the way they procure their technology.  In addition, Congo Calling persuaded the City of Hull in the UK to change the way that they buy their technology. In 2016, the BBC interviewed me and named me as one of its Top 50 Outlook Inspirations.

Between 2015 and 2017, during the nationwide campaign for free and fair elections in the DRC, which we hoped would herald a new era of democratic institutions, we joined hands with prominent political and civil society leaders in their effort to lobby UK State Institutions. In this effort, we enlisted the support of Cape Partnership, a London-based sustainability consultancy firm, who resourced this work, pro-bono. I advised the Nobel Peace Prize Winner, Dr Denis Mukwege, in his outreach to the UK. Similarly, when Mr Felix Tshisekedi was still the leader of the largest coalition of opposition political parties, I advised him and organised events for him in the UK. In December 2018, he was declared the winner of the presidential election amid claims of vote-rigging. Be that as it may, it led to the first peaceful transfer of power since DRC’s independence from Belgium.

Whilst, at the international level, technology companies are steadily cleaning up their supply chains of conflict-tainted raw materials, and accounting for it, economic gains, on the ground in eastern DRC, have remained insignificant. From my discussions with Congolese business and community leaders, they attribute this, in part, to the cost of compliance with the requirements of section 1502 of the US Law, Dodd-Frank, which has shaped the DRC’s legal framework. It requires that US-registered companies take steps to ensure that the raw materials they use to make their products are not tied to the conflict in Congo, by tracing and auditing their mineral sustainable procurement

Although these requirements have led to greater transparency in the trade of conflict-minerals, they have at the same time created too much red tape for local communities and prevented them from accessing the enormous wealth this trade generates. How could we address these policy shortcomings? 

As part of my learning experience, in the course, I wanted to figure out more effective ways to stop armed groups to profit from the lucrative trade in minerals and at the same time enable local Congolese Communities to benefit from their mineral wealth. Then I had my first significant aha moment in the course. 

I learnt that most policy failures stem from policy-makers looking for solutions too early in the process before they could properly identify and understand the problem they are dealing with. It is like putting the cart before the horse. Through the methodology, taught in the course, called Problem-Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA), I went back to the drawing board, literally. I enjoyed drawing up my first fishbone diagram and visualising the potential causes of the problems we have been addressing at Congo Calling. I also learnt to be weary of best practices because they can lure us into thinking that we have found the right solution to our problem, when actually we could just be forcing a square solution into a circle problem. The trick was not to close the debate about the problem but to keep on iterating to increase our understanding both of the problem and of the solution to it. 

On campus, during the residential phase, I had another significant aha moment during the session on leading teams in times of uncertainty. It was like holding a mirror to my face, I could see how and why, as a leader, I had succeeded and failed in my work with the different teams I have been involved in. The different perspectives we learnt about team dynamics have provided me with invaluable lessons to improve my team work with colleagues at Congo Calling and beyond. As soon as I could, I expanded my core team, intentionally recruiting for specific skills and thinking styles which I felt were missing. 

But how do you motivate a volunteer team and keep them fully engaged? Both at the Manna Society and at Congo Calling, I am used to motivating highly talented individuals to voluntarily work with us. Consciously learning about theories behind team work has definitely increased my understanding of more effective processes and techniques. 

Although a lot of research has been done on the effects of Section 1502, most of these research has been done before or right after Section 1502 took effect.  Since then, many companies have made more strides to increase traceability.  Therefore, we were desperate to carry out proper research on the current challenges companies are facing in complying with Dodd Frank. When we were wondering what to do, a second-year Master’s in Public Policy (MPP) student at HKS, Aysha Valery, approached us, through the Faculty Chair – Professor Matt Andrews – to ask whether she could complete her policy analysis exercise for us on conflict-minerals. Through her research, we hope to increase our understanding of problems in the sector and work out more effective solutions to address them.

Above all, being part of this program has given me the space and the support, through continuous feedback from the program staff and peer mentoring, to reflect on my work with Congo Calling. After much iteration with my team and other stakeholders, we produced together a fishbone diagram which captures the key-problem we are tackling and its root-causes. From this analysis, we have reworked our strategy and decided to consolidate the legitimacy we have acquired from our work with universities. We have also began discussing with assets owners and managers ways in which they can use their voting power to influence change. It is still too early to tell how our discussions with assets owners and managers will pan out, but we are very hopeful to make progress.

To learn more about Implementing Public Policy (IPP) watch the course and testimonial video, listen to the podcast, and visit the course website.

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