I was angry. I stood in the center of the exhibit’s main room looking around in disbelief. It was as if I was wandering through a German Museum on Europe in the 1940s and the curator neglected to include the Holocaust. But I was not in Berlin or Munich; I was in Brussels, Belgium, in the Royal Museum for Central Africa. The exhibit celebrated the nation’s colonial history in the Congo. The fact that 10 million Congolese had been killed as a result of colonialism had been relegated to a footnote.
Walking out of the museum, I wondered whether this was any different than the modern media’s relative neglect of the humanitarian crisis and conflict in the Congo today? Are we as citizens any different in our complicity to the conflict, in our everyday use of laptops, iPhones, and Blackberries derived from a mineral trade that funds this violence?
Five months later, having returned to the University of Pennsylvania after my semester abroad, I stood before the school’s University Council speaking about the connection between the technology products that Penn purchases, the illicit mineral trade in the Congo, and its role in perpetuating violence there. Working with like-minded students in the Penn Society for International Development, I had spent the last several months developing a comprehensive proposal to the University. We asked Penn to consider amending its investment and technology purchasing policy to act on this important issue.
Our proposal was received warmly by the Penn administration. Following my brief remarks to the council, the executive vice president of the university, Craig Carnaroli and the vice president for business services, Marie Witt responded that they had already considered our proposal and begun to take action. They acknowledged the importance of the issue to the university and stated that they had reached out to Penn’s three biggest technology partners Apple, Dell, and Lenovo to find out their position on the issue.
As the responses from these companies come in, Penn continues to review options as to how it can work with its technology partners to ensure that the products students and faculty use are one day conflict free. Penn’s major suppliers are members of the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition and the university is closely following the organization’s work with the Global E-Sustainability Initiative to identify conflict-free smelters. The reports from this program and the SEC regulations from the Dodd-Frank legislation will be made public in the coming months and the university has pledged to continue to evaluate its policy.
In its swift recognition and action on this issue, Penn has become a national leader on university conflict mineral policies. However, our work is far from done. I look forward to continuing to work with members of the Penn administration and partners from around the country to develop a holistic policy that can serve as a model for Penn’s peer institutions. Working together, we can promote responsible industry practices and institutions that will play a key component in any comprehensive solution to finally bring peace to the Congo.
Ben Brockman is a junior studying international relations at the University of Pennsylvania where he is the president of the Penn Society for International Development (PennSID). Following a semester in Geneva, Switzerland where he did research on the conflict in the Congo, Ben started the Penn Conflict Mineral Campaign with the eight other board members of PennSID.