Cellphones and strife in Congo

What does my cute little Nokia mobile phone have to do with bloodshed in a central African country?

Perhaps nothing. Perhaps everything.

Such phones, along with laptops, pagers, and many other electronic devices, contain a refined form of the mineral coltan, which is mined (many would say plundered) from Congo. Its production keeps the Congolese in conflict with forces from neighboring Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi.

It's part of a trail of exploitation of natural resources that often begins in war-torn countries and ends on store shelves in developed nations (see story).

The sticky question is: Suppose I choose not to carry a cellphone or buy a laptop? Would my decision make any difference in the gutting of Congo?

It's easy to feel righteous indignation at Congo's predicament. Outrage translates into consumer pressure on American companies, which then find alternative sources of raw materials (as happened with coltan). The corporate pullout often harms the very populations that activists want to help.

The issue is one of personal responsibility. To be a good global citizen, and do no harm, one would have to constantly reassess purchases in light of global conflict. Few of us have that kind of time, however dearly held our ideals.

The global economy may bring me closer to the plight of workers around the world, but it offers no easy moral framework in which to make consumer choices.

Instead, globalism seems to encourage a particularly American brand of guilt.

As for my Nokia, I can only hope the coltan used in it was mined in Australia, not Congo.

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