Monday, June 25, 2007

Book of the Month #1

A Game as Old as Empire edited by Stephen Hiatt. This was a "sequel" to Confessions of an Economic Hitman by Thomas Perkins, which I read 2 years ago.
This book is a compilation of essays written by former international bankers, development economists, foreign aid workers, and others. It's about offshore banking, bad loan schemes, "debt relief," tax evasion, incompetent World Bank projects. It's about the people who profit from these things, and the developing countries who get hosed by them.

I thought about writing a post entitled "Who was raped in order to make your cellphone?" One chapter explains the war in the Congo and the quest for an element called "coltan" used in cell phones, computers, PlayStations, etc. You can read the link instead for a full story. Some of the ingredients in your cellphone probably comes from the Congo....
The chapter about coltan starts with the story of a Congolese woman who gives birth to a still-born son (the pregnancy was the result of a rape) and minutes later is raped and tortured by men from the plundering Rwandan army. Really messed-up stories from Christian aid workers in the Congo. Why was she raped?

American and European multinationals who are in desperate need of the high-priced ore helped fund the Rwandan and Ugandan armies in their invasion of the Congo, where the ore is located, in order to help facilitate its mining. The armies systematically rape women of all ages and conditions in the villages they come across, like a hate crime. The ore is then exported via Rwanda to the West and the proceeds go mostly to the government who sponsor the atrocities. The multinational firms basically just look the other way at how it's acquired. Many Western companies acquired the mines when the Congolese government sold them off. Many former elected government officials serve on the boards of these firms, like Alcatel. Firms like Hewlett-Packard, Dell, Nokia, etc. claim not to use coltan from the Congo, but it's impossible for them not to.

Think Blood Diamond except with coltan. The violence has really warped these Congolese societies, as you might imagine. Truth is always much more unbelievable than fiction ever could be.
*UPDATE* Nicholas Kristof has an op-ed from the Congo today.

None of the other chapters are this graphic and emotional, however. Most are much more academic and it would help you to have an extensive economics background to read and critique them.

Confessions blew my mind 2 years ago, shook me to the core of my being like few books ever have. If you want an intriguing and sometimes suspenseful read, it's your book. If you're looking for more information and a more academic read then Empire is your book.

The 2 books together have taught me to always be aware of who I'm working for and be careful how I pursue a career in development. It's also made me think again about putting faith in models and being dogmatic about market efficiencies when there are so many caveats out there.

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