Rapaport Magazine
Sierra Leone

Opportunistic NGOs Seek Spotlight

By Leah Granof
RAPAPORT... Every diamond has a story to tell. Whether that story ends in romance and love — our ideal image of the diamond — or whether it narrates a darker tale of bloody conflict, depends upon the storyteller. 

With the release of the movie, “Blood Diamond,” Hollywood is prevailing as the narrator of the day with strong understudy support from grassroots nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), Global Witness (GW) and Amnesty International (AI).

The Warner Bros. movie rehashes the civil war in the West African country of Sierra Leone during the 1990s, in which the exploitation of alluvial diamond mines helped to fuel a devastating war that ravaged an already desperate country. With an accurate, brutally violent account of the war, the movie gives an important voice to an often neglected region of the world and the unimaginable human suffering that transpired there. To their credit, the NGOs GW and Partnership Africa Canada (PAC) were at the forefront of the battle against conflict diamonds. They advocated for reform before most people in the diamond industry, let alone Madison Avenue, knew what a blood diamond was.

Yet in the current public arena, where messages are transmitted through sound bites in blockbuster films, there is a real danger that consumers will walk away not only with the wrong message, but a message that might do more harm than good to the people it purports to help. Even worse is that the advocacy groups, which have long sought to bring the issue of conflict diamonds onto the world stage, are playing up this message now that they have finally captured international attention.


The fear within the diamond industry — and the reason that De Beers and the World Diamond Council (WDC) have launched a $15 million public relations campaign — is the notion that African diamonds are tainted and “that consumers shouldn’t buy diamonds from black fellows; but buy them instead from white guys,” explains Michael Rae, the chief executive officer (CEO) for the Council for Responsible Jewellery Practices (CRJP).

The movie certainly doesn’t do Africa any favors in terms of the perception it offers to Western sensibilities. “Hollywood’s portrayal of Africa is either as complete hell on earth or with wild animals and great white hunters, or some combination of both,” says Ian Smillie, a longtime advocate and researcher with PAC, an international organization working to build sustainable development in Africa. “In this case, the wild animals are the rebels and Leonardo DiCaprio is the hunter chasing the diamond.”

With 65 percent of the world’s diamonds coming out of Africa and diamond exports from Sierra Leone yielding nearly $119 million this year alone, any thought of an official boycott of African diamonds could have disastrous effects on the economies of diamond-producing nations, particularly in Sierra Leone, where over 90 percent of the country’s foreign income comes from diamonds.

The counterproductivity of a boycott is economically clear to those in the NGO world and they have stated publicly that they are not calling for an official boycott. Nevertheless, they have offered few solutions, beyond strengthening the current regulatory control, which would do no more than essentially create an unofficial restriction on Sierra Leone diamonds.

Zero tolerance

“We have a zero-tolerance policy for conflict diamonds in the sense that it is within the power of the international community to eradicate the problem,” says GW’s Annie Dunnebacke, a campaigner on the conflict diamonds team. She argues that countries that cannot ensure an absence of conflict diamonds should be suspended from the trade. Consumers, she says, must ask more questions to make retailers aware of the exact origin of their diamonds — an impossible feat under today’s mechanisms, she concedes.

This thinking is in line with the heavy criticism NGOs have levied upon the diamond industry’s self-regulatory system, the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme (KPCS). The KPCS was launched in 2003 as a way of tracking the export of rough diamonds and thereby preventing diamonds from conflict regions from entering into the retail sector.

The NGOs argue that the Kimberley Process (KP), which relies upon its 71 member countries to police themselves, isn’t catching all of the conflict diamonds and needs third-party auditors of diamond firms to bring to light its failings — such as the recent discovery of $23 million worth of illicit diamonds being smuggled out of the conflict-ridden Ivory Coast through Ghana.

But in addition to calling for loophole closures, full execution of the KP, more vigilant governmental controls and the implementation of a chain of warranties system — all valid expectations — the NGOs are also utterly ignoring the economic realities on the ground. They draw attention away from the real issues of sustainable development in Africa, demanding dispensations from the diamond industry that they are pointedly avoiding themselves.

“The way Amnesty International is portraying this issue is semihysterical, as if we have accomplished nothing at all. They and Global Witness are taking advantage of the film to nail down every last point,” accuses Smillie, who has often been critical of the KP himself. A case in point is the retail survey conducted by AI to determine jewelry store policies on conflict diamonds. The survey concludes that the low response rate by retailers and the inability of stores to produce clear explanations of their conflict diamond policy mean that consumers are in imminent danger of purchasing a conflict diamond. That assertion is patently untrue given the fact that the KP is designed to stop the flow of rough diamonds at the source by requiring rough export countries to document all rough exports. KP controls on the movement of rough diamond work, whether or not jewelers understand the process.

Bogus Message

The “buyer beware” message that the NGOs are so keen to promote to consumers can well be applied to their own solicitations. Concerned citizens are encouraged to donate money to GW and AI campaigns against conflict diamonds on their joint website with Warner Bros.
(www.blooddiamondaction.com). They can also purchase blood-red bracelets from Amnesty’s website in support of the cause. None of this money, however, will ever reach the people of Sierra Leone. In fact, according to both GW and AI, the money is going directly into the organizations’ purses; none of it is even earmarked directly for their blood diamond campaigns.

“That money is going to help educate the world about the issues that we work on,” says Alex Yearsly, a lead campaigner for GW.

Underscoring the NGO crusade is the sentiment that the diamond industry should “fix” the destruction in Sierra Leone, either through so-called reparations or charitable contributions — notions that are reminiscent of colonialism. Most economists dispute these as impractical, ineffective and without historical precedent, especially in countries blessed with the “resource curse.”

“The role the NGOs have is to highlight bad behavior, but they also have to be constructive and realistic in the recommendations that they provide,” says Mark White, a recent program manager in Sierra Leone with the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID). In the absence of any real NGO development work in Sierra Leone, the leading promoters of development are DFID and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). DFID allocates more money per capita in Sierra Leone than any other global aid program.

“The recognized way that business enterprises contribute to an economy is through paying taxes and supporting public investment,” says William Glade, PhD., University of Texas economics professor.

Development experts will tell you the real problem in Sierra Leone now, and with some of its still-at-war neighbors, is not conflict diamonds, but a lack of economic and political stability. This creates ripe conditions for civil wars that then have the potential to be funded through illicit diamonds.

Sierra Leone’s story is far from over. But the future should tell a tale of “rags-to-riches,” and not of another opportunity lost perpetuated by NGOs interested in promoting their organizations’ advocacy work without any interest in addressing the development problems that are the root cause of severe poverty and conflict.

Article from the Rapaport Magazine - January 2007. To subscribe click here.

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