National / International News
The University of Virginia is looking to make changes, even though a report about a gang rape has been discredited. Ideas include banning hard alcohol and having sober volunteers self-police parties.
Kentucky says the Christian group behind the project wouldn't commit not to discriminate in its hiring on the basis of religion. The group says it will challenge the state's decision.
Kids often hurt themselves when they put their fingers into electrical outlets, but the Brio Smart outlet prevents injury by using sensors to differentiate between human touch and an electric plug.
Three hours from the nearest city and 120 feet underground, at the end of a long tunnel just big enough for a person to crawl through, 25-year-old Nami Fusi is listening to his favorite music while digging.
"Here, this is a patch!" he says, shoveling. Fusi is one of the Democratic Republic of Congo's estimated 500,000 artisinal miners.
"We advance a meter or two each day," he says. He can spend as many as 12 hours down here, pursuing purple seams in the hard orange clay, hoping to see flecks of gold appear on his shovel or spring from his pick.
There are half a million miners like Fusi in the Congo, and this is how a lot of the mining in Congo has been done for the past few decades: by hand. Ores of the famous cell phone elements – the three Ts: Tungsten, Tantalum and Tin – were mined in much the same way. These ores earned the moniker 'conflict minerals' because the profits made from mining them haloed to finance armed groups in Eastern Congo, who controlled mines and who waged brutally violent campaigns. They killed nearly a million people by the most conservative estimates, and possibly up to six million.
Many things can shut a mine like the one worked by Nami Fusi – collapses, toxic gases, and, it turns out, Dodd Frank. The bill to clean up Wall Street.
"Which, in itself, I think sounds a bit odd," notes Aloys Tegera wryly. Tegera is director of the Pole Institute, a think tank based in Goma. "There was this strong American lobby, they wanted to slot into this American internal act, something concerning Congo."
Within the 2,300 pages of Dodd Frank is one small section, section 1502, which requires companies that buy minerals from Congo to certify whether or not those minerals are financing armed groups. The idea was to help put an end to atrocities those armed groups were committing. There were campaigns to hold cellphone companies and computer makers accountable on campuses, Facebook, and YouTube.
"But they didn't really foresee the reaction, the local reaction, how it was going to work," says Tegera.
Reaction was swift and dramatic. In 2010, many companies started looking elsewhere for minerals. The government of the DRC, finally waking up to the issue of conflict minerals, unilaterally suspended all mining operations. Even when the suspension was eventually lifted six months later, many international companies realized they couldn't certify anything about Congolese minerals. Not when the supply was dominated by long chains of middle men and thousands of just regular people – men and women with picks and hammers. So companies stopped buying.
"They didn't buy, these past few years, they don't buy anymore," says Gaspard Kashafali, an unemployed miner wearily standing on the side of a street in Bukavu. "I can't do this job anymore, and up until now I have nothing. I earn nothing. I don't work." Before Kashafali was a miner, he was a guerila fighter in the Mai Mai, one of Congo's dozens of armed groups.
"Artisinal miners were all of a sudden unemployed," says Tegera. It was a defacto embargo.
"There is a lot of money going around that activity as well," he says. "We had for instance local traders who would sell spare parts, food, beer etcetera, and these people also couldn't sell."
Tegera and others allege that the loss of jobs pushed erstwhile guerila fighters like Kashafali back to the banditry trade, ironically increasing insecurity contrary to the aims of the efforts to reign in conflict minerals.
The initial suspension, which closed down legitimate mining operations, also allowed rebel groups out of the reach of government, like the CNDP, to become monopolists in the mineral trade in the short term, smuggling their materials into Rwanda or Uganda.
Unlike the artisinal miners, "Industrial mining operations were not hit," says Tibere Kajemba, program director at Observatoire Gouvernance et Paix, a human rights organization. "They have a closed supply chain, they can show that their minerals are conflict free."
Toby Whitney was legislative director for Congressman Jim McDermott, he was lead drafter of Dodd Frank. And he bristles at the notion that drafters were’t aware of the consequences.
"When you're going to break a black market, and provide some chance for peace and prosperity in the region, there's going to be some dislocation," he says. "And it was worth some amount of dislocation to stop funding the killing of a thousand people a day."
"This behavior has been going on for 20 years funding a huge war and we are saying you have to care about this, be transparent at a minimum," Whitney says.
The complaint from Tegera and others is that if the consequences were known, there was no plan in place to support those who were negatively affected.
Attempts to cope
In the wake of the disruption to one of Congo's most important industries, numerous efforts have arisen to help artisinal miners trace their product to show it's "clean." That's what designers of the law expected.
Kajemba's organization, OGP, is helping the government of the DRC to establish a classification system of "red sites, yellow sites, and green sites," by monitoring different mines for the presence of armed groups. There are also programs that bag and tag ore mined by artisinal workers, offering a seal of sorts that marks the minerals as conflict free.
These systems have also incorporated standards banning child labor and pregnant women or women with small children on their backs from working in the mines.
"These programs exist and have been ratcheted up, so there's an improvement," says Jason Stearns, senior fellow at NYU's Center on International Cooperation. "But we are at such a low level - fewer than a dozen areas out of hundreds, and its very cumbersome infrastructure."
These programs have almost certainly not been able to absorb all the displaced miners.
The classification systems are not all internationally recognized, meaning they are not sufficient for a company to meet the requirements of Dodd Frank.
A consequence of the traceability schemes has been the creation of monopoly dynamics, says Laura Seay, an assistant professor at Colby College whose research focuses on U.S. foreign policy effects in the African Great Lakes region.
"In the places where there is traceability there's only one buyer, that buyer gets to set the price, there are miners who think they are being cheated and are probably right, in terms of what they're getting for the minerals," Seay says. "And so what we’re seeing is that it’s a relatively tiny number of miners who are benefiting from the new traceability schemes and the vast majority are still excluded."
One of the U.S. groups largely behind the Dodd Frank section on conflict minerals is the Enough Project. For proponents like Congo country director Fidel Bafilamba, the law is like Quinine: bitter but necessary. He admits a lot of miners suffered under the rule, but he argues the people under the control of armed groups suffered without the rule.
When armed groups and militaries took over, "artisinal mining became synonymous of tragedy, malediction to the local communities." He compares the condition of some mining communities controlled by armed groups to urban areas like Goma, "despite the nice buildings coming up in Goma, these communities still have nothing."
And Bafilemba says despite the hardship, the law worked.
"Five years back, most of the mines - especially three T mines - were under the control of armed militias. Today, 67 percent of mines are conflict-free."
The International Peace Information Service, an independent research institute working on Sub-Saharan Africa, backs up this claim. However only a third of gold mines are conflict-free.
Silver linings and gold chains
There are no reliable data on exactly how many miners were put out of work in the long run, and to what extent their financial hardship persists. A World Bank funded report suggests one possibility: it estimates four out of five artisinal miners in the DRC are now working in gold, a largely unregulated and untraced sector.
"There’s been a large migration from the three T’s - tantalum, tin, tungsten - to gold, which is by far the largest mining trade or sector in the eastern Congolese economy," Stearns says. "So that has buffered and cushioned the impact of Dodd Frank."
It's also offered armed groups an escape route.
"You definitely have more armed groups benefiting from Gold. That is shown in data we have gathered this year," says Anna Bulzomi, an analyst with IPIS. "It is very challenging to say that Gold is sourced responsibly right now."
Two-thirds of gold mines in the Congo operate under some kind of armed group according to IPIS. Gold is easier to smuggle, easier to sell, and many of the mines are in areas not fully controlled by the government. Now that cellphone minerals are less profitable, many people are making a living from gold. And so are armed groups.
"The main hubs for gold are in places that so far have not been particularly active in the global conversation on conflict minerals," says Bulzomi. "So for instance a lot of gold from the [African] Great Lakes region ends up in Dubai ...where... the level of commitment is not as high as the US or EU or players with large roles in other supply chains."
Gold also has a high intrinsic value, and it doesn't need to be smelted or refined before attaining that value. It is also easily smuggled.
A pilot project at the Nyamorale gold mine where Nami Fusi works is seeking to change this, but it is one out of more than 600 sites. Other sites are in isolated, rebel controlled areas for which such ticketing is not possible, but from which smuggling certainly is.
If you ask Dodd Frank's harshest critics, they will tell you that the law missed the point. "It underestimated -- or overestimated the government's ability to provide law and order," says Aloys Tegera. The underlying factor behind Eastern Congo's lawlessness and illicit mineral trading is not mineral wealth, it is a collapsed, feckless government. To address the conflict, says Tegera, international organizations and governments should strengthen the government's ability to do what governments do: provide services and stability.
For those like Bafilemba who favor Dodd Frank's approach of taking action at the economic level, government fecklessness is precisely the reason not to wage reform through the government. "They are not interested in stability....basic services." For Bafilemba, who views the current Congolese government as puppets of neighboring Rwanda and the United States and bent on extracting Congo's mineral wealth for personal or foreign gain, the government is the last place to begin.
"It’s a shame that Dodd Frank wasn’t carried out with more preparation and foresight," Stearns says. "We won't know whether this has been a success or failure for another five or six years." But "the baby shouldn't be thrown out with the bathwater," he says. "Now that it's in place we have to work with it and improve it. The current standard in Dodd Frank is it that minerals must be completely conflict free to be certified, but supply chains are so confused through so many intermediaries that its impossible to verify that its conflict free." More practical is to require a certain amount of due diligence, processes put in place, but "I think that standard should be lowered."
"No, it's the standard," Whitney says. "If you bring a toy into this country and its painted, you need to know whether it was made with lead paint or slave labor. You're not allowed to say 'I’m bringing something in this country with lead paint in it and it's too complicated for me to figure out, so sorry people got poisoned.'"
Of minerals and men
Regardless of the government's utility and role in the minerals sector, Congo's minerals are not the primary driver motivating the armed groups operating here.
"According to the U.N., only 8 percent of conflicts are over resource conflicts – fighting over control of a mine to have access to particular mineral resources, but that means the other 92 percent of conflicts are not about minerals," Professor Seay says. It is about identity, belonging, ethnicity, and money.
In the past, many of those conflicts were funded by minerals but, Seay says, "in a war time economy, everything looks like a source of revenue."
"If one source goes away, that doesn't have an effect on the violence because the armed groups continue to finance their activities through a wide variety of means," she says.
Groups have funded themselves by trading charcoal, timber, marijuana, and even poaching animals. "The M23 group that existed in 2012 and 2013, they were bringing in 200, 300, $400,000 a month just by informally taxing trade at a border post."
The conflict mineral cellphone narrative "was very deliberately chosen because it is simple, anyone can understand it, it’s relatable - everyone has a mobile phone. So if you say your phone has blood in it fueling violence, that gives everyone an immediate and personal connection. Its very clever."
The problem, says Seay, is that despite "the good intentions of mobilizing people around the issue when you have a simple narrative, it's reductionist and leaves out important dimensions of the crisis."
That is one thing that both critics and supporters of Dodd Frank agree on: the roots of the conflict are deep and wide, and no simple stroke of a pen by an outside power can solve that problem alone.
Dozens of congressional staff walked out of the Capitol Thursday, gathering on the steps to make the hands-up gesture that has come to symbolize frustration with the deaths of two unarmed black men.
A major donor has pledged $300 million to distribute an Ebola vaccine in Africa, as soon as one is available. Vaccine development is proceeding, but there have been hiccups.
Justice Department research finds that women ages 18-24 who aren't enrolled in college are more likely than those who are in school to report having been assaulted.
Members of the activist group trespassed on the site of giant earth markings estimated to be more than 1,500 years old. Peru says it will pursue criminal charges against those responsible.
What you and I and all the other drivers in the country aren't spending on gas could add up to hundreds of billions of dollars in savings. Columbia professor Geoffrey Heal says that savings will act as an economic stimulus.
“It will. Definitely," he says. "We’re giving consumers significantly more spending power.”
But don't put a new pony and castle on your Christmas list just yet. Consumers aren't planning to spend all that money right away, says Kent Smetters, a professor of business economics and public policy at Wharton.
“They have a little bit more money, but at the same time their investment are doing a little less well," he says, "so they don’t necessarily feel that much richer.”
Low gas prices could have a negative impact on the stock market. Shares of oil producing companies might go down, so would our retirement funds which puts us in the mood to save, not spend.
Scott Wren, a Senior Equity Strategist with Wells Fargo Advisors, says we have seen low gas prices act as an economic stimulus in the past. But that was then, and this is a recovering economy.
“In the past people were more prone to increase their spending. They were more prone to borrow money as well, do things like home equity loans," she says. "And I think right now the mentality is a little different."
At least we still like a deal.
The most controversial provision of the 1,600-page, $1.1 trillion spending bill currently before Congress could be the proposed roll-back of Section 716 of the Dodd-Frank financial regulatory reform bill: "PROHIBITION AGAINST FEDERAL GOVERNMENT BAILOUTS OF SWAPS ENTITIES."
It's also known as the "Lincoln Amendment," after its original sponsor, Sen. Blanche Lincoln, or as the "swaps push-out rule," but what does it actually do?
It was first proposed to push all derivatives off the balance sheets of FDIC-insured banks – what Michael Greenberger, professor of law at the University of Maryland, calls a "hundred trillion-dollar market in notional value."
Mike Konczal, who writes about financial reform for the Roosevelt Institute, says the "push-out rule" has since been scaled back to apply to only its riskiest segment, like the kind of credit default swaps that brought down AIG. Aaron Klein at the Bipartisan Policy Center, who supports the roll-back of this rule, says pushing derivatives off of the banks' balance sheets into hedge funds and bank subsidiaries won't necessarily keep the financial system safe.
McDonald's is in some trouble. The world's biggest fast-food chain just isn't cutting it anymore.
“McDonald’s recently reported that same store sales haven’t been positive since October 2013,” says Venessa Wong, associate editor at Bloomberg Businessweek.
McDonald’s said back in July they have a recovery plan underway and were going to take 18 months to launch their improvements.
“These improvements are part of what McDonald's is calling the ‘Experience of the Future,’” Wong says.
The fast-food chain will roll-out several menu changes and digital campaigns through 2015.
“There’s just so much competition now in fast food, not only in the burger category, but also in the fast-casual chains,” says Wong. “They are still a small part of the market, but at a time when fast-food sales are not growing, they are stealing market share and preventing some of the larger chains from growing their sales.”
It seems we have an unlimited appetite for softly filtered photos. Instagram now has 300-million users, making it bigger than Twitter.
The photo sharing site has announced it's working on removing fake accounts. No biggie, you think? Who cares about a bunch of bots and spammers?
Turns out there's a lot of value in fake social media accounts.
1. Fake followers can attract real followers.
"No one wants to go to a party with only one or two people," says Ari Lightman, a professor of digital media at Carnegie Mellon University.
2. Fake followers can also attract real money.
Alice Wright, who runs a snarky blog about bloggers called Get Off My Internets, says bloggers often juice their social media stats. "They have to have the numbers," says Wright, in order to grab advertisers. "It's not just about your website stats anymore, it's about social media."
3. Fake accounts make social media sites and services look bigger
"It’s always interesting to me when a company goes after the fraud," says USC social media professor Karen North, "because at the beginning it’s the fraud that helped them." Fake accounts can make the total number of people using a service look larger, "it’s like everybody is there, look at all the big numbers," says North. A company or brand can start tossing those fake accounts, says North, when it’s popular enough to be popular without them.
The House narrowly moved a massive spending bill forward Thursday, setting up a potentially close final vote. The bill has been criticized for easing rules on campaign finance and banks.
Mexican authorities recently identified the remains of one of the 43 students believed killed by drug traffickers working with police. Families are having a tough time believing the official story.