Economics and similar, for the sleep-deprived

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Update: seemingly not

Update: Oh yeah!

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Diamonds are forever

(note that the project of getting well- or even acceptably well-informed about African politics is going slowly - last week's warning that the blog was likely to be the same old crap with a thin Afrocentric veneer on it (did someone say De La Soul?) is still in force).

Might as well drag this up from the numerous comments sections where I have ranted on the subject - fuck an awful lot of Kanye West. A number of chin-stroking white music critics actually lauded the man for his "political awareness" based on "Diamonds from Sierra Leone", despite the fact that:

1) the lyrics of the song do not in fact mention Sierra Leone, they are all about Kanye West. He apparently later did a remix of "Diamonds from Sierra Leone" where this ommission was rectified but

2) even in that remix, he neglected to mention that the Sierra Leonean and Liberian civil wars had been over for five years by the time his record came out, and that Charles Taylor was actually being put on trial in the Hague for crimes committed during that period.

So what Kanye West was actually encouraging his fans to do was to boycott the main foreign-currency earning export of a desperately poor nascent democracy. The jewellers were pissed off.

On the other hand, don't feel sorry for the jewellers, because the whole concept of a "blood diamond" is a chiz. As with Oxfam and food subsidies, this looks very like a case of a well-meaning charity (in this case Amnesty, unfortunately) being roped in to providing a thin greenwash to a producer interest.

There are, in fact, very few producers of "conflict diamonds" in the world today. It's quite likely that the Forces Nouvelles of Cote d'Ivoire are buying the odd gun or two with the proceeds of diamonds smuggled out of their bit of Cd'I, but at present that ceasefire is holding and progress toward disarmament has been pretty good. And Cote d'Ivoire was really the last poster child for "blood diamonds" that anyone could take seriously; ex them, it's dribs and drabs out of eastern DR Congo. Hurray for Africa and all that.

Of course, this does not mean that the diamond industry has dialled down the noise on the "Kimberley Process", far from it. There's something about oligopoly producers of commodities that makes them just looooove their complicated and bureaucratic licensing processes. Wonder what it could be ... what, could this be some sort of anti-competitive margin enhancement strategy? Who do you think you are, Brink Lindsey or someone?

Yep, it's a racket, as far as I can see. The Kimberley process institutionalises a system which ensures that a) all diamonds go through a relatively small number of state-owned export monopolies b) second-hand or recycled diamonds are less marketable because they're not certified. Probably doesn't hurt the Africans all that much (except of course that the state diamond monopolies almost certainly rip the producers off to a fare-thee-well) but it is a racket withall. The proof of it is, in my opinion, that despite the fact that rubies and sapphires are produced in a lot of the worst countries on earth, nobody has so much as suggested a certification scheme for gemstones in general, which in my opinion is because other kinds of gemstone don't need a certification scheme to prop up their value.

I would even tentatively advance a further case - that boycotting conflict diamonds probably had no effect even back in the days when there were civil wars going on. It is certainly true that Charles Taylor did make a lot of money out of diamond smuggling, and that he spent at least some of it on buying weapons for his troops to carry out atrocities with. But he just simply stole a lot more; the Liberian guerillas were not awash with cash and they had plenty of other sources of funds besides diamonds. In any case, I have literally never heard of any war anywhere that stopped because one side ran out of money for bullets. Bullets are a bit like cigarettes or satellite television[1], in that they are things which people who want them will always find a way of affording.

So is the blood diamonds thing counterproductive? Probably not all that much; it facilitates a transfer of wealth from gullible Westerners to De Beers which falls into the category "who cares?". If I was the kind of person who got very worked up about "Orientalism" I think I would get worked up about the implicit assumption that all Africa is at least potentially having a horrible civil war and that we need a quarantine and certification system to prevent any contamination from the Hearts of Darkness getting onto our pristine white diamonds. But I'm not. It seems to me basically to be a way for well-meaning American kids to work out their idealism while at college in a manner which is unthreatening to the profits or foreign policy of anyone who matters, and there is clearly a social role for that sort of thing. (I rather freely "adapted" that analysis from Louis Proyect; I heartily recommend Louis' blog for any of my mainstream liberal readers who are suffering from constipation - it'll make you shit yourself).

[1] This is not a joke; there are plenty of African villages that don't have functioning wells but do have satellite television. This is a fact worth bearing in mind when Tessa Jowell or someone starts giving it this and that about poor families on council estates with Sky Sports who "can't afford" - one of the interesting things about human beings as a species is that we really really like communications and media and often buy them in preference to the necessities of life.


21 comments this item posted by the management 4/09/2008 06:13:00 AM

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