The Kimberley Process, the Industry, and the NGOs

A remarkable fight broke out last week between veteran journalist Chaim Even-Zohar and Partnership Africa Canada over a PAC staffer’s comment that some found objectionable. Why this particular rhetorical fireball attracted such ire, I’m not sure; I’ve certainly heard worse. But what is noteworthy is the group involved.

In conflict diamond circles, Partnership Africa Canada has always been the respected “good cop” to Global Witness’ “bad.” The industry-supported Diamond Development Initiative is virtually a PAC offshoot. But the incident shows that as the Zimbabwe situation has dragged on, the tensions between NGOs and the rest of the Kimberley Process have reached an all-time high.

There is now a growing feeling in some circles that the diamond trade has been pushed around by the NGOs too long, and it needs to strike back. I’ve even heard people say: “The industry doesn’t have to care about these issues anymore, because consumers in India and China don’t.”

To me, that is shortsighted. We don’t know what the future holds for consumers in Asia. And to the outside world, particularly the media, the NGOs have far more credibility than the industry. We disregard them at our peril. 

I also believe that, once you get past the rhetoric, the NGO proposals and suggestions are by and large reasonable, fair ones that the industry needs to support—for both moral and business reasons.

But the Civil Society Coalition also bears some responsibility for the current state of affairs. After more than a decade of working together, the industry and the NGOs seem less like partners than ever.

The NGO representatives I’ve dealt with are, to a person, bright, decent, committed, personable folks. But within the Kimberley Process, the Coalition has few allies, and even their remaining friends are poised to endorse a Marange deal the NGOs are not going to like. For the last year, more Kimberley Process countries have been sympathetic to the government of Zimbabwe, a murderous dictatorship, than to their point of view.  (If the KP ever switched to a non-consensus model, as the NGOs used to advocate, they’d be in big trouble.) The NGO June release even contains this statement:

Respect and support for civil society, as an integral member of the tripartite structure of the KP, is being eroded. 

Now, the NGOs have said they are ”developing [a new] approach” about how they do things. So I would like to give my ideas about how the groups could increase their “respect and support.” If this were an NGO report, this would be the “Conclusions and Recommendations” section:

The NGOs need to overhaul their communication strategy:  Everyone agrees: The Kimberley Process needs to be stronger. And yet sometimes NGO communications do precisely the opposite.

NGO-friendly authors have called the KP “a joke.” The NGOs themselves have called the Kimberley Process “full of loopholes” as well as “ineffective,” “corrupted” and “fundamentally flawed.”  And that was in 2006.

Now, these are some legitimate critiques here. But in the end, they don’t tell the story of the KP. NGOs have also called the Kimberley Process “a remarkable achievement” that they feel “very positive” about and that “benefits a lot of African countries.” But they tend not to speak those words to the consumer media.

All this has an impact. The NGOs have criticized the industry for not fully implementing the System of Warranties. But why should a diamond dealer or “Mom and Pop” jeweler take time out of their day to support a “full of loopholes” “ineffective” “joke”? Why would a consumer care about something like that? Why should anybody? 

They should praise as well as criticize. The NGOs sometimes refer to what they do as the “carrot and stick” approach. But the NGOs’ idea of a “carrot” in their communication strategy seems to be the lack of a “stick.” 

One of the common complaints from NGOs is that the industry will give lip service to their positions, but not “push hard” or follow-through. So, the question is, how can industry “buy-in” be increased?

I have been covering the industry for a long time. I know what the main actors want from their involvement in the Kimberley Process. 

It’s something like this press release from Earthworks, which praises Zale for signing a pledge not to buy from the Bristol Bay mine. This is a fundamentally meaningless pledge, about a mine that doesn’t exist. But Zale received a lot of nice publicity from it.

Now last year, the industry agreed to “human rights language” in the KP. This is a significant step, which isn’t meaningless, and involves the Kimberley Process, something that actually exists. If the industry won even a sentence of praise for its support, it would be far more motivated to keep at it. But the final NGO press release from the Plenary included no mention of the industry agreement. And that may be one reason there will be no human rights language in the KP. 

Now I know that, to some NGOs, praising the industry just isn’t in their character. But if they really believe in the “carrot” and “stick,” they shouldn’t just be punishing bad acts, but praising good ones. When people see you as fair, that builds credibility. But when you are constantly negative, people tune you out.

They need to build bridges: The Kimberley Process is fundmentally a diplomatic process. And to succeed at a diplomatic process, you need diplomacy. At the KP Plenary in Jerusalem, the NGOs kept mostly to themselves, not socializing with governments or industry. As one WDC veteran noted, “It didn’t used to be that way.”

Now this might seem like a small thing. But the KP has been hailed not just as a certification scheme, but also a way for the different stakeholders to interact and share ideas. Schmoozing is a key part of that. After all, why travel halfway across the world to hang out with people from your office? 

And it does have practical implications.  In Jerusalem, at the hotel bar, when I talked with representatives of African governments, they constantly bad-mouthed the NGOs. I happen to think there were some misconceptions there. But the activists weren’t there to clear them up. It is a lot easier to demonize someone when you don’t know them.

Now, I can’t guarantee that if the Coalition did these things, everything would improve. But it’s really hard to imagine the current crop of NGOs being less effective. When your M.O. has failed so often and so consistently, maybe you should try another approach. As a recent NGO speech asked, “Does the status quo suit you?”   

I am not suggesting that the NGOs should compromise their values. Increasing their effectiveness would let them get more of what they want.

I am aware there is not a lot of hope here. Positions have hardened, and most stakeholders are looking beyond the Kimberley Process. But I feel, in my heart, it is possible to regain the cooperative “we’re all in this together” approach that got us this far, and made conflict diamonds a thing of the past (and, let’s remember, that isn’t nothing). I hope the NGOs read these thoughts with an open mind and take them in the constructive spirit in which they are intended. Comments welcome.

JCK News Director