The Diamond Development Initiative

A while ago I read an article about CIDA City Campus – now supported by the Diamond Empowerment Fund – and the  author noted, somewhat ruefully, that it’s impossible to write anything negative about it.

Likewise, it’s equally difficult to write anything that’s not supportive of the Diamond Development Initiative, whose executive director, Dorothee Gizenga, I had lunch with this week at Jewelers of America’s offices. (Interesting fact: Gizenga is the daughter of the current Prime Minister of the Democratic Republic of Congo.)

For those of you not familiar with the DDI, or the issues it’s dealing with, let me break it down:

About 85% of diamonds are mined industrially, run by big companies. Generally those are well-run operations. But, even today, in 2008, 15% of the diamonds being sold are produced by people like this …


And this …


And this …

The last two pictures I took myself on a visit to Sierra Leone.

There are approximately 1.5 million artisanal diamond diggers in the world today. Most of them are in Africa, but you can also find them in Brazil, Venezuela, even Russia.

Here is how it works: A field is known to contain diamonds. While it may not be economical for a big company to mine, if it’s in a desperately poor country with no real industry, that field will attract locals, hoping to strike it rich.   Sometimes those locals will dig in the fields all day, with pretty basic tools. Often they get paid – by “supporters” who take the diamonds they find.

In places like Sierra Leone, the digger-“supporter” system is a huge part of the local economy.

Yet since it’s basically an unregulated system, it’s also open to abuse. The diggers are often paid subsistence wages – less than one dollar a day. The mines are full of child labor. Environmental and safety issues are ignored. The miners are prone to disease and other ills.  And all the money produced by these diamond fields is rarely funneled back to the local communities.

This isn’t necessarily anyone’s fault. But it’s the way it is.

Now, I think most people have serious qualms about dealing with diamonds produced in these kinds of exploitive and dangerous conditions. But it’s not realistic to say you’re not going to buy diamonds from these places, because, as we know, most diamonds don’t come stamped with a place of origin. Nor does that make sense morally, as it would actually hurt the people in these countries to stop buying their diamonds. Most diggers work in diamond fields to avoid starvation.

Which brings us to the Diamond Development Initiative. The DDI is the now-two-year-old group designed to look at these issues, and hopefully, come up with a solution. Gizenga is its first-ever executive director. (I should note Fair Trade diamonds is another approach of dealing with the same situation.)

The DDI is being supported by NGOs and many industry players, and has received grants from the Tiffany Foundation, the government of Sweden, and – I’m pleased to say – the JCK Industry Fund.

The DDI is working on several major projects right now. It’s created new standards for the artisanal sector in Sierra Leone. There is also “Children Out of Diamond Mines,” which is focused on the Democratic Republic of Congo. Right now, 36,000 children work in DRC diamond mines. The DDI wants to incentivize these children to seek alternative employment and means of support; it’s focused on one specific area with 7,000 child miners.

Of course, there are delicate questions here. Some of the child miners are orphans, with no other means to support themselves. And if the DDI gives current child miners incentives, this could inadvertently attract more child miners, eager to take what’s being offered.

These are complex issues. I’m glad I don’t have to deal with them. But Gizenga seems capable and committed – and she notes that, if this sector is reformed, it will impact not only the 1.5 million diggers, but millions of others who depend on them. “We are potentially talking about an impact on 15 million people,” Gizenga says. “The idea is to not only improve the conditions under which these diamonds are found, but to better use those diamonds for the country’s benefit. This isn’t like those ads you see on TV, which ask you to give a child rice to make it through the month. This is about transforming a way of doing things so desperately poor countries can have a brighter future.”

And finally, as Gizenga kept stressing, the DDI wasn’t just established out of the goodness of everyone’s heart. It is also good business sense. There are serious reputational risks here. The last thing this industry needs is more bad publicity on human rights issues – and, as much as this industry has cleaned itself up, this is something that’s quite ugly and is ongoing.  If these problems are addressed, a far larger chunk of the diamond chain could be considered truly “clean.”

All this is my way of saying I urge everyone to support the Diamond Development Initiative. Its website has more information about getting involved and donating.


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JCK News Director

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