Siddharth Kara’s Cobalt Red is a flawed account of the Congo’s mines

Other obvious ethical breaches, such as giving a person’s first name and circumstances, or speculating about their HIV status, are also alarming. Academic researchers spend hours preparing their ethics applications, usually making further revisions to eventually gain ethics approval. They establish protocols for dealing with vulnerable respondents and sensitive subjects, ensuring that both consent and confidentiality provisions are extended to anyone participating in their research.

It is possible that Kara undertook some of this work, but his book provides no evidence that he did so. In any case, his shock at the respondents’ grief makes it seem like it’s the very first time he’s thought about ethical issues.

Ignoring Congolese voices

It seems likely that Cobalt Red’s clear pursuit of the “greater good” has made it easier for people to turn a blind eye to these issues. The book was sold as an exposé, and as Kara herself says during an interview with Joe Rogan, “I was the first outsider to get into this mine.” If this was all new information, it would be easier to forgive Kara for trying to maximize his impact, even if it meant taking a shortcut. Who wouldn’t accept that ‘for the greater good’?

However, that sense of self-importance is a fundamental misrepresentation of the true state of knowledge. It only shows a belief in one’s own marketing. In reality, most of Cobalt Red deals with issues that have already been written about at length. The first high-profile report on cobalt in Congo was published in 2016 by Amnesty International and a Congolese organization, Afrewatch. Since then, there has been a steady stream of articles and revelations about the so-called “dark side” of Congolese cobalt hunting, especially with regard to the often shocking conditions in which it is mined, including by miner children.

European explorers in Africa are notorious for ‘discovering’ things that were already known and documented by Africans. This is largely how Kara approaches Congo and cobalt. He effectively wipes the slate clean and pretends to have discovered things that are already known. His main ‘contribution’ is to repackage things within a simplistic and sensational script about Africa and Congo. At a time when many specialists have done their best to decolonize knowledge about Africa, Kara’s book instead takes the exact opposite direction. Cobalt red stands for the continuity of the colonial mentality, the colonial gaze and colonial ethics.

Ironically, a Congolese ambassador to the US straight-up told Kara to let the locals fight their own battles. As Kara tells the conversation, the ambassador “didn’t think a foreigner should be the one to defend such a cause on behalf of his people. Instead, he thought the people of Congo should speak for themselves about what was happening in their country , and he suggested that if I really wanted to help, I should go back and help local researchers.”

It’s good advice, but Kara didn’t heed it. He is forced to shed personal light on “a dark truth”, one “that cannot be fathomed”. A truth that – we must be clear – has been openly written and spoken about by Congolese, regional and international organizations for years!

None of this is benign. With blinders on in his pursuit of the greater good, it’s clear that Kara failed to think enough about — or see as something that matters — the implications of producing books like this. His core assumption is that generating attention will have positive effects, but the sensationalism of his story may just as well have negative consequences.

It could reinforce the impotent image of artisanal miners; making it more difficult for researchers to access cobalt mining areas; and rapid increased security to prevent information from flowing out of the cobalt mines. Little is Kara aware that simplistic and sensational accounts make it more difficult to do good research in the future. ‘Raising awareness’ of complex problems is not always and automatically a positive result.

When we finished reading this book, we were left with one pressing thought: Kara was clearly able to get good access to mining sites and interviewees. But he did this by violating ethical rules that should apply to protect vulnerable groups, and children in particular.

Ironically, there are huge parallels between that and breaking the rules that try to prevent the trade of unethical cobalt. Kara’s highly problematic book places him in a category much closer to the unscrupulous buyers of cobalt than he would probably like to admit. The white savior of Cobalt Red, colonial gaze, exacerbates the negative, over-generalized perceptions of Congolese artisanal miners and of the DRC, further silencing the voices of Congolese scholars, activists, citizens and miners.

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