Often, the international community finds itself at an impasse attempting to stymie the trade flows of illicit goods or “conflict resources” onto world markets, which may fuel rebel groups and perpetuate conflict. Military interventions may freeze the conflict dynamic in a static state, but do not get at the root of the problem, which is thought often to stem from developed world demand for precious metals, gems, timber, oil, coltan, illegal drugs… But regulating these flows internally is often next to impossible, since the local government is already struggling to remain a legitimate player, and lacks the capacity and geographical reach necessary to staunch production and trafficking at the source. Even worse, as the supply decreases at the source, the price only rises, giving renewed incentive for risk-taking entrepreneurial outfits to meet market demand. Success itself hinders further success, and there are diminishing returns to scale in supply-suppression.
Given the lack of local capacity, the United States and the “international community” often turn to one or more neighboring countries to provide a buffering layer of strong governance institutions between the sources of these commodities and their final destinations. It is thought that such measures will, in the short term at least, reduce the “felt demand” of the resource, since fewer exported shipments actually get paid for, making production and internal trafficking riskier. Such was the case with Sierra Leone’s diamonds, in which monitoring neighboring countries’ (and especially Liberia’s) exports of the gems became a top priority, eventually triggering the Kimberley Process. Such was the case during the Second Congo War (and up to the present) in which gold and gems out of the northeast were monitored from the surrounding countries of Rwanda and Uganda. Such is the case still in Afghanistan, where the flow of opium was hoped to be quashed in Pakistan – a country with a capable and highly professional military – before it could be transferred to Iran. The same is true of countries surrounding Colombia and its exports of cocaine. The same is true of Kenya, which has long been relied upon to take care of the nasty spillovers from the Somali state collapse, essentially “containing” the problem.
The problem with such regional border plans is that, like dental bridges, they rely on – and compromise – the strength of neighbors in order to fill a local void. And just as dental bridges tend to pull on the anchor teeth, hurrying their own demise, so too do such regional trafficking plans exacerbate governance problems in neighboring states. It is no secret that Liberia under Charles Taylor was buoyed in its excesses by diamond trafficking wealth from its neighbor to the northwest. The Rwandan military was arguably rotted out by the corruption bred of gemstone trafficking in areas where they chose to “keep the peace” – and likewise to greater or lesser extents with the other six countries that intervened in the DRC’s conflict. The government of Pakistan is now straining under the stress of attempting to crack down on Taliban activity, the opium/poppy trade included, in the Pushtun and Baluch regions of the country. The US understandably considers the prevention of the collapse of the Pakistani government one of the most important items in its foreign policy agenda. It is increasingly clear that the cocaine trade has significantly contributed to the corruption of Venezuela’s government at the highest levels, as the estimated metric tonnage trafficked through that country have more than quadrupled in the past 5 years. Kenya’s government, it now appears, may be increasingly corrupted by monies secreted away by Somali pirates wishing to keep their profits in a relatively stable place in case things back home go even further south than they already have.
So what is the answer? According to one friend who recently lost a tooth, it’s much better to pay an exorbitant sum to get an implant tooth drilled into your jaw bone, than to hang a dental bridge from the neighboring teeth for less. “If you go the cheap route, the gap just grows and grows, and pretty soon you’re left with no more anchor teeth at all!” You see where I’m going with this… Much better to focus on local-level governance solutions than relying on the aid of – and in turn undermining – those countries that are unlucky enough to border a failed or failing state. And that local level governance may be truly local – community resilience to extremism appears like an increasingly worthy area of study.