The DSA-OUP Book Series: Meet the author, Ben Radley
Did you know that the DSA, alongside Oxford University Press, publishes a number of single authored monographs every year? The DSA-OUP book series: Critical Frontiers of Theory, Research and Practice in International Development Studies aims to promote critical scholarship in development studies as an interdisciplinary and applied field.
The process of putting together and publishing a book might appear daunting. We’ll be sharing a number of blog posts to make that less so, and showcases that indeed, anyone from the DSA community can, and should, consider publishing via this route.
In the third instalment of this collection of posts, we welcome Ben Radley, Lecturer in International Development at the University of Bath and author of the recently published Disrupted Development, The Fragile Foundations of the African Mining Consensus (Oxford University Press, 2023). Here, Ben tells us more about the subject of the book, the process of writing it and how it might be used.
Q. Tell us a little bit about the book and what is happening in the Congo now?
A. The book speaks to the developmental possibilities of a mining-led national development strategy driven by foreign corporations, a path the DR Congo has been firmly on since 2002, and one which only appears to be hardening in the context of hoped-for green transitions and the dependence of these transitions on a range of critical minerals and metals held in abundance in the country, most notably cobalt, copper and lithium.
The two-tiered conclusion I draw in the book is that, first, the country should be wary of depending too heavily on following this comparative advantage, as it is doing today, due to a triple set of structural constraints (price volatility, enclavity, and low labour absorption) that limit its potential as a national development strategy, irrespective of management and ownership structures.
Yet ownership and control still matter, considerably. So second, in light of the levels of overseas surplus extraction and domestic marginalisation (of firms and labour) associated with capital-intensive, foreign-owned mining in the Congo, I argue that a shift to domestic-owned forms of mining-based development — and, in particular but not only, efforts already underway to mechanize labour-intensive forms of local mining — would better meet the needs of the Congolese economy for rising productivity, labour absorption, and the domestic retention of the value generated by productive activity than the currently dominant but disconnected and disruptive foreign corporate-led industrial model.
So, in brief, the book is quite sceptical about the benefits to most Congolese of the development path the country is currently on, and is trying to open a conversation about alternative possibilities and trajectories or strategies that might be pursued instead.
Q. How did the book come about, what made you decide to publish?
A. This is my first book which was, I suppose, in the making for around a decade. The idea came from living and working in eastern Congo during the early 2010s, on labour issues in and around mining, at a time when local forms of Congolese mining were threatened both by efforts to regulate so-called ‘conflict minerals’ as well as by incoming foreign mining corporations looking to take over some of the best deposits. Both of these processes struck me at the time as potentially damaging not only to local miners themselves but also by extension their families, communities, and the wider economies in which their work and their lives were embedded. This motivated the major line of enquiry I try to follow in the book, seeking to understand how the entry of foreign mining corporations into pre-existing local Congolese mining economies influences processes of structural transformation and capital accumulation, and with what effects on labour relations.
Q. How was the process for you and how was it different from writing a paper?
A. There’s a great line from the English comedian Eric Morecambe, when he’s told in a skit by the German pianist André Previn that he’s not playing the right notes. He responds, “I’m playing all the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order”. This was a continual struggle with the book, that I felt more intensely than when writing a paper. I had all the notes (or at least, I had some notes!), but how to order them in a way that will be most effective, compelling, and coherent for a reader? The structure of the book was in flux right up until the end, and was a part of the writing process I never felt comfortable or confident with. I was a little overwhelmed with the volume of data and ideas I was trying to deal with, and never really managed to resolve or get on top of this other than by simply carrying on and getting it done.
I also struggled with carving out the time. I found it wasn’t something I could work on for half a day a week or even one day a week here and there, as I might for a paper. I needed to give longer, concentrated blocks of time to it, so I could really become immersed in it with as few distractions as possible. Perhaps again because of the sheer volume of data and content I was trying to handle. Everyone works differently, but this was what worked for me. So this is what I did, with the bulk of the book written during the British summers of 2021 and 2022, between the months of May and September.
Q. Three chapters of the book are open access. Was it important to you to make the book open access ?
Absolutely. Three chapters are open access to increase the likelihood it might get picked up and read more widely, especially by those in the Congo. My university was only offering enough funds for the first three chapters, otherwise – had the funds been available – I’d have made the whole book open access.
Although of course English is not a national language of the country, so here I’m currently engaging in conversations with various French-language publishers to try and secure a French translation. Nothing confirmed yet, but I’m hopeful that will come off and in the next year or two there’ll be a French translation out.
Q. How did you work with researchers / stakeholders in Congo as part of your research process and was it a help or a hindrance to be a researcher from outside the Congo on this topic?
A. I was fortunate enough to live in the Congo throughout most of the period when I was actively researching and collecting data towards the book, from around 2011 to 2019, which helped enormously, in terms of feeling connected to and having some pulse of what was going on. It also allowed me to return to the areas where I collected most of my data to present and discuss my findings and ideas with different groups which was a hugely beneficial process both as an act of reciprocity with those who had often helped and contributed to my work the most, as well as in validating and further refining and developing some of my lines of argument.
During this time I also held (and still hold today) an affiliation with the Centre d’Expertise en Gestion Minière (CEGEMI), which is a research institute associated with the Catholic University of Bukavu in South Kivu Province, in the east of the country. This affiliation, as I note in the acknowledgments to the book, had a hugely positive impact on the book, in allowing me to present, discuss, and think through my work at various points throughout the journey with other members at the institute, both in formal and informal settings. In terms of the outside advantage, doors would open more easily to me as a white European than they would for my Congolese colleagues. This was something we would discuss together and remark upon quite often. Some of the places I was able to get into and some of the documents I managed to obtain, both through mining companies and the state administration, would certainly be much more challenging for Congolese to access, if not impossible. This is an outsider tension, which I tried to navigate as best I could.
Q. Can your research be used to make mining a more sustainable practice?
A. I tend to veer away from any use of the term sustainable or sustainability when I talk or write on mining, as it strikes me this functions to sanitise an inherently unsustainable practice (mining) within an inherently unsustainable economic system (capitalism). There is though of course the question of how to get to the shift from foreign to domestic forms of ownership and control I advocate for in the book. I try to offer some thoughts on this in the concluding chapter, although on the whole I’m not very optimistic of any such shift, primarily – but not only – due to the dynamics around green transitions I mentioned earlier, and how the international economic forces swirling around the supposed greening of the global economy are pushing Congo and other critical metal exporters ever further onto the continued path of foreign-owned, capital-intensive mining.
The question is whether the social forces driving local forms of Congolese mining can emerge as a viable alternative to this current model? There is a role here for the state, to facilitate and support rather than hamper and undermine such a shift (as has often been the case), yet fundamentally (and somewhat evasively I’ll admit) such shifts are ultimately the terrain of political and social struggle, at local, national, and regional levels. There are some nascent signs that things might be moving in this direction in certain parts of the continent. Towards the end of the 2010s, for example, the Tanzanian government began to revoke several concession permits from foreign corporates, returning them to local miners. Based on the findings presented in the book, it is to be hoped, I would argue, that the recovery of domestic ownership and control over Congolese and more broadly African mining continues to gain momentum in the years to come. Fail to do so, and my fear would be that the benefits of extractive production on the continent would continue to accrue mostly overseas and not be felt in any meaningful way by the people and places where productive activity takes place.
Q. Lastly, any tips for first-time authors?
A. Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good. Onward ever, backward never!