NEW YORK — With the drive toward electric vehicles in high gear, the Biden administration signed an agreement with two African countries rich in minerals needed to meet the exploding demand.
But China is the unmentioned actor in this international affair.
The memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the United States, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Zambia was signed during President Biden’s December Africa Leaders Summit in Washington and discussed by Congolese President Félix Tshisekedi with reporters in New York on Tuesday.
“The plan to develop an electric battery supply chain opens the door for open and transparent investment to build value-added and sustainable industry in Africa,” a State Department statement said, “and creating a just energy transition for workers and local communities.”
Significantly, that could lead to an increase in battery production in Congo and Zambia. This would be an important shift in the historical practice by allowing Africans to reap more wealth from their abundant natural resources, instead of the industrial countries getting most of the benefit.
Yet, justice for workers — including child laborers — is easier said than done, especially with vexing internal problems and the insatiable taste of Americans and others for the latest electronic devices that need the minerals.
Just days before Tshisekedi’s U.S. visit, Amnesty International released a report with a troubling message: “industrial mining of cobalt and copper for rechargeable batteries is leading to grievous human rights abuses,” including “the forced eviction of entire communities,” arson, sexual assault and beatings. A 2021 Labor Department document said between 5,000 and 35,000 children work as cobalt miners in Congo. Many are forced into labor by armed, nongovernmental groups that roam the eastern part of the country.
As one of the largest countries in the world in size and population, Congo (sometimes called Congo-Kinshasa to distinguish from the neighboring Republic of Congo, a.k.a Congo-Brazzaville) is naturally rich but income poor. It has 70 percent of the planet’s cobalt. Calls for the mineral, the agreement said, are expected “to increase dramatically in the coming decades to meet demand for electric vehicle (EV) batteries.”
Now, “investors are arriving in order to put in place a system that will lead to the implementation of the MOU,” Tshisekedi told reporters.
While Congo and Zambia are the focal points of the agreement, competition with China is a subplot in Washington.
China, with its own human rights defects, leads the world in electric vehicles. It accounted for half of that market’s growth in 2021 and “more vehicles were sold in China in 2021 (3.3 million) than in the entire world in 2020,” according to an International Energy Agency (IEA) report. Over half of cobalt processing and refining capacity is in China. The United States has a “smaller role in the global EV battery supply chain,” the international agency added, “with only 10% of EV production and 7% of battery production.”
The December agreement shows Washington wants to be a player in this space, yet it remains well behind.
“Governments in Europe and the United States have bold public sector initiatives to develop domestic battery supply chains, but the majority of the supply chain is likely to remain Chinese through 2030,” IEA said. “For example, 70% of battery production capacity announced for the period to 2030 is in China.”
Tshisekedi, who was in New York for U.N. General Assembly meetings, is focused on his people, not a big power rivalry. Kinshasa’s creation of “special economic zones,” he said, “will enable the population to benefit a lot more from the implementation of the MOU.”
Without denial or defensiveness, he said reports about child labor in his country “touch me in the deepest sense.”
“This is why I pushed very hard to make sure that universal basic education is implemented in my country,” he said, while taking no time to eat at a press luncheon organized by the African Renaissance and Diaspora Network, a nonprofit that supports sustainable development goals. “This is something which is very, very important for me. I feel very, very strongly about it.”
Demonstrating that, Congo allocated 40 percent of its national budget to primary education, according to Labor’s report.
Washington pays attention to human rights accounts, but that does not mean they will interfere with the EV battery projects. The reports “play a useful role in reminding the government that it is under scrutiny” and that officials must hold companies to a high standard, Lucy Tamlyn, the U.S. ambassador to Congo, said in a video interview from Kinshasa on Thursday.
Perhaps out of courtesy to the country he was visiting, Tshisekedi did not hammer the United States or other countries that complain about human rights abroad while suffering serious cruelties at home. Furthermore, projects like those outlined in the tripartite agreement can lead to better living conditions in the developing world.
Historically and currently, through colonialism and its lingering impact, poorer places have witnessed their natural riches exported for production by wealthy nations, leaving many African citizens impoverished. With the Biden administration memorandum, Washington plans to assist Congo and Zambia in promoting their domestic industries.
“The United States confirms its interest in supporting the development of industrialized economic growth, such as through the construction of electric vehicle precursor plants in DRC and Zambia,” the MOU said. It seeks “to facilitate the development of an integrated value chain for the production of electric vehicle (EV) batteries in the DRC and Zambia, ranging from raw material extraction, to processing, manufacturing, and assembly.”
Washington has long “approached the mining sector from a human rights perspective,” Tamlyn said, “and our programing has tried to support that.”
Next week, she plans to visit Kolwezi in southern Congo, where Amnesty focused its research.