“I needed to understand the supply chain. So I went down a mine, traded for a bit of gold, put it in my sock like smugglers do, and went to find a buyer.”

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Episode notes

Dan spent several years with the “Group of Experts” in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

These are people tasked by the UN Security Council to work out what is really going on with sanctions, armed groups, and smuggling. The approach has generally been low profile, but became somewhat infamous with the murder of two of Dan’s successors in Kasai province in 2017.

At a practical level it’s an immensely important role that is a “force multiplier” for effective diplomatic, security and aid intervention, and we unpack how it works from several different directions.

Topics discussed:

[02:15] How Dan went from the U.S. Navy to investigating mineral smuggling and armed groups in central Africa, by way of a PhD.

[10:45] Following the supply chain for illegally traded gold on foot, from the bush in DRC to the black market in Kampala

[16:50] When we don’t have the right information. Failures to “ground truth” our beliefs about fragile places; the mysterious tale of “Mr X” and the ADF in North Kivu.

[24:45] When we have the right information, but can’t or won’t use it. The frustrations of faith-based policy, and narrow self-interest, in the Congo and in UN peace operations.

[30:50] The trade-offs of stepping back from field research, to a more stable role. Knowing when it was time to step back as the security risks for the Group of Experts accumulated.

[36:20] The true costs of not understanding the context in which we’re intervening, versus the narrow operational costs of security management. The UN dropping the ball in Ituri despite a huge initial investment of resources.

[49:00] What we can change at a system level to improve knowledge of the terrain when undertaking large interventions like a peace operation. How to ground truth assumptions and theories of change.

[57:45] What academics get right and wrong about research in unstable and violent places. Some amazing work versus speculation from afar.

[1:04:25] Dan’s book on his time with the Group of Experts. Why we need more practitioner accounts of peace-making interventions.