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A Ripple of Hope: Duke Takes Investment Stand on "Conflict-Minerals"

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The pressure is mounting on companies to create conflict-free products with minerals from the Democratic Republic of Congo. This week, Duke University joined 10 other colleges calling for responsible monitoring of corporate supply chains that may be funding violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

So, what's the connection between Duke, supply chains, and the DRC?

The DRC is home to one of the deadliest conflicts in recent history, where war has claimed the lives of almost 6 million in the last fifteen years. UN administrators have called eastern Congo the "rape capital of the world," and it continues to be one of the most dangerous places to live as a woman or child.

The conflict's historic roots are complex, but the control of natural resources--including what are known as "conflict minerals"--has remained a compelling incentive for warfare amongst armed militias. These minerals, some essential components in electronics products, are smuggled through supply chains with little oversight or regulation. To date, the UN, OECD, and U.S. government have all formally recognized the role resource extraction has played in contributing to conflict.

Last Friday, after a yearlong student advocacy effort, the Duke Board of Trustees approved an investment resolution supporting ethical sourcing of minerals from the DRC. The "proxy voting" guideline instructs those managing Duke's $5.7 billion endowment to leverage its stake as an institutional investor to vote in favor of conflict minerals-conscious shareholder resolutions in relevant corporations.

Duke is only the second university to pass this type of conflict-free resolution at the Board of Trustees level, after Stanford did so in 2010; 10 other schools, most recently Emory University in Atlanta and University of St. Andrew's in Scotland have passed conflict-free resolutions. More significantly, Duke is the first university to take action at the Board of Trustees level since the signing of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act of 2010. The law included a provision requiring relevant industries to monitor supply chains and report efforts to avoid supporting human rights violations.

Though Dodd-Frank was passed two years ago, the Securities and Exchange Commission has yet to release regulations instructing companies on how to comply. And in a world absent of rules, we can't be certain that companies are taking steps toward conflict-free from Congo.

Duke represents one of many universities calling for action. What started with Stanford in 2010 has become a movement for conflict-free electronics at campuses around the world. Over 100 schools across the U.S., UK, and Canada are working on getting their university to take the first step, and student voices are becoming increasingly hard to ignore.

At the University of Pennsylvania, Apple's third largest education partner in the world, passing a conflict-free resolution in May 2011 has spurred the administration to conduct a more comprehensive sustainability overhaul of the university's purchasing policy. At Yale, advocates led by Jason Stearns, former coordinator of the UN Group of Experts in the DRC, are pursuing a forward-looking investment policy that could set a new precedent in the movement.

We know there's no such thing as "magic-bullet" solution to conflict in the DRC. Conflict minerals are not the sole cause of conflict, nor will they be a panacea. But they are a rallying point for all of us--as youth and consumers in the global marketplace--to stand in solidarity in any way we can.

We're proud our university has not been paralyzed in the face of complexity. Indeed, supply chain reform is complicated, and we acknowledge the nuance of the issue; Duke has pledged to reevaluate its investment policies in five years to potentially take even further action when more context is gathered.

Yet, what's important is that, in the midst of sustained human rights violations and an ambiguous regulatory environment, the Duke community made the collective commitment to speak now--and there's no reason any and every other university cannot do the same.

As we think about the potential for students across the world to catalyze change, we're reminded of one of Bobby Kennedy's most famous quotes: "Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance."

Duke's action is just another ripple in the movement for peace in the DRC. But momentum is building, and collective university action is creating a current for justice that cannot be ignored.