Linking investment to Darfur genocide

In the Darfur region of Sudan, in northern Africa, a de facto genocide is ongoing.

Black Africans are being raped and massacred by irregular “janjaweed militias” backed by the Arab Muslim central government. More than 200,000 people have died and 2.5 million have been displaced in the four-year conflict.

Few would deny this is terrible, and an outfit called the Sudan Divestment Task Force and Genocide Intervention Network now says the answer is to withdraw invested funds that support the companies that do business in the Sudan.

Nevada Gov. Jim Gibbons responded this week by urging the administrators of Nevada’s government worker pension fund to drop all investments in such firms.

In a letter to administrators of the state’s Public Employees Retirement System, co-signed by Senate Majority Leader Bill Raggio, R-Reno, and Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley, D-Las Vegas, Gov. Gibbons said these “economic benefits help fund the genocide in Africa, which is why the United States government prohibits U.S. companies from operating in the Sudan.”

That’s an interesting construction. When Toyota builds a truck factory in Alabama, are they “providing financial aid to the United States government” — or providing jobs to the people of the sovereign state of Alabama, who may or may not have their own bones to pick with the central government?

What about a company that decided to sell combat rifles, below cost, to the people of Darfur so they could defend themselves against the government irregulars? Would investing in a company that decided to help people defend themselves against genocide be barred, under a rule that “doing any business in the Sudan” facilitates the genocide?

Now that this proposal is on the table, expect it to become a “done deal.” Few will want to take the political heat for “refusing to do anything to halt the killing” (regardless of its likely effectiveness) in a matter that adds up to only a paltry $1.1 million investment in Alstom, the French engineering and construction company, and an additional $214,000 in Lundin Petroleum, a Swedish outfit doing some exploratory oil drilling in Sudan.

So be it. Expressions of outrage are certainly in order.

It wouldn’t be crucial that such politically correct micromanagement tends to reduce earnings by limiting portfolio diversity and increasing administrative costs, if at least it was likely to accomplish something. (Still expectng that Cuban embargo to bear fruit, real soon?) The real problem is that there’s no limit to how far well-intentioned activists may wish to wade in.

There have been plenty of calls to divest from companies that operate “sweatshop child labor” factories in Asia or Central America, after all.

In one notable recent case, a Central American girl was hauled to Washington to testify in a scripted dog-and-pony show about the “child labor sweatshop” where she sewed garments for an American firm. It sounded terrible. Once some independent reporters got her “off script” outside the hall, though, the young lady was asked the obvious question: Would she really prefer that the factory be closed?

Heavens, no, she replied. Her job there allowed her to support her entire family. If the factory were to close, she and her younger sisters would have only one other recourse: prostitution.

For that matter, what’s to stop anti-gambling activists from going state to state, urging their pension funds to divest from any firms that run casinos or build gambling devices?

Tobacco companies? Liquor bottlers? Surely there are greens who would want to see PERS divest any mining or timber stocks.

Everybody’s got an ax to grind. Once we accommodate the first cause du jour, how do we say no to the next, and the next?

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