Ilari Aula is a 2nd-year PhD candidate in International Relations. His research focuses on ethical and political aspects of global supply chains. In his spare time, Ilari escapes to islands, mountains and forests, looking for places in which things are sometimes simple.

What are you writing about? What is the puzzle in your thesis?

I try to find out whether consumers have a moral duty to stop buying items produced using minerals that stem from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. There is regular public outrage about ‘blood’ staining some minerals, diamonds and even timber coming from abroad, but fewer coherent theoretical answers to who, if anyone, among the many actors engaged with global markets ought to do something about the conflict. I look at the role of consumers to tackle a small piece in this puzzle.

Why is this something worth studying?

Over the last 10 years, a wave of policies, legislation and civil society campaigns has focused on ameliorating the Congolese civil war by cutting down international trade in so-called ‘conflict minerals’. However, the effects of these initiatives in the Congo are very disputed. Some embrace them as a central piece in ending the civil war. Others accuse them of being ineffective or even harming people in the area.

Also, it is not clear who should bear the costs. I think that corporations, consumers and states tend to shoulder the initiative to each other, essentially insisting that others ought to act first if things are to improve.

In such a tricky situation, investigating why consumers ought to act might help everyone reflect on their arguments on who ought to make commodities ‘conflict-free’, if that is indeed desirable. My study might also convince legislators to introduce new regulation, consumers to change their shopping style, or corporations to monitor their supply chains differently– or show them that all this is unnecessary.

What I currently find most motivating in writing my thesis is that it is quite experimental, and might open gates for bridging more normative theory with very hands-on questions. All of this is outrageously ambitious, really. Only time will tell what the real impact is.

But how are you studying this?

First, I explore what moral philosophers would say about consumers being obliged to act upon a harm somewhere. Then I look more closely at a number of potentially important empirical questions in relation to the Congolese civil war: what kind of information on origins of their purchases is available to consumers, whether their purchases actually end up financing armed groups, and so on.

I do not crunch numbers or launch surveys to find original answers to these questions. Instead, I use existing research and interview policy-makers, consumer activists and other practitioners working on ‘conflict minerals’ to better understand the obstacles that might impede holding consumers responsible. Using these sources, I build a balanced and informed answer to the original question.

So what’s the most fun bit in writing a PhD thesis?

 This question is great! Writing a thesis is maybe the most strenuous thing I have done in my life, but at the same time being a PhD candidate is a really privileged position. I’ve personally enjoyed  the freedom to contact random people under the guise of being an aspiring academic and ask them stupid questions. It’s sort of an unbreakable alibi for being nosy.