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Samantha Nutt, founder of the NGO War Child and author of Damned Nations: Greed, Guns, Armies and Aid

Few things rankle Canadians like a debate about the mining industry. Perhaps it is because 70 per cent of the world's mining companies are headquartered here, and throughout this lingering global recession we have enthusiastically (yet graciously, we're Canadian after all) hitched ourselves to the resource economy wagon. It has protected us with titanium-grade, cadmium-laced, copper-plated armour from Wall Street's profligacies. And from Greece. And from having to conjugate "austerity" as a verb.

But mining is, in the most literal sense, a dirty business. You cannot pan for gold and not get muck under the nails, as a poignant feature story by Geoffrey York examining the rampant exploitation of children in mining reminded us. It provided a moving portrait of children working as artisanal miners in one of the Democratic Republic of Congo's many open-pit calamities, risking their lives with each toxic breath. The mine is owned by Vancouver-based KICO – not the "surface" rights to the land the kids scavenge, but the minerals beneath their shoeless feet.

I too have spent time in Congo. It is beautiful and heartbreaking, inspiring and terrifying. More than five million people have died in its protracted, merciless conflict. And at the heart of it all, like a bloated, beleaguered and degenerate Colonel Kurtz, lies Congo's mining industry.

Mining in Congo fuels life almost as quickly as it snuffs it out. The linkages between cause and effect are not always direct, lost in an Athenian web of corrupted officials, ruthless militias, arms dealers and middlemen. For years, this sordid state of affairs invited neologisms for inaction such as "complex" and "local ownership of the process" (which, over the length of Congo's history, has never occurred).

But pressure on the mining industry – from campaigns such as Global Witness and the Enough Project, to policy initiatives such as Dodd-Frank in the U.S. – are forcing the conversation. And the natural result of these conversations, as anyone reading about child miners would rightly ask, is: What can be done?

In the first instance, it must be acknowledged that stopping injustices is not the same as solving them. Children in mining often prefer the backbreaking tedium of scrounging for coltan to the mordant fear of traipsing through the bush slinging an AK-47. In a subsistence economy, the only future that matters is the one on your plate. And for every revenue stream that closes, a more sinister one opens.

Banning children from the mining sector, therefore, while legally and morally correct, is not a fix. But there are other options. Congolese miners earn in a week the equivalent of what most of us can't be bothered retrieving from the back of the couch. Adhering to reasonable labour standards, including a living wage for their parents, would be a start. This, of course, erodes Congo's "market advantage," but when a capital investment has among its assumptions a bankable amount of human misery, then the entire model becomes a perversion.

Another useful step would be to charge a "development tax" to mining companies operating in areas of low human development for a pooled fund, independently administered by global development experts. This would generate millions each year for educational initiatives, skills training, primary care and legal-protection programs. The last one in this list may not seem intuitive, but without autonomous local agents responding to and documenting abuses, impunity reigns.

War Child has been on the ground in eastern Congo for a decade working with local communities on educational programs for children and youth and, with the right approach and a willingness to address the challenges holistically, it works.

Last year, CIDA announced that it was spending $26-million on joint aid agency and mining sector development projects. I've been critical of this approach, in large part because it reassigns limited Canadian development dollars to an industry that can well afford to finance its own good intentions – indeed, it has a moral obligation to do so – and interferes with the transparency and neutrality of humanitarian groups on the ground. Organizations beholden to two masters, one with a chequebook and one without, know who gets served first. A development tax removes the conflict, but not the interest.

Still, it must be said that none of this is a substitute for robust legislation governing the behaviour of Canada's multinationals in unstable environments. Two previous attempts – one Liberal, one NDP – failed. Both times, the mining industry's response was to lobby-down. We stick our heads in the sand, while Congolese children sift for their supper.

Samantha Nutt is executive director of War Child and author of Damned Nations: Greed, Guns, Armies and Aid.