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The cost of a phone

To examine the true cost of a mobile phone.

by James Lamont

Suitable for Key Stage 4/5


To examine the true cost of a mobile phone.

Preparation and materials

  • Gather some images of mobile phones and the adverts for them and have the means to show them during the assembly.
  • You could also collect some images of the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo to show.


  1. Modern computers are amazing in their complexity and usefulness. Smartphones – machines small enough to fit into the palm of your hand – can access the Internet, show videos and music, display interactive maps and contact people all over the world. With globalization and the increasing wealth of people outside the West, particularly China, there is more demand for the latest models. This demand, however, is taking its toll on some of the world’s poorest people.
  2. Coltan is a metallic ore that is essential for the production of the capacitors used in mobile phones, laptops and tablets. One of the biggest sources of coltan is the Democratic Republic of Congo. Despite being very well endowed with precious minerals, this nation has been subjected to civil war, dictatorship and a weak economy. This is an example of what anthropologists call the ‘resource curse’ – that is, nations with large amounts of natural resources become poorer than their resource-poor neighbours. Rather than mining and selling the resources for the good of the nation, they become a source of corruption and conflict – the source of power in the nation. In the case of coltan, the demand for consumer electronics has intensified the conflicts in the Congo, such as the Ituri War, in which over 60,000 civilians have been killed.
  3. It is unrealistic to expect that we will therefore stop using consumer electronics. These devices have done great things for individuals and the global economy. Moreover, although the coltan trade is having a disastrous effect on the Congo, it is also a necessary source of income for many. Farmers have lost their harvests to militias, causing many to abandon farming as a way of making a living. Although many coltan mines are criminal enterprises, they do offer the alternative of a steady income of around $1 a day. While there are few safety measures or attempts to defend the rights of workers, for many it is their only option. So, while coltan mining provides a source of income for the militias and civil wars that are destroying the nation, it is also the case that many people depend on it.
  4. Some companies, such as Cabot Corp. in the USA, have boycotted all coltan from the region, owing to the ethical risks. There are alternatives. Around 20 per cent of global coltan is available as a result of recycling. This is good for the environment and drives down the price of the metal, reducing its value to criminal gangs. Yet, the ultimate solution to the question of coltan from the Congo must involve peace and prosperity for its people, giving them fair access to their nation’s rich mineral resources.

Time for reflection

As is so often the case, the misuse of one area of the world by another is causing great problems. The answer is not to simply withdraw demand, however, as that would have a devastating effect on the poor rather than get to the root of the problem.

How would you want to change the lives of workers in the Congo if you could?

Think of how much technology you own that needs coltan to make it work . . . Would it be worth forgoing that new phone, now you know it’s true cost?


‘Hanging on the telephone’ by Blondie

Publication date: August 2013   (Vol.15 No.8)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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