TWO news stories juxtaposed on a certain website caught my eye the other day. The first was the threat by International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt to curb foreign aid spending to those countries the UK Government regards as failing to take responsibility for investing in their own people.

But it was the story that sat alongside this one that made me pause for thought and drew Ms Mordaunt’s remarks into sharp focus.

It revealed how international big business was not doing enough to ensure the cobalt in batteries they make or supply, is not mined by child labour in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Poorer countries must “put their hand in their pockets,” and the public had “nagging but legitimate doubts” about where aid money was going insisted Ms Mordaunt in the first news piece. Frankly, I have no issue with this contention. All too often while covering stories in developing countries, I’ve witnessed the extent to which political and economic graft underpins the utter contempt and disregard some nations’ leaders have for their own citizens.

Where I take exception to Ms Morduant’s remarks however, is how they fail to acknowledge why so many of these countries find themselves in such a parlous state to begin with and gloss over some of the more insidious practices of international big business. The inescapable fact is that for centuries, both have shamelessly exploited the natural resources found in abundance in many poorer countries. In doing so countries like the UK have consistently sent out a message to local rulers that only the ruthless and greedy survive.

The DRC is a case in point and no stranger to mercenary foreigners who plunder its wealth of natural resources. Its original Belgian colonial masters were especially good at this. During a 50-year rule these rapacious overseers thought nothing of having the hands of the slowest slave cotton pickers lopped off at the end of a day and putting them in a basket as a warning for others to speed up production tomorrow. Anyone who thinks that such mercenary and callous economic exploitation has since eased could not be more mistaken.

Some years ago I wrote about how our comparatively sanitised, sterile world is as far removed imaginable from the glutinous muck-caked holes of the steamy rainforest that is the realm of Congo’s coltan miners.

What, you may ask, is coltan? Short for columbite-tantalite, coltan is an ore rich in the element tantalum. Found in three-billion-year-old soils such as those in DRC, tantalum is a magic dust that, when processed, makes our modern world tick.

In these digital days, it is in effect something of a wonder mineral, an essential ingredient in the manufacture of the capacitor, the electronic component that maintains an electric charge in a computer chip.

The equation is simple. No coltan means no tantalum, which means no capacitors and therefore no mobile phones, laptops, PlayStations, or other electronic goodies.

Far from being a blessing, it is DRC’s curse that four-fifths of the planet’s tantalum is found in Africa, of which 80 per cent is in Congo’s east.

Nobody likes to think of his or her mobile phone being in part made made from minerals derived from a country where warlords, militias and mass rapists profit from mining with the connivance of some of the world’s biggest companies. That, though, is what happened with coltan in DRC.

Most of the companies from which we buy our mobile phones and laptops deny of course any knowledge that tantalum originating in Congo is used in their products. It’s an easy case to make given the shadowy and labyrinthine supply chain.

While the coltan market has impacted on DRC for years, most recently it’s been another mineral vital to our craving for electronic goods that has dramatically impacted on human rights in the country.

More than half of the world’s supplies of cobalt now come from DRC. Our need for ever-smaller phones and a move towards electric cars is leading to a surge in demand for the mineral which is an essential part of lithium-ion rechargeable batteries.

As in the past ordinary Congolese are ruthlessly exploited in order to achieve the required quotas.

According to some human rights groups, children as young as seven are mining cobalt in the DRC. Rarely if ever though, will you hear the likes of the UK’s international development secretary, Penny Mordaunt complain about this, focused as she is in cutting overseas aid.

No international rules or regulations prohibiting the cobalt mined by hand in DRC exist. Amnesty International points out that almost half of the 28 largest companies that use cobalt, including Microsoft, Renault and China’s Huawei, were failing to demonstrate even “minimal” compliance in ensuring the cobalt in batteries they make or supply is not mined by child labour.

Across the board there appears a distinct lack of transparency with big business failing to disclose their assessments of the potential for human rights abuses in the supply chain.

Towards the end of last year one of the City of London’s oldest institutions, the London Metal Exchange (LME) that helps set prices for industrial metals, including cobalt, launched an investigation into whether cobalt mined by children is being traded in London. LME requested that members provide details of their responsible sourcing practices, by the start of December, but so far the picture remains unclear. In the official sector alone last year, DRC accounted for 66,000 tonnes of global mined cobalt production of a total 123,000 tonnes.

Quite how much cobalt the ‘grey sector” using child labour contributes has been described as the main “known unknown” in any analysis of world production. It’s an undisputed fact though, that it has been seeping into the official supply chain for years.

“It’s almost inevitable, there are mobile phones in this room containing cobalt from child labour in the DRC,” admitted one head cobalt marketing official speaking at a LME seminar toward the end of last year.

Ms Mordaunt has a point when she says that the public has “nagging but legitimate doubts” about where aid money was going in places like DRC.

But equally those same doubts exist too when it comes to the way big business conducts its affairs in poorer countries and the extent to which many governments, including the UK’s, appear to turn a blind eye or operate on a set of double standards. If ever there was a modern-day parable epitomising the new scramble for Africa’s resources, and what happens as a result, here you have it.