The "Good Point" blog is about "Ethical Electronics Exports, Fair Trade Recycling". Composed by Robin Ingenthron, founder of Good Point Recycling and the WR3A non-profit, the site discloses the company's position, policies, as well as the personal opinions of its founder. It has become an important source of inside information on the "e-waste recycling" business for academic research into recycling policy. The website invites dialogue, promotes discourse, and twitters recycling policy forward, using humor, music, and mind-bending analogies to convey important issues.
The recycling industry has been accused of misleading consumers. Ingenthron hopes that a "warts and all" blog which fully discloses the company's opinions and practices will temper cyncicism about green businesses. Frequently cited by the recycling trade press, the Vermont blog has been labeled "bracingly honest", a "creative approach", and a "refreshing" break from recycling dogmas.
As a passionate defender of "fair trade", Ingenthron writes, "Our company's first motto was that we are who we say we are, and we do what we say we do, which is kind of a sad commentary on the e-waste recycling industry." He hopes that in the future, people can once again take that for granted.
Meanwhile, a growing number of academics, entrepreneurs, and government recycling coordinators use the SEARCH function on the blog to mine answers to specific questions. They find external links to film of operations overseas, data on the company's Mexico operations, export policies, its domestic recycling capacity, hard drive data management, and more. The Good Point blog offers insights into positions staked out by EPA, ISRI, NRC, NGOs, and International institutions on mining, disposal, and recycling alternatives. Perhaps our most important followers are overseas.
Before creating American Retroworks Inc. and WR3A.org, Robin Ingenthron was Recycling Director at Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection. His division implemented the first CRT "waste ban" regulations, the first market research on CRT reuse and recycling, and the first state RFP contract for municipal "ewaste" recycling (a state contract is enforceable by the Attorney General, giving it more teeth than a "Pledge" or "Certification").
Ingenthron has a BA in International Relations from Carleton College, and spent a semester at the UN in Geneva. With the US Peace Corps, he trained in Congo and taught school in Cameroon. He was hired by Peace Corps to stay in country as a "cross cultural trainer" before returning for an MBA Peace Corps scholarship at Boston University. He worked as a consultant for operating systems software industry, and as a co-director of two recycling non-profit organizations.
Good Point Recycling is a member of Vermont Businesses For Social Responsibility, Association of Vermont Recyclers, and the World Reuse, Repair and Recycling Association [WR3A] an organization which establishes "Fair Trade" standards for surplus electronics exports, ensuring no "toxics along for the ride".
My epiphany came sometime between my experience in Cameroon Peace Corps, my ~5 year term as a truck driver / consultant at Earthworm Recycling, and my MBA at Boston University. VALUE ADDED
I realized that the recycling I was dedicated to was preserving value once added to rocks by mining and smelting them, value added to trees by cutting and cutting the bark off and bleaching them to fiber. I realized that the Africans I met who were fixing stuff discarded by others were, with their intellects, capturing added value. I realized my grandfather in the Ozarks was preserving otherwise depreciating added value by fixing expensive stuff like car engines rather than discarding them. I realized the "Hillbilly Highway" between poor places and rich cities was a two-way street, with value of labor flowing out and value of devices flowing in.
The dirtiest recycling is cleaner than the cleanest forestry/mining/extraction. The dirtiest repair is cleaner than the cleanest recycling.
Geographical relocation of devices has to do with the value of the "value added". In America, I could save $100 by keeping my smart phone or my CRT display just a year longer. But at a certain point, $100 isn't worth the deferred satisfaction. That economy is a privilege, which may be earned or may be inherited.
Someone in a poor country may not have that privilege. The $100 I forgo is 5% of total annual household income for 3 billion people.
Here is what a printer looks like going through a shredder.
Now, the shredding pretty much ruins the plastic. When the prices of metal is high, that's more than worth the cost of manual disassembly. When the price of metals falls (as is the case the past 18 months), the value of the plastics becomes relatively important, and the price of labor to hand dismantle the devices becomes more salient. Liability takes away from added value. So NGOs are funded by industries that provide less Value Added in order to impugn reuse or recycling industries which have an advantage in adding value. Effectively, the value of your "stuff" depreciates faster when it crosses a national border.
Shredding does retain the value added of the mined and refined ores and metals. Recycling is good, and I'm not anti-shredding for that reason. When a society can no longer afford hand disassembly, that's a sign the society has matured in a good way and can afford not to do dirty jobs.
But to declare that shredding is superior in a "circular economy" or more "sustainable" is false. If another society still sees hand disassembly as a step up (as rice farming is automated, for example), they may see the hand disassembly as a step up in preserving value. Its certainly better than exposing that society to mining and smelting - as we have already done. Basel Convention does not mention the enormous mercury and cyanide and lead poisoning, or the deforestation, or any net environmental harms other that "waste" which is, by definition, a variable measure of "value added". One person's trash in another person's treasure.
So I don't want to demonize shredding, not at all. But the people who are paying cash to demonize hand disassembly workers in emerging markets know well what they are peddling.
Blame and racism and liability and fear and otherization.
What makes an Optiplex more "value added" to an Egyptian is the skill and knowledge to repair the capacitor plagued device with a new 50 cent capacitor. A "waste" laptop goes in 45 minutes to a value of $200 per pound, simply based on the intellect and skill of the technician.
What makes a HP Laserjet 4 more valuable to a Chinese scrapper is the $75 circuit board which is still in demand and in use in industrial floor sweepers.
This knowledge and skill is a good thing. The value these technicians add is the chief reason for Hans Rosling's good news on progress in emerging markets. These techs provide the critical mass of users who finance cell phone towers in Africa, internet cables in Asia.
Stop impugning them with simplistic racist descriptions.
The best hope for the hand dismantlers in Hong Kong is to have rich people with a fear of liability pay them enough to do the job as they should.
We call it Fair Trade Recycling and it is better than anything offered by the bans and boycotts of the anti-globalization group Basel Action Network. Basel Action Network (BAN.org) takes money from shredding companies and uses it to impugn the best and brighest. They call it "collateral damage" but they are aiming directly at Joe Benson's head. It is sad to see good people sell their souls.
'You have enemies? Good. That means you've stood up for something, sometime in your life.' Winston Churchill
Another journalist appears as "collateral damage". Basel Action Network's snowballing racist depictions of African Geek hubs as "Primitive Orphan Shantytown" and Hong Kong Technicians as "Rice Paddy Child Laborers" caught another well meaning reporter.
BAN's sly, seductive "white savior" siren actually succeeded in getting Huffington Post to directly link to a petition to POTUS Barack Obama to create an executive order banning us from trading with emerging markets, where people buy and fix repairable electronics.
It was a classic bait and switch. BAN shows a port, then doesn't show ANYTHING positive about the country. They take the reporters to a hand picked operation which looks a little ugly, and most importantly, has foreign-looking people doing hand disassembly. The juxtaposition of brown faces and old tech strums their guilty banjo tune.
Photos posted in June by Huffington Post Tech Editor Damon Beres are a little unclear, however, in how the depict the actual locations in Hong Kong which actually received the material. Many of the actual GPS locations have been obscured by BAN. The Huffington Post photos definitely show brown people and definitely show old tech gadgets being recycled "by hand"... and typically of the caring, liberal journalists BAN targets, Beres seems outraged enough not to seek the standard second opinion which makes for standard journalism. No one who imports or works on stuff is interviewed to defend themselves, or to offer photojournalists a tour inside some of the ACTUAL savvy, sexy, bright and good-news operations that splendidly demonstrate the best recycling waste hierarchy. Upgrade. Reduce, Reuse, Repair.
Beres declares BAN's thesis somewhat factishly:
Currently, a legal loophole allows organizations used by the government to export electronic waste ― like discarded smartphones, computers, televisions and monitors ― to other countries, where they’re dismantled by workers in unsafe conditions.
There is nothing in the article indicating any investigation of the claim. There's no interview with any counterpoint, and certainly no interview with the importing company in Hong Kong. I have previously called out MIT Sensability Lab for lending MIT's gravitas to the small NGO in Seattle. We showed Beres a response from MIT claiming NO data and NO knowledge of ANY claim made by BAN - about child labor, rice paddies, primitives, illegality, etc. - whatsoever.
Folks at Michigan State, MIT Senseability Lab, Blacksmith Institute, etc. take BAN's thesis and describe it, and BAN sends those to reporters as if it's peer reviewed research. Google 80% waste export figure. Complete and utter fiction, reported for 10 years based on a shell game of credible names repeating a number that doesn't exist.
What also bugs me is that even the "worst" photos just show manual disassembly by non-white people. Like the photos of guys with hammers separating aluminum from copper in Agbogbloshie, it seems to represent prima facia evidence that something is wrong when brown people separate metals. That's a racist appeal to the thesis, in my book. What are they disassembling - Hong Kong stuff or imported stuff? What percentages of each? How much is there, is it a significant percentage of the "crisis"? Does 2 tons per day of printers really show a world crisis? My plant in Middlebury Vermont manages more stuff than is shown in Hong Kong.
But the damage is done by implicit racist association of brown skin and "toxic" electronics. The same electronics in your kids bedroom are made to seem exotic and poisonous, and all the more so to people who know nothing about technology. That's the frustration with Damon Beres - as Tech Editor, he should really know better than to accept "ju ju" depictions of risks of manual disassembly.
Can you guess the country, nationality, and "e-waste" fate from the photo to the left? Compare it to the photo in Beres' June Huffington Post article. Which is OECD? Who is Primitive? Where's the "child labor" claimed by NGO?
NOW HEAR THIS. I have obtained data OBSCURED by MIT or BAN in the Hong Kong printer scrap shipments! BAN has made a vague statement that the data points were obscured to somehow assist enforcement... but then trashed Hong Kong Environmental Department a month later for somehow allowing a location to become the "next" Agbogbloshie or Guiyu.
The "bait and switch" was done on Carlo Ratti and Damon Beres. I would hope the days are numbered when BAN can declare a place with 7 million people, like Hong Kong, as a port of receipt and then obscure the coordinates and hand-pick which operation they bring the photojournalist to. Tema isn't Agbogbloshie. Hong Kong isn't Guiyu. And Eco Park isn't what BAN brought the camers to.
BAN has obscured data, implying that the data tracks their e-waste to the "primitive" facility shown in the Huffington Post photos. BUT I HAVE DATA SHOWING LOADS THEY TRACK ARRIVING AT ECOPARK! This data comes from inside sources at BAN's Seattle HQ and was NOT provided by MIT Sensable City Lab through our request for MIT's data (Carlo Ratti claims not to have the data we used to track the load to the Eco Park).
BERES and Huffington Post do have photos of a printer scrapyard. Perhaps some printers did wind up there. BUT WE HAVE DATA showing that SOME of the loads were tracked to the STATE OF THE ART FACILITY at Hong Kong's Eco Park, and that THOSE data points have been obscured by BAN and/or MIT! As has the financial arrangement with the Recycling Company which funded BAN and whose loads were NOT TRACKED.
Some of the data that was obscured last month on BAN's claim that "enforcement" was required is now accessible on the MoniTour application. The screenshot below shows an LCD arriving at the permitted, state of the art ECO PARK, and then to an inner city location Tuen Mun, as described in our June blog. Why that data was ever obscured is now subject to some serious questions.
WHY WAS THIS EVER OBSCURED? AND WHY DID BAN NOT BRING PBS TO THE STATE OF THE ART ECO PARK?
Was BAN funded by a competitor of Li Tong Group (one of the licensed facilities at the Eco Park)? Definitely, that is known, and the same competitor is also now disclosed as a funder of PBS. Did that influence the reporter? Probably not, but the purpose of bringing the reporter to the ugliest place possible is clear. Equally clear is the obligation of the reporter to ask someone else where ELSE the "e-waste" might have gone in Hong Kong, and to ask why BAN obscured that data for 2 months.
From the Eco Park, this LCD can be tracked to an apartment in Fui Sha Wai in Hong Kong New Territories. Hardly "cowboy land". And export for repair is NOT "e-waste" or illegal under the Basel Convention (nor is recycling). Where else DIDN'T Basel Action Network take journalists? THAT is the pattern - not taking CBS 60 Minutes to the SKD Factories in Foshan (where the monitors they circle by helicopter went), and not taking PBS to Accra's Tech Sector shops like Chendiba Enterprises. This is the pattern.
This is potentially criminal behavior, and should certainly give pause to Huffington Post decision to provide links to the petition. I absolutely believe that this shows BAN has purposefully obscured GPS data showing scrap arriving at this Hong Kong R2 Certified recycler, which has import permits and contracts with original equipment manufacturers to provide recycled plastic content for new electronics being manufactured in Shenzhen. You know, the place where Mike Daisy told Ira Glass that he saw schoolchildren being escorted in child labor camps by machine gun, basically.
Now Damon Beres is not likely a racist. I'm sure he's not. I don't tend to ever describe people as racists. But there are assumptions, profiles, fears and insecurities which crop up when people see photos of brown people doing stuff, and false data to leverage and increase those perceptions, for the financial benefit of white people, or the fame and "exoticness" of photojournalists, does arguably reflect a racist economy. When black African TV repairmen go to PRISON based on a white guy's absurd "ghoulish" descriptions of Agbogbloshie (thousands of orphans? hundreds of sea containers of e-waste?), and journalists get Pelly and Polk awards for breaking the story, and its all based on fake fictious and retracted numbers, yeah I will call that racism.
Damon Beres Huffington Post article in June does show brown people disassembling electronics in Hong Kong. Jim Puckett says they are of the place where the electronics were tracked. What conclusions we are to draw from that is left to Basel Action Network. There are no photos of USA recyclers to compare the scrap to (my photo above is Mexican women trained in an R2 certified recycling facility in Vermont). Beres article shows photos of TIRES!!!! (Oh my GOD! Tires in Hong Kong!!!) What the photo of forklift tires at a scrap yard in Hong Kong (which is richer than the USA per capita) is supposed to show in the Huffington Post article is a little unclear. But you could send the reporter through an R2 factory in the USA and find photos of oil drums and tires and batteries and accidental breakage, and if you purposefully didn't bring the photographer to see the NICE parts of the facility, and then said it was all somehow typical of the race/geography/language/creed of the facility owner... yeah I will call that racism.
BAN has the data now, including ECOPARK coordinates now obscured at the Senseable City web page. MIT claims to be unable to release it. I won't say exactly how I obtained the data from BAN, I will invite them to state that they did NOT track any scrap to Hong Kong's state of the art ECO PARK (then I'll provide it). I can say it was an inside source in Seattle, not Cambridge or MIT. They will ignore this because they know it's true, and won't want to explain why they "obscured" GPS data showing proper, legal recycling imports.
Again, maybe they found some illegal work too, but they definitely have GPS data showing stuff arriving where it's permitted to arrive and being processed legally, and they have definitely obscured that data point.
Now, Damon Beres was very forthright in responding to my tweets and emails and my request for editorial retraction or insertion of counterclaims. But as of this AM, has done nothing about it. I provided MIT correspondence to him, he took from it that I am personally in the business and therefore perhaps have a conflict of interest. FAIR ENOUGH BUT THEN STATE THAT IN THE ARTICLE. Because everyone in the industry following this story knows that BAN is almost completely funded by USA shredding companies who are competing directly with the Hong Kong Eco Park company, and if conflict of interest is part of this discussion I welcome that discussion wholeheartedly.
Berees joins Scott Pelley, Michelle Rey, Peter Essick, Cahal Milmo, Raphael Rowe (BBC), and others who get tricked by the planned obsolescence, big shred, non-profit payola scandal.
1) BAN tells you the port of import in a country BAN says is suspect. 2) BAN brings you to the ugliest place it can find in that country - Agbogbloshie, Guiyu, etc. 3) BAN lets you photograph brown people there 4) BAN gets a link to its website, its petitions, etc.
BUT the "e-waste" didn't go there. Got it? CBS 60 Minutes, watch it again and again, and there are NO COMPUTER MONITORS in Guiyu. The stacks of computer monitors CBS shows in Hong Kong definitely, absolutely, did NOT go to the place BAN led them to. But the imagery of the place BAN did lead them to pulls the guilty heartstrings and gets BAN money.
The journalists are the victims here, in a way. But they also need to be interviewing people like Joe Benson, the importers, who can give them tours of the ACTUAL facilities which import the stuff, rather than take the word of an organization PAID handsomely by the competitors of that facility.
Agbogbloshie (BBC link) is a real place. Loads tracked to the Tema Port outside Accra in Ghana do NOT go to Agbogbloshie.
Guiyu is a real place, and its ugly. The monitors in Hong Kong (CBS link) did NOT go to Guiyu. Given that those two locations were false leads, BAN's decision to "obscure" data points in Hong Kong should raise suspicion of any reporter. And now we have proof that BAN has obscured MIT Sensable City lab data showing loads they tracked arriving at the ECO PARK revealed by this blog in May and June.
At the time I didn't have the data showing it went there, I only had copies of the Purchase Order showing it was supposed to go there. Now I have proof that BAN found some of the material DID go there and BAN is now HIDING that information from journalists.
Huffington Post has now been given direct evidence of fraud in BAN's story, but the link to BAN's website remains. Huffington Post does NOT have MIT's word for it. Huffington Post does NOT have the GPS coordinates (if it does, follow them to the EcoPark and one LCD monitor to a place where it has been repaired and is in use at/near/in a Hong Kong restaurant). Let me boil this down.
Asians and Africans and Latin Americans have had cars and televisions and VCRs and all kinds of electric gadgets for more than half a century.
Poorer nations tend to use manufactured goods three to four times longer than rich nations. Same dynamic inside OECD, Poverty is linked to car repair, clothing reuse, electronics fixing.
Even if poor nations use electronics for 10-15 years rather than 3-5 years, they do, eventually, generate city trash with "e-waste" or "e-scrap" in it.
There are tire piles in China and Africa, just like there are tire piles in Europe and America.
Taking a picture of a tire pile or TV pile in Africa doesn't mean recyclers in the OECD are secretly and illegally dumping our waste there.
Posing children in front of piles of garbage (often quite small ones) is a marketing technique designed to get money to the western NGO. Not one dime is shared with the kids in the photos.
Calling African and Chinese technicians "Primitives" and making vague and false claims of "child labor" and "thousands of orphans pawing through junk" is just racist. "Pawing"? For God's sake. "Witches brew", "skeletal", "hideous"? This is 1930s language used by Nazis to portray Jews, for gods sake. Completely inappropriate description of SKD refurbishing factories, African Tech Sector, etc.
When you get wound up and want to avoid using a recycler who employs these "primitive" practices and "child labor"? GUESS WHAT?
ONE HUNDRED PERCENT of the recyclers "recommended" by this racist, false claim making NGO have PAID the NGO to be listed, actually entered into a CONTRACT to pay the NGO!
When recyclers stopped making CASH payments to the Seattle NGO, their companies were dropped from the NGO recommended list.
CBS, NPR, BBC, Economist, Guardian, Interpol, UK Environmental Agency, dozens of respectable journalists and environmental enforcement organizations have been DUPED by racists, Afrophobic, Asia phobic, bigoted assumptions about Geeks of Color. The journalists aren't consciously racist, they are just being manipulated by the same ignorance of emerging markets exposed by TED Talk's Hans Rosling. They see stacks of CRT monitors in Hong Kong, you bring them to a chip harvesting scrapyard (downstream from textile mill effluent) and they are so busy subconsciously reacting to poor brown skinned people that they NEVER BOTHER TO LOOK for the CRTs. They are reacting to the "scrap boys" burning wires in Accra, and never notice that NO SEA CONTAINER has ever been unloaded there, that you couldn't even access that site with 5 containers per month, let alone the 500 sea container per month you describe in the article based on BAN's "testimony".
TEN YEARS of documenting this stuff. This is hideous. Wake up, journalists and legislators. This is a massive con game. Arresting Africa technicians like Hurricane Joe Benson should have been the last straw.
'You have enemies? Good. That means you've stood up for something, sometime in your life.' Winston Churchill
war·horse ˈwôrˌhôrs (noun) (in historical contexts) a large, powerful horse ridden in battle.
informala soldier, politician, or sports player who has fought many campaigns or contests.
informala musical, theatrical, or literary work that has been heard or performed repeatedly.
"that old warhorse Liszt's “Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2.”"
I've got a messy blog here (apology for posting before editing, this is take 2). I should write it up as a real article, though. It parallels conversations I've had over beers with many colleagues in the ICT world over the decades. And maybe it explains why I left multi-million dollar UN and WTO and IMF funded "AID Projects" and enjoy private investment outside the #charitableindustrialcomplex. And the reason I should write it up more professionally is that it appears "WASTE AID" and "RECYCLING DEVELOPMENT AID" is about to go down the same learning curve, without a helmet as they rush to be first to submit projects for funding.
Inexperience, Bad People Management, Lack of Accounting Skills, Spotty Customer Service, Sub Par (food) Quality. Let's compare the "5 frequent reasons" that restaurants in the USA and EU fail with the explanations offered by the Aid for Africa complex. Does a 60% failure rate prove Africa's incapable? Or does Africa's enormous and steady growth demonstrate an unhealthy attraction of Western Aid workers to projects lacking business fundamentals?
"Reckless" Korean War warhorse honored by medal and statue @ National Museum of the Marine Corps, Quantico, Virginia
The myth is that "nothing is getting better". I call this the "restaurant crisis".
The logic of AID and Enforcement in Africa seems built on "failure needs more help". If 60% of new USA restaurants fail in the first year, and 80% fail in 5 years, then Governments should fund professional Restaurant Aid Workers to save Restaurateurs. Charity needs to save the failing restaurants. Compare that to the free market, which invests based on past success.
And beeeliiiiiieeevvee me, I could get you some restaurant worker photos that would send you skeedaddling from emerging market restaurants to burn wires in Agbogbloshie in a heartbeat (and genuine "child labor" to boot). Maybe even some with FIRE pictures for the photojournalists.
If you have seen Awal M. Basit (2nd left) burn wire, you know this amount of gasoline flame is "shiny object for reporter"
Lessons from ICT Battlefield (Information Communications Technology)
I ran across an ICT blog yesterday which brought me back to that battlefield. The tone is a bit "warhorsey", and I can relate to that. I started out, after Mass DEP, in the ICT realm. The idea (like World Computer Exchange) was to take surplus computers and use them to develop school tech rooms and internet cafes in Africa. Millions of WTO and UNGAID dollars were going to these countries to "connect them to the web", and thousands of western Aid Workers, volunteers, etc., were carpetbagging to Africa to play a positive role, and earn a living, saving Africa from darkness. (Fair Trade Recycling's 2016 EWaste Trading program is derivative).
The author, @TimSchoffield2, an Accountant from the UK ran the WebERP project in Uganda with Victor Kagimu. Like many of my pals in the development field, he paints a picture of an Africa which desperately needs repair and maintenance officials from the West. I met him via Twitter, and found his blog. His style is that of an old warhorse; here are two I've read.
Sustainability and Corruption in donor funded projects
"International aid is not working, but it can. It needs a change of attitude from both the donors and the receivers of the aid."
Any donor funded project should be sustainable. That is it should continue to function when the donor leaves. Sounds obvious I know, but most people would be amazed at just how few do carry on working. Anybody who has like me, worked and traveled extensively in Africa will be able to recount stories of when this has failed. Here are just a few of mine: - Water pumps that cannot be maintained when they break down because there are no spare parts, no money or means to get them, nobody trained to fit them if they were available. - Fields full of farm machinery (Tractors, Canadian sized combine harvesters etc) rotting away. Why? No spare parts, and nobody trained to maintain them. - I once visited a large hospital in East Africa which had a modern but non-functioning CT scanner. Again the reason given for its lack of functionality was that it had broken down and nobody could repair it... The hospital director told me that eventually somebody would donate a new one and the old one would be thrown away....This is one of the reasons why billions of dollars in aid money floods into Africa but things never get better for its citizens.
The other reason is the corruption that follows these projects. I have over the years had conversations with people who have been found to have taken money from projects. The common theme is always that they do not see it as stealing, or as something wrong. The best analogy I have is that aid money is seen like a river flowing down the mountain, and if you divert a little to irrigate your own field, then the water doesn't stop flowing, and you get a better harvest. The flaw with this argument is that the supply of money is finite and the river does stop flowing.
The best solution I have for this is closer and more rigorous scrutiny of the project by onsite managers who are appointed by the project donors to supervise the use of the money. Just the same as would be done with any commercial company when a budget is allocated to a project.
No spare parts, and no one trained the Africans to maintain the donated equipment. Aparently, after 5 decades of Aid spending, white consultants can offer a solution.
Tim Schofield's previous post on 1/11/2014 offers that "Not all projects fail, there have been some outstanding successes but the failure rate is way too high."
ICT Aid projects in Africa - Why so many failures?
Failure of ICT projects is not an uncommon thing. Most statistics seem to show a failure rate of between 50% and 70%. So Africa is not on its own in having these failures. However from my observations I have noticed specific areas in donor funded projects that seem to make these projects more liable to failure:
"We are a donor funded organisation so we shouldn't use for-profit companies"...
"The project should be staffed and managed by local people, and not by outsiders"...
Project employees are more interested in perpetuating the project than completing it...
Projects encourage "cronyism"...
Project aims are often too vague...
My experience shows that projects should:
Be managed by an external person employed by the donor organisation charged with meeting targets...
Use the best resources available to them regardless of whether they are non-profit or for-profit...
Set definite targets at the start, both in timescale and project goals. The project manager should be the person held accountable...
Donor organisations should be firmer in their dealings on the ground. Too often I see donor organisations that take a far too "charitable" view of bad work....
So the ICT warhorses explain to us that the ICT projects repeatedly fail. Yet Africa has, by all accounts, leapfrogged the rest of the world in hand-held cell phones, even developing currency exchanges with cell phone credit accounts, and has achieved a rate of growth in telecommunications many times the rate of USA in the 1990s.
People are well nourished, but the restaurants to aid them are failing?
Marcus Lemonis has heard ICT complaints before
I've done quite a bit of quoting here from the article, which is ironic since Mr. Schofield's next to final blog post accuses others involved in the WebERP Africa ICT project of (coding) plaigarism ("Unfortunately this seems to be typical of the recent dishonest behaviour of the leadership of the webERP project."). I have had some experience with plagiarism in Africa, as have some Ph.D pals. Anyway, the skirmish is notable because it looks like any restaurant episode of CNBC's "The Profit".
Here's where I agree with, and I split from, Schofield's type of diagnosis of how to better administer the #whitesaviorcomplex #charitableindustrialcomplex funding. Keep donating, but involve experts who can spend it better? Schofield is not alone, but he takes the market intervention (Aid, Interpol Enforcement, etc.) as an opportunity being wasted, rather than a waste looking for more opportunity to suck from. And you arrive here by not finding the success and drawing conclusions from it (as I have done with the "e-waste" export field, but by starting with the funding and trying to find the success at the end of it.
Percentage of failure does not define success. Success defines itself, and you try to recreate that which has succeeded, not to keep repairing that which regularly fails.
The slide show embedded above is something I consider a success. It certainly shows that Africa is capable of repairing stuff without funding from western saviors. But if you interview these entrepreneurs, they know something important - who in Africa is a waste of their time? If they don't get paid for the work, they don't go back. That's an important lesson everywhere, from the restaurant business in New York to the coltan business in Tanzania. If your ICT project is funding a hospital or a university that can't get repair guys to work for them, maybe them-repair-guys know something you don't (or won't) admit.
This restaurant owner, the one you are backing, can't find anyone to do the dishes? In AFRICA?
In fairness, a lot of ICT projects are aimed at very remote locations. A big part of restaurants successes and failures comes from location. If you open a 5 star restaurant in Ngaoundal, Cameroon, it may face the same issues of the internet cafe. The free market says that restaurants succeed when they are a) well managed, and b) located where lots of people wanna eat.
The failure of recycling yards, or stormwater systems, or restaurants, or cars, or other "things that fall apart", attracts the western eye in Africa, the same as a broken down car slows the rubbernecking queue. But there's nothing slowing you down in the fast lane except your own gaze. In African cities, you are connected there to the internet. Even while standing in the "remote" field of Agblogbloshie, you can watch Manchester United (Awal's Qatar backed team) play (Samsung's) Chelsea on a smart phone as the Photojournalists photograph children perched like magpies on fridge housings. You are surrounded by junk cars, which you reached via traffic jam of working cars. Pictures of broken cars or non successful people do NOT demonstrate that "so much more funding is necessary" or that "nothing is getting better for African citizens".
In fact, emerging markets "adolescence" (pollution, corruption, crime, badly managed cafes) looks the same everywhere, if historically speaking.
What's needed are more people willing to do the dishes, reformat the hard drives, and take out the garbage. The biggest pile of African garbage are managers (with family or political connections) who don't do any work, have no experience, manage people poorly (especially relatives) , lack accounting skills, provide poor client service, and fail to execute on deliverables. But this isn't an "African" problem. This is a list of problems which explain why 60% of USA restaurants fail in the first year. The difference is a guilt-driven AID complex to provide "restaurant aid".
Two statements from Schofield's blog illustrate the fallacy that more #whitesavior managers are necessary where investments failed. Africa has lots of wannabe Marcus Lemonis's with OPM (other peoples money), and lots of Anton Egos writing reviews via blog.
AGREE: As Mr. Schofield correctly says above in the (1/11/2011) "Why So Many Failures" blog, "Failure of ICT projects is not an uncommon thing. Most statistics seem to show a failure rate of between 50% and 70%.
He's absolutely correct. Most ICT projects in the USA failed at a rate similar to the failure of most restaurants and other small businesses. In the USA, 60% of hospitality industries (e.g. restaurants) go under in one year, and 80% go under in 5 years (similar rate to African development worker blogs, I suspect). Yet his reasons for failure in Africa seem to be a list of pet peeves with almost none of the reasons cited in the Business Insider interview with Restaurant Warhorse/Celebrity Chef Robert Irvine: Food Network Chef Robert Irvine Shares The Top 5 Reasons Restaurants Fail
1. Inexperience 2. Bad People Management 3. Lack of Accounting Skills 4. Spotty Customer Service 5. Sub Par (food) Quality and Execution.
These aren't a perfect list of failures for failure of Africa ICT projects, but it's a lot closer than Schofield's list of causes, IMHO. And I like the title of the next Business Insider article linked below it - "The CEO Of 'Wichcraft Only Hires People Who Are Willing To Take Out The Trash". Africa has a serious problem whenever it hires someone "not willing to take out the trash"... or more aptly, "willing to wash the dishes". I believe China had the same problem in industries that were funded by the CCP (with similar or higher failure rates). You don't train African restaurant owners to do the dishes. You invest in African restaurants where they serve food on clean plates because they do the dishes. That's VC 101.
And I suspect Tim Schofield would agree with me on both this, and my next point.
"billions of dollars in aid money floods into Africa but things never get better for its citizens."
The "things never get better" is common in the press - which wants to keep reporting the same story about Africa. And it's common among AID organizations who are in this uncomfortable place of needing funding because "the problems still exist" but are uncomfortable with the free market thought that may follow (stop funding AID projects).
Things never get better for Africa's citizens???
That is patently false.
The fact is that Africa's citizens are better off because Africa's Tech Sector imports used working and repairable electronics, cars, and other equipment with its own money and maintains it. The solution is simple. You invest in Africa the way you invest in a restaurant.
The African repairpeople KNOW already which Hospital Manager doesn't pay them for fixing the electronics. They have been stood up. And the people in Africa who are most successful at winning AID funding over and over again are the very people these Tech Sector workers stay away from. The "black knights" know how the game is played.
Africa has NEARLY UNIVERSAL ICT in its cities. There are rural distribution issues, as there are for water and electricity and paved roads. But that's a normal pattern of development, even in the USA (see Hillbilly Highway blogs).
People who invest in restaurants know to follow people who are successful, not people who aren't, and to trust those peoples experience at what made them successful. I have seen Tech Sector importers in Ghana forced to cut off their own home cities because the "cousins don't expect to be forced to pay debts" factor. It's a difficult and painful decision for the African entrepreneur, but he has figured out the guy in the city who doesn't speak his mother tongue but who has paid him on a timely basis for every order is better skilled, meets all the same criteria that the Business Insider Restaurant article lists.
There is a link to small business, ICT, and recycling projects.
What I learned in Peace Corps was how to make a difference without OPM (Other Peoples Money) playing a huge role.
I've found friends in Africa and Asia and Latin America who did great things with me, and helped me build my company, creating sustainable projects.
And we used ordinary loans and mortgages, we never went down the VC or AID route.
Warhorses should be asking "Did we need more horses? Or did we pick the right battles?"
Some of my favorite people are young Ph.D students/faculty who follow this blog because it breaks ranks with professional writings and provides new insights. (I do appreciate it when I get cited, however, though only moderately disappointed when I don't. I kind of assume once people get tenure they will pay tribute to the warhorse.)
Just saw this Humans of New York post, which quotes a young New Yorker from Gabon repeating the old saw that powerful and corrupt Africans selling natural resources to Colonizing powers is the reason for poverty in Africa. The "curse of natural resources". My issue with it is that the victimization stereotype also fails to note the success is built by "Tinkerers Blessing", the repair and refurbishers.
The liberals in the Colonizing powers feel guilt over the tying of resource extraction to poverty, and try to fix it by issuing MILLIONS of dollars in AID to the same governmenents in Africa who mismanaged the natural resources.
Things are definitely getting better in Africa, either from "trickle down" of Aid (ICT or otherwise), but it's the TINKERERS, the self made men of the repair sector, the very people AID blogs say are "missing". They are smart people, valedictorians, who stay the hell away from African Government projects. Duh.
'You have enemies? Good. That means you've stood up for something, sometime in your life.' Winston Churchill
If you are going to spend money and time to fly someplace, you want a "souvenier". You want something of value that represents the fruit of your hunting and foraging. It's probably evolved, like necklaces made of feathers or teeth of wild beasts we've conquered.
Pokemon Go gives people exotic looking cartoons when they walk about outside (or let's not kid ourselves, I'm sure people are driving as much as they are walking). It's like a gold star or sticker on your 1st Grade homework assignment.
And if you are going to fly to an "exotic" place like Africa, or have recently, I'd challenge you to go back through your "chips of film" and see what you took photos of. How many were people you know? Of those people you don't know, what were you taking pictures of them doing?
If you have a time machine, and can go back to the 1960s and 70s in the Ozarks, people wanted pictures of "Hillbillies". They had read about them, seen comics about them, and having made the trek and spent the vacation hours and bucks, they wanted pictures of hillbillies, dammit.
And before you could spell "cultural appropriation", underemployed actors from Chicago, St. Louis and "Hollywood" came and erected Vaudeville shows in Branson to meet demand...
Ozark hillbilly cultural appropriation? Agbogbloshie's predecessors
Pikachus, Agbogbloshies, Child Labor, Elephants, Buddhist Monks. If there is something like a flame or a sunset or something to add color to the photo, it's more post-worthy. Among Pikachus, the cartoon colors are part of the attraction.
We don't need to be snobby about it. It's too easy to juxtapose the tourist and the brown child and infer racism, tsk-tsk. To be honest, if I deep sea dive, I sure want a photo of a lionfish or octopus, but if there's nothing but bare dusty sand I'll take a picture of a lost shoe. We want to validate our steps, and it's natural, and there's genuinely good things to say about caring about wherever we go.
Our Agbogbloshie gangleader Awal Muhammed Basit has arrived back to homeland capital Tamale this week, where he called Techician Kamaldeen Abdusalaam of Chendiba Enterprises. They are both in their early 20s. What they know about Western photographers is that if Awal shows how to remove screws, it attracts far fewer shots and film than if he sets a fire. If Agence Presse (Montreal) is there, Awal quadruples the amount of lighter fluid for the fires.
Photography just can't become the basis of public policy if we don't understand what attracts our gaze. We are all fish, pursuing fireworks and other shiny objects, or emotional ones. Making up fake statistics about shiny fires can result in African TV repairpeople going to jail, and that should burn our eyebrows off.
Making a documentary about Mike Anane's propaganda to evict slum dwellers in Accra for an urban development, enlisting Western journalists with BAN.org's false claims of "80% recently dumped from your recycling program" is the worst form of journalism. Trying to validate it because you feel like a sucker for flying down there isn't worthy of a trophy. #EwasteRepublic got credit just for leavening the fake story with some truth, taking pictures of normal African lives to go along with the 10 or 25 guys who burn wires in Ghana's version of the Baldknobber Show.
LaPresse hopefully paid Awal (left in Manchester United jersey) enough to compensate for the extremely extra amount of gasoline or lighter fluid he's using. The wires themselves don't emit enough "high flame" for photographers. A tire with gasoline adds a little extra zest, more photojournalist "points".
The Baldknobbers - before the cartoon stereotype cultural appropriation - were an actual "thing". It was a hooded vigilante group in Taney County Missouri, which would have quickly gone into the dustbin of history (along with the "anti-BaldKnobbers" which is actually a historical "thing" too) except for a 1919 Film about the "Shepherd of the Hills", which helped bring Ozarks Exoticness to USA City Theaters. And the book by great uncle Elmo Ingenthron.
The truckdriver terrorism in #Nice06 is playing non-stop. What I see is that crowds came to Nice to see the Bastille Day fireworks. And an asshole in a truck killed about 85 people (out of several hundred thousands), effectively inserting himself into the shiny objects, potentially driving public policy, Scott Adams (blog) says, by causing a reaction to elect a "strongman" father figure.
The similarity between the redneck Ozark baldknobber masks and the traditional African Bamileke or Mankon masks I saw in Cameroon is probably appreciated by an incredibly small audience. I'm enjoying the comparison.
'You have enemies? Good. That means you've stood up for something, sometime in your life.' Winston Churchill
When we went out for beer at the beach with a couple of my wife's cousins (people who were at our wedding here in southern France 26 years ago), I found myself trying to simplify my thoughts so that my French vocabulary would be less of a struggle. My French isn't too bad "for an American truck driver". But I admit I don't try as hard as I used to. My wife and kids speak exclusively in French, but most of my vocabulary is now about reminding teenagers to clean up a mess in the kitchen. It's not very philosophical stuff.
Anyway, when you're my age and you come to visit inlaws in France once a year, you wind up retelling and re-asking and re-recounting a lot of the same stuff anyway. And one of the "small talk" topics is always whether I fit a stereotype of "American" based on the French news.
I've frequently posted about the Ozark Mountains, where my family is from. That three out of 4 of my great grandparents made their own shoes, Foxfire style, from goat skins. The 4th set worked with the Burueau of Indian Affairs (my great grandfather William Freeland - hence my middle name - was personal friends with John Niehardt, author/translator of Black Elk Speaks - who also retired to Branson area).
In America, in college, I was always asked whether I was really from the Ozarks. My dad was a college professor at the University of Arkansas (Journalism/Mass Communications), I say. But ahah! I was born in Massachusetts (my dad had a 2 year beat reporter job there between his BA and Ph.D at Columbia Missouri). I answer I was brought back to the Ozarks in a laundry basket in the back of a Volkswagen at one year old, but no doubt a bunch of redneck blew off me when the windows were down.
So taking a stereotype that a French person has about Americans, and seeing them figure out how I'm an exception, is familiar territory. I'm fat enough for some of the stereotypes, and I keep a Hawaii shirt inventory (a bit tongue in cheek, but helps my kids find me on the beach).
But the people I feel a lot in common with are Africans.
#theafricathemedianevershowsyou looks an awful lot like #thesouththemedianevershowsyou or #theozarksthemedianevershowsyou
The Africans I tend to meet are pretty savvy folks. Emmanuel Eric Nyaletey just got his second or third degree - in Coding - at Georgia Tech, where he took a year off at Good Point Recycling for a full scholarship offer. He originally got a degree in computer engineering at the University of Accra, Ghana, then somehow got accepted at St. Michael's College in Vermont, married a woman from Vergennes and settled down.
I feel like I understand the stereotypes they deal with. Because it's not that the stereotypes about Africa are completely wrong, any more than that everyone from the Arkansas Missouri line is married to a Francophone studies Ph.D. There is a deep chasm in commentary on Facebook between most of my Vermont liberal friends and many of my family and friends in the South. In the same way as I used to want to gloss over the "redneck" (which I always told my kids means a farmer whose neck is red from working in a field, and that they shouldn't use the term without remembering that), my younger African friends show fatigue in their eyes when some regular problem gets in the news that shows the continent is an ebola zone or Boka Haram headquarters.
My fantasy is to start a "Beverly Hillbillies" program about rural Africa, one that embraces and monetizes the stereotype, a la Branson Missouri, Silver Dollar City. But that would have drawn HUGE glares in the 1960s abd 70s, when my family - including people like Author (great Uncle) Elmo Ingenthron - were rather miffed that the entire USA knew about us through "Snuffy Smith" and "L'il Abner" and "Barney Google" and "Jed Clampett" and "Green Acres" and "Hee Haw", etc.
My wife has to sit through "French surrender monkeys" and sort through stereotypes honestly, just as I do. I see a lot of my conservative red state friends as being "proud of ignorance", a kind of stubbornness that rankles. But I see it in my fellow Vermonter Bernie supporters too. None of us is immune to self-certainty and false conclusions. We must all study stereotypes and compare them with statistics over time.
Africa today is developing at a rate far faster than the Ozarks did from 1840 to 1940. In the Ozarks, the bottom line was how hard you worked. That applied equally to physical labor and "book learning". We were ashamed of our lazy kin, and proud of our hard working kin. And that's why the term "redneck" bothered me, I guess, is that the relatives with the reddest necks were the ones on the tractors - or even yes behind mules, until 1990s.
In Africa, I adored my students who did their homework and really applied themselves to what I was trying to teach in class. And I respected the polite people I saw working in the sun, working their asses off, to feed the African continent.
Less educated people will find it harder to let go of stereotypes. But laziness definitely, definitely, corresponds well with welfare and government assistance and crime. People ask my wife if I'm liberal or conservative. I don't know how she answers. But her best friends, among her cousins, are those she worked with in the mountainside vineyards.
What I listen to at the beach at the Mediterranean. The original "Tennessee Stud" by Jimmie Driftwood. This was probably on the radio in the Volkswagen driving back from Massachusetts.
'You have enemies? Good. That means you've stood up for something, sometime in your life.' Winston Churchill
Happy 4th of July (from France). Everyone here is talking about "underdogs" - though without a solid French translation. Different translations convey different assumptions. Opprime is "oppressed", perdants is "losers". Sous-estime is "underestimated" (which works after the unexpected victory, in hindsight).
When Iceland beat England in the Euro Cup, and Wales beat Belgium, it was a surprise. When Leicester City - facing elimination from the Premier League a year earlier - won the entire British Isles championship, the French sportscaster seemed to be missing a handle for the story.
Could 2016 be the Year of the Underdog? One long-running theme of this Good Point: Ethical E-Waste Blog is our critical look at how #photojournalism can create, leverage, or ignore underdogs. The audience of mankind is highly evolved to nurture the young and oppressed (what I call the Steve Pinker "nurture" instinct), which causes us to support scrappy underdogs vs. big corporations. Mass media is not an umpire - it's a player in the game. Media controls who's perceived as worthy of nurture, and who's perceived as "imperialist" or "bully". We nurture the oppressed, we root for the underdogs. And when it's an obscure, technical, or foreign story, we depend on the media to tell us who the bullys and who the underdogs are.
Here's a kind of derivative take. Mass media can create a "loser" who "wins" the underdog blessing. Being an underdog is a blessing of "moral currency". We see this in everyday society, people exaggerating their "rags to riches" history, the tourists' propensity to validate their "close encounter" with poverty. And I need of course little excuse to repost the greatest comedic clip of all time, BBC's "The Four Yorkshiremen" sketch (pre-Monty Python's "Finally 1948" show).
So on July 4, Superpower USA reflects back on the scrappy 1776 Minutemen who overcame the King of England, the United Kingdom's rule. Like Luke Skywalker and Hans Solo and Princess Leiah, a handful of colonies "against all odds" threw off the yoke of the 1700's greatest superpower, Great Britain. Iceland, Bernie Sanders, Wales, Leicester City, and George Washington, the lovable underdogs.
The underdog card... In the 19th century, Iceland was a colony of Denmark (which enforced a trade monopoly, keeping Iceland merchants from trading outside of DK). Iceland had interesting parallels to the USA of the 18th century. The Althing (native Iceland parliament, perhaps equivalent to the US Continental Congress) was forcefully disbanded, and Iceland didn't get real independence until after World War II. Iceland makes for a great Asterix and Obelix underdog...
(That's supposed to be clever - tying France's historical "Asterix" to Iceland, France's underdog foe in last night's Euro 2016 quarterfinal).
Alas or Hurray... In France we watched Les Bleus crush Iceland, 5-2, last night. When I rooted for "Asterix", I had to explain myself with a google translator.
That "Down 4 - 0 at halftime" face (credit The Guardian)
Despite my family ties here in France, I found myself secretly rooting for the 300,000 or so residents of Iceland, each of whom appears to be first cousins with a starting player or client of the part time dentist who manages the team. Preparing to explain my secret empathy for the vikings, I looked for - but couldn't find - a really good French translation for "underdog".
When an underdog wins, it's usually depicted as through their own merit - perseverance, sweat, some luck, a hidden talent. It's despite the fact that no one nurtures them or delivers them aid. The term connotes a surprise ending which Americans see as always a possibility, against the odds.
But the important point is that someone like me, who (unlike my kids) does not know the individual players and doesn't follow Euro "Soccer" much all year, winds up looking for someone to root for, and if the press says someone's an "underdog", that someone goes all soft and nurturing, without knowing what we are doing.
That's the "e-waste" story.
So back to the ethics of electronic device mining, refining, manufacture, assembly, sale, repair, reuse, recycling, and discard or "waste". Waste is "losing" a resource, I'll accept that. But does everyone and everything preceding "waste" (as a verb) bear obligation of "stewardship"? And when two "previous stewards" interests collide, who was the underdog, and when?
Just as the United States wants to see itself as an underdog who, 240 years later, reminisces on our humble origins, so does the tech sector cling to it's underdog storylines.
Poor little Steve Jobs, making Apple computers in Cupertino, CA garage, as IBM backed Microsoft OS in the late 80s and early 90s. Fanboys still treat Apple as an underdog, despite it's recent standing as largest corporation in the world (stock value). And Bill Gates, a college drop out... Every tech sector's Wikipedia page seems to have the word "upstart" or "despites".
You know what? The underdogs of today don't really feel the brotherly love. Just as Montgomery Burns (Simpsons) compares himself to Oskar Schindler "We both made shells for the Nazis, but mine worked, dammit", the richest corporation in the world still celebrates its humble beginnings through Apple fanbois. (Note, after reading about passing of Elie Wiesel on Saturday, we visited the newly opened Rivesaltes Memorial Museum).
So who is the underdog? Apple or Rossman? The Avalanches, or the retired actors in their LP samples? And do you answer this by who gets the journalist's vote, the sentimental headline - the proclaimed underdog? Or is redistributing creditworthiness for nurture trickier than we thought?
But MIT dropped the bomb and rather than assess collateral damage, defers us to Basel Action Network. If BAN says that only child-labor employing sham recyclers were injured, who is MIT to question it? Ratti is ignoring the ethics of his chapter in #ewastegate because he has nothing to gain from the revelation that Big Shred, Fake Stat NGO, and Planned Obsolescence distributed the "e-waste" among their competitors and used racial profiling to dismiss the potential news that the LCD in Hong Kong was repaired and found in reuse, an environmental fate better -not worse- than at the USA shredder.
I'm hoping that by writing this, that other academics will review the report, look closely at the data and what the NGO partner claims it reveals, and to take serious aim at MIT's own proud claim to have discovered "previously unknown" information about trade in used goods. If I have delivered a 12 page critique showing that nothing was "unknown" about several of the markets, and it's MIT's burden of proof to defend that any of them were illegal, previously unknown, or newsworthy, then MIT shouldn't be allowed to get away with this. I like MIT, I like the Senseable City Lab's work. They are actually a victim, like Ira Glass was victim to Mike Daisy, or Peter Essick, UBC Vancouver, CBS 60 Minutes, BBC, NPR, The Atlantic, Washington Post, etc. were victims of Basel Action Network's false claims about e-waste percentages and the ratification of an obscure Basel "Ban Amendment". But MIT of all people should know the damages of "passing the buck". Each of the reputable journalists, photojournalists, e-Stewards and donors has a moral obligation to admit the Emperor Wears No Clothes. (Hans Christian Anderson of Denmark reference there, 1837, in case you missed it).
There is an amazing journalism opportunity here, and no one has caught it. #EWASTEGATE
"Market cannibalization" was a term I heard first from an HP presenter advocating OEM support for one of e-waste's first high-tech shredding operations, funded by Noranda. She argued that even if the scrap value was less than resale value, that OEMs should subsidize it to protect future sales. That was in the mid 1990s. She later went to work for the shredding company, and now works for Apple. This is not the "underdog". The African Tech Sector, the Paul Rossmans, the Net Peripherals, the Chicas Bravas - the hand disassembly and repair sectors, the 3 billion people who got online in the past decade, despite incomes of $3k per year, THOSE are the underdogs. And if MIT is dropping GPS trackers in the midst of those 3 billion people, and I'm tracking devices to their homes. MIT has a moral and ethical obligation to seek out the MIT OMBUDSMAN before I have to be impolite and contact him/her first.
Because where is all of this headed?
For USA Congressional Testimony, again.
I hope for, if not expect, a hand written thank you note and an invitation for a cup of coffee, not a door slammed on my foot. But it is well under 90 minutes that have played. And as I dribble and circle the goal, MIT may not be aware that I have many other players on the field to pass to. Carlo Ratti's first response was to kick the ball out of bounds, or deflect it to the NGO "partner".
Corner Kick, in Part II.
'You have enemies? Good. That means you've stood up for something, sometime in your life.' Winston Churchill
What is right and what is wrong about the BAN press releases, describing their story on PBS, their partnership with MIT's Senseable City Lab, their investigations with Hong Kong Environmental Protection Department? Home runs require you to touch bases. We are asking the referees - did BAN touch all the bases? Were sabotaged devices not repairable? Is Li Tong Group really not allowed to process OEM material at the state of the art EcoPark in Hong Kong? Are there child laborers in Shui Wai New Town? Are the 86% of Hong Kong called "New Territories" a "cowboy land"? Did MIT find any evidence that a single device they helped track was dumped illegally or repaired responsibly? Does PBS see a link between NGO sponsorship, accusations that workers surprised by cameras are "illegals"? Suddenly the reputations of MIT, Hong Kong EPD, and PBS are being held very, very tightly by Basel Action Network. Public display of affection. Their organization names have been meta-tagged with #trackingewaste.
What's up, ump? Did BAN touch all the bases? Did this expose do the primo non nocere?
Do tell us...
1. MIT QUALIFIES ITS ROLE
Carlo Ratti has just acknowledged our inquiry this morning. He's the director of Senseable City, and a TED Talk expert, and one of the most respected authorities on international city development. His opinion on Hong Kong recycling? On PBS, Ratti stated "One of the surprising things we discovered is how far waste travels. You see these kind of global e-waste flows that actually almost cover the whole planet."
Wait Carlo. You said "waste". Was it "waste"?
If you meant secondary materials...Well... not everyone is surprised. There have been quite a few studies on the transport of materials, including second hand goods and secondary materials, across international lines. The question is, "is it bad?" BAN says that the goods are handled poorly once they leave a port. If you meant "waste", then MIT is saying that the LCD with the controller board (4 sold in the last hour, below) is not replaceable and therefore the entire LCD is "waste"?
We complained back to Ratti that MIT has been involved in a declaration that the goods tracked are not repaired, and are irresponsibly recycled. BAN declares MIT shares their suspicion that the items to be "waste" and not for legal parts, recycling, or repair.
"Obsure remote area, a real cowboy-land" - Jim Puckett
This AM we have a qualifying statement from Carlo Ratti on behalf of MIT Senseable City.
"As BAN described in its report, MIT’s only involvement in the project was the development of the tracking technology and visuals for the website. All other aspects of the project were the sole responsibility of BAN, including the data collection, analysis, and interpretation. As BAN’s report makes clear, the conclusions and opinions presented are BAN’s alone and not MIT’s." - Carlo Ratti
Ratti and Senseable City are in the GPS and website business. MIT is not representing BAN's "findings", and is clearly not identified as the source of information provided by #KCTS9. We suggested that a stronger disclaimer is warranted on the website which describes BAN as SCL's partner. Who else is backing away slowly? 2. PBS ASTERISKS In the PBS segment, mmediately after the Ratti interview, PBS' narrorator states, inaccurately, that "a third of the tracked computers* were tracked to "a little known area known as the New Territories" (which Mr. Puckett describes as "cowboyland"). One of the ten most densely populated areas in the world is "little known"? As we noted in previous Right Wrong blogs, the "remote" area known as "New Territories" is actually 86% of Hong Kong and includes devices in Tin Shui Wei (hardly "cowboyland"). It's everything except the island of Hong Kong proper - and sometimes Kowloon is considered NT. (*Oh yeah, there were no computers, only displays and printers). PBS editors have now placed an edit on the online version of the story - that Wendy Neu is "a funder of PBS newshour". Wendy Neu was also the owner of New England e-Steward WeRecycle (which had no e-waste delivered or tracked) and has been, for a long time, on the Board of Directors at BAN. Readers of the blog will remember her testimony to United States Congress stating that "probably close to 80 percent" of e-waste is exported to developing countries.
We also note that PBS has chosen to blur the faces of human subjects in the film, who, BAN states or implies, are "illegal" and "untrained" and representative of "child labor". All three might be true, but PBS editors correctly realized that this is a statement of opinion about a person (per MIT COUHES "a human subject") who, BAN claims, is doing something illegal. False claims, schmaltz claims, BAN pulls PBS and MIT into the group hug. Which brings us to the third umpire - HK EPD 3. HONG KONG ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION DEPARTMENT DENIES BAN CLAIM Under "legal" sections in its first report and follow up attachments to its press release last Monday, BAN has some curious wording about the printer scrap tracked to Hong Kong. In previous Right Wrong blogs, I showed links to Hong Kong EPD's website. As we know, most of the "e-waste" tracked to Hong Kong by MoniTour was printer scrap, and by far, most of the material BAN and PBS show at the surprised "illegal" site was printers. Again, BAN's own website points out that it's all printers (they say from the United States, I'm not sure it's a given that most of the printers are from the USA). In its Report, BAN states:
“Ironically, it appears that Hong Kong, usually thought of as one of the most technologically and economically advanced areas of China, has not enforced the Chinese import ban as diligently as mainland China has done, and appears to have, in fact, become a new pollution haven,” the report reads...
Hong Kong EPD objects, clarifying that it does NOT consider printer scrap to be Hazardous Waste (or "Chemical Waste"). Like the USA and countries that don't follow the unpassed "Ban Amendment", Hong Kong EPD considers printers and circuit boards to be scrap. The Hong Kong EPD's press release on the visit to the sites BAN impugns makes this distinction - a printer scrap recycler was found with LCDs and CRTs, which is illegal. That doesn't say the printer scrap is illegal, it says the printer scrap recycler was - illegally - also processing other non-printer HW stuff. Now I thought it was going to be a lot of work for me to point out that slight of hand (I see what you did there meme). But BAN has now BLASTED the Hong Kong EPD for not agreeing with them!
Responding to the report, the Environmental Protection Department expressed "grave concern" and on Friday said it had immediately initiated an investigation against the alleged recycling sites in the New Territories. "The EPD will not tolerate any hazardous e-waste being illegally imported to Hong Kong," a spokesman said.
The spokesman said the EPD has already contacted BAN for information and had urged them to provide US authorities "with relevant information at the same time to facilitate interception at source".
The department stressed that provisions set out in the city's Waste Disposal Ordinance were formulated "in accordance with the requirements of the Basel Convention" and were consistent with those adopted by other jurisdictions including member countries of the European Union.
Hong Kong Environmental Protection Department is proud of the state of the art ALBA and Li Tong Group facilities at its ECOPARK. They are trying to open the door for OEM returns and Manufacturer Takeback systems. But they do NOT consider printers "chemical waste" and now BAN is blasting them for granting recycling of printers "in accordance with the requirements of the Basel Convention." ENVIRONMENTAL INJUSTICE THAT INCLUDES FALSE ACCUSATIONS AS WELL AS FAILURE TO PROSECUTE. ENVIRONMENTAL INJUSTICE INCLUDES ENVIRONMENTAL MALPRACTICE MIT HAS SOOOOO MANY STUDENTS WHO KNOW ASIA AND HONG KONG ARE NOT PRIMITIVES, AND THEY DESERVE AN OPEN DEBATE ABOUT THE ALLEGATIONS IN #EWASTEGATE. YOU BROUGHT BAN TO THE PROM, IT'S TIME TO DANCE.
'You have enemies? Good. That means you've stood up for something, sometime in your life.' Winston Churchill
MIT's Senseable City Lab gave apparently new credibility to a wilting ENGO in Seattle, whose reputation for accuracy about "E-Waste Exports" has taken a couple of nasty hits in recent years. For example, BAN.org tried to claim they "never, ever stated" that 80% of e-waste was exported when multiple studies showed zero percent evidence of the figure. Then the bete noir of the past decade - Agbogbloshie in Accra, Ghana - turned out to be an unimpressive urban junkyard near the center of Accra, not a remote fishing village contaminated by imported e-waste.
BAN desperately needed a new "tragedy" and turned to a methodology it had tried once before - placing GPS trackers into "e-waste" (?) and showing transboundary movement. With the help of MIT Media Lab's Carlo Ratti and his "Senseable City Lab" team, they found an e-Steward (a paying member) to put tarps in their parking lot and let BAN and its "volunteers" allegedly render samples of CRT monitors, LCD monitors, and printers "unrepairable" and place tracking devices inside them.
Thanks for the invitation to "Explore". MIT Tracking Has evidently led us to the discovery of a "Previously Unknown" hundred million dollar development - ECOPARK in Hong Kong.
Let's drill down and look for printer scrap, to see if we find "rice paddies" - or more confirmation that Hong Kong is richer per capita than the USA and generates more urban waste, requiring state of the art industrial sludge treatment, landfills, and e-scrap recycling facilties.
Lung Mun Road "EcoPark"
We've already critiqued (Right-Wrong 1-3) the flaws in the GPS tracking method. The cringeworthy treatment of TV repair professional and Africa Tech Sector trader Joe "Hurricane" Bensonby "cutting a power cord" - resulting in Benson's imprisonment and Jim Puckett's excuse of "collateral damage" meant that #BullyBoys at BAN knew better than to send undocumented "sabotage" as "unrepairable" and "illegal".
MIT has now obscured the coordinates of the tracking devices. Now I can't track the printer devices directly to the EcoPark, but the buyers there are pretty darn close to the coordinates MIT has now obscured. But my point is that if the downstream recycler outsourced the printer scrap or stored it during construction, it does not support the defamatory commentary about "child labor" or "rice paddies" or even "previously unknowns" - we know where stuff goes, and MIT has tracked printer scrap to extremely close to where it should be. I have plotted where it was supposed to go on my own, and found SHOCKER it's in the same neighborhood... but I can't track it further, thanks to Obscured Data. Still - "Previously unknown" my a**. Who is engaged in "cover up" and "obscuring" the truth, now?
BAN's allegation that the printer scrap (not commenting on the LCDs yet) was discovered to be scrapped at "previously unknown", "illegal", "child labor" facilities was reported by +KCTS 9 with fanfare.
BUT AS I BEGAN RESEARCHING THE PLACES ONLINE, MIT and BAN suddenly made the coordinates "disappear". They had been provided briefly, and to certain paying E-Stewards the data had been given in advance of the press to allow them to prepare excuses and responses (those paying members, and BAN, may have the data currently).
But here is a geographic FACT. I have access to the exact sites which have been alleged to be "dumps" in "New Territories".
Here is a MAP OF HONG KONG (wikipedia). We are focused on Region 8 (Tuen Mun District), near the border of Region 9 (Yuen Long) where our printer scrap was supposed to go to the EcoPark. MIT has tracked it to -- Region 8/9 border .
What BAN ominously refers to as "The New Territories" sounds like some secret remote place. But the term actually applies generally to anyplace outside the urban center of Hong Kong of 1860 - over 80% of Hong Kong, much of which is very urban. Search for images of Tuen Mun District specifically, and here is what Google dishes out. Below that is a photo of one example of the "New Territories" (New Kowloon).
Here's a simplified map that shows, in grey, the heavily urbanized areas of Hong Kong territories.
Tin Shui Wai New Town
Number 8 is Tuen Mon District. Above it is Yuen Long District (home of the Tin Shui Wai New Town, one of the 5 most densely populated housing districts on earth), the tracked devices were near the District lines. Hong Kong EPD issued a press release in March which cites LCD and battery recyclers in Yuen Long of improper management, we suspect these are the yards that have been obscured by MIT. But we don't see any reference to printers, which Hong Kong EPD states clearly are NOT considered hazardous waste.
Zoom in close enough to see buildings, yards, etc...
So in the "Right Wrong" blogs, I've referred to the development of Hong Kong's EcoPark and R2 Certified Li Tong Group and New Faith recycling companies, and (Right Wrong 3) the massive EcoPark and hundreds of millions $US investment by ALBA, etc. Guess where those are on the map?
Opening Ceremony of the EcoPark WEEE Recycling Centre
The grand opening ceremony of the EcoPark WEEE Recycling Centre was launchedon 27 January 2011. The event was officiated by Mr. Edward Yau, JP, Secretary for the Environment. Mr. Yau remarked at the opening ceremony, “The WEEE Recycling Centre combines the elements of environmental protection, social service and education. Not only will it ensure the proper disposal of used electrical appliances and reduce the pressure on our landfills, but also create employment opportunities for workers of low technical skill, so that they can learn a trade.”
The 5,000-square metre EcoPark WEEE Recycling Centre is Hong Kong’s best equipped centre for recycling used electrical and electronic appliances. Through donation, refurbishment and dismantling, used appliances can be recycled or put to second-hand use to help the needy.
So look again at where the scrapyard where the printers were found is located.
So as we documented in Right Wrong 3, MIT MoniTour has now hidden the coordinates, which may still be accessible to BAN and it's paid E-Stewards. But I think have it, based on proximity to the sea containers at what appears to be the printer scrap yard.
According to my sources, Hong Kong EPD is NOT enforcing on the printers that BAN announced (they are investigating LCDs and CRTs, whether locally generated or imported). But if there were CRTs, LCDs or batteries in the yard, they are in trouble. But take a close look here at how small this yard is. Is this supposed to mean that millions of tons or USA e-waste are processed by 4 Chinese printer scrappers in Tuen Mo?
I think the yard BAN found is in Ha Tsuen.
And as documented last week, MIT Senseable City has ignored our requests to meet and discuss our data, the ethics of their use of the data, the allegations of "child labor" at the location in Hong Kong above, and the possible influence of fundraising partners. BAN is desperately are trying to show their breathe new life into the racist depictions of the Tech Sector and Recycling Sector overseas. BAN refers to this area as "rice paddies" - hyperbole to compensate for a position declining influence.
Now, the printer scrap area is ugly. But for sake of comparison, here's scrap metal in Addison County, Vermont. Using the containers to approximate the size, I think the printer scrap area identified in Hong Kong is about 1/5 the size of a local Middlebury scrapyard, which itself is about the size of Agbogbloshie.
Anthony Schick seems like a nice enough guy. Probably would fit in well with the Boston Globe reporters of Spotlight, graduate of University of Missouri (best J-School in America). But if he sits down and reviews last year's explosion of #ewastegate and the false claims made about Agbogbloshie, and starts to look at the EcoPark in Hong Kong, the recycled plastic content demand by original electronics equipment manufacturers in nearby Shenzhen, he may yet realize that what BAN and MIT have described as "previously unknown" destinations is actually perfectly well known to everyone involved in "MANUFACTURER TAKEBACK PROGRAMS", the very solution BAN has for decades announced as their goal.
Acer and Wistron announce need for recycled plastic content in new devices manufactured in Shenzhen (Chinese city sharing port of Hong Kong).
Hong Kong announces massive generation of e-Waste by its own residents (higher per capita than USA)
Hong Kong Environmental PD designs plan for huge scale state of the art E-Scrap plants to supply Shenzhen's recycled content needs.
USA R2 and E-Steward recyclers enter into private commercial agreements to supply those needs, after determing Hong Kong EPD does not consider the printers hazardous waste.
Maybe the Hong Kong recycler was buying before construction caught up at the EcoPark. Maybe they identified certain laser printers were not classified as HW and sold them. Maybe they running a sham recycler at the EcoPark. Maybe someone at a scrapyard misrepresented the downstream. Maybe the USA recycler we sold to did. I'm not judging this. I'm just putting this into perspective... it's a small yard in a city-state of 8 million people. Recyclers there separate metal and plastic with hammers, by hand, the way my employees do. We can try to find answers to these questions without resorting to describing Africans as monkeys or Chinese as child labor lords.
Again, if MIT is obscuring these sites out of concern for privacy, legality, and ethics, as implied in their obscured map of Hong Kong, that's fine but then ALL sites must be obscured. Like this poor homewner who purchased an LCD, according to MIT, perhaps from a thrift shop in Eugene, Oregon, to bring home to XX address at YY street in the City of XXX in USA. I have the exact address, and the person's name. But unlike MIT, I don't think it's ethical to state publicly that the private purchase was "previously unknown" and therefore "newsworthy and public".
MIT, you meant well. Anthony Schick, your team meant well. But a little bit of Socratic method and Q-Method research goes a long way. Link to your alma mater's William Stephenson, who built Missouri's Journalism School by teaching the importance of avoiding easy stories perpetuate groupthink. Try a little "play theory".
This blog is about ethics of e-waste recycling. We explore lifecycle costs, mining, geography, research, public policy, etc., but ethics is at the core of this. Primum non Nocere dudes, primum non nocere.
Press release from BAN today -
"As an immediate solution, BAN recommends that business, government, and the public only use e-Stewards Certified Recyclers. e-Stewards is the only certification that prohibits exports of hazardous e-waste to developing countries and all e-Stewards recyclers are monitored by unannounced inspections as well as potential downstream verification through electronic tracking devices, in addition to annual on-site audits by certification bodies."
BAN's financials show the source of income (financial interest, in MIT Ethics speak) from E-Stewards they recommend... even though there is no indication in the MIT report that E-Stewards recyclers were less likely to export.
'You have enemies? Good. That means you've stood up for something, sometime in your life.' Winston Churchill
In March 2015, a group of Ghana customs agents, Ghana Tech Sector importers, and three USA journalists accompanied WR3A from the scorched waterside where copper and aluminum wires - wires from cars, appliances, and computers - were being torched in tires. We'd walked about the fires, dodging the black smoke, as WR3A's Dagbani translator (and Tech Sector Geek, first introduced on this blog (May 2011) translated for a group of young men led by Muhammed Awal.
(Note: I've kind of deliberately avoided really nice photos here, just to kind of capture the ordinariness of it all)
The photographers (myself included) had all snapped some great and alarming shots of young men, dirt, poverty, pollution, and smoke. The ENGO's halloween language would be hard to resist. But we now moved the the larger Agbogbloshie yard, where by hammer and screwdriver and axe, metals were being separated from each other and from the plastic skins and wire nerves that bound their bodies.
The first electronic or "e-Waste" device we photographed was a VHS or VCR player. It was, no doubt, originally imported used. The Italian photographers got their lenses up close, accepting the premise that this represented and "obsolete" import.
Joe Benson's container exports were itemized, not just by count of appliance, but by brand and model. In 100 pages of documents I reviewed, there was no VCR. Wahab, the Ghana Tech who made our tour possible, would never have imported one.
But back in the day, when I lived in West Africa in the 1980s, VCRs were a hot commodity. An entire industry of "duplicate" movies existed in Nigeria. Knock off copies of "Rocky" and "Rambo" and "Bob Marley Concerts" were in every marketplace, from Yaounde to Ngaoundal. Cameroon was still in the business of erecting TV towers, but the "critical mass of users" who made those investments promising had obtained used CRT televisions - every one of which demanded a VHS player as much as it did electricity.
When I looked down and saw the young men pounding, I saw a flashback of scrap appliance from Africa's past decades. I wondered, did the young Italian documentary makers (in their 20s) have any idea what a VHS player was, and could they imagine a Joe Benson or Wahab buying one from an "e-waste" collector and paying thousands of dollars to ship it here?
The Ghana customs agents walked away from the VCR having seen evidence that the scrapyard was full of Accra city junk. The Ghana scrap "boys" walked away, having seen a piece of metal one of them had purchased for a few dimes and put on a push cart... they saw a piece of electronics so old that they were able to buy it for its metal value, so obsolete that even Agbogbloshie's tech shops had taken a pass on it. The Ghana importers saw something they had seen in USA or EU scrap bins, but been no more interested in importing than a coconut husk. I saw confirmation that imports were not the origin of the waste we saw transformed into urban mine recycled metals.
But as the photographers circled and clicked their cameras, what did they think they saw confirmation of?
Demand in Africa evolves. In the 1980s, VCRs were valued almost as much as the television itself, and their import drove a massive Hollywood and MTV counterfeit tape industry across Africa's coast. But the end of the 1990s, the price of VCRs has fallen. Blockbuster video stores supplied movies even cheaper than Nigerian knockoffs, as they moved inventory into DVDs. Streaming would make even DVD rentals a dinosaur. CRT televisions have had a stubborn demand because the fluctuating "fuzzy current" in African cities tends to blow out modern lightweight Chinese product, but now even the CRT import business has declined.
The waste is driven by consumer elective upgrade.
The demand is driven by consumer elective upgrade.
Someday, the device we buy will be upgraded. One day the metals were born - either in a mine or a recycling yard - and formed into a device which will one day meet its fate in either a landfill or a another recycling yard. That's true whether the consumer is African, Asian, European, American or Islander. It is a universal human condition, a common stake. Recycling unites us.
There's no one to "arrest" here, no "E-Waste Kingpin". The war on mass communications is as hopeless as the war on drugs. Project Eden is a laughingstock. The problem is that no one is laughing, and the smudged reputations of Africa's Tech Sector is just another artifact of Racism. Banning all muslim tourists and immigrants, deporting all Mexicans, stopping all trade with China, move over. Banning trade with Africa's Tech Sector needs a place at Racism's table.
What's important here is that liberal Blue State ENGOs, not Trump Tea Party David Duke Red State rebels, are responsible for this high tech lynching. We have met the enemy, and he is us. Liberals feed off the burning images of victimized minorities, just as conservatives feed off the images of fear. Using race to trigger animal instincts, fear and nurture, is the ju-ju here.
We have met the enemy, and he is us.
'You have enemies? Good. That means you've stood up for something, sometime in your life.' Winston Churchill
I'm looking for time to edit down the long post I've written for "what the NGO's and MIT got right, what the NGO's and MIT got wrong" piece. That's a problem for me, finding time to edit stuff.
The 14 months that have now passed since March-April trip to Ghana in 2015 have been in large part the editing or digesting of the experience there. I'm still re-editing things I wrote at the time, I'm still reviewing interviews we filmed. And new information keeps coming, even as the situation is evolving.
Wahab - our business partner in Ghana - has been back and forth four times to see his cousin Kamal, CEO of Chendiba Enterprises. And I continue to take calls every week from young men I met there. Kamaldeen has now finally graduated the engineering school program (he had been working at Chendiba Enterprises to help pay for his studies). And Awal, the "lead guy" of the wire burning men at Agbogbloshie, still calls several times a week. When Wahab's here, it's easier, because my pidgin English is really rusty. Wahab and I help ground each other's wires; my compassion for Awal keeps Wahab from spanking his ass for calling and shilling, and Wahab's grown up expectations of the men (and Awal is definitely a man, not a "child labor orphan") who will twist a guilty knife is welcome intervention in the role-play. I've had good and bad experiences intervening in Africa, and having time and partners from the area give needed perspective.
What I need to say about Jim Puckett, Kevin McElvaney, and the MIT team, PBS and @Earthfixmedia is important, but I do owe it to them to take the time to edit. They deserve the same compassion and patience we show Awal and the company at Agbogbloshie. And this extends of course to Dr. Jack Caravanos and PureEarth, and the StEP team, and everyone in the business of "saving Africa". I need to edit, and to demonstrate the dignity these researchers and journalists deserve. It takes time. Primum non nocere. Don't rush to judgement. Listen to your human subjects. Basics.
(Why is TSHALA MUANA unnamed on a "various artists" album? She's a star!)
Like, "don't accuse a specific person or business at a specific place on a map of employing child labor". That's pretty basic. I mean, since you haven't shown any evidence of it. I've found generally that accusing people of employing child labor is pretty heinous complaint, one I might want to edit out of a press release if there's a chance someone just made it up. Last thing you'd want to do is make a very specific charge, like using child labor, based on a geography of a device, if in fact you don't have a scintilla of evidence that children work there. If you made the complaint against the wrong person, like say in a police state you track a device to, you could wind up getting that person arrested or much worse. Just saying.
It takes time to really digest and edit our blogs and research papers, to make sure that the ethics aren't lost in one's desire to demonstrate one's coolness. I've been in the "saving Africa" business a long time (long enough to say it with tongue deeply in cheek). And it's ordinary that someone like me who has been in the business of intervention a long time develops a cynical or resentful view of people whose hearts are in all the right places, but present themselves as knowing something they don't know (like workers are "orphans"). That resentment often crops up in my writing, which is why it takes so much time to edit.
When people who have a lot of influence in the press come in with baggage and agendas, it's disappointing. They perhaps don't realize they are corrupting something good (the worst recycling is better than the best mining), and misusing the influence of their institution. In this "world-saving" business, we learn that first hand, by making mistakes the first few years we are involved overseas. I've made a lot of mistakes and only hope I'll make fewer of them, and this particular mistake I keep making falls under "rush to publish". MIT Senseable City Lab probably has heard that phrase.
Patience is a virtue. Hurry hurry broke trowser. Pause before hitting the send key... Ethics live close to courtesy, and being courteous to human subjects whose homes and businesses you've pinpointed on a map seems like a good idea.
The patience that Chendiba Enterprises has with Good Point Recycling, and the patience Good Point extends to our partners in Ghana, doesn't come naturally to PCVs, academia, or photojournalists. My conversations by text with Peter Essick (National Geographic photographer) or by phone with CBS Michelle Rey came for me as a moment during a 30 year work in progress. But for them, it's a publishing deadline. If they spend even two months to understand Guiyu or Agbogbloshie, that's considered "long form journalism". When their business is photography, or documentary film, they are there for a moment that evokes compassion in a paying audience.
The NGO, academic, volunteer, or photojournalist isn't a bad person. There are a lot of things they get right. They represent a kind of antibody, a white blood cell, which we need to govern the business relationships which, absolutely, are subject to the ills of asymmetric power. If a USA surplus property office is in the business of making money on asset recovery, and an African trader has a bottleneck of a sea container to fill, it's absolutely a recipe for "toxics along for the ride". Not everything that gets exported gets fixed.
But boiling down the relationship to "Recyclers don't care about people they do business with" or "reuse markets in Foshan use child labor to refurbish display devices" is nothing short of pompous. It would be as easy to write that the academics, NGOs, and photojournalists "don't care about their research subjects" (and in too many words here I've done so). But "whites impugning other whites"* doesn't do anything to "save the blacks", and a really 3 decade long involvement in environmental and human development can't always begin to even translate the issues at stake -- drive-by-savior culture of reflected cave shadow compassion megaplex.
During the three decades I've been trying to stay involved with the Africa I fell in love with in Cameroon, my own compassion has matured. I'm very proud of my family, and my relationship with my beautiful bi-national wife. If you have been married for about 30 years, you know that relationship far more deeply, and reverberatingly, than you could know on your first date, love-at-first-sight-notwithstanding. The woman or man you fall deeply in love with changes over the years, and you find things out about them and about yourself that you couldn't have known in your 20s.
So by analogy, I feel like I've been in a long relationship with the Emerging Market's Tech Sector. And it almost feels like BAN and MIT and McElvaney want a one-night stand. They don't realize that's what they are after, they are like the Peace Corps volunteer's American visitor pal who wants to "hook up" with a gal in the village. They may both be attracted to each other, and intervening maybe isn't your job or responsibility, but the likelihood that Peter Essick develops a longstanding relationship with a child who has been posed with scrap wires on his head is next to nil. Boom MIT: http://couhes.mit.edu/definitions#Exempt%20status
MIT has an Ethics Department whose job it is to monitor experiments on human subjects. And that's basically what is going on with the #TrackingEwaste MoniTour Senseable City Lab and Basel Action Network Project. They've attached tracking devices to used electronics which may or may not be repairable (we really don't know at this point) and sent them into an ecosystem of reuse, repair and recycling. And then they came straight out on PBS and made moral judgements, claiming to have found extremely specific "previously unknown" problems, like alleged "child labor" in Taiwan and Hong Kong.
During the 3 decades since I first went to Africa, my number one concern there - hard rock metal mining (which is the most polluting activity on the planet) - has gone bonkers. USA and EU regulation of smelting and mining activity, combined with Asia's enormous appetite and need for non-ferrous and ferrous metal extraction, has directed vast investments to exploit metals in Africa.
That was my environmental bent going to Africa in the 1980s, and the comparison of the toxics released by recycling appliances and mining lead, silver, gold, coltan, tin, copper and iron from Africa's mountains and jungles is stupifying. As in "making people stupid".
The challenge to write a critique short enough for MIT brass to read it, but long enough to not over-simplify the NGO, academic, and photojournalists genuine interests in doing a good one for the black man, is heinous. If you combine that with the demands to fruitfully examine my own self -interests, and the long, long term interests of the "subjects" in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, you wind up with a telanovella that lasts 8 seasons.
During the time that we've been talking about recycling in Asia and Africa, the very music that people listen to has changed. I'm still wondering where the women of Soukous went? There's not a single woman singer-icon from the 70-90s that I can think of (looked up Tshala Muana from a favorite playlist). Franco, Papa Wemba, Tabu Ley Rocherou, Prince Nico Mbarga, and dozens of other African MEN became famous. But half the music I loved then was sung by women. That's as interesting to me as what happened to the CRTs MIT tracked... one to a scrapyard in Pakistan, two to a multistory inner city refurbished goods store blocks away from a Pakistan university.
Human subjects should be listened to. And that is what MIT did not do, nor BAN, nor PBS.
The entire "e-waste" debate has been nothing more than a vast experiment on human subjects, where speculation passes as data and anecdotes substitute for experience. MIT did not even check where all the devices went, they allowed BAN to impugn the entire "third world" as "primitive" and "child labor" and let an anecdotal broken LCD lamp stand for what happened to every LCD, CRT, and printer they tracked or didn't track. It is absolutely inexcusable for MIT to have associated itself with this propaganda campaign, and I expect someone to call me and ask me to come and make an alternative thesis presentation. Not because they are bad people. I'm sure the folks at MIT Senseable City Lab are as honest and caring as the friends at MIT who put me up for 2 weeks on a couch when I moved from Arkansas to Boston (the year I returned from 30 months is Africa).
It is taking me more than a year to write the report on Agbogbloshie because I have learned I have to really, really talk to people I am writing about. I have to put down the work, let myself digest what I've written, and come back and edit it. And what I'm doing today is trying to unwind the anger I've found in my writing at people in America and Europe who really do care. They really seem to want more than a one-night-stand with the global south. They are like the Catholic and other missionaries we talked about in Africa in the 80s... really nice people who really mean well and who maybe really think that there is a "Heaven" and "Hell" Africans are headed to if not but for their white savior panty-waste moral lessons. They are there for a moment that evokes compassion in a paying audience
Missionaries in Africa, we all figured, are primarily there to project what the Church is doing to the people in the pews in America and Europe. They spend very little in Africa, and don't harm anyone there. But for every 100 dollars raised passing the plate in America's churches, less than a dollar goes to help anyone in Africa. And that's the story here with environmentalism. Instead of talking about women's rights and mining roads that expose endangered species to bushmeat hunters, Basel Action Network wants us to track devices #FreeJoeBenson sells to electronics shops in Accra. Benson goes to jail, Cahal Milmo and Raphael Rowe get their names out in front to show their compassion to UK audiences, Lord Chris Smith gets to make speeches, NGOs raise funds. And they all like each other immensely. And I turn into this bitter little man who writes blogs about them, when I should be listening to this music. But every church needs a philosopher.
Primum Non Nocere dudes. Primum non nocere!
*when I say "whites impugning other whites" it's intended as tongue in cheek, I don't actually know much about the race of academics, and it's certainly not the case of Raphael Rowe. But the can of worms of race-baiting was opened by the people who associate trade between "OECD" and "Non-OECD" with "primitive practices" and "child labor". I should probably have taken time to edit that out, but now someone's read it so I'll just footnote in post.
'You have enemies? Good. That means you've stood up for something, sometime in your life.' Winston Churchill