Banning the Exportation of Ladders

We would be heartless to ignore the images.   Poor child workers, huddled over fires, stoked with the coals of yesterday's technology.   As westerners spend more and more lavishly on shiny smart phones, flat screens, and tablets, with the world's wiki-media at our fingertips, it seems apt to pause and think about the impact of the wealthy's consumption on the planet's resources, and of the worlds poor, left seemingly farther and farther below us, inside a muddy pit of toxic fumes.

Photographers like Pieter Hugo capture the wet irritation in the eyes of the black teenager.  Filmmakers like David Fedele slowly let the reel turn and record the images of kids trying to make a living off of the scraps of electronics once imported into their cities.

Cairo, Lagos, and Accra, the megalopoleis of urban growth, stream with cell towers and internet today.  But the poor just outside those cities, at their unlined, unregulated, unspoken dumps, seem to stretch their arms out of a moat.  Their slow effort to climb out of poverty, through urban mining, makes Europeans and Americans feel guilty, ashamed of our wealth.  Reminded of these "poster child" recycling workers, seemingly without even boots to lift as they climb, we want to check a box.  We want to say we are certified.  We want to pass a law, a ban, to address the unfamiliar black faces hauling too familiar CRT televisions, VCRs, and refrigerators.  To say we have done our part for Africa and change the topic.  Turn the page, please, make the images go away.

There are indeed many important topics in the so-called "third world".
  • Endangered species poaching.
  • Sex trade.
  • Toxic alleuvial gold mining.
  • Blood minerals.
  • Crime.
  • Despotism.
  • Child soldiers.
How much of our time should we devote to "e-waste"?  Where does it belong on this list?
We know about these other problems, though they receive second-billing to #EWaste, the Western press, and Interpol's, number one priority.   CBS Scott Pelley, NPR's Terry Gross, USA Today, Oprah, and respected journals like Science Daily, have informed us that MOST of the e-waste the poor climb in was recently imported from rich countries which take advantage of "externalized" environmental costs, and that most of the goods Africans buy and ship (with what money they have), and is obsolete and broken.  Each journalist tells us that 80-90% of the trade in used display devices is represented by children burning wires.

Last month, an article in Pakistan's Express Tribune (published by The Herald Tribune) made the statistic even scarier.
"The circuit boards originate from all over the world, including the US, Kuwait, Australia, Japan and the UK. Only 2% of the computers that land here can be reused – for the remaining computers, all of the metals and plastics are taken out to be re-sold, according to Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition and the Basel Action Network. "

85% Good
Eighty to ninety percent of exports are bad?  Seems more like 98%, according to BAN.  Stupid, stupid importers.   They desperately need the Great White Father to intervene in this market.

Obviously, this calls for a ban on exports.  Trade with African and Asian entrepreneurs should be a criminalized.   Check the box, and our tax dollars will pay for an expensive system in the USA and Europe to grind and chop up the computers before they can be exported.  (Of course, shredded material is ok to export, it's hand disassembly and repair we must stop)

"The Reuse Excuse"... The Watchdogs remind us that "even working monitors" will "one day" stop working and become waste.  CRTs have 25 year lives, are affordable, difficult to steal, and withstand high temperatures than LCDs;  but that's an excuse for an illegal trade.

Even new computers have been looked at and called "un-African".  A government representative from Africa told me he wanted to imagine an African solution, where African inventors have created something which provides the benefit of the internet without relying on any western technology at all (or evidently, eastern tech, since many displays were invented in Asia).

Last year, the United Nations and the Basel Convention funded a detailed study to see what was really going on inside the African used computer trade.   What they found was less than shocking.

The study unloaded container after container in Accra and Lagos.   They interviewed importers, apparently for the first time.    Mostly, it's African techs buying good stuff to resell to people who can't afford new stuff.

Of over 200 containers of TVs and computers inspected, 70% were working, and another 15% were repaired by African repairpeople.  Over 85% of the imports were good.

That working used technology accounted for 60-70% of sales.

The "illegal dumping" found in Egypt?  Working monitors seized by a 2009 Egyptian government which was trying to stop internet.   An American company in St. Louis tried to help the Egyptians bypass this "war on used" by re-labelling date codes, and now they are on the Basel Action Network's web page for "bad e-waste practices".

The UNEP Research showed that the jobs created by used technology imports, repairs and sales, and even recycling, paid six times better than average wages in those countries.  That's a well paid alternative to mining blood metals, or endangered species poaching, sex work, robbery, or child soldiering.  TV repair may not be for valedictorians in Long Island, but it's a decent career in Adamoua, Cameroon.

It's immoral to take those jobs away with protectionist laws based on phoney, discredited data.

To those of us, like me, who lived in Africa and practice in the "e-waste" field, the results of the UNEP study weren't a surprise.  A 2009 Kahhat-Williams study of Peru computer imports found 87% reuse.  And even BAN's own 2007 writers,  Richard Kiaka and Rachel Kamande, of Kenya, found 90% reuse (focusing on the toxics released by the rejected ten percent).  

We should do better than 10% waste, but in the past few months, Interpol has seized dozens of sea containers containing used computers, and declared them illegal, without testing them.

They would be taking Kiaka's and Kamande's own used computers - and their ability to use the internet.  Enough is enough.   This is a step too far. Wal-Mart has 11% store returns on used technology, and not every camera or computer I buy works... should Wal-Mart's containers be seized at port, and Wal-Mart convicted without trial?

Creating a trade ban, and an underground export economy, hasn't worked for abortion, marijuana, or alcohol, and it's a crazy thing to do to appropriate recycling and internet jobs in the developing world.

another reality?
But what about those sad pictures?  What can we do about smoke, pollution, poverty, and "toxics along for the ride?"

Those of us who have lived in Africa for more than two years see something different in the pictures.

We see the ladders.  Sure, some of the ladders - about 15% - may be broken.  But to people in moats, who pay for them, and pay for their import, we understand the root cause.   It's not externalization of toxics - though that occurs (in mining and manufacturing, mostly).  It's about externalization of value.

We see a continent using the exact same values of can-do fixing and repair, Yankee ingenuity,  elective upgrades, etc., that South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore used to lift themselves from poverty.

Why did entrepreneur businesses build cell phone towers in Africa?  "If we build it they will come?"  Or did the access to affordable and repaired used cell phones create the business opportunity for "good enough" connections?   Used goods provided the cell phones which make cell phone towers an option worth investing in.   We see the access to computers which makes internet cable an worthy investment.  And we see a growing number of technicians emerging out of Africa who resemble my heroes.

Terry Gou of Foxconn,  Simon Lin of Wistron, and other Geeks of Color have shown that Tinkering, buying of used non-working equipment and fixing it for a "good enough market", does not belong on the list of "Exporting Harm".   We have seen what Japan Victrola Corporation (importing used victrolas from the USA in the 20s) could do for sound technology.  We understand the young Benjamin Franklin's trip across the Atlantic, to purchase used printing press equipment, was not primarily about externalizing London's leaded printer waste.  Though if the red coats had thought of "protecting colonists from leaded type", Samuel Adams and Franklin and others would have had a heck of a time getting out news of the revolution.   Had King George done what Mubarak did, and made only new printing presses, no older than 3 years off the assembly line, legal, a different class would have controlled American presses.

This year, we have been offered another "box to check".  This one is a ballot box,  It's not the voluntary choice of Santa Clara County, or University of Washington, to shy away from exports via E-Stewards.   HR2285, The Green Thompson E-Waste Bill, will make it illegal for anyone in America to  export of ladders to people in pits.

This is through the looking glass of morality.

Banning the export of ladders to people in pits is the immoral act.   The ban diverts millions of dollars from recycling "stewards" to carpeted offices in Seattle, who circulate pictures of dirty children (poverty porn) to raise money - for what?  Not a thin red dime goes to the Geeks of Color.   But they have goods seized, and go to jail.

This is no longer just a mistake.  It is a patently immoral campaign to take ladders from the poor.  It's anti-environment, anti-poor.  It's a hoax and it sucks.

Fair trade would perhaps be better than simple free trade.  And we do have to address the entire lifecycle of toxics (the toxics released by virgin metal mining dwarf those released in electronics recycling).

But funding our concerns with money from planned obsolescence corporations and extortion of USA recycler is morally wrong.  Not enough of us are standing up and saying it simply enough.

The story, the "statistic", that 85% of the goods imported by the Technicians of Color were burned in primitive fires, was a lie.  BAN has admitted to me it was falsified.   They have stopped saying it.  But they allow the International Tribune to exaggerate the "20%" one hundred fold, to say that rather than 15% is bad, that only 2% was good.  How upset would we be about lynchings if 98% of freed slaves were robbers and rapists?  This lie allows Interpol to pour the burning oil of racial profiling into the pits of emerging markets.

I want to help African importers to demand an apology... If they can get online.

The apology is not about calling them primitive, or about taking away their right to import and repair.

It is about the distraction.  We could have been doing something else, something about poaching, about blood metal mining, about toxic gold panning, about the sex trade, drugs, hunger, disease and crime.

We waste the decade waging a war on African internet and appropriate technology.   

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