Forget the Word E-Waste: World Bank's "Critical Mass of Users"

Here is a link to just one very interesting World Bank metadata paper...

Report prepared for the World Bank by 'Balancing Act'.

It explains something I observed in Cairo.   Before an internet utility wants to invest in providing internet, it requires a "Critical Mass of Users".   You can't build cell phone towers if no one has a phone.   Unless you have the Tennessee Valley Authority (USA project to provide electricity in areas people lacked critical mass) or Marshall Plan, you depend on the "Good Enough Market".   The "GEM" is the definition for basically affordable goods that function well enough.   A 17" CRT monitor sold in Cairo for $21 will be available to 1,000 times more people than a $400 new flat monitor.  It is the 1,000 people who own the $21 CRT monitor which make it possible for private enterprise to run internet cable or sell satellite dishes.  It takes 1,000 people with the $20 used cell phone to make it possible to provide enough cell phone towers that people can talk to each other.

Agbogbloshie (the red dot below) is a tiny neighborhood in a very big city (Accra) which has hospitals and highways and factories and universities and TV towers and radio stations and nearly universal access to cell phones.  The World Bank is concerned with the entirety of the economy below.   And there are scads of newly published Metadata now public at World Bank.   You don't need to narrow your view to Mike Anane, Greenpeace, Jim Puckett, Kyle Wiens and SkyNews images of burning wires.  There is a massive, massive city here, and as Hans Rosling showed us, the news is mostly good.

I'm advising everyone to get outside of the word "e-waste", the very word has a fetish attached to it which I believe has created fear and group-think.  Look at the photos of the Green Advocacy report below.   While the reports show 85-91% reuse of imports to Ghana and Nigeria, better than new product, the report is decorated with photos of "poverty" and "pollution".  It is a mindset around the words "e-waste", even people telling good news feel obligated to take pictures of poverty to prove they were in the same place as the other e-waste reporters.

The World Bank data on paved roads and highway systems follows similar analysis, and the roads and highways in Ghana have led to more automobile ownership and "auto-waste" at Agbogbloshie.   But no one made "A-Waste" into a profitable non-profit, so reports about per capita automobile ownership in World Bank, while they are aware of the import and sale of used cars, do not decorate themselves with pictures of automobile scrap.   Yet you will see much more pollution in Agbogbloshie from auto scrap, more lead from lead acid batteries, more oil contamination, etc. from the cars.

"If you build it, they will come" is a fantasy.   Emerging markets need affordable second hand devices to create the markets of users for the highways of ICT development.   Fretting over the fate of a CRT which may one day, ten years later, be discarded in Africa is a curse the West didn't impose on itself.  We owned CRTs without knowing where they'd be dumped.   And Africans are not stupid enough to spend tens of millions to crush the vitrified leaded glass into pieces small enough to fail the TCLP test.

Yes, there are junk devices that shouldn't be exported.  But trust Africans to avoid those.  The more of us who are willing to sell to Africa, the more choice Africans will have, and the cheaper the nicer product will be to them.

You need to interview people from Africa to get a sense of the progress it means to have these problems.  Yes, the pollution is serious and Ghana needs environmentalists.  But "Project Eden" (literally the Interpol name for the ongoing arrests of people like Joe Benson) is ridiculous, Africa isn't going back to be "Eden", the tree of knowledge has been bitten and who are Europeans to deny Africans the "Critical Mass of Users" for technology?  It has only made things worse, as buyers like Wahab and Benson are forced to purchase in dark alleys, in underground markets, buying from people willing to submit fraudulent papers and to back-date CRT monitors for Egyptian customs.   

We have met the enemy, and he is us.

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