2015 WR3A Report on Agbogbloshie: 13 Recommendations

We are in the important but slow phase of re-editing the 2015 Agbogbloshie Report. It takes time to include citations, make charts, get peer review, and especially to accommodate assertions made in this month's release of the UNEP Report. Suggestions have been made that we better recognize the "accidental nature" of misdiagnoses by well meaning members of the charitable industrial complex. (References to "hoax" and "nutjob" may make future researchers less likely to cite the report).

Statistical meat and photo-potatoes are hot and ready to eat. Presentation of the meal is important, however. We need the plates and garnishes. In the meantime, here are thirteen e-waste recommendations on the menu.

13 Recommendations E-Waste / WEEE Enforcement

Recommendation 1:  UN and Interpol should immediately stop arrests and searches of used electronic product (televisions, computers, cell phones).   Inspectors who were trained with the assumption of 80% waste, using Guidelines developed using the same assumptions, are likely to unfairly harass and harm Africa’s Technical Sector and create unnecessary enforcement and prison expenses in the EU.

Recommendation 2:  Reports and enforcement should distinguish between “white good” components of WEEE and "e-waste" electronics. White goods are likely to be illegally imported in contravention of electricity conservation efforts.  The expense of removing of high energy consuming refrigerators should not result in the same goods entering a second energy conservation program. Statistics around these legitimate enforcements should not, however, be associated with claims about Agbogbloshie as an "e-waste dump". 

Recommendation 3:   Enforcement to reduce wire burning activity should follow an “Ivory Strategy”, focusing on consolidation and export of already-burned wire. Enforcement measures too far "upstream" of wire burning cannot easily determine whether second hand goods are going to be electively repaired or electively discarded by a later African consumer. Wire burning is done at the request of the buyers who ship out of Africa; they are the decision makers, and their burned product can be seen on Alibaba.com and other trading sites. 

Burned wire, mostly from autos
Recommendation 4:  Positive revenue sales should be seen as an indicator of legal sales and processes, or at least assumed to be neutral in compliance/non-compliance. Interpol and UNEP statements associating billions of dollars in trade with “illegal” and “environmentally harmful” activity should be retracted, as they insinuate any profitable activity (such as reuse) performed by Africans is suspicious.

Recommendation 5:  Eventual sale and ownership of metals and plastics, even if identified as a strategic economic interest of European refiners, should determined by the free market. Unless a clear environmental benefit is associated with keeping metals in Europe, the references to strategic metal retention is not a legitimate basis for arrests of Africans. Intermingling it as an enforcement justification casts doubt on motivations. European companies can buy scrap metal, unburned, for less risk and expense than arresting perceived competitors for the metals. As a corollary recommendation, used chips purchased in USA military electronics has absolutely nothing to do with enforcement at Agbogbloshie, and references to "national security" cast similar doubt of confirmation bias when associated with used consumer goods reuse in Africa.

Recommendation 6:  It has been alleged that many reuse devices are "near" the end of life. While doubtful, if true, this could be exacerbated by increased enforcement. Demand for reuse-bound electronics is finite, driven by household and business need for appliances or decisions to upgrade appliances. Policy should therefore be aimed at increasing the number of recycling companies willing to ship product to Africa.  If reuse is demand-based, increasing the number of shippers will not necessarily increase the quantity of goods exported, but will increase quality and lower prices for African consumers.  Providing more choices for Africans will result in fewer devices closer to the end of life.

Recommendation 7:  Photos of poor children, of burning tires, selling water or hanging out at city waste dumps should not be used to describe Africans in the technical sectors of resale, reuse and refurbishing.  These cultural associations are considered extremely displeasing by African technicians and legitimate recyclers alike. Cultural insensitivity and "poster child syndrome" (wearing out of concern) outweigh any advantages of emotionalizing debate over UN enforcement practices.

Recommendation 8:  False and fabricated, or mysteriously unfounded “floating statements” about the scale or percentage of exports bound for waste dumping should be retracted by any legitimate researchers who have used them, and apologies should be issued to news editors.

Recommendation 9:  Absent direct evidence of overseas illegal dumping, and given ample evidence of decades of ownership and use of electronics by Africans, any particular photos of devices (cars, white goods, computers, displays) shown in Africa should be presumed generated by Africans, brand origin and asset tag of original owner notwithstanding.

Recommendation 10:  In the search for expert witnesses to brief western policy makers and enforcers, African nationality should be considered necessary but not sufficient.  To be considered an expert, an African should be able to distinguish between imports for reuse and items imported 15 years earlier, now found at a large African city dump.

Recommendation 11: The presence of toxics at a dump site (and the health of workers at a site like Agbogbloshie) is a very, very legitimate concern. However, an effort must be made to distinguish all possible sources of the toxics (automobile wire, auto batteries, building wire, electronics) first, and second must distinguish whether the source was legitimately reused prior to recycling (Africa-generated). Because of their emotional appeal, campaigns to associate "caring about children exposed to toxics" are a very successful media strategy for NGOs but also very likely to result in collateral damage in Africa's tech sector.
1938 Nepal Monk w/ rhino horn

Recommendation 12:  Future enforcement aimed at improving environmental conditions in Africa should weigh not only the effectiveness of policing “e-waste” without impacting African technicians, but also the relative value of the same hours of enforcement directed at other illegal activities, such as rhino poaching. Interpol in particular should reduce its budget for Project Eden or Project Enigma (or portion thereof devoted to seizure of electronics displays) until credible evidence emerges that these displays are not reused, or do more harm than rhino horn and ivory poaching.

Recommendation 13:  A counter-claim that someone who disagrees with published "ewaste" statistics doesn't care about, or cares less about, people (or children in particular) in emerging markets is a fallacy.  Worse than the confirmation bias which is rampant in the reports we have reviewed, this "guilt by association" argument poisons the well against people with hands-on knowledge.  Those importers are human assets in the marketplace we all want to improve as it emerges.  The likelihood that an accused person like Joe Benson could get a fair trial, or find people willing to invest in his legitimate business, suffers when potential traders and partners are made to feel that their consciences are suspect.

Hopefully our report will lead to Interpol and UNEP and NGO's inside the "charitable industrial complex" to actually meet African importers and discuss the needs and talents of the African marketplace. Getting to know the men and women in Africa's "Tech Sector" is the icing on the cake.

While I value the friendships made with the some of Accra's poorest people in the Agbogbloshie slum, I value more the introductions and friendships those "scrap boys" made with geeks of color from their own tribe, speaking Dagbani. The tech sector in Tamale is perhaps less exotic, and certainly less emotional. But as a former secondary school teacher in Africa, I strongly advice do gooders to expose themselves to the best and brightest. Meet people smarter and craftier than you are. It's a different kind of tourism from the "Mother Theresa I was there" exoticism that draws the photo journalists. But its justice, and anyone on the wrong side of these arrests is going to be first against the wall when it's time to dismantle the charitable industrial complex house that "e-waste statistics" built.

See also 2012 "Ten Most Toxic African E-waste Recycling Processes"

"Diagnosed it... it's either the #whitesaviorcomplex virus or the #povertyporn virus, in a #parasiteofthepoor loop"
I may publish, later, some "cutting room floor" commentary from this upcoming report.   I tend to write with a more raw and bloody prose, because I identify with "voiceless" technicians who are bearing the brunt of do-gooder enforcement (and profit and job security from the ewaste-charity-industrial-complex).   

But that's the most fun part to write - and for some, to read.  For example, I found this recommendation (or a line cut from one of the recs above) to be a bit of a tongue in cheek pithy that's fit to an acquired taste, on the blog, but could be red-flag waving in the Interpol meeting.  It's also inside baseball (Jim Puckett referred to "orphans" at Agbogbloshie in response to our press release, while at the same time claiming never to have studied Ghana.  

Line edited out from Recommendations:

"References to "orphans" in Agbogbloshie should be referenced."

To both distance oneself from association with the "exaggerations were made" press while at the same time working in a completely unfounded insinuation to the parenthood of the scrap workers is kind of a SOB move.

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