Accusations of Denial, Hoax, and Racism Haunt Agbogbloshie Ghana

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Yesterday I mentioned Mr. Jim Puckett's Op Editorial in Resource Recycling - Exporting Deception: The Disturbing Trend of Waste Trade Denial. I will have a chance to respond in Resource Recycling next week, in simpler terms than I traditionally write by blog.  The blog is directed at the best and brightest in our field.

The masthead photo of Agbogbloshie, by Amaia Benito, shows three young men, standing near the side of the Odaw River Lagoon, burning auto harness wire.  A 1990s CRT monitor case, used to carry the wire after burning, implies that there is e-waste, too.

No doubt.  When Wahab and Emmanuel and I interviewed the wire burners (27 at the site) last April, they estimated that 20-50 pieces of electronics arrived there each day.

That is in the largest slum of a city of more than 3 million people.
  • The hard working, poor men are not a hoax.
  • The "e-waste" is not a hoax.
  • The toxics are not a hoax.
  • The import of second-hand devices isn't a hoax.
These are specifically what Jim rebuts, and it appears he purposefully misses the point. I have never claimed the Odaw River is clean, or that we should ignore the environment in African cities, nor that Africans import second hand goods.
  • What is a hoax is that 400-600 sea containers full of western waste is dumped at the site each month
  • It is a hoax that the goods that Africans pay to import are quickly dumped 80-90% of the time.
  • It is a hoax that the Basel Convention has been amended and the trade in repair is illegal.  
  • It is a hoax that Agbogbloshie's a very large dump, much less one of the largest in the world for "ewaste".

And it's a hoax that "e-waste" ruined a pristine, lush, Odaw River. The exaggerations of Agbogbloshie trump the reality.  I objected to the exaggeration of African import crime in an interview with Jim Puckett in 2005, but no one had yet studied his claims of "75%-80% dumping" (and he had then as yet to later deny his claim).  Finding something I didn't say and responding to that, instead of what I did say, will fool some of the people, some of the time.

Extensive peer-reviewed studies and World Bank reports on teledensity in Africa can't simply be labelled "denial" and "associated" with tobacco and climate change skepticism.  And citing news sources that cited your own *claims* hardly matches wits with extensive research by Memorial U, ASU, MIT, and the UN.

In his editorial, Jim Puckett has repeatedly accused me of "ad hominem" attacks.  The claims he makes about Josh Lepawsky of Memorial University, Reed Miller of MIT, and researchers from US International Trade Commission aside... Jim would have a legitimate complaint if I have, as he implies in the article, called him a racist.

If Jim has really misunderstood me, my apologies and condolences.  But as likely he hasn't.

I tried to deal with the confusion exhaustively in several posts in 2012 (Defining E-Waste "Racism").  Stating that Jim does not have a racist bone in his body was apparently not enough.  But lest I retreat too far, here is what I have said.  For one, the 8 photos of Agbogbloshie in the UNEP Report from the photo essay samples below, used to depict African Importers (who are 100% Tech Sector, 0% Scrap Business) is inexcusable. UNEP and Pascal LeRoy and David Higgins should issue an apology.  I stand by that.

[FOOTNOTE:  Pascal LeRoy, General Secretary of WEEE Forum in the EU, says he has nothing to do with the photo in the UNEP Report below and asked his name be removed.  Similarly, Ruediger Kuehr of UNU sent an email disassociating himself with the UNEP Report.  David Higgins of INTERPOL hasn't responded, but generally doesn't (it's a non-political organization).  I'm going to take this Oxbow Incident up in the next blog.  Suffice to say that if Africa Tech Sector importers don't like photos of decades-imported equipment asset tags at end of life scrap yards used to describe their work, and therefore should try to make distinctions between NGOs, Photographers, and various EU Agencies.]

I'm not making up the outrage of the people photographed. I have it on film.

If BAN speaks for us as environmentalists, it is representing our view of Africa with these images.  We aren't denying they exist, we object the claim that they depict recent imports, or any significant percentage of Western E-Waste dumping.  Other than shared nationality and race, these photos have no intersection with Tech Sector exporters like Joe Benson.  (In his Op Ed, Jim acknowledges this explicitly, explaining a tortuous process of paying to clear itemized units through customs, to ship as junk to dozens of retailers, in order to "launder" it for Agbogbloshie.  See April Fool's post, E-Waste Matrix).

But more to the point, our choice of images affects society, affects mass psychology, and affects our belief systems.  Jim once again uses a photo of 3 people burning auto wire to buttress the ridiculous claim that millions of tons of e-waste are being continuously and illegally dumped in an African slum.  Once again, he is using Halloween Images of Scary Black People to rebut scholarly articles which provide to us what he himself has failed to provide - a percentage, a number.  He lost his.  Now he has none, and he resorts again to boogeymen.

There is a heavy price paid by using photos of kids at dumps, photos like McElvaney's and Benito's, and attaching bogus statistics to them.  And it is a serious price which will endure long after "e-waste" has gone from the language.

The psychological effects of repeatedly associating African children, tire fires, fake stats, and ghoulish words are well documented, each association makes the reaction to photos stronger.  This art of dissociation, or "otherization", is an "easy sell" which gets easier with each photoessay.  To say that reminding readers how few computers per dirty child are in the Agbogbloshie photos is "playing the race card" grossly oversimplifies the nuance of social education to risk aversion. Harvard's online experiment, "Project Implicit", is an interesting study of the subconscious effects of negative propaganda.     

The survey link is not to "ewaste deniers" making up questions.  This was in the news the year that BAN broke the story that "by far" most African imports were simply dumped.  (See ABC coverage of psych studies of implicit racial distrust, 2006).

Take the online test at Project Implicit. You won't find that you are a racist.  But you will find out the psychological toll propaganda takes on society (internalizing fear of "rapist immigrants", "racist southerners", "snobby French", etc.), and you may appreciate why my African technician friends feel the way they do about the Basel Action Network and its armada of photo journalists.  Artists who do not know what they are talking about, and make up the statistics as they go along, draw us in with their photos of poverty.  Too many make a trip of 5 days, visit a site 9 minutes from Accra's nicest hotel, and take selfie photos (dust mask on face) for accolades to bravery.  Upton Sinclair this ain't.

If it's repeated often enough that Mexican immigrants are rapists sent by the Mexico government, people will start to cross the street when we meet construction and agricultural and custodial workers.  If it's repeated enough that Africans burn the laptops they buy, Stewards will refuse their calls, and EU customs agents will put "Hurricane" Joe Benson in prison.

Our call to stop putting Hurricane Joe Benson in prison is not an ad hominem attack against YOU.

But your constant game of associating and dissociating is outed.  The jig is up.  It's like a kids game of spitting at the other child and then calling "Mommy!?" before she can even respond. It's gutter politics, sir.

The photojournalists keep arriving, following the footsteps of National Geographic's Peter Essick. Essick's photos of refurbishing factories in Grand Prairie Texas and Penang Malaysia were of tens of thousands of monitors (stuff) being repaired.  But his photos of Agbogbloshie were of less than a few dozen monitors, and such better view of the people... poor people.  Essick got the photography award because the landscape was barren, and the sad wet eyes glistening near the flames... or the shot through the frame of a single monitor, of a young man standing near smoke. And in his own essay, he talks about how much more meaningful were the pictures of kids at dumps.  Even though they show practically nothing but anecdotal waste collected in a city of 3 to 4 million people.  He does not mention the factory he photographed from near the ceiling, which reused 54,000 CRT monitors per day, meeting the demands for TV and internet in emerging markets like Accra.

We have evolved to have a psychology of nurture.  And we have evolved to have a psychology of revulsion. And the art of manipulating society's opinions with images spurring nurture or spurring revulsion herds us into pastures of guilt, where we are milked by a charitable industrial complex.  They take just enough donations to keep the NGO payroll and photos coming, never enough to seriously clean up or "transform" the site.  Europe's guilt over colonial Africa's situation is harnessed.  Americans guilt over slavery, or guilt over consumption.  It's a perfect storm or white guilt, toxic fear, and black resentment.

I know Peter Essick, he's no racist.  Nor is McElvaney, nor Delaney, nor Benito, etc.  But the Africans they forgot to interview are expressing grave displeasure.  Being self aware of your camerawork, and its effects on society's implicit stereotyping, is part of the job.  So is looking up an export statistic which has no darn source.
  • The photos distract international police from ivory, guns, and slave crimes.
  • The photos cause people to think of Africans as victims of capitalist cartoon characters.
  • The photos make Africans think that their technicians are criminals.
  • And the photos make Europeans think that Africans technicians are "Primitive" recyclers
As college students, and European customs police, and policy officials, and news editors are repeatedly exposed to these photos of anecdotal waste, surrounded with Jim's "ghoulish" and "skeletal" and "primitive" and "witches brew" language and phoney baloney statistics, the reputation of African technicians, programmers, geeks, and tinkerers is being irreparably damaged.

Essick is a University of Missouri J-School grad, like my father.  Perhaps one day a blogger can win a Polk, Pelley, or Pulitzer.  I have no such aspirations.  I just want people to recognize that the junk VCR filmed at Agbogbloshie today was imported by an African Techie 20 years ago, used longer than the original user, and that the fact it has an asset tag is not evidence of a waste crime.

Things fall apart.  It's life.  Fair Trade Recycling at least offers a solution.

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1 comment:

WR3A's Robin Ingenthron said...

See comment from Pascal LeRoy of EU WEEE Forum to yesterday's blog (which I posted as well on LinkedIn).

I find it both rewarding and frustrating that Interpol, WEEE Forum Sec, StEP and UNU all want the Africa techs to draw distinctions who used the McElvaney Spear-chucking Ghoul photos and which report (UNU, CWIT, UNEP) said what exactly. UNU is not UNEP, CWIT is not Interpol, BAN is not PACE ... but I found each has made the same fallacies of linkage between Africa Tech Sector (who export and import) and the scrap sector (which gets VCRs with asset tags 20 years later). It seems much easier for any of them to come out and speak about the use of the photos to describe the outcome of exports by #FreeHurricaneBenson than to stand at the sidelines and expect us to treat each insult separately.

Bottom line, whether or not the VCR that Jacopo, Adam and I watched smacked apart at Agbo been "fully functional", tested, its asset tag removed, properly followed all WEEE guidelines, and been exported by E-Stewards, it would have been imported 10-20 years earlier and it would have wound up in the same place. Using photos of the scrapyard to imply that Wahabs and Bensons or whoever imported the 1990 VCR player in 2000 are the root cause of the problem seen in 2015 is fallacious (and insulting and ridiculous).

Oh, I should probably confess something. When we saw the VCR at Agbogbloshie with the "wedding" tape inside, I assumed - just like everyone in the Harvard "Project Implicit" test could forsee - that it was some Westerners VHS wedding tape. After the trip to Tamale at Chendiba, where I met a guy who does wedding videos with a 1990s VHS recording camera, I realized I'd done the same thing, and most probably it was an African's wedding (or multicultural wedding).

There is nothing that "manufacturer design" could have done to anticipate streaming video and DVDs, which caused the African to sell the VCR to a scrap peddler.

If you are on LinkedIn and want to comment, I think the dialogue can be constructive. It's probably not a great career move for me to insult UNEP, UNU, Interpol, etc., and I can understand how readers may not want to wade in. But I hope readers also recognize that bigotry is usually an innocent orgin (the Harvard implicit link is about instinctive visual reactions to race imagery), and the process of supporting gays, or Mexican immigrants, or Muslims, or whoever has run afoul of bias, is not a comfortable thing to do. I didn't enjoy my role as a kid in the 70s arguing with my older kin about segregation and civil rights laws, or the Loving vs. Virginia case (which I remember coming up at my grandparents home. I adored my grandparents, but not their beliefs about blacks).

Without these blogs, the dialogue doesn't happen, and without dialogue, the elite in the EU don't have any incentive to change their positions. I had a cordial conversation with David Higgins about 8 years ago, and WR3A submitted 25 pages of comments on testing and elective upgrade to PACE, and not a word of it was responded to or incorporated.

"Is anybody there? Does anybody care?" John Adams song in Musical 1776