Right Wrong 2: African Ambiance at MIT Senseable City Lab

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.

China is charging Africa's mining landscape - 2006 - 2015 maps

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.

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