Collateral Damage 2: Emerging Markets "Informal" Sector Takes sCrap from Shiny Consciences

Collateral Damage 2. Small scale (Informal) repair and recycling of home generated scrap

Several NGOs made "informal sector" a bad word.  Search "e-waste" and "informal" online, and you find that it's a polite word for a lot of pictures of brown people earning a living the way white boy scouts earn medals - by protecting the environment, adding value, and supporting a circular economy.

Infamous example?  How about the COVER photo from the 2015 UNEP Report.  What exactly do you see here?  A lot of people have been hypnotized to see something nefarious going on.  

This is what I saw happening when I visited Chinese buyers more than a decade ago.  It was informal. But it was also sustainable.  The environmental harm of producing chips from mining, refining, smelting, and manufacturing created small integrated circuits worth more than the gold they held in them.  If it was about the gold, the refiners in Japan and Belgium would have no competition here.  What I saw the Asians doing was memorizing each chip and sorting them, painstakingly, according to their reuse value.  


If my children were born in a poor rice paddy village, and they learned to do this, creating thousands of dollars in secondary market value, I'd be proud.  It would remind me of how my Ozark family went from subsistence farming, no running water, no electricity and no paved roads, to OECD status in two generations.  And no thank you, it wasn't from big city charities.

Fixers do "git er done" in every culture, and often become the founders of the world's most successful enterprises.  They see stuff for what it can do, not for what it cannot do.  They find treasure where others saw trash.

The "informal" market in Asia, Africa and South America isn't perfect, but if you want proof of racism look at the cover photo of the UNEP article and ask how something which reduces carbon, creates wealth, and is a less toxic process than European refining gets elevated to poster child.

Collateral damage in war often comes from mistaken targeting.  Environmentalists targeted a "friendly" as a polluter.  If you have time to read this, I'll try to explain to my friends at ICM how their best intentions, combined with racial profiling, do not produce good outcomes.  Not for the environment, and not for the poor, at least.  

You see Waste Crime, Waste Risks.  I see Spectrum, and Your Perspective.One man's trash is another man's treasure, they say.  But the man who sees trash has a sense of liability (and privilege) which carries more weight.   The "informal sector" has been crushed by environmentalists who are blind to their sense, and who can no longer distinguish between "need to have" and "want to have" commerce.  What's at risk is the moral licensing and environmental regulatory framework constructed by people who never asked the geeks of color what they were doing when they sort chips into 50 different bowls and categories.

Let me tell you, as a descendant of hillbillies (and a peppering of slave), what the people in the informal sector see in the tech sector.

Smaller refurbishers are actually the best value-creating, hopeful, and sustainable job creators in emerging markets.  They made possible the "critical mass of users" necessary for cell phone towers, internet cables, and mass media broadcasts possible.  Without which, there will be no increase in living standard, or increase in property value, and therefore no improvement in environmental protection standards.  I know about this from the paving of roads in the Ozarks as a boy.  The more cars were repaired, the more Missouri and Arkansas citizens were willing to pay for roads.  And I saw the same thing living in Cameroon in the 1980s.

These Fixers and "geeks of every color" are most vulnerable to white savior enforcement standards.  It's no coincidence that an African born TV repairman #freejoebenson was netted in Lord Chris Smith's EA WEEE sting.  The EA's inspectors were given a list of "bad" things to look for... a list drawn up by privileged, wealthy, white people under the PACE initiative.  Collateral damage of the worst kind, aimed by UK's Environmental Agency, based on the call in of NGOs who saw black people and e-waste and assumed the worst.

See, what's making BAN target me is that I'm jeopardizing their retail sale of moral licensing.  Like Little Big Man, my biggest threat to General Armstrong Custer is to his pride.

What should I say to the ICM delegation next month, when I sit on a panel next to Big Shred and my chief NGO critic?  If you are looking for a good movie to watch with the grandkids and the grandparents this holiday, rent Little Big Man, and watch for the speech by Dustin Hoffman's "Muleskinner". 

Lord Chris Smith and his agents saw CRT TVs in Joe Benson's containers.  They saw something that costs a lot of money to shred.  They saw money going out... "strategic minerals".  And they saw avoided disposal costs, and externalization. It was their perspective.  The cause of the collateral damage is usually surrounding yourself with people of similar perspectives, and not listening to what Joe Benson was saying.  He was saying "habeus corpus"... where is the pile of waste? What is it, how long ago was it imported, what is my motive.  Unfortunately, the TV repairman had never been to primary school, and spoke in pidgin English.  What they heard was "informal sector", so they assumed it was waste, and didn't ever bother to prove a crime had been committed.  Instead they offered a choice between a grossly unfair 60 month sentence and time off for good behavior.  You make that offer in a court room to an African with a public defender, and you get a guilty plea.  Look it up.

They saw CRT as - by definition - a "waste".  Whoever didn't want it any more was an OECD resident.

Profiling occurs when the odds don't matter because the risks are to you.  They wanted to protect themselves from liability, so whether it was 80% waste (as they told the court and newspaper) or 19% waste (as they told the House of Commons committee on strategic metals), it didn't matter because Joe didn't matter.

I see a working display device that will last 10 more years.  You see something 10 years old, that was replaced with a flat screen, one that will last 10 years.  I need an SVGA cable, you are willing to let me buy "bluetooth".   

You call it "leapfrogging".   I say it is "letting them eat cake".

Institutional racism is when the assumptions pile up from one group's perspective, gaining a consensus around "well what's less risky to us?"  (sorely tempted to reference recent elections here)

Who should decide? A European PACE committee?  Or the actual geeks who actually put their own money down, rare money, and made a call YOU never made with your own money?

Privileged, Well-intentioned, Morally-Licensed Do-Gooders have the best of intentions.  Their very intentions are so good, in fact, that these do-gooders have a moral license to write their beliefs on trash and treasure into law.  

Now let me get technical, for the attendees of ICM, who I like.  I don't think they are General Custer.  I don't think Lord Chris Smith is General Armstrong Custer.  Let's talk about the science behind the decisions which led to the prosecution of Joe "Hurricane" Benson.   And I'm talking about the science of perspective, behavioral science, and persuasion.

My fellow panelist, Jim Puckett, wrote a paper about Europe's PACE Initiative. His side of why the risk of exporting to the Informal Sector was too great, and should be made a crime.  I've often written here about Jim's persuasion language - Halloween Images of Scary Black People (2012) comes to mind.

WR3A too submitted comments... collected from technicians in several poorer importing countries.

PACE didn't simply apply the "Privileged" Standards without testing them in the developing market. PACE rejected 20 pages of comments collected by WR3A geeks on 4 "other" continents (not Europe).  It's the "other" comments, from the "informal" sector, which best predict environmental justice.

That's what happened to Europe... they reacted to NGO photos of a "problem" (black people burning 30 year old crap) and designed an Export Standard ("fully functional") which was designed to protect Great White Conscience.  The standards were designed to reduce liability of the Privileged, not to let Africa Git Er Done.

Time for cultural analogy.  In Eastern Europe and Southern USA, repair ingenuity was inversely proportional to Privilege.  But fear of lawsuit, blame, and loss of Moral License was directly proportionate to Privilege.  Positive indicators (value of real estate) predict not only environmental enforcement itself (subject of umpteen blogs), but the TYPE of environmental enforcement.  It has become derivative - not protecting against net pollution, but protecting of who can feel blamed for it.

The word is "Stewardship".  Stewards Have Privilege.   Follow these rules, don't let your asset tags be found among the riff-raff.   Keep your conscience shiny, and don't cross the tracks.  The reputation of the "used car salesman" in the USA stems in no small part from the Types (social class and color) they sold rich people's used cars to.  Dirty repair guys.  Like my grandfather.

The spectrum between "nice to have" and "need to have" [WSJ] is visible through the Lens of Privilege.  Europe wrote rules without the perspective of the Global South.  One man's treasure became another man's liability.

Images from Ray Marston, publisher of Nuts and Volts. and
He's a Display Spectrum Geek.

one man's trash is another man's treasure
one man's treasure is another man's liability

In 2008, WR3A submitted 20 pages of comments on the new EU rules on computer export.  We submitted terms like "elective upgrade" which (we thought) rather precisely captured the point in the spectrum where one person's choice or decision to buy new rather than reuse or repair could differ from another person's decision.  That StEP, UNU, UNEP, and Basel Secretariat were trying to come up with an objective term to describe the device itself, rather than the human factor.   What I would do with a 15" CRT monitor was different from what an Egyptian would do with the same device.

This is the point where INTERPOL got involved in enforcing the new EU rules to "save the Africans" from reuse and repair.  David Higgins at one point seemed to see the flicker of reason in the free market, but the overwhelming photojournalism from places like Accra City's Agbogbloshie district was pulling public opinion away from the informal sector, and into the gravity of "Big Shred".  

This led to a new term in the blog - "environmental malpractice".   Like a doctor who means the best for the African patient, but who lacks the eyesight to distinguish waste transport from elective upgrade, EU regulators prescribed a recipe of inspections and arrests which culminated in a 60 month sentence for Joe "Hurricane" Benson #freejoebenson, an illiterate Nigerian born TV repairman living in Essex, England.  I was at the 2010 INTERPOL meeting in Washington DC when UK Environmental Agency head Lord Chris Smith, Jim Puckett, and Michael "swimming as a boy" Anane told the amassed group of regulators about Agbogbloshie, the "Biggest E-Waste Dump on Earth".

I was 100% certain this was nonsense, based on the economics of shipping containers and my personal knowledge of African geeks.  Where most of the amassed regulators saw environmental injustice (externalization of expensive recycling work), I saw protectionism and the barely implicit racial profiling of tech repair work.  

Branded as "informals" by Big Shred, African Import Traders had been described in terms of Priviledged.   Words like "against international law" and "externalized environmental costs" had barely any meaning to Joe Benson.  He just heard words spoken by Bullyboys.  This was a cross-cultural calamity, collateral damage against the best and brightest, an assault by a Platoon of environmental regulators on villagers importing "80% waste".

Villager is artistic license.  Most of Africa's markets were cities, which were urbanizing exponentially, as Africans left rural areas to pursue TV signals and "development".   Many economic migrants wind up in the same place that migrants from Eastern Europe wound up in Montreal... scrap and repair joints.

The market these informal tech sector workers work in is dirty and poor and noisy.  But the effective boycott against these technicians by E-Stewards and even R2 is the worst example of collateral damage.

Forcing African, Asian and Latin American small scale tech-sector to buy from fewer OECD suppliers creates "back alley" recycling, just as most prohibitions and boycotts do.  And America has a unique perspective on exactly how the business works, in our history of second hand stores serving hillbilly rural and inner-city negro urban markets.  America's poor emerged from the Great Depression through second-hand sales, which bear striking resemblance to "informal sector" in Africa, Latin America, and Asia.   "Selling used cars to n****rs" was a business sneered at in a way quite apart from the sneering at Hurricane Joe Benson.  But in my experience, no one looks at themselves in the mirror and realizes how absurdly racist their ideals may be.  The sheer blindness to racial distain has infected colonialism, faith-based charity, military, and trade.  Bureau of Indian Affairs.   Food Stamps. Christian Missionairies.  Why environmentalists think ourselves immune from it will be a haunting question decades from now.  What we can hope to achieve is to see the collateral damage we wage first, to admit it, correct it, and draw lessons from it, faster than any self-righteous movement has ever done before.  We can change this in years rather than suffer our blindness for decades.

When I show this film of barefooted Dagomba Africans making jewelry from recycled metals, I am puzzled by the reaction.

Back at the beginning of this blog, I referenced my own perspective.  The perspective of my great grandparents, two of whom spent 22 years (colleagues of John Niehardt, Black Elk Speaks) in the USA Bureau of Indian Affairs.  The others spent the 1920s and 30s in the Ozarks, subsistence farming, a world away from electrified running water cities like Chicago, Boston, New York, and St. Louis.   I grew up during the holidays listening to old timers talking about how much the world had changed in thirty years.

The informal Sector is a story of 4 Ozark Farmers, trying to buy their first car.

Farmer 1 gets no car.  Rides a horse and wagon. That's my great grandfather Fisher.
Farmer 2 buys a new car on credit.  Pays interest. Dies poor.
Farmer 3 goes to the city and buys a used car.  It's hard to afford, but he keeps it tuned up.

Farmer 4 goes to the city and looks for broken cars.  He knows the sound of a bad timing belt.  He knows what bad parts he has access to at the junk yard.  And he knows that rich people discard cars that have things wrong that he knows how to fix.

Guess which one died a millionaire.   Never went to college.  And this isn't really important, but my DNA tests came back... and he's the one with West African ancestors that passed as Cherokee.  I had no idea about this until 2015, 6 months after I returned from Ghana, and it's nothing but trivia... But there was a little bit of Joe Benson in Farmer 4 - my grandfather, who tried to teach me about repair and reuse.

We can start with our own history.  Computers and cell phones are relatively new consumables, but the "digital divide" was once a car divide, a telephone divide, and a TV divide.  

You can skip the following.  Unless you want to profile me better.  What I really encourage everyone to do is to think about the 30 year period from 1925 to 1950, in the Ozarks and Appalachia, and in East Europe, and even villages in France, etc.  In 30 years, things changed incredibly.  My wife's Catalan French family pictures from that time period look like they could have been taken in Cameroon.  At our wedding, we translated stories about mules between my grandfather (Farmer 4) and her grandfather Gabriel.

In 25 years between when I went to Peace Corps and Jim Puckett went to Greenpeace Amsterdam (mid 1980s to 2011), when Joe Benson was arrested, World Bank data shows that African and Asian cities became more connected to the internet, cell phones, and television (teledensity) than the Ozarks did in the period I learned about.

What my grandfather taught me about cars - that knowing how to fix one makes you smarter about how to buy one - is what the valedictorians of Africa learned about cell phones and laptops.

The label of "informal sector" made these people Collateral Damage.

If you have grandparents around, it's not too late to ask these questions.

I'm now the age my grandfather was when I married.  I don't have personal stories about mules.  But I could tell my kids about cars.

Instead of reading about my cars and TV experiences (which do shed light on profiling and assumptions) I encourage you to spend this time with your own families.  I've been sitting and working on this post for 2 months, it's really kind of personal to me, but I'm going to hit post now and hope that I have time to polish this diamond in the rough - and other Collateral Damage drafts - over the holidays.

- - - - -

I was born in 1962.  I am blessed with very early memories, perhaps because my mom and dad moved (3 different homes in 3 states by first grade, but every long summer and every holiday spent in Taney County Missouri).  In Columbia, Missouri, we lived with my Auntie Maude while my dad got his Ph.D in Journalism (and Mom her BA in German).  I remember learning about cars.

My parents used my Auntie's American Dodge Lancer.  Next door neighbors had a station wagon.  These cars were "familliar".

I asked about the Mustangs and Stingrays.  Those made a big impression on me... why did those cars look so much racier and modern?  My dad told me that they cost a lot of money and were not a good investment.

In Taney County, at the Ridgedale farm where my mom grew up, Pa Fisher (grandpa) had all the cars and tractors he had ever bought, and was often fixing them in a double garage (which mom told me had been the house she lived in while he was building the one he and Grandma lived in then).  So I kind of thought of a car as an "investment" which you'd own for the rest of your life. And he had a horse, and in the "back 40" (acres) there were remnants of the horse-driven wagon Pa grew up with, and the one-room cabin my mom lived as a baby.  Care of horses, I was told, used to be really important.  But it wasn't important for me to learn anymore, because that was something from my grandparents childhood.

What was important was how to change oil, fix a tire, change spark plugs, and not to "ride the clutch" on the tractor I rode on with Pa.  That would be vital.

Follow me to 1972.  We were starting to notice and point out "Japanese cars".  My dad (and my friends - by that point I was learning USA culture from peers in school) said "Jap cars" were very inexpensive and very poorly made.  Cheap.  Bad.  Break down. Laughed at.  

Datsuns were around but seemed about as common as a Mini Cooper.  And everything I was learning about the "Japs" was that they lost in WW II and made cheap radios and cheap toys and lousy cars, and "Made in Japan" was a punchline.  

But then, in 1972 or 1973, my dad brought home our 2nd color TV.  SONY.  And he raved about it.  It was cheaper, it was better, it had better color and got better reception.  He said he would never buy another American TV in his life.   SONY.   

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