Q and A: The Bitter End of UK's E-Waste Safari Exploitation

More information turned up on the Band Placebo and how the Agbogbloshie dump kids were chosen to launch the Band's Australia tour.  

The band's reps are researching us.  And we are researching the filmmaker and the band.  Feelings of saviorism and feelings of exploitation are both valid, and both come from good hearts.  We are all running uphill, fighting for higher moral ground.

Here is "Running Up That Hill", a song about trading places.  It is one of the band's hits from the past that got USA airplay, at least on college radio.  ... I remember this.

There's no direct communication between us (yet?), but a lot of evidence people are reading the blog and adjusting their message.  For example, the OfficialPlacebo Facebook page no longer ID's Abgo as "the largest e-waste dump in the world", and reciprocally, I can state this headline was also fake news ("Brian Molko highest paid singer on earth")

"The ‘People’ section is a humorous parody of Gossip magazines, all stories are obviously not true."

This is NOT TRUE, the lead singer of Placebo does not out-rank Mick Jagger, Beyonce, Eminem, etc.  But the fact that it shows up as the top Google listing for "net worth Brian Molko" shows that Brian has something in common with Wahab, Chendiba, Joe Benson, and other Tech Sector entrepreneurs in Ghana - who do NOT import 80% waste to what is NOT the "biggest e-waste dump on earth".  More in common than he ever knew.

Since my earlier blog and tweets, Placebo has taken down this claim on Facebook - that Agbo is the "world's largest e-waste dump".

Now watch out for someone simply swapping the words "in Africa" for "on Earth".  Some people imply that sounds like a small mistake.  But is is quite a correction. "The Tallest Man in the NBA" and "The Tallest Man on North Korea's High School Basketball Team" are two very different "Tallest Men". Because fewer Africans owned TVs and computers decades ago, their junkyards have fewer of them than ours do. Here's a photo of a pile in Addison County Vermont...

Seriously - we got WAAAAAAY more e-waste in Middlebury Vermont (pop 10k) than Accra has in Agbogbloshie.  Maybe I can pay Michael Anane to tell people he played mini-golf here as a boy, and we'll get some MTV screen time.

The photo of Agbogbloshie is, to us, even funnier and more obviously a joke than the MediaMass (Onionish) fake news.  The kid is standing on a single TV, on a barren landscape, carring a bag (no doubt on his way on some errand) and a Alsdair Mitchell pulled a McElvaney and said "kid, jump up on here a second".  Using it under the headline "the world's largest e-waste dump" a single kid standing on a single TV in a city of 3M is rather hilarious (and I'm not the one that choose that screenshot for that headline - Placebo's Facebook manager did).

Look, Brian Molko is closer to being the richest rock star than Agbogbloshie is to being the largest e-waste dump, but that's irrelevant.  My point is that good people - Ghana's Tech Sector and Brian Molko - can get thrust into conflict through misinformation and misunderstanding, and no one has to get bent out of shape.   It's dialectic. I know more about the band, and at the end they'll know more about Ghana, and the UK Press portrayal of its slums (no chaps, t'isn't about you).

So for the benefit of Placebo fans, it's ok to enjoy the video.  The camerawork is some of the best I've seen there (a little cheating with extra gasoline of the fires).  But below is a quick Q and A about Agbogbloshie, the myths and the facts.  Everything stated below has been the subject of many blogs.

Questions and Answers:  Agbogbloshie's place in "E-waste" News 

Q: Is Agbogbloshie polluted?
Q:  Does the pollution at Agbogbloshie come from e-Waste?
No. Samples of Odaw River pollution upstream of Agbogbloshie show 95%+ of toxics are already in the water before it ever reaches Korle Lagoon. It's urban stormwater runoff, DIY oil changers, etc.  The scrapyard actually recycles - filters out and reduces waste - from the City of Accra. 
Q:  Does the pollution at Agbogbloshie come from imported waste?
No.  See above. 
Q: Are children typical of the scrap workers at Agbogbloshie?
No.  See Jack Caravanos (SUNY, Blacksmith Inst) study. Average age is 34 years old. (There are more kids there on weekends, watching the fires when there's no school). 
Q: Are 80% of imports to Ghana unrepairable, illegal, "sham" recycling?
NO!  That was an absurd claim, and was retracted by the "source" years ago.  Shipping costs to Africa are quite high, and African importers buy the best stuff they can. Ironically, because of the lie, fewer people sell to them, and quality suffers. The "war on reuse exports" may be partly responsible for the 10% waste.  But no, it was never ever 80% waste.  All reports give a range of 85% to 93% reuse, which makes sense since Africans buy in the West and fill the containers, pay for shipping, pay customs, etc. 
Q: Who said it is 80% illegal waste?
At one time, Jim Puckett of Basel Action Network made this and similar claims.  He now denies it. Mike Anane is a Ghana agent still saying 500 sea containers per month of waste are dumped there, and that it was a lush fishing village 2 decades ago... both claims are so absurd the men should be disqualified as experts. It is not only economically impossible, it would mean Africa's Tech Sector is stupid. They aren't. 
Q: Why does the UK Mainstream press insist e-waste in Agbogbloshie is mostly dumped there illegally by Western "sham recyclers"?
Sit down and take a deep breath. Yes, I know environmentalists are activist and black lives matter supporters etc.  But here' the thing. Implicit racism, profiling, and misleading photos can trick anyone. UK editors see a picture of a black child standing on a 35 year old TV, holding a junk VCR, and  never question how many TVs and VCRs were in Accra city two decades ago (answer, millions).  The idea that the "third world" doesn't generate electronic waste is based on lack of western education about Africa, and borderline racist assertions and assumptions.  
Q: Why hasn't the story been corrected?
It has been. But the corrections never get the headlines, that's Journalism 101.  Smithsonian and SciDev realized they needed to send reporters with actual junkyard and scrap experience, and both came back with a report that it's a small well organized site where scrap is collected from Accra city for reuse or recycling.  Neither saw evidence of a single solitary sea container ever being dumped there. 
Q:  What is the attraction of photojournalist documentaries to "e-Waste Hell"?
Appears exotic, but it's low budget. Round trip flights to Accra from London or Amsterdam are about $500 or less. The junkyard is 20 minutes from the airport, 10 minutes from Movenpick (Accra's luxury hotel). Intentionally or not, documentary makers can exploit unpaid scrappers by implying their documentary helps the "poor African". The site attracts low budget, inexperienced photojournalists who are notorious for never paying or crediting on-camera scrappers.
The exploitation of the site by rock band Placebo is ironic, since no one disputes that band leaders Molko and Olsdoro are socially responsible.  The defamation is to Africa's Techs of Color, not to the band.  That impugnment and racial profiling results from a charitable industrial complex that sucks in accidental racism, and makes collateral damage out of agents of conscience.
The same blowback has damaged BBC, Economist, Guardian, CNN, etc.  Interpol was fooled.  The fake statistic draws in the best agents of conscience, who stumble through, without a Dagomba translator, and blink through the smoke and get out of there. They've now cited the correction on page 16 and moved on. 
Q:  Who is to blame?
Since I began reporting on this "fake news" over a decade ago, a Seattle organization has attacked me relentlessly, going so far as to put a $349 pristine looking laser printer - with wires chopped up inside - into my clients donation boxes, and making extremely over the top ad hominem attacks on me as a person.  They imply I am a big supporter of dumping on the poor, or that I'm profiting financially.  Look at their IRS form 990. How much goes to the kids in the dump pics?  Nothing.  How much of their $$ comes from anti-reuse and anti-export (planned obsolescence and big shred)?  Meanwhile go to UK House of Commons report on retention of "strategic materials" which describes exports as 90% working but expresses wishes to keep them as fodder for UK's metal economy.
Q:  Who suffers most from the racial injustice?
Africa Tech Sector workers (who buy, trade, repair, exchange imports) and African scrappers (who are exploited without pay by the documentary makers).  Rock bands may be miffed, rock documentary film makers lose time, but Joe "Hurricane" Benson went to UK prison, with no supporting evidence of the "common knowledge" of waste dumping presented by his UK prosecutors.
On arriving in Accra, the Safari Journalist's first clue should be the automobile traffic. The second clue should be that the taxi driver, and all the dudes burning wire, are snapping photos on their smart phones. If your background research was reading TinTin's adventures in Africa comics, try World Bank Data.  Save yourself some time and watch Hans Rosling's Gapminder videos before you leave.

Currently, I see evidence that the filmmakers (Sasha Rainbow and Alsdair Mitchell) are trying to clean up the false impressions.   Via Facebook, Ms. Rainbow has been putting out pictures of some of the featured scrappers with their names, and even the Placebo Twitter bulldog #theMagic-k has put up some nuanced articles, like Jacopo Ottaviana's 2015 #ewasteRepublic and a very interesting and nuanced article from IMBDb on the accepted practices for photocredits in music videos.  It is a valid point, you don't normally see rolling credits or subtitles (as you would in a documentary) in an MTV video.

But who are they interviewing from the Tech Repair and Reuse Sector, the valedictorian Africans who are behind the whole trade? How can you make a documentary about "500 sea containers per month" and not interview the importer?

Different Spanish Low Budget Production
We have got more party pictures of the filmmakers and our "three musketeer" pals from Savelugu/Tamale, and news that Rainbow's documentary isn't finished. I tell the scrappers to always document the documentarians, take pics with their smart phones.  My hope is that common acquaintance Alhassan ibn Abdullah has already told them our Fair Trade Recycling group is for real. At least, we are not "criminals dumping on the poor".

Wahab and 2 USA university interns are headed to Agbogbloshie on Tuesday, from Vermont, to meet with him and the filmed folk, and to give an anonymous donation to cover for their Placebo screen pay so they don't languish while we pursue corrections (or worse, get shunned off because they shared with us).  It's not a huge donation, but a thousand dollars spread around is a fortune to these people, and just because you enjoyed their company and bought them a meal or drinks doesn't mean you are making Agbogbloshie more sustainable.

Someday "slumming" could become a legitimate tourist destination - like Branson in the Ozarks was for "hillibillies".  There may be a legitimate way to actually turn the rubbernecking into a source of income.  I'm working on "Urban Eco Tourism" as a concept with Wahab and the USA students he's travelling with.  There might be a way to show people this polluted site, with correct information about how long ago it was a fishing village (1950s) and where the water pollution comes from (city stormwater and sewage runoff) and the recycling by hand is kind of the same thing we do in the USA... it's not "primitive". And men breaking down copper, aluminum, steel, plastic etc. for manufacturing markets can be portrayed as a legitimate part of the "circular economy", as the urban miners who contrast with the unsustainable practices at coltan and copper mines in African jungles.  They employ themselves separating out the copper that the Tech Sector kept alive 15 more years, through repair and reuse, and if wealthy nations feel uncomfortable because we "threw them away", a visit to meet Africans may help you get over it.

We have a bed for Messieurs Molko and Olsdal.  You can see the forests, savannahs and elephants, but still meet urban laptop shop owners and recyclers, and listen to some killer live Soukous, Makossa, and HiLife bands along the way.  And it does not take "balls of steel" or a millionaire safari budget.  The sustainable circular economy is, it turns out, a big enough tent for all of us.

Typically documentary filmakers already doing Agbo documentaries in progress are initially irritated that FairTradeRecycling WR3A followers tweet at them, but after they do a little research, they begin to at least polish their stories, and in some cases change them.  McElvaney was the most stubborn, probably because we met him too late and the collateral he'd invested was too much at risk (he seemed to want to hear less).  It was similar at Interpol - where they initially reacted as if we were threatening their funding, but came to agree that the financially interested parties (planned obsolescence and big shred) were more against imports than promoting them.  It's economic self interest, and we aren't angry at you for it.  Fair Trade Recycling / WR3A is just "holding up the mirror" to photojournalists with the magnafying glasses.

And here is Placebo's hit "the bitter end".


Stoft Moln said...

In a sense I think there's a positive side to this whole controversy - I don't think I (and several others) would've learned this much about Agbogbloshie nor e-waste otherwise. Hope it'll all work out well and thank you for bringing facts to the table. I'm a huge fan of the band and don't doubt they had good intentions, but I hope we've all become wiser in the process and that the guys who appeared in the video will be fairly compensated and credited. Cheers

Robin Ingenthron said...

Thank you so much for this comment. Agreed Stoft, and I too have learned too. I've learned to appreciate the music, I've learned about Brian Molko's bravery in the community, and I've learned what doesn't work in arguing with "artists" about policy and science (I've been, er, blocked by the director and camerman on social media). I was initially going by what Awal and his guys tell me, and believed it based on some past "drive by" documentaries there. If it's true I did the right thing and just need to find the right note to get attention without hurting feelings.

A trusted Tech Sector translator is headed there tomorrow to see if Awal's credible and two college students are also going to give a fresh set of eyes (in case my being there for 2 years has me in a rut. The tech sector are Africa's best and brightest, and they do all the importing and exporting, and the folks who accused them of criminal dumping really have to defend that accusation.