Agbogbloshie Ghana: Eden & Hell Ain't What it Used to Be

The Economist Babbage Blog and recent Guardian pieces, rerunning the "A Place Called Away" portrait of Ghana Electronics recycling are kinda wow, kinda 2008.

Any true student of urban studies know that these cities are changing day by day.

I was sticking my neck out in 2010, telling folks that the Guardian Newspaper photos of 2 tons of white monitors in Agbobloshie did not prove the thesis that people like Joe Benson were "organized crime" for exporting 500 tons of black hotel televisions.  The photos at Agbogbloshie (@Guardian "Sodom and Gomorrah", another exotic biblical reference) practically disprove the allegation on their own.  1990s waste outside an African city does not mean that 2000s product purchased in Essex London is headed for the same place.

This is about People and Geography, not about Stuff.  There is no "Hell" on any geography map, and there is no "Eden",  and there is no place called "Away".   People who describe emerging markets with words like "Hell" and "Eden" have a Victorian Economist view of the world.

Or maybe it's more the Mary Poppins timeline.  Saving Mary Poppins and SavingAfrica have a certain theme in common.

Below are 4 Key "World Travellers" of 2014 who are making the great E-Waste Hoax go away.  Not with a Bang nor a whimper, but with a Tweet.

Yin, Yang, or Omm Part 2: White Man Ju-ju vs. 3-Point Shot

In Part I we took a close up of an actual problem - the past decade of managing Cathode Ray Tube televisions and monitors, after briefly introducing the concept that guilt and liability - positive ethical systems - can be twisted into bad law via fear, greed, and envy.  

What's the "green scare?"  
Same as the red scare.  Export Sympathizer is today's "Commie"

The Responsible Electronics Recycling Act (RERA), HR2791, was the focus.  The bill acknowledges overseas refurbishing and recycling operations if and only if the name-brand company (e.g. Dell of Texas) is shipping there (warranty repair, takeback).  That's "responsible".  The contract factories overseas are NOT owned by the name brand, there are no Dell employees at the computer display factory.  If Hurricane Fung, Hurricane Hamdy, Hurricane Benson, or Hurricane Chiu were OEM employees taking back used goods for repair and refurbishment, they'd be "Stewards".  Instead they are "primitive waste criminals".

The Guardian covered Dell for coming out against a geeks of color boycott, and I vigorously applaud Dell for that.   But RERA language creates a "members only" export system.

As the blog got longer, I've cut it into three or four parts.  Poor editing, or de Tocquevillian insight?  Mostly lack of time to edit, I'm running a business after all.  The digression into psychology and ethics is the readers choice, I figure.   Just don't hit the "print" key.


Time Out! The Economist Babbage Blog Blows E-Waste Hoax Horn of 2009

Following twitter (via Adam Minter) I ran across an editorial/blog in my favorite periodical, The Economist.  I've linked to some well researched articles in the Economist here in the blog, e.g. about emerging markets and urban development.  I continue to subscribe, buy subscriptions as gifts, and hold The Economist in high regard.

But holy cow... what kind of 2008 garbage is this piece by Editorialist Babbage?  Where Gadgets Go to Di(7/21/2014).  He's repeating statistics disavowed by BAN, referring to Greenpeace's 2009 campaign, and alluding to a vast unknown market for burning computers.  In a Sci/Tech Column, for godsake!  Oh the humanity?

I do encourage followers of the blog to read the article and to comment, and to refer Babbage and Economist SciTech to BAN's retraction of it's overseas dumping "statistics" and recognition of the UNEP reports from a year ago.  Find links at "How the Basel Action Network Saved Africa" posted a year ago last month.

And here's some breaking news about "collateral damage" Hurricane Joe Benson I just received
Just a quick note to let you know that Joe was moved, last Friday, to Maidstone Prison.
Maidstone is an open prison so at least the conditions he is in will be improved.
It should be a lot easier for Juan to get an interview with Joe.
His date of Birth is 15th April 1960.  We still don't have a prison Number but give it a try anyway.
This makes me sick.  The EU is ruining Africa for everybody.

Yin, Yang, Omm Part 1: Responsible Electronics Recycling Act (HR2791)

#FreeJoePenna Blog (one of 8 composed on a France beach vacation 2014)

WR3A became the anti-BAN.  But we have both been part of a Charitable Industrial Complex.

It's like a tug of war over dusty, desolated, impoverished Darfur, a guerrilla morality of ethical posturing.   A war between rich over who gets the rights to the poor's images. 

Poverty and inequality, or the perception of it, is power.  Ask Marxists about how to harvest envy.  The bigger the problem is perceived, the more you can justify meddling and redirecting the marketplace to "fix" the problem.  (appropriate illusion and background music by Brazilian MysteryGuitarMan Joe Penna, below)

There is no denying that there are problems and inequalities in the system.  But whether or not the poor are hurt more by the free market than by's efforts to "fix" it, we are contesting a moral high ground which itself has an economic value.  In this series (Yin Yang Omm) I'm attempting to write about how the economically disadvantaged either benefit from the dispute, or from its resolution, or whether they have any interest in it at all, and who-the-heck-are-we in that equation.

In several previous blogs, like Environmental Malpractice, readers get a closer view of what it's like inside the planned obsolescence shredding industrial complex, and how it is driven by white man juju - liability.  The fetishes placed on the secondary market by people "responsible" for the continued life of products they've let go of force many to shorten the lives of the product.  Recycling laws have made it almost impossible to export working assets.  It is taking billions of dollars of USA assets which are wanted by less affluent but rapidly emerging markets, and turning them into toxic piles, and puts people supplying countrymen who cannot afford new product into jail cells.

Reactions to perception of inequality or injustice can drive societies to do irrational things, to burn witches at stakes, ban books, and shred new cars.   Envy can drive liability lawsuits, jealousy can sway jurors... (so Mazda said to heck with it).  That's right, liability for product has created a system which actually shreds new cars rather than punt them into poor countries, and the same system is increasingly positioning itself to shred refurbishing markets.

Through a proposed new law on exports to secondary markets, BAN and CAER essentially propose a paradigm where the emerging markets cheap labor is available to only to corporations, but are blocked from buying their own supply of work.  RERA would allow these people to do warranty repair, and to assemble and disassemble brand name goods, but not to purchase non-working products for reuse, repair or recycling.

The Responsible Electronics Recycling Act (HR2791)   

The Bill is supported by some people I really like. Niel Peters-Michaud, for example, has enlisted himself and his company both with E-Stewards, BAN and CAER, and has also been to Africa and testifies that limits on trade to that continent will produce better results.
"Do we really believe that the dream of someone in a developing world is to process our toxic e-scrap?  I think they would prefer to dream of driving a well equipped Audi." - Niel Peters-Michaud
Before going deeper into the psychology of two white CEOs from liberal northern states arguments over the welfare of Africans, let's look at what a state (California) with a system similar to RERA's has created.  Hint:  no new Audis have been distributed to any African nations.

Rich and Poor, Effort and Inequality

John Oliver's new show is doing well.

Robin Ingenthron I agree. But I also observe that many of the poorest are descending down - with no one else to blame - just as hard as the 1% is striving up. I know this by the number of poor who excel (moderately gaining, or treading water). Grouping poor A to poor B without acknowledging effort (blaming the rich) is an obvious fallacy. If richest 1% C in a decade balloons in weath, leaving Poor A and Poor B in relative dust, that should not negate the essential difference in effort between poor A and B. What distinguishes Poor B from Poor A (effort, desire, ingenuity) also distinguishes Rich Persons C and D (the rich eroding and falling, vs. gaining).1 min · Like

First hand experience:  Some poor people truly suck.  Some poor people, especially through the lens of our underdog-nurture evolution, are heroic.  In the same way poor are numerous, they are diverse... much more so than the 1%.  My kids in the Cameroon classroom were all equally negated by John Oilver's assessment, but they were not equal.  Some were smarter and better and harder working students, and measuring them all next to Donald Trump unfairly negates their merit.

My concern with rich people attacking rich people (BAN vs. OECD, John Oliver vs. USA's 1%) is that they attribute more attention to themselves than they do to the relative merits (efforts, study, ingenuity) which the working class all enjoy or suffer.  Oops.

Rommel, Africa's Desert Fox, Nazi General

From the Wikipedia:

Erwin Rommel

Bundesarchiv Bild 146-1973-012-43, Erwin Rommel.jpgIn the course of the war, during parliamentary debate following the fall of Tobruk, Prime Minister Winston Churchill spoke of Rommel as a "daring and skillful opponent... a great General", comments for which the British Parliament considered a censure vote against Churchill. Writing about him years later, Churchill offered the following:

"His ardour, and daring, inflicted grievous disasters upon us. But he deserves the salute which I made him, in the House of Commons, in January 1942. He also deserves our respect, because although a loyal German soldier, he came to hate Hitler and all his works, and took part in the conspiracy to rescue Germany by displacing the maniac and tyrant. For this he paid the forfeit of his life. In the sombre wars of modern democracy, there is little place for chivalry.[190]"

Rommel is regarded as having been a humane and professional officer.[4] His Afrika Korps was never accused of war crimes, and soldiers captured during his Africa campaign were reported to have been treated humanely.[5] Orders to kill Jewish soldiers, civilians and captured commandos were ignored.[6] Late in the war, Rommel was linked to the conspiracy to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Because Rommel was a national hero, Hitler desired to eliminate him quietly. He forced Rommel to commit suicide with a cyanide pill, in return for assurances that Rommel's family would not be persecuted following his death. He was given a state funeral, and it was announced that Rommel had succumbed to his injuries from an earlier strafing of his staff car in Normandy...

Descent Into Bullyboys: A Green Circus

 An old Carleton College (and later Africa Peace Corps chum) shared this bizarre website, which matches old 1960s-70s "Family Circus" comics with quotes from German Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.  While I usually tip my cap to Alexis de Tocqueville, Nietzsche had a similar "blogging" style of writing... composing philosophical metaphors and cultural observations without editorial oversight.  There's always the outside hope, if you blog honestly, that something might be recognized for its value - de Tocqueville letter, Nietzsche quip, later-bro.  Afta!

Nietzsche Family Circus
Randomized pairings of Family Circus cartoons and Friedrich Nietzsche quotes. Refresh for a new comic and share your favorites.
nietzsche family circus cartoon
"Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster."

FRAMED: The Documentary

I've been feverishly blogging the case of an individual African-born TV repairman.   Hurricane Joe Benson was handed a sweet looking widescreen CRT with a wire cut and a tracking device installed, and accused of purposefully losing money.  That's what happens when you ship unrepairable goods, you lose money.  We are so concerned for him, we put him in prison.

But as a new documentary will point out, the problem may be when rich people create useless lists of concerns in order to "save" the poor people from themselves.

In FRAMED, a filmmaker and college professor take on the question of how the EU and USA depict African "problems" to an extent that they become a parody of the continent.  From Washington Post:
For director Cassandra Herrman and co-producer Kathryn Mathers these two cases aren't unique, but are part of a broader issue with how Western Europe and America treat Africa. It ranges from the (roundly criticized) portrayal of South Africans in the latest Adam Sandler film, "Blended," to the well-intentioned but flawed charity projects in sub-Saharan Africa that thousands of American college students work upon every year. The pair's new documentary, "Framed," is an attempt to answer why Westerners are so obsessed with "saving" Africa, and why this obsession so often goes awry.
Have well-intentioned environmentalists have fallen into the same rut as 1900s Christian missionaries?  They are emphasizing the weaknesses of African solid waste disposal systems, without showing the "good news" about reuse, repair and sustainable development.  Good news doesn't raise pity dollars, so there is no financial incentiver to portray it in a fundraiser.  What does get portrayed seems so sad that someone has to pay for it, and this summer the UK has put a television repairman in jail.

FRAMED (which is still collecting investors on Kickstarter) poses a broader question than the set up of Benson for "e-waste" crime.  Framed poses a question endemic in all kinds of charity, and all kinds of cause championing.   #Kony, #BokoHaram "campaigns", where people in wealthy nations earn a living "championing" an image of weakness, it becomes a melange of conflicting self interests.

Many people, in fact, are writing about the "carpetbagger" approach of green missions in Africa.  The RustyRadiator Awards, Peter Buffett's essay on the "Charitable Industrial Complex", Adam Minter's Junkyard Planet, and my own contributions (Disney E-Waste Poster Child Union) all make essentially the same point.  I should have quoted Adam Smith in Useless Lists of Jobs Beneath Wealthy People.
"Every man is, no doubt, by nature, first and principally recommended to his own care; and as he is fitter to take care of himself than of any other person, it is fit and right that it should be so."  - Adam Smith

CRT Repair JuJu vs. CRT Maths

Is it juju, toxic cost avoidance, or engineering?  What's behind Hurricane Joe Benson's "WasteCrime"?

"Every man is, no doubt, by nature, first and principally recommended to his own care; and as he is fitter to take care of himself than of any other person, it is fit and right that it should be so."  - Adam Smith
Europeans have decided to save Africans from trading with Europeans, and have made big glass "cathode ray tubes" the equivalent of ivory - trade punishable by imprisonment.  Environmentalist's acceptance of the sentences passed rest in part on our cultural ignorance ("they don't even have electricity in Africa" I've read in comment threads), in part our lost repair skills, and just bad math.

Buying a used TV in Essex, paying people to list its make and model and individual price, hiring a sea container, and paying people to pack it... we can estimate how much that costs.   The cost of shipping the container to an African port is somewhere between $4k and $9k  (see below).  The price to buy the TV from the marketplace in Lagos is known.  And the number of TVs you can fit in a sea container is simple.

But somehow, race and ju-ju and pictures of kids at city dumps get in the way of a simple transaction.  Technophobia, metalurgy, toxics and black people make simple trade too scary to contemplate.

Here are the mysterious parts of a display device.  This one is a CRT computer monitor, but a TV is not much different ( a different tuner mainboard).

In the 1980s and earlier, you needed several different types of mainboards for televisions which worked in different nations.   PAL, NTSC (National Television System Committee) , NTSC2 ("Not The Same Color" = Japan!), SECAM (Système Electronique Couleur Avec Mémoire) , MESECAM, PAL-M... For protectionist and other reasons, television analog transmissions varied country by country.  If you sold a USA Television to an African country in the 1970s (before VHS tapes), you'd have a very unhappy buyer who would have to pay a TV repairperson to replace the NTSC mainboard with a "Phase Alternating Line" (or, "Pay A Lot") analog board.

This all ended in the 1990s.  Remember the "converter box" for turning "rabbit ear" analog televisions into HDTV receivers?  Flybacks, Heat Sinks, Horizontal Output Transistors, RGB... a whole lot of TV tuning bot put onto a motherboard which was designed to "translate" any analog signal into digital.

This new mainboard (made in Taiwan by "Taiwanese" - the people in Taiwan who make stuff) was PERFECT for SVGA monitors... they already had more DPI (dots per inch) than TV monitors.   And it allowed any assembler or contract manufacturer ("Big Secret Factories") on any assembly line in the world to sell a TV to any country on any analog system.  They even sold the "coverter box" to countries (I saw them in Egypt) to allow a regular old SVGA computer monitor to receive any type of analog signal.

I'm in the electronics reuse and repair business, and everyone in the emerging markets knows all this.  I am dumbfounded why recyclers in rich nations don't know what I'm talking about.

Value of CRT Device = A + B + C

A= The CRT tube.   If it works, it's worth $20.  If it's busted it's worth -$4.  That's a $24 spread.

B = The copper stuff.  Circuit boards, yokes, wires, degaussing coils.  SMJ* says they are worth $5.38, I'd say closer to $3, at least inside the box before you do the work.  Working, they are only valuable if you have a CRT connected to them.

C = Supporting players... Plastic, steel, screws... stuff that has no purpose but to hold the CRT screen and circuit board/copperstuff together.

The scrap value = 0 + $5.38 + $0.30 , and the $0 is actually a negative number.   You pay people, or a machine, to separate the stuff (but if you run it through a shredder it's worth a whole lot less than $5.68).

Now, just imagine, what if you leave these things together, in working order?

A = $20              (per alibaba)
B = $5.38           (per SMJ / scrap metal junkie, see below)
C = 0.30             (handful of plastic and screws)

Working CRT TV or monitor = $40+  (What Joe Benson made on the TVs delivered to market in Lagos... and what Greenpeace had to pay to get them back again).

Africans Import Used Electronics Because They Are: ______

A)  "Africans buy used because they are Smart."

[Philip Emeagwali]

Emeagwali 1998 "Superbrain of Africa"

- The 1990s used equipment is less susceptible to ESD (electrostatic discharge)

- Equipment which lasts 15 years drops 50% in cost after 2 years.

- Warranty laws that protect consumers in "rich" nations make their used equipment more valuable.

- Capacitors that cost $2.15 can repair a Dell Optiplex worth $800.

- CRTs cost less, but withstand heat and are less prone to theft.

- If you have access to electricity and earn $3,000 per year, a $21 CRT monitor is smarter than a $800 monitor that may or may not work.

- If you are worried about burglary, CRTs are heavier as well as less valuable.

- If you buy new, there's a 33% chance you lose all your money.

- African reuse of WEEE is 85%-91% after repairs.  Brand new has a 33% failure rate.

@TheGuardian finally reports the other side of the "ban on exports" story, as Dell's eyes adjust to the light.  Maybe Africa's "superbrains" are not as primitive as the "experts" told us.  Hope they have stronger legs than HP's Africa venture of 2009 (year that "e-waste export hoax" hit top gears).