Intercon Solutions vs. Charity Conjecture Complex NGO

Last week I had a brief telephone interview with Brian Brundage, CEO of Intercon Solutions.  Brian had texted me about his lawsuit vs. Basel Action Network, the NGO in Seattle which accused Intercon Solutions of illegally exporting toxic computer scrap to China.

I've written about Intercon before.  I don't really claim to know the facts of the case.  But I do know very well the modus operendi of the NGO in Seattle.  From Oxford dictionary...

con·jec·ture  ( kənˈjekCHər/) noun
  1. an opinion or conclusion formed on the basis of incomplete information. "conjectures about the newcomer were many and varied"
speculation, guesswork, surmise, fancy, presumption, assumption,theory, postulation, supposition;

  1. form an opinion or supposition about (something) on the basis of incomplete information. "he conjectured the existence of an otherwise unknown feature"

guess, speculate, surmise, infer, fancy, imagine, believe, think,suspect, presume, assume, hypothesize, suppose

"I conjectured that the game was over"

In several direct cases I am personally aware of, Jim Puckett of Basel Action Network defamed businesspeople on little evidence and lots of assumptions and a dollop of chutzpa.  PT Imtech in Semarang, Indonesia was one.  He was the primary source of the "80% of used electronics are junk" faux statistic, according to everyone from Terry Gross (Fresh Air) to Peter Essick (National Geographic) to the new generation of photojournalists (Benito, McElvaney, Hugo, etc.)

The photos of Agbo don't generate money for orphans or recyclers.  They generate money for journos, NGOs, lawyers and defamation cases.

At the EScrap Conference, held by Resource Recycling in Orlando for the last couple of years, Jim spoke to an audience that was shown direct evidence that Agbogbloshie never received a sea container of junk electronics.  Ever.  Not even accessible.  Two professional experts born and raised in Ghana (Grace Akese and Emmanuel Nyalete) were there with him in the audience, telling him that Agbogbloshie was a scrap automobile yard, and that the VCRs and computers delivered there are collected house to house in a metropolis of 4 million people who have had electricity for decades (Accra proper is about 2.5M, but the city has expanded. Agbogbloshie is a slum and market near the city center).

Jim went on to speculate that while the sea containers arrive hours away, that the junk electronics were distributed to shops throughout the city, and then collected by pushcart.  Effectively, Jim was accusing people like Joe Benson, Africa's Tech Sector, of being incapable of sourcing 95% good computers, unable to repair them, but somehow stupidly were laundering "millions of tons" of junk electronics... for free.  No, not for free.  That they pay for these junk pieces, paying typically ten times more than the copper is worth when it reaches Agbogbloshie.

Kevin McElvaney, the German photojournalist, was at the conference as a speaker and also in the audience.  The following day, McElvaney inserted himself to answer a question directed initially to Grace Akese, the Memorial University Ph.D. researcher from Ghana.  McElvaney basically gave Jim's version, that the junk is distributed through repair shops and secondary markets.  His evidence was not in any of the Secretariat of Basel Convention funded studies... it was based on what he knows... photography.

Ethical Photojournalism: Out Damned Spot

Ok I'm really honing in on the central theme of the blog.

Our species has evolved to react, individually and as a society, to stimuli.  But for an evolved social network, it goes beyond "greed and fear".
"Human nature is complex. Even if we do have inclinations toward violence, we also have inclination to empathy, to cooperation, to self-control." - Steven Pinker
But if we also are motivated by beauty, by curiosity, and other inspirations (such as "faith" or "loyalty"), that does not mean that the "greed and fear" cease to exist as drivers.

My life goal at 17 was to grow up to be an "Agent of Conscience".  I also wanted to be a philosopher, but professionally to follow Hesse's Siddhartha, a path of hands on experience as a foundation for some revelation.

Not at Nirvana yet, but the meditation and self assessment continues to yield wisdom dividends.

Are we just animals?  Is there no higher power?  Do we just bounce off of each other in reactions to greed and fear?  Does "nurture" for people we don't know just spill over only when our own children are cared for?  Or does the power to nurture give us a justified pride in our self-worth, a self-worth which is tangible and real?

I definitely think it matters whether I'm an ethical and principled actor and agent.  To me it makes a huge difference if I'm given credit for a lie, for someone else's work, etc.  Sacrificing pride, or "spiritual materialism" in part prepares us not to get too "hooked" on the Choir's praise.

What does this have to do with recycling?

1. Recycling is positive energy.  You are avoiding mining more mountains and cutting more forests.  You are conserving energy.  Even if there isn't a good market from year to year, by continuing to recycle we are demonstrating the reliability of the secondary market as a source of supply, and economically rewarding factories which invested in recycled feedstock use.

2. Pride is addicting.  While we can enjoy the positive energy of doing hands on work and saving as much or more of the planet's resource than we consume, we can also fall to "moral licensing".  By using a reuseable shopping bag, we might feel justified in littering, for example.  An economics of credit, liability, and licensing is both evolved and culturally practiced.

3. Saving the World with a Hashtag is "easy".  Like easy money, money we inherit, don't earn, it's great.  If we stumble upon something happening that's bad for the planet, and just hashtag it into a viral movement, we can get all the great feelings with little of the effort.  We have evolved to accept low hanging fruit, literally and spiritually.

4. Honesty, Truth and Accountability is good.  If we make a mistake and "hashtag" the wrong cause and effect, and earn a job "doing what we believe in" but find out what we believed in was wrong... we can be saved by our integrity.  No doubt the Western medicine pioneers who discovered mercury worked as a laxative made a million dollar health care economy out of poisoning people.  But Western medicine saved itself by scientific method and accountability.  We didn't make Hg laxatives "holy" or make them proof of God, so we could fix it and move on.

5. Finding someone who is weaker than we are - morally - can also be used for moral licensing.  We are outraged by KKK racists, as we should be.  But are they really a thing? How many KKK members are out there?  Don't we play up other peoples racism to make ourselves feel better about our own "crossing the street"?  We have evolved to seek out majorities and not stick out, and skin color and culture is a currency with "risk and benefit ratios".  Perhaps whites oppose racism because we see the global numbers?  I don't think so... I think the German immigrants fighting the Irish immigrants and the Navajo or Apache fighting the Hopi are skirmishes which are "diluted out" by more and more mixing of culture.

Role of Celebrities and Poster Kids in NGO Fund Raising

While researching the term "poster child" for Fair Trade Recycling's report on Ghana (agonizingly close to completion... footnotes, footnotes!) I ran across some interesting articles on the March of Dimes - the anti polio campaign of the 1940s and 50s.

Wikipedia's article on the March of Dimes had a series of photos on the role of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and the founding of a "National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (1938)". The campaign's use of photos of children in wheelchairs was effectively a merger of photojournalism and a public health campaign.  In the beginning, American children were asked to each donate a ten cents, and the "March of Dimes" campaign was so successful (if not in raising money from children, for leveraging federal and charitable donations) that it became a model for the charity or non-profit sector.

Bringing poignant images to stir emotional, nurturing responses from donors earned a label of "poster child campaign".  The term didn't really have any negative connotation until the 1960s.  As I recall from my MBA courses in non-profit management at Boston University (but don't have time to track down), it was a study on "diminishing returns" of a Unicef campaign that resulted in treating photo fundraising more cautiously.  We were taught, as MBA students, that there's a moral dilemma in using photos to raise funds for one non-profit cause if the campaign taxes the empathy of donors.

Celebrities and sad-eyed-children-photography make a powerful weapon.  But it isn't science.  And the worst kind of collateral damage is being waged via environmental malpractice.  Today's blog is about how I don't become cynical, even in the face of rigged bids and shaming attacks on my character.  My heroes stay fresher longer.

How Exports of Electronics Get to Agbogbloshie in 6 Easy Steps

At Fair Trade Recycling, we are fans of Dave Hakkens of the Netherlands and his maker & repair-stuff videos.  It was with a mixture of delight and gritted teeth that we watched his new video on Agbogbloshie.

His video "A Free Trip" does portray the ingenuity and skill we tried to document in Africa, and does it with more flair than I could.

But he also opens with the headlines that junk is exported directly to Agbogbloshie by westerners to be dumped.  That's just ridiculous and has been disproven by every study by USITC, MIT, SBC, etc.

So Dave, thanks for seeing people for what they can do rather than for what they cannot do.

But next time, do a little more homework.

  1. The goods are exported by African Ex Pats (like Joe Benson) who are in close communication with buyers (#2)
  2. The goods are imported by African Tech Sector shops which buy mostly working but also do repair for consumers (#3)
  3. The goods are sold to African consumers and businesses.
  4. The goods are then USED FOR 5-25 years!  Accra had electricity 50 years ago!  Ghana has 20 television stations!  
  5. At the end of 2 decades of use and storage and often re-repair, the "scrap" electronics are collected by scrappers from Old Fadama (not called "Sodom and Gomorrah"), house to house, via pushcart 
  6. The scrap is traded, bought and sold, at Agbogbloshie (an automobile scrapyard) based on metals or parts value.
The first item we saw being dismantled at Agbogbloshie was a VCR.  A VCR, Dave.  Try to sell a containerload of VCRs to an African.  Those were everywhere in Africa in the 80s and 90s, but no one imports VCRs today.

See Report at Resource Fever - Global Circular Economy of Strategic Metals (Bo2W)
Step 6 is 15-25 years after Step 1.  Improving testing, or arresting #1 Africans, or boycotting #2 Africans, or selling brand new product to #3 Africans, does absolutely nothing.  Donating money to E-Stewards has zero effect on Step 6.  Even brand new stuff wears out, and according to Africans does so faster than "solid state" used electronics imported from Europe and USA.

Most of the NGO's emphasis is how to somehow stop accidental breakage, non-functioning parts, shipping damage, etc. (7%).  But the point is that the ENTIRE chart above will wind up at a scrapyard SOMEDAY, and most of what's there today was imported decades ago.

Fighting Over the Poor (instead of For them)

Watching Hans Rosling's latest presentation at Swedish statistical institute "GapMinder".

"Don't Panic - End Poverty"

It is a bit long and overlaps a lot with his TED Talks, if you have already seen them.  But if you have not, it's interesting how his trips to Malawi, South East Asia, etc. put poverty in a flesh and blood, rug on the floor of the mud hut, context.

He starts with his trademark audience quiz.  This time it's not multiple choice, and only 3 questions.

1. How many people (out of 10) have electricity?

The audience answers average around 40% of people in the world have electricity, which was the rate in 1960.  The actual rate with electricity today is over 80% (I have read it's 87, but he rounds to 8).

2. How many children (out of 10) are vaccinated against measles? 

Highest audience response was 3 (followed by 1, 2 and 4).  The right answer, 83% of the world's children are vaccinated.

3. How many girls (out of 10) go to primary school?

Most of the audience answers range from 3-6.  But it's 90%.

Rosling is facing the same challenge that used electronics traders face in addressing "#ewaste policy".
Simple. The Press reports "if it bleeds, it leads".  Consumers buy bad news.  And one of the biggest concerns those of us working with Agbogbloshie face is that if the "Ewaste Scare" is a hoax, does Agbogbloshie just fall off the map?  Is there a way to harness these western eyeballs to achieve something good for the people who live in or near the slums of Old Fadama?

Rosling is doing a good job of correcting the exaggerated perceptions, but seems to also struggle with the temptation, therefore, to shrug.   So he emphasizes this time that while 12% extreme poverty is an amazing improvement over the past 3 decades, that it still represents a BILLION people.

How would Rosling react if he was in the audience, and the leader of an NGO was on stage, telling everyone the exact opposite of the truth, that things are getting "worse"?  How would he feel if an NGO called him a "poverty denier", comparing him to climate change skeptics?

Fortunately, the discourse over economic statistics is more civil than in the Waste business, where stock in defamation lawsuits is rising faster than scrap metal and plastic prices.

Soup Kitchen Essays - Summer Hiatus Blog

Normally one announces a summer hiatus at the beginning of summer, rather than in retrospect.  It was not really my intention to post less frequently, as my passion for the added value (environmental, social, and economical) of reuse, repair and recycling does not fade.  But I suppose I've had a growing awareness that a book on a hero cannot last forever, and my hero - the prototypical Geek of Color - would not ultimately be served in a soup-kitchen of essays.

I've still been writing, but the "draft" folder is burgeoning as I try to reflect more and more on what I'm writing which itself adds value, which is itself new, which is evolutionary.

The "e-waste" recycling industry is constantly evolving.  When I started my business, after leaving the regulatory field 15 years ago, the USA was "The Saudi Arabia of Reuse". Americans had evolved to a period where the US Department of Labor forecasts for TV and electronics repair jobs showed an unprecedented shrinkage.   Employment estimates of TV repairpeople were 100,000 in 1990, and they had fallen to 20,000.

So too, my blogging must evolve.  (listen to cover of Steve Earle's "Hillbilly Highway" below).