Africa: e-waste, harmful imports and the fractures of the global economy

During the past days, a number of different news and blog posts led me to think hard about e-waste, how it is generated, treated and dumped around the world, and how this relates not only to environmental issues, but algo to the global economy. First, it was this post at Subsaharska, in which Miquel argued that e-waste

“is a big problem and it’s only going to get bigger. It’s one of the things that makes me truly cringe about the information age in that the leftover components are all getting dumped in countries such as those in Sub-Saharan Africa. People have few ways to fight back other than to deal with what is dumped upon their shores. And when they do fight back, suddenly, they’re called pirates…For anyone who thinks that they need the latest iPod/iPhone, or laptop marvel, they should come and stay for awhile in rural areas in Africa where the trash is burned daily and you’re breathing in an ungodly amount of things you’d rather not know about (mainly damnable petrochemicals.) For me, in a few months, I won’t breath this anymore, but for the people here, it’s constantly in the air and it’s only growing more. Think the next time you buy an electronics item, stop and think if you really and truly need it.”

Not only e-waste, but numerous other types of waste (often of the most dangerous ones – such as nuclear waste, toxic substances, deathly chemicals…) end up being dumped on the poorest areas of the globe. In some cases, this is done with the encouragement of the country’s government, who expects to benefit from their “comparative advantage” in the global economy by providing the services at a very low cost – needsless to say the real costs being born by the workers on these areas, who work in awful conditions and without the necessary safety requirements. One of the industries where this is most visible (and horribly spectacular) is the ship-breaking on Indian and Bangldeshi beaches (See this blog entry and this El Pais article (Spanish) .
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Photo from the El Pais article
In other cases, toxical waste is disposed in more shady deals, sometimes completely illegally ones. For example, the N’drangheta (Calabrian version of the Sicilian mafia) has recently been found to have made a big business by getting rid of nuclear way in “un-ortodox” ways, such as sinking boats on the Mediterranean sea, or shipping the waste to Somalia, where it was buried after bribing local politicians. Also it was recently revealed that, the British company Trafigura, was found guilty of dumping

“400 tonnes of toxic waste from the cargo vessel Probo Koala…at the West African port of Abidjan, the capital of the Ivory Coast. The waste was loaded on to trucks and dumped around the city.Over the following weeks, thousands of residents found themselves choking and coughing, some vomiting. At least 10 are said to have died and many still bare the scars”

. Trafigura finally agreed to a $45m (£30m) payout as compensation, which those affected began receiving earlier this month. I blogged about this at the time (here, in Spanish), and you can read the full story here.
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Growing amounts of e-waste are fast becoming ones of the most pressing and dangerous type of waste; often this is just dumped on the landfills of the poores countries. For example, see this series of photographs by Andrew McConnell on the Agbogbloshie suburb in Ghana’s capital, Accra, which has become a dumping ground for hundreds of tons of e-waste from Europe and the US (via Subsaharska too). As McConnel notes, this waste often enters these countries thanks to unscrupulous trades who label the goods as second-hand goods, or charity donations. This opens another aspect of the debate: the import of used and second-hand goods into African countries. Recently, it was reported, here, that Uganda was

“reconsidering its ban on the importation of used electronics following complaints from traders and other stakeholders over the indiscriminate nature of the policy…(Prefering instead) a more targeted approach to the implementation of the ban to focus on technology that is harmful to the environment instead of uniform application to all secondhand goods”.

This was a similar story as the one coming from Pakistan, a country where e-waste is a serious threas, and whose country is considering a ban on the import of used computers. You can read here a nice article debating how, as well as disadvantages, importing second-hand computers can make these more affordable and therefore available to more people. My opinion here is that prevention is better than cure, and if importing used computers is going to becoming a back-door for dumping of e-waste, then a ban should be adopted.
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Photo Andrew McConnell
Furthermore, as this BBC “Have Your Say” debate suggests, there are indeed arguments for banning not only electronics but also other type of second-hand and charity goods (such as clothes) which harm local production. Again, here I support the protection of local industries, and a ban od second-hand cloths will be a positive development – although unfortunately here not sufficient for saving local textile industries, whose biggest competitor is cheap Chinese products (and as you can imagine, African countries would not risk losing Chinese investments and support by rising their import duties on Chinese goods…). I think perhaps the answer for textile producers and designers in Africa is to turn their already beautiful, good quality pieces into fashionable products which can can be sold (and priced) as luxury items – something for which they need only a good branding and marketing campaign…
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An example of luxury goods made using the appeal of African textiles, done however by an Italian company, Moroso (More at Nosideup)
I think both e-waste and the textile industry’s precarious situation are simply different faces of the key debate – the global economy and Africa’s integration into it. The general debate on import bans and on the textile industry, is part of a larger and a well-known outcome of the development and globalisation debates (dating back at least to the 1960s and some African countries’ attempts at import substitution industrialization (ISI)) E-waste is perhaps, a more clear product of globalisation, and how Africa is integrated into the global economy at present. Globalisation has facilitated the flow of information, goods and capital (much more than people, who remain still tied to their countries, especially if you come for a poor country), resulting often in positive outcomes. Most often however, the results have been largely negative – not only growing disparity between rich and poor, but also the appearance of gray zones. On the words of the anthropologist Carolyn R. Nordstrom, the global economy has meant increasing flows, but also increasing “fractures”. These fractures can be physical spaces – such as war-zones and “failed states” like Somalia – but also all kinds of activities, from clearly illegal ones – terrorism, kidnappings and drug trading – to the gray activities of multinational corporations – pharmaceuticals, arms and oil producers of course, but also companies responsible for what Nordstrom labels “blood-tomatoes” (grown in war zones), the mobile phone industry’s thirst for coltan (which as Mike in Mo’dernity, Mo’problem notes, cannot be stopped simply by consumer-power), and many others.
And it is not only in producing goods that the “fractures” of the global economy become relevant, but also – as e-waste shows – in the disposal of it. On this there is, as Miquel says, a certain degree to which individuals can contribute, by not going for the latest technology craze without thinking the implications through. Ultimately however, the inmoral and illegal disposal of dangerous waste is result of the “fractures” on the global economy, much like the competition faced by the African textile industry is a result of its “flows”. In order for these problems – symptoms – to be solved, their root cause – the uneven global economy – must be addressed; if not, all we’ll do, will be mere gap-filling.
Africa: e-waste, harmful imports and the fractures of the global economy

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