From “Bridging the Digital Divide” to Opening a Digital Dumping Ground: Can Democracy Rise from the Rubble?

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Electronic waste—defined by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) as “various forms of electrical and electronic equipment (EEE) that are old, end-of-life (EOL) appliances which have ceased to be of any value to their owners”— is likely to grow in volume by 1/3 before 2017. This is a rather unsettling projection, given that e-waste is already currently recognized as the fastest-growing component of the solid waste stream, with 20 to 50 million tons being generated each year.

Yet, those primarily tasked with the internalization of this adverse externality are responsible for a mere fraction of that generated. Estimates suggest that 80% of total e-waste production is contributed by the west, of which 75% is exported to developing countries. The European Union accounts for up to 47% of all electronic waste, though the rate at which such accumulates is expected to increase from 3% to 5% per year. Given the seemingly infinite expansion of waste, coupled with the finite land throughout Europe upon which to dispose of such, it may come as no surprise that Member States are—and have been—exporting this waste to regions outside their sovereign jurisdiction, namely to the former colonies that presently comprise West Africa.

Since the new millennium, Ghana has increasingly served as a primary destination within the electronic waste circuitry. In 2010 alone, 40,000 tons of electronic waste were unloaded at the port of Tema on the coast of the Gulf of Guinea. Eighty-five percent of this total—or 34,000 tons of waste—originated in Europe. The systematic principles fueling the movement of these transborder consignments beg exploration, considering that such transfers are in utter violation of the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal—which both the EU and Ghana have signed and ratified. The issue of noncompliance demonstrated among these state actors has resulted in the literal “dumping” of waste upon those least equipped to manage such, much less to treat and recycle such in an environmentally responsible manner.

So what does all of this have to do with development and democratization in Africa? It is important to draw explicit attention to the fact that this waste transfer is fuelled by the concept of trade liberalization—and environmental liberalization to attract trade—which, together,  have become increasingly embraced by both the Northern and the Southern constituents of our ever-globalizing economy. The EU has established some of the strongest environmental protection measures in the world, which involve costly, complex processes to address the domestic disposal of waste. These expensive standards incentivize both state leaders and electronics manufacturers throughout EU Member States to look to those nations in which environmental regulations, and the associated expense of abiding by such, are weak or entirely absent. In this sense, our capitalist world-economy is structured in such a way that a sovereign country’s resolve to liberalize its regulatory regimes—both with regard to international trade and its intra-state environment—is an important determinant of its competitive advantage in the global marketplace.

Thus, western powers—in an effort to protect their respective economic and environmental interests—have created a system by which the Ghanaian Government is more highly incentivized to relax its regulatory standards than it is to remain accountable to the Ghanaian people.

While the EU maintains a vested economic interest in outsourcing the environmental risk of electronic waste management, the Government of Ghana perceives motivation to sacrifice its environmental integrity by preserving minimal legislation. The documentation of the trade of electronic waste is marginal, given its illicit nature. However, there is reason to believe that “importing countries receive payments from exporting countries for accepting waste material,” inducing nations such as Ghana to maintain lax environmental standards so as to appeal to exporting nations and reap the economic benefits of the electronic waste enterprise.

Ironically, it is under the banner of development that the unloading of electronic waste at the port of Tema was first justified by the EU, and the guise under which the primary loophole of the Basel Convention is systematically manipulated. In 2004, the Government of Ghana implemented a new policy to “bridge the digital divide,” eliminating the import duty on used computers. Rather than empowering Ghanaians, however, this policy has made them vulnerable to exploitation.

The Basel Convention permits the transboundary movement of hazardous materials if such are to be “reused or recovered through recycling.” Therefore, to circumvent the liability of illicit trade, EU states classify shipments of hazardous electronic waste as second-hand electronic products. Criminal enforcement at the port of departure has the capacity to detect only a fraction of illegal exports, as such requires time-consuming verification and inspection. Considering the immense volume of containers, only a minor percentage of export materials are examined and tested. Consequently, while shipments of electronic “donations,” varying between “300 to 600 40-foot-long receptacles (each with 2,390 cubic feet of storage space)” enter the port of Tema from EU Member States each month, 75% of their contents are inoperable. The alleged closing of the digital divide has, thus, led to the opening of a digital dumping ground.

However, in spite of realizing repeatedly that the vast majority of these shipments are inoperable and unusable, the Government of Ghana continues to accept such, opting not to demand that EU Member States fulfill their “duty to re-import,” and subsequently collecting the economic incentives that perpetuate lax environmental standards and welcoming ports. However, as the Ghanaian Government reaps the economic reward from this importation of waste, one community in particular is forced to suffer disproportionately.

“The site is scattered with scrap metal, engine parts, computer parts, circuit boards and tangled wires filled with valuable copper. The air is filled with smoke from the nearby burning of wires . . . Children play on the soiled ground blackened from oil and fires, while women cook food for the workers. A busy produce market is open next to the scrap metal and e-waste recycling site, the other side lined with a small, winding river, coated with industrial oils and littered with remnants of disassembled machinery” (Caravanos et al., 2011:22).

Such is the geographical landscape, spatial organization, and environmental quality characteristic of Agbogbloshie, Ghana’s largest and “most controversial” slum, and burgeoning hub of the electronic waste market. It was no accident that this community was designated to be the destination of imports when the Ghanaian Government realized that what had been deemed to be fully functional “donations,” were actually inoperative and unusable waste.

Comprised of informal settlements, Agbogbloshie is widely regarded as “a no-man’s land,” while the individuals occupying this district of Accra, for which they do not own titles, are described as “squatters” and even “invaders,” stigmatized within society and branded by media outlets as “armed robbers, prostitutes, and drug pushers.” Having established their livelihoods on land owned and controlled by the state, the approximately 79,000 inhabitants of Agbogbloshie subsist under the incessant threat of eviction, compounding the lack of stability that has compelled these individuals to enter into the electronic waste market at rates that have risen sharply since its inception in the community throughout the early years of the new millennium.

The Government of Ghana has continued to advocate a “politics of non-recognition” toward the occupants of Agbogbloshie, prompting and perpetuating a tradition of unequal development throughout Accra. This inequity is demonstrated most visibly through disparities in the spatial distribution of solid waste-collection services and waste-disposal sites, reflecting the uneven allotment of status and wealth within Ghanaian society and functioning to widen the cleavage in social justice.

The unmonitored market that is the informal electronic waste industry lacks the infrastructure necessary to dismantle and recycle the toxic components of such waste safely and sustainably, prompting “waste workers” as young as nine years old to participate in the manual disassembly of electronic commodities in order to harvest valuable metals. Extraction techniques, however, include the open air burning of wires and cables to obtain steel and copper, and open-pit acid baths, which involve the use of corrosive chemicals to melt steel and plastic casings. These practices, however, expose workers and community members alike to a host of noxious elements including, but not limited to Chlorinated Benzenes, Brominated Flame Retardants, cadmium, lead, and mercury. These contaminants are essentially omnipresent, as such pollute the atmosphere and leach into soil and lakes, resulting in the contamination of entire food chains.

The vast majority of the research conducted on this industry illustrates that the configuration of the electronic waste circuitry and the nature of market practices elicit grave implications for the exacerbation of poverty, and undermine basic human rights protection and public service provision. Given its decision to reject recognition of the residents of Agbogbloshie as legitimized citizens of the country, the Government of Ghana has excused itself from the obligatory functions that mandate the maintenance of channels for political representation. Herein lies the most paramount issue confronting the residents of Agbogbloshie. Devoid of official citizenship, and, therefore, denied a political identity as well as the right to participate within the democratic process, the individuals of this forsaken community remain utterly voiceless.

Thus, there are several power structures—both inter- and intra-national—at play that are ultimately shaping the discourse and reality surrounding the construct of electronic waste. While this waste economy booms, those participating in, and affected by, the unremitting processes of collection and disassembly necessary to elicit such activity are descending further into lives marked by unsustainability and impoverishment. Thus, if the scrap operations employed throughout the settlement of Agbogbloshie persist as they are—unmonitored, unrestricted, and unabated—the overarching result will inevitably be protracted and exponentially more pervasive poverty and political disenfranchisement. Those most vulnerable will be further stigmatized, marginalized, and, therefore, denied access to the resources, and democratic processes, necessary for further development. The unrealized capacities of this constituency will ultimately hinder sustainable and constructive productivity, thwarting the progress attained by the community of Agbogbloshie as a collective unit and reinforcing the barriers erected to inhibit the facilitation of meaningful human development and lives marked by agency, autonomy, and dignity.

It is glaringly obvious that the immediate economic reward received by the Ghanaian Government in exchange for the acceptance of such waste does not compensate for the long-term environmental costs that are simultaneously being imposed, nor for the disenfranchisement that is actively perpetuated. The channels through which Ghana has sought to develop socially and politically—those being digital technology and the information economy—have paradoxically expedited the nation’s underdevelopment—at least for those alienated to the periphery of society, beyond the purview of political participation. Thus, it would seem as though the tradition of “unequal exchange” that has been ever-present within the North-South relationship, becomes most transparent in describing the cost-benefit analysis of trade and economic integration on the one hand, and environmental governance, development, and democracy on the other.

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2 Responses to From “Bridging the Digital Divide” to Opening a Digital Dumping Ground: Can Democracy Rise from the Rubble?

  1. waljemr says:

    This is a really interesting post! Well done. It is sad that the exploitation of Africa related to the production of electronics occurs at both ends of the product life cycle with the mining of rare earths and the disposal of old junk.

  2. mlevens says:

    Great post on an issue that does not seem to get as much international coverage as it should.

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