Soft Heart, Soft Head?

Yesterday, I came across a short Atlantic essay on the plight of children in Accra’s Abogbloshie slum entitled “The Hardware Scavengers of Ghana.” One particular sentence stood out for succinctly crystallizing the problem, and for its near-perfect internal inconsistency: “These kids are shortening their lives, but they don’t have any other options.”

You see, if they have no other options, the toxic job of electronics recycling—burning insulation off copper wires, applying degreasing solvents with bare hands, and so on—is extending their lives, not shortening them. According to the underlying article and interview on Mongabay.com, many of the recyclers come from Northern Ghana to escape poverty, maltreatment, “food insecurity,” and sectarian strife. The choice is not between recycling and school. It is between encountering carcinogens and neurotoxins or encountering violence, starvation, and death.

The Atlantic and Mongabay.com articles focus on the environmental and biological consequences of e-waste, and the responses they broach do the same. The Ghanian government might limit import of used electronics, but this would shrink the nation’s access to valued and productive communications equipment. Had it the capacity, the government might try to prevent dumping of e-waste where these recyclers can access it.

Solving the problem of e-waste might be a comfort to readers of the Atlantic concerned with their own environment and susceptibility to cancer. But if the statement about poor Ghanians’ options is true, such “solutions” would consign children and young men to death of starvation, violence, and war. That’s not the outcome I would prefer, even if it’s hidden from me.

A couple of lessons emerge from this compact tale. One is: never, ever invite me to your cocktail party. I will go about picking the scab off group consensus on faraway economic and social problems. And I will say, “See? That redness and pus? You haven’t fixed this.”

More importantly, the solutions that extend the lives of electronic waste recyclers may have nothing to do with controlling “e-waste.” These articles frame the problem as we would in the green, wealthy west. Economic development of all kinds in Ghana may give these youth better options than e-waste recycling, according them sustenance and safety, and perhaps eventually access to education.

I don’t know what improvements in trade policy (ours or theirs), rule of law, taxation or regulation might bring the wealth to Ghana that sustains its people better. I wish Ghana the relative luxury of controlling toxic waste, moving people from slum to suburbs, and so on. But if softness in our hearts leads us to soft-headedly sweep Ghana’s poorest from bad health conditions into conditions of death by starvation and violence, I think that would compound the tragedy.