by Tim Perkin
Agbogbloshie is an area of Accra, Ghana’s capital, which has become a graveyard for global electronic waste (e-waste). In light of its structural adjustment after 1983, Ghana experienced a deregulation of trade and a sharp decrease in public sector jobs. As a corollary of this, an abundance of e-waste was dumped on Ghana’s doorstep since the Ghanaian government implemented the ‘One Laptop Per Child’ policy in 2004, removing the import duty on used electronic goods in order to ‘bridge the digital divide’ and improve computer literacy.
Under the 1989 Basel Convention, businesses and institutions are penalised if they transport hazardous waste across borders, however these laws are easily circumvented as e-waste is dubbed as charitable donations, or second-hand and refurbished goods (OECD 2009). Accra consequently now welcomes 300 to 600 40-foot-long containers filled with electronic refuse each month.
An enterprise culture has become central to everyday life in Agbogbloshie. Along the main roads, stalls and shops sell second-hand electronics and tools to engage in e-waste activities. Women also roam the streets as kayayei, ‘goods women’, selling food to men working on the dumpsite. An estimated 4,500 to 6,000 people work on the dumpsite itself, and children as young as five salvage metal, usually giving their profits to their parents to pay for food and sometimes education. In many regards, market-engagement in Agbogbloshie therefore provides a moderate income, since e-waste collectors earn around ¢7 (US$3.50) per day, about two-and-a-half times more than the average income from informal work in Ghana, and some workers may earn ¢40-70. Furthermore, the Greater Accra Scrap Dealers Association provides new entrants with social networks, protection from abuse, and temporary shelter, creating an informal welfare system for the vulnerable in light of state cutbacks.
There is therefore a strong sense of opportunism within Agbogbloshie whereby e-waste provides an opportunity to escape from the clutches of poverty. This entrepreneurial approach to waste by no means applies to Agbogbloshie alone since waste is being reimagined globally within development discourses not as an end, but as a fulcrum for profit, amongst NGOs, governments, and academics. Rogerson wrote that “much-needed informal entrepreneurship opportunities” in waste recycling have been opened up as a result of economic policy shifts, creating essential survival strategies for the urban poor. He suggests that these practices alleviate poverty and promote economic growth. Similarly, Tevera saw the waste economy as a resource for Africa’s poor to fend for themselves and not rely on local authorities. Rogerson and Tevera therefore encourage individuals to utilise opportunities, perceiving waste as an unexplored resource that will release the poor from their poverty. These stances thus follow Sen’s ‘Capability Approach’, which posits that expanding people’s capabilities is central to poverty reduction since individuals need to be given resources to reduce their poverty. Sen’s model thus contends that individuals should use available opportunities, such as e-waste, in order to escape poverty’s grasp.
This opportunistic discourse is not just imagined amongst Agbogbloshie’s poor however since academics, NGOs, and government actors, proliferate these enterprising discourses. Oteng-Ababio argues that the arrival of the containers at the port “created an opportunity for some individuals to ingeniously adopt and recycle the contents as a source of livelihood”, reimagining e-waste as a valuable material. The government’s Environment Protection Agency also commented that the possibility of e-waste as a potential livelihood and poverty reduction strategy has been overlooked. Robin Ingenthron, from the NGO Fair Trade Recycling, who assists Agbogbloshie e-recyclers, claimed:
“If you look at the real opportunity here, it’s the smart technicians, the people who fix things, that by developing them, you’re developing not just a solution for e-waste, you’re creating part of the whole infrastructure, the entire development”
The ingenuity of e-recycling is therefore celebrated for stimulating economic growth and creating employment in precarious environments. However, does it provide meaningful social and economic inclusion for locals, and a sustainable solution to the e-waste crisis?
A structuralist approach highlights that this proliferation of entrepreneurship as the answer to Agbogbloshie’s vulnerability unfairly responsibilises individuals, shifting the onus of reducing and explaining existing inequalities away from structural rationales. State actors, trade policies, and international organisations are therefore absolved from responsibility and the poor are expected to create “their own individual solutions to the socially produced troubles”. Encouraging individuals to “climb out of poverty using their own creative capacities” therefore creates a personal responsibility system that substitutes the social protections that were formerly part of the obligatory role of the state and employers.
Opportunistic and capability approaches may therefore provide a moderate income and alleviate some from poverty, but they create an unequal solution that assumes that everyone has the same opportunities and has the same starting point. Alleviating poverty is not as simple as creating opportunities and resources for the poor to pull themselves out of poverty, but rather requires a reconfiguration of the neoliberal system that has created such uneven social terrains and legitimised such a vulnerable and precarious environment amongst Ghana’s poor.
Tim Perkin is studying for a Masters in Social Anthropology of the Global Economy at the University of Sussex.
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Picture 1: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/07/E-waste_workers.jpg
Picture 2: https://c1.staticflickr.com/1/500/19469213695_8a78c3839b_b.jpg