Can the obsoleteness of technology be overlooked in donations?

Newton Buliva

MA, Technical Communication

Texas Tech University

“We often don’t make the connection between individual action and large-scale unethical action. It may take particular situations for us to realize the ethical implications of our action (or inaction), especially while performing our jobs. This fictitious case, therefore, attempts to provoke creative thinking about how, as technical communicators, we can address e-waste dumping in regions that lack the power, knowledge, or resources to oppose it. Are we, as technical communicators, cogs in the wheel of environmental injustice or can we find novel ways of stopping and repairing such injustice?”

Ben Appleman’s family was worried about him. Over the last three days he had appeared moody and distracted. They thought that he was very different from the exuberant Ben who had come from volunteering with the U.S. Peace Corps in Ghana as an English teacher in a village school three years ago. Ben’s family recalled that when Ben had just arrived back from his Peace Corp duty, he appeared eager to rejoin the U.S. workforce as a technical communicator, which he had trained for before he left the country. However, because of his long stay away, he had lost contact with peers and friends and his networking was limited and mostly unreliable.

When he eventually got a position as an assistant professor teaching technical communication at a local college, he suspected that his experience with the Peace Corps had been a deciding factor for his employment. He had acquired connections in African education circles, with which his current employer wanted to initiate collaboration and student exchange programs. He was excited that this collaboration was being sought, having witnessed first-hand the need for facilities and international exposure in the school in rural Ghana.

Through his facilitation, the African school had contacted his current employer seeking donations for their nascent computer lab. He was excited because he knew that the computer equipment would provide basic introduction to the students and assist them in their studies. Having also witnessed poor technology in this developing country, Ben believed that efforts by people like him, who understand the situation on the ground, eventually help the larger picture of bridging the Digital Divide. He knew that on average only 1 in every 130 people in Africa has access to a computer, compared to 1 in 2 in North America and Europe. He also knew that 90% of students in Africa have never touched a computer, and for the students in his former rural Ghana school, none of the students had ever touched a computer. He was glad to know that he would be directly contributing to encouraging electronic literacy in his small but very committed way.

However, matters began to unravel when he visited the computer lab’s storage, where the donated computers were being prepared for shipment. He was shocked to find that most of the computers had attained their end-of-life cycles and were mostly unusable. The computers were more than 10 years old and at most were junks to be destroyed. The few that could be salvaged would probably not function appropriately in the rural school where electricity supply is uncertain and is rationed. He also was perturbed when he found the lab technician merely dusting the computers with a damp rag, after having cleaned the hard-drives, and packing them in boxes. The technician informed Ben that this was not the first time that the department had shipped “pre-owned” computers to Africa and that the school in Ghana should be happy to have been identified as a beneficiary.

Ben was not satisfied with the response, feeling that as a technical communicator, he should do more to stop the dumping of e-waste on unsuspecting populations. He was the department’s point-person in coordinating of such shipment from the university. He was responsible for writing the cover letter that would describe the equipment including instructions for setting up a computer lab, explanations of the limitations of the computer and ways of improving the equipment’s performance. He inquired from Joseph Nolan, the department head who had asked him to arrange for the shipment, about the condition of the computers. Nolan had concurred with the lab technician’s information and reiterated that:

  • The local community has the ability to refurbish the computers, which would then be used by the students at the school, and, therefore, the college was assisting in creating jobs in the local community. Most of those refurbishing the computers, he noted, are the parents of the school children.
  • That country’s leading institutions and schools still use that technology and the rural school will just be learning to use what is available in their immediate environment.
  • Other academic institutions, companies, and organizations are sending tons of used electronic equipment to developing countries for recycling and this was nothing new.
  • The students at the school will get an opportunity to use a computer, which they never would have otherwise. This will give them an educational advantage over other students in that country.
  • The school will not incur any expenses in the transaction as all the shipment costs will be borne by the U.S. institution.
  • There are many other suppliers of end-of-lifecycle electronics to developing countries, and if this college does not provide the equipment, some other supplier will fill this gap at a cost to the rural school. Black market suppliers are always available and plentiful in filling this gap.
  • The college will lose an opportunity to show-case its charitable deeds and advance its international connections.

Ben’s family started noticing his despair after he contacted a professor in the Environmental Sciences department who informed him that even though it was legal for the college to send the computers to a developing country for recycling, most of them were obsolete and useless to the recipients. He said most such e-waste is difficult to get rid of in developing countries. The environmental professor pointed out that even though most U.S. states have banned the dumping of e-waste within their borders, there is no federal law that prevents transporting such waste overseas. He informed Ben that e-waste dumping has had a devastating effect on people in developing countries through the release of toxic fumes from ‘recycling’ areas and the contamination of groundwater.

And this had led to Ben’s current state of uncertainty. His experiences in the African school had shown that the students in that school could benefit greatly from interaction with technology if they were to perform better in their future studies. The computers would expose them to digital technology and also make them comfortable with interacting with such technology. And it had been made clear to him that his employer could not buy any new equipment to donate abroad and that either the Ghana school accepts the used computers or they will be sent to a similar school elsewhere. He was also aware that the computers had a useful life of about one year or less before completely breaking down and this would lead to their being dumped or trashed in the local landfill, a potential health hazard. Would the school’s parents blame him if he recommends that they not be delivered? He also wondered how much the issues of environmental injustice should affect his final decision whether to recommend that the equipment be shipped or not.

What would you advise Ben to do?