Cover image courtesy of Ayesha Riaz, Chicago Monitor.
Written by Tate Smith, The University of Oklahoma
Computer Aid International is one of the largest donors of computers to the developing world. Their mission is “Empowering the developing world by providing access, education, implementing technology, and supporting environmentally responsible solutions.” It is one of many organizations that sprang up in response to the surplus of used electronics and computers in the developed world and a perceived need for technology in Africa and other parts of the developing world. Organizations like Computer Aid International allow westerners to dispose of used electronics and, at the same time, commit an act of perceived altruism. While these organizations have many success stories, the reality is more nuanced. While westerners assume that their used computers must be amazing gifts to impoverished people in places of the world that never industrialized, many of these computers cannot be used, and they become a burden, they become trash that contains toxic chemicals not easily disposed of. The reasons for this, and how Computer Aid International could change to avoid these negative consequences, will be the subject of this article.
The story of Computer Aid International is like that of so many other organizations that sell or give donated goods to developing countries. It is a story that starts with Western – specifically American – consumerism. Americans have one of the highest levels of consumption in the world, a massive amount of goods and services are consumed on a daily basis in the United States. This consumerism is rooted in American culture and capitalism that sends the message that a person’s value comes from the things they own, or the goods and services they are able to buy. But for all this consumption, Americans are typically mostly unaware of or unconcerned by the consequences that this consumption has on the rest of the world and the environment. This is the case for just about any category of goods imaginable: energy, clothing, food, water, etcetera… This pattern is clearly seen replicated in the consumption of electronics. Americans spend an enormous amount every year on various electronic gadgets.
The problems with this cycle of consumption begin to become apparent when all these electronics become “e-waste” . Eventually, radios, televisions, phones, computers, and all other electronic devices break, or slow down, or become obsolete. These devices are often not repaired, instead, people usually just buy a new TV or phone when one breaks. Some companies, such as Apple, even intentionally make it almost impossible for a 3rd party to repair their products so that people will just have to buy new devices. Americans also try to “keep up with the Joneses” by always having the newest technology even when it isn’t necessary. Many people buy the newest iPhone or a better TV, even when their old devices work perfectly well. Generally, the old devices become trash and need to be disposed of somehow. When this happens, these devices can become an especially problematic form of waste, known as “e-waste.”
The “Solution” to E-waste
At the same time that a surplus of obsolete and broken electronics builds up in the developed world, there is a significant real and perceived lack of technology in many parts of the developing world. The solution presents itself: why not just give the developed world’s used electronics to the developing world. This is exactly what organizations like Computer Aid International were created to do . Computer Aid International takes used computers and clears existing data and refurbishes the computers. Then they look for places in the developing world that could benefit from computers . In this context, computers and other electronic devices are usually referred to as ICT (Information and Communication Technology). ICT is an important resource that can enhance education at schools, and empower people to do new types of work and connect with the rest of the world. This is the type of human advancement that Computer Aid International and similar organizations claim to promote. This outcome is clearly a positive result of the work done by these organizations, however, this type of humanitarianism also has negative unintended consequences, questionable motives, and the potential for abuse.
How Computer Aid International Operates
Computer Aid International’s stated mission is “Empowering the developing world by providing access, education, implementing technology, and supporting environmentally responsible solutions” . They seek to accomplish this by facilitating the donation of computers in a responsible manner. Elements of their mission statement show that Computer Aid International is well aware of the potential problems with this kind of humanitarianism. Lack of access, education, and followthrough with implementation are all known problems in the field of ICT donation. E-waste is also an enormous environmental threat that any organization managing used electronics must confront .
Computer Aid International’s process starts with companies, schools, governments, or individuals in developed countries, who have used, but at least somewhat functional, computers or phones. These used electronics have their data wiped for security and are then refurbished, and distributed around the world . Many devices end up in developing countries in communities where Computer Aid International determines they will have the largest impact, that is sustainable, measurable, and long-term . Some of the computers are sent to places that do not have reliable access to electricity. In these places Computer Aid International sets up solar power generation, usually to serve a single building, such as a school or job training center. They have also created a specialized device called the “Connect” to create a local area network among local computers for areas lacking Internet service .
By 2019 Computer Aid International had provided over 260,000 computers for use around the world. They say they have implemented solar power generation in nearly 100 of the “most deprived regions in Africa” . One of the main focuses is the “digital schools” program, where computer labs are set up in schools for children to use computers to enhance the existing curriculum and learn computer skills. A common issue with programs like this is that the teachers do not have the technical skills necessary to operate the computers, so they are not able to use them in children’s education. This is often the case when these programs try to reach rural communities in extreme poverty. Computer Aid International attempts to mitigate this problem by requiring educators to obtain a credential called an ICDL (International Computer Driving License) . This ensures that the teachers know enough about computer usage so that they can use them effectively to teach the children.
At their best, organizations like Computer Aid International create a real benefit out of the problem of massive overconsumption of electronic devices in the developed world. Working computers can connect poor people in the developing world to the rest of the global economy. They provide access to education, which has a massive long-term benefit to people’s livelihoods. They provide a way to access information from around the world .
Most of the computers donated are used in education where outcomes can be dramatically improved with well-implemented ICT. There is a severe lack of educators in many African countries, but computers can multiply a teacher’s work to reach more students than would otherwise be possible . This means more children can be educated, and at a more affordable price. This education is extremely valuable, as it greatly increases the job prospects of these children in the future, and it makes all sorts of positive outcomes more likely. Individuals who have more years of schooling are less likely to be in poverty, less likely to commit crimes, and less likely to die prematurely . There is also the added benefit that computers bring to the classroom, which is learning technology skills. In the modern, connected world, more and more of the job opportunities to people in developing countries involve using computers or technology of some kind. Being able to use computers in school and learn about the technology, enables people to get these more technical jobs later in life.
Another use of the donated computers is in agriculture. If farmers can use computers connected to the internet, they can get new information about how to grow crops more effectively. It can also bring them into contact with markets that they did not have access to previously, so they could buy new supplies and equipment, and they have access to more markets to sell to. Farmers are also helped significantly by having access to a weather forecast through a computer . All of these factors mean that farmers will be significantly more productive if given used computers through Computer Aid International’s programs.
The outcomes of the programs run by Computer Aid International and similar organizations are not always so positive. Used electronics are not always the gift that Westerners might imagine them to be. First, there are a lot of prerequisites that need to be met by a community for computers to be useful to them at all. If a village does not have access to electricity, then obviously a computer is of no use to the people there. Similarly, lack of access to reliable internet is commonplace in most of the developing world, and this limits the usefulness of computers. Additionally, people may lack the necessary education to make use of computers at all. If a person is not literate, their use of a computer will be severely limited . Likewise, it is possible the computer and installed programs do not support the language used in the community the computer is given to. As English speakers, Americans have the advantage of always being able to interact with websites and programs, as English is the dominant language on the web and the most widely supported by computer programs. As such Americans may assume that anyone else would get the same benefit from computers as they do, but this assumption may not be valid.
The worst-case scenario happens when computers and other electronics are “donated” to a place that has no way to operate them. In this scenario, African countries can become a dumping ground for used electronics that can’t be disposed of elsewhere. Electronics contain dangerous metals and toxins that can affect the health of people and the environment if not properly disposed of. If an African village does not have the capabilities to operate computers, then it certainly will not have the ability to properly dispose of dangerous electronic parts. When this happens these electronics are often left in a dump with other waste . These electronics can allow hazardous material to get into the soil and water supply hiring the local environment, livestock, and people who drink the water. Additionally, the devices can still have important metals or components within them that could be resold for some money. This encourages people, often children, to pick through the waste by hand to scavenge materials of value. This is a dangerous practice as the electronics are mixed in with other waste that could be toxic or infectious with some disease, and the electronics themselves contain toxic material.
A Paternalistic Ideology
While the donation of used electronics can have real-world negative impacts, there is also the problem of the ideology behind much of this type of humanitarianism. Westerners have the assumption that giving away their used electronics is a case of “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” when really used electronics shouldn’t be treated so much as trash in the first place, and donating your “trash” isn’t always going to improve someone’s life, sometimes it does the opposite. The idea that “Africans” are in such a depraved state that they need Westerners’ “trash” does not come from a place of belief in equality. Instead, this idea has roots in the same stereotypes that so much other humanitarianism does: that “Africans” in general are so helpless and desperate for Western help. This ideology contributes to the sentiment that “doing something is better than nothing” and that just by dumping our trash on “Africans” we are helping them. Organizations like Computer Aid International contribute to this sentiment to increase donations and funding.
A Real Solution
After analyzing the downstream effects of the cycle of overconsumption, disposal, and donation, it becomes clear that this cycle is not sustainable. It is not sustainable for the environment of the planet, and it is not sustainable for the people who bear the negative consequences of donations. The only real solution to the problem of e-waste is reducing consumption. Westerners, and Americans in particular, must find ways to use fewer electronic devices. They must repair broken devices when possible, instead of disposing of them and buying new ones. American companies should be held accountable for making their products disposable and irreparable. Americans should address the culture of consumerism that is at the root of all of the waste and overconsumption that leads to the negative consequences of e-waste. It is simply not sustainable for Americans to treat electronic devices so disposably as to throw out a television and get a new one whenever they decide they want a bigger screen.
It may not be possible for a wide cultural shift to happen against consumerism in America, but without this, it will be very difficult to eliminate the problems of e-waste. Government regulations and oversight could certainly mitigate some of the worst offenses, by investigating organizations like Computer Aid International and verifying that their donations are actually going somewhere that they can be used effectively.
Computer Aid International and similar organizations do create some benefit for people in developing countries by providing them with used technology. However, these benefits are significantly hindered by the circumstances of the people receiving the used electronics. If the right infrastructure and education do not exist, electronics donations can be more of a curse than a blessing. This cycle of overconsumption and donation also creates a paternalistic attitude in the minds of Westerners who are enabled to see themselves as altruistic by giving away their trash to imagined “poor, helpless Africans.” A real solution to the problem of e-waste would be to address the root cause of the cycle, the culture of consumerism in the United States. However, as this type of cultural reckoning seems unlikely, government intervention in this type of humanitarianism could be necessary to prevent the worst abuses.
This post may have been edited by admin for clarity and length.
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 Computer Aid International. “Mission and Story.” (accessed May 2021) https://www.computeraid.org/about-us/mission-and-story.
 Computer Aid International. “What We Do.” (accessed May 2021) https://www.computeraid.org/about-us/what-we-do.
 K. A. Asante, Y. Amoyaw-Osei, and T. Agusa, “E-waste recycling in Africa: risks and opportunities.” Curr. Opin. Green Sustain. Chem., vol. 18, pp. 109–117, 2019, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cogsc.2019.04.001.
 Computer Aid International. “Who We Work With.” (accessed May 2021) https://www.computeraid.org/about-us/who-we-work.
 Caroline Pade, Brenda Mallinson & David Sewry (2008) An Elaboration of Critical Success Factors for Rural ICT Project Sustainability in Developing Countries: Exploring the DWESA Case, Journal of Information Technology Case and Application Research, 10:4, 32-55, DOI: 10.1080/15228053.2008.10856146.
 K. Gyimah-Brempong, O. Paddison, and W. Mitiku, “Higher education and economic growth in Africa.” J. Dev. Stud., vol. 42, no. 3, pp. 509–529, 2006, DOI: 10.1080/00220380600576490.
 Anonymous. (2012) “Computer Aid Reaches Key Milestone.” Appropriate Technology 39, no. 2: 45-47. https://login.ezproxy.lib.ou.edu/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/scholarly-journals/computer-aid-reaches-key-milestone/docview/1029864461/se-2?accountid=12964.
 Computer Aid International. “Impact Report 2019.” (accessed May 2021) https://www.computeraid.org/about-us/publications.
 Mudenda C., van Stam G. (2013) ICT Training in Rural Zambia, the Case of LinkNet Information Technology Academy. In: Jonas K., Rai I.A., Tchuente M. (eds) e-Infrastructure and e-Services for Developing Countries. AFRICOMM 2012. Lecture Notes of the Institute for Computer Sciences, Social Informatics and Telecommunications Engineering, vol 119. Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg. DOI: 10.1007/978-3-642-41178-6_24.