Donating Technology or Trash?

by Elana Hayasaka

Donating used computers to developing countries can cause more problems than they fix.

In a tiny village in western Mongolia, a local governor proudly shows off his newest desk decoration—a computer.  He doesn’t know how to turn it on, but this matters little, since his village can’t afford electricity at the moment anyway.  The unused cables have been carefully coiled away.  A cloth bearing his old military badges hangs over the monitor. He beams with pride.  Thousands of miles away, the staff of the foreign aid organization that donated the computer also beam with pride, believing that the donation will help usher young Mongolians into the technological age.

With rapid developments in electronic technology, the computer on your desk will soon become obsolete.  Instead of trashing perfectly functional, if outdated machines, many people choose an altruistic alternative: donating them to developing countries.  On the surface, this seems a brilliant idea.  Computers won’t pile up in our dumps, children in Asia and Africa learn about technology, you get a tax write off, as well as a chance to feel like a hero. Everyone wins, right?

Not quite.  Even with the best intentions, computers donated in the name of charity rarely fulfill their philanthropic purpose.  Furthermore, donated computers can actually cause social and environmental problems in the developing countries they’re given to. 

Already, hundreds of thousands of computers have been donated worldwide by organizations like the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), and international development workers from Hungary to Bangladesh have seen the wasted money, time, and effort spent on many of these computer donation programs.  In 2002, New Zealand Aid and the Japan International Cooperation Agency donated computers to village community centers and schools throughout Bayan-Olgii province in Western Mongolia.  As a Peace Corps Volunteer living in the area at the time, I observed on more than one occasion the general migration of the machines from the community centers to the private offices and homes of village leaders. In one instance, a governor literally turned the community center (along with the computer in it) into his office—effectively barring it from public use.

The computer collecting dust in the village governor’s office does nothing to teach the community about technology.  However, it does drive home the message that those in power have the right to plunder from community resources. Even with our hand-me-down offerings, the rich get richer.  In a society so poor that over one third of its GDP comes from foreign aid, small possessions like sugar or an additional set of bowls may be all that separates the rich from the poor.  A computer represents an exotic trophy, worth far more than any other indicator of wealth or power.  The governor’s political opponents seethe with envy every time they enter his office. With such a symbol of authority and power in his custody, they’re unlikely to challenge his regime.  Even while sitting unused, the computer can be a political tool that divides the community, instead of uniting the community with the developed world.

Unused donated computers cause another problem—they take up space.  I’ve seen a school director, afraid of thieves, lock donated computers in a classroom. While children cram into the already overflowing school, the classroom with the computers remains empty and locked.  As the director also fears that students will break the valuable machines, the computers remain unused. 

However, not all computers sit idle.  In a neighboring village, another village leader has seized another donated computer and has given it to his teenage son, who spends hours each day—even during school hours—playing video games like Doom and Duke Nuk’em.  With pirated versions shipped in from Russia or China, the kids have no lack of opportunities to virtually shoot and blow people up.  The legitimate programs installed on the computers by the foreign aid agency—Microsoft Word, Excel, Print Shop—often remain unused.

We in the high tech dominated developed world have had many opportunities to learn that electronic devices break without proper care.  Many people in the developing world have not.  I’ve seen Mongolians slamming keys, flinging the mouse around like a slingshot, and spilling tea all over a computer keyboard. Inevitably, the computers break down.  Unable to fix them, villagers throw them out.

Sending our used computers to developing countries keeps them out of our landfills, but not necessarily out of dumps in the developing world.  The United States has laws regulating the disposal of computers—and the dangerous toxic products within them, such as lead, battery acid, and polyvinyl chloride.  The United States also has facilities to recycle and dispose of computer parts.  Developing countries don’t have such laws or facilities.  Thus, although exported under the guise of foreign aid, our unwanted trash becomes toxic waste in countries unable to safely dispose of it.  In Mongolia, I once saw a smashed computer in the village dump—a popular lunch destination for local livestock, as well as a hangout site for children looking for new playthings.  The computer parts laced with toxins, vegetable peels, and shiny trinkets all lay within arms reach of each other. 

Not all computer donation projects fail.  Some carefully monitored, well-planned programs, do accomplish the mission of bringing technology to poor rural villages.  The staffs of these programs do not dump computers onto villages and run off.  For example, the workers of an organization called Relief International-Schools Online first survey a community to see if it would benefit from the technology.  They research the area to see if it has developed the infrastructure (such as electricity) to support computers.  They then teach members of the community how to use the computers, and conduct follow-up visits to ensure the computers are used properly.  They hire technicians to routinely fix broken computers.  They even hire and pay locals to maintain and monitor the computer rooms.

Such programs work best in communities that already have the infrastructure to support new technology—not the poorest of the poor. However, even programs in relatively developed communities tend to be unsustainable. For example, an internet connection in a remote place like Mongolia costs a whopping $800 per month—more than it would cost to feed twenty-five families for that month. When the donor organization leaves, many communities cannot afford the costs of maintaining the projects.

Computer Aid International, the largest non-profit recipient of donated computers, spent nearly $300,000 on shipping costs last year.  They also spent about $75 per computer to clean, refurbish, and package each one for delivery—Considering that they shipped 41,000 computers last year alone, total costs are substantial. Additional costs arise if the donators want to insure that the computers are useful to the communities by paying for technician and computer teacher salaries, system upgrades, electricity, internet fees, paper and ink for the printers, and possibly additional software and keyboards to accommodate non-English speaking users.  Another huge cost lies in training good computer teachers and technicians—who then often use their new skills to find better-paying jobs in cities, or even developed countries.  This brain drain carries the price of constantly finding and training replacements.

      The purpose of a development project is to fulfill a community need.  If some communities lack even the ability to pay for electricity, wouldn’t money spent on shipping and maintaining the computers be better spent paying for village generators, or, for that matter, sugar or an additional set of bowls?  Sure, developing communities need technology, but not before the poorest and least developed of them have in hand clean water, sufficient food, and a decent education.