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Friday, 26 June 2009

No Old Computers Allowed?

Computer World are reporting that the Government is moving forward to block the importation of old computers on environmental and health grounds. According to Communication and Transport Deputy Minister Mubika Mubika, "Zambia is not a technological dumping ground for outdated ICT equipment". Among the surprise backers of this move is the Computer Society of Zambia who have blamed foreign non-governmental organizations (NGOs) for the influx of outdated computers in Zambia: "We should be able to have specifications at all entry points so that all the computers that do not meet such specifications are not allowed entry into Zambia".

It goes without saying that beneficiaries of donated computers do not entirely agree. In the words of School Head Teacher Amos Makanya, "the Zambian government is well aware that most schools in Zambia cannot afford to buy new computers for use in schools. If the Zambian government is serious about promoting the use of computers in schools as they have been claiming, then they should not block imports of old computers".

This is one of those complicated "safety standards" problems that are difficult to disentangle. A Three step framework is helpful here :
  • Step 1 requires clearly defining the nature and scale of the problem (health / environmental pollution).
  • Step 2 is then to assess whether the benefits from these computers to poor children in rural areas outweigh the social costs. This must take into account the distributional issues. It is the poorest in society that have no computers.
  • Step 3 asks if these costs appear higher than the benefits, then what is the best mechanism for addressing this? I suspect banning outrightly, will not be the answer. The issue of "procedural fairness" also comes into it. We want to use instruments that are not only efficient but also procedurally fair to all parties concerned.
The post In defense of the Kachasu industry is an example where this framework is applied in helping us think about complex issues where the optimal social outcome is less clear.


  1. Older computers are more useful than many people think, though the environmental concerns are quite valid and indeed should be thoroughly assessed. The experience of organizations such as should help illustrate ways to maximize the utility of aging computers, especially for the poorest in society.

  2. A similar ban on old computers in Uganda:

    In the UK, Microsoft is sponsoring a scheme in Milton Keynes that refurbishes old PCs from the local council, and re-selling them to the community for as little as £20. The scheme has proved so popular that there's now a waiting list!


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