NSWMA: Fuzzy logic and the perpetuation of poverty

A few days ago, the ED of NSWMA gave an interview to Nationwide Radio.

ED of NSWMA, flanked by other government officials during media briefing
ED of NSWMA, flanked by other government officials during media briefing

On the face of it, I think both sides would be happy with the outcome. The interviewer posed some awkward questions and got a few defensive responses, on occasion. The ED gave answers that did not make her out to be an utter fool and often she was quite calm and on top of the subject matter. That would make most people draw back from calls for her resignation for being out of her depth. But, when I listened to the interview I was shocked by some of what I heard.

One of the issues concering the Riverton dump is security, in particular, the access that unauthorized people appear to have on a constant basis. It’s all well and good telling the world that there is 24-hour army and police presence at the dump if they do nothing to stop unauthorized people getting in and doing whatever they like. That is wanton neglect on several levels. I almost fell over laughing yesterday when, during a media briefing, the Information Minister gave the reason for media not being granted access to the site as being “for your protection”. Somehow, the fact that scavengers can crawl over the garbage unhindered either means they are superhuman and in no need of the same protection as media personnel, or they are so damaged by constant exposure to the toxic waste as to be unlikely to suffer any marginal deterioration to their health. Her thoughfulness for the media betrayed the wanton disregard for the health of people who have no business crawling over heaps of waste.

When asked to explain how and why scavengers are allowed to work the dump, the ED went into a few stories of how some of them were using the money they made there to feed their families and even send children to university.

Daily labour at Riverton dump
Daily labour at Riverton dump

This is where the thinking and actions of NSWMA have become dangerous. It is another example of misplaced social welfare. The management of solid waste is not about being compassionate to people whose lives are in dire straits. If that is the case, then let people go and wander around the electricity generating plant and see if they can muster up some living and not get shot through with a thousand volts. Or, why not let them hang around the ports, or the cement works, or just follow ministers home and rummage around in their yards to see what goodies may fall their way and improve their lot?

This is the logic that says ends justify means: you can do things you are not supposed to do, and without sanction because you are trying to do good by your family, and you are too poor or too badly educated to be able to hold down any kind of job. That is the logic that excuses praedial larcency or petty theft, or bigger theft like stealing electricity. The needs of a poor person trump all other social needs. It is the conscience-salving knee-jerk reaction of someone who does not have an answer to a deep underlying economic and social problem and thinks that anything that reduces that is good. Wrong!

It is also the kind of thinking that politicans do, because they are so absorbed by short-term responses that they do not have a handle on how to grind out a solution that may take a decade to give its needed results. The ED is a consummate politician. It is a good reason for not having them run organizations that should be managed according to clear mandates and with hard financial or activity targets.

The ED obviously has a conscience, but her job is not to salve her conscience; it is to manage solid waste. So, when she talks about using all the resources available and needing more to do the job well, that’s when I get suspicious. Because, in her own little way, by socialising her business activity, she has diverted resources or allowed resources to be misused.

Fine, if NSWMA wants to have a social objective, set up a fund, or hive off some activities so that social redress can be clearly tackled. Don’t mess with garbage and mess with people’s lives thinking that letting them scavenge over toxic waste is the way to solve their social problems. The government has failed them once by not having a welfare structure to keep them afloat. Why fail them again by letting them wander with impunity where they have no business?

The hypocrisy of what goes on at Riverton is exemplified by this attitude towards scavengers. Just over a year ago, NSWMA was urging people not to scavenge at the dump. Why? A youngster died at the site, after being run over by a truck. How awkward. Let’s not have that happen again. But, now, the ED says that because people can make enough to send kids to school, get hunting through the trash again.

This is what goes on when management doesn’t understand what negligence means; which does not understand what good resource management means; which doesn’t really know what it’s doing, despite fine-sounding words. People die needlessly. People suffer needlessly–this time a city of nearly 2 million people. And no amount of ‘do good’ notion excuses having that on your shoulders and also not doing well the job in hand.

Author: Dennis G Jones (aka 'The Grasshopper')

Retired International Monetary Fund economist. My blog is for organizing my ideas and thoughts about a range of topics. I was born in Jamaica, but spent 30 years being educated, living, and working in the UK. I lived in the USA for two decades, and worked and travelled abroad, extensively, throughout my careers and for pleasure. My views have a wide international perspective. Father of 3 girls. Also, married to an economist. :)