Cover Image
close this bookGATE - 1/82 - Appropriate Technology - by whom? for whom? and how? (GTZ GATE, 1982, 36 p.)
close this folderFocus
View the documentAppropriate technology - By whom? for whom? and how?
View the documentCommentary

Appropriate technology - By whom? for whom? and how?

by Tarzie Vittachi

"Making appropriate technology work is a task demanding ceaseless sensitivity, true humility, diligence and the recognition that the introduction of a piece of technology into a community touches everybody at all points in their lives. A viable community is a very fragile thing." With these words Tarzie Vittachi, the author of the following article, summarises his experience of Appropriate Technology (AT). He asks the ten thousend dollar question: What can AT do? Who should do it? For whom, and with what methods and means? The article is all the more remarkable for having been written from the point of view of someone who is, if not directly affected, then at least involved - Vittachi, journalist by profession, and Deputy Executive Director of UNICEF, comes from Sri Lanka.

E.F. Schumacher founded his Intermediate Technology Development Group long before he wrote "Small is Beautiful" and became famous. It was built on the principle, very simply stated, that it is silly to transfer a million dollar technology to a hundred dollar economy; a thousand dollar technology would be more affordable, more relevant to needs and capacities, and more productive. In an essay he wrote for a collection published in 1974 entitled "The Culture of Poverty," he added another important idea to the world-wide discussion he had provoked about the "size", cost and complexity of technology: "You cannot import a technology without also importing the culture from which it came".

Schumacher was not just a miniaturizer of gadgets. His first concern was the human being as a spiritual being and a social being, and he was horrified to observe that the machine and the management behind it were pigmifying Man.

He was invited by friends in India, Zambia and other developing countries to expound his ideas. Almost everywhere he encountered two kinds of reception: admiration for his ideas, that they were simple and true, and scorn for their being "simplistic" (the familiar "We are simple, they are simplistic" syndrome) and also dangerous. His critics even accused him of being "neo-colonialist"-trying to keep the poor world poor by foisting second-rate technology on them while the rich world monopolized the best. The vehemence of the attacks shook him at first, enough to make him change the term "Intermediate Technology" to "Appropriate Technology", because he was sensitive to the power of semantic nuance and thought that a word free of the connotations of Eugene Rostow's "Stages of Growth" theory might draw the venom.
It didn't. It took him a while to realise that it was not a matter of words but of class. The new ruling classes of ax-colonial countries were steeped in the culture, mentality and values of their former masters and thought of "development" as business as usual, under new indigenous management.

The centralization of political and financial authority; industrialization and urbanization; bureaucrats in control of almost every form of transaction; continued reliance on import-export trade; the struggle for a bigger share in international markets; and unbridled consumerism were regarded as the proper attributes and methods of modernization and national development. High dams, highrise buildings, and highways, later embellished by over-passes, underpasses, flyovers and spaghetti-junctions (not called noodle-junctions as one might have expected) had become the grand symbols of the planners and administrators who lived the high-life - a lifestyle which the caustic pen of Mervyn de Silva, a Sri Lankan journalist, has felicitously labelled "Nescafe Society." The bigger the better, the more the merrier, was the development ethic of the fifties and early sixties.

The international lending institutions, and the development agencies supported those trends on the ground that they were only responding to the sovereign wishes of the member nations. The reality was that they themselves were largely staffed by nationals of the same ruling elites, most of whom could not think any differently. And, as for the industrialized nations whose expertise, values and technology were being imported, aid business was damned good business. So the orgy of modernization spread wider and wider, and the debts soared astronomically, while the majority of the people became poorer and poorer, the slums became more and more purulent, the joblessness, hopelessness and despair became endemic. The only remedy proposed was more of the same.

Against this background what chance was there for Intermediate or Appropriate Technology to make any headway? Precious little. It was received with the same cynicism that motivated the response from a developing country's delegation to the U.N. Conference on the Human Environment: "We can afford a little pollution." And so, the forests of the Philippines, Haiti and Indonesia were denuded for lumber exports. (The slash-and-burn peasants seeking out an existence were assigned the blame. What alternative source of energy was available to them?). The vulnerability of poor countries to market mechanisms controlled by the rich increased, and their dependency on the technological giants abroad became more and more inextricable.

When all seemed lost for the cause of people-sized innovation, something happened to make people take another look at Schumacher's ideas. "Small is Beautiful" (a title which shrewdly rode on the wave of "Black is beautiful"), first loftily ignored by the influential book critics, was seized by the young people in the West who were looking for new ideas to rekindle the social revolution they had brought about in the sixties. It became an "underground" best-seller. Young politicians like Governor Gerry Brown and later even President Carter, "took up" Schumacher and young academics in the United States and Europe all responded, not only to his ideas, but also to the "spiritual" values underlying them which took the crassness out of business and gave it a human meaning.

As always happens, once ideas and their authors have been accepted by powerful people in rich countries, they attain a respectability among their counterparts in the poor. The effect of soaring oil prices and of capital goods imported from the West, hastened the turn-about and provided the pragmatic basis for a change of mind about an appropriate technology. With funds made available by ministries concerned with village development, supplemented by grants from foundations and bilateral funding agencies, new institutes were established in many developing countries to pursue the possibilities of producing smaller, more capable and more affordable artefacts to meet development needs in the villages.

Dr. Amulia Reddy of India, who has been developing such ideas simultaneously with Schumacher rather than as a follower, was critical of ideas of the Intermediate Technology Development Group not on the ground that they were extrinsically wrong, but because they were based on "alien" political assumptions. "Schumacher is pleading for a smaller capitalism," Reddy once said to me. "In our hierarchical societies it is not only a question of smaller technology, but also of people's control of that technology." He offered as evidence the development of small water pumps in South India which are made locally but are inaccessible to small farmers who have no cash nor access to the credit needed to buy even the cheapest models. Technological appropriateness is therefore not only a matter of introducing new gadgets into the village, but of equity, of introducing new systems of land-tenure, land use, banking, cooperative ownership, management, maintenance of equipment and, eventually, of the apportionment of the produce for local use or sale

Similar ideas about the need for appropriate structural change to go along with appropriate technology and indeed to stimulate it are now being studied by many groups. But, unfortunately, residual colonial values and approaches continue to predominate. The experts in appropriate technology at the centre of administrative authority, the capital city, presume to know what the villagers need, and devise technology to meet that need. It is then foisted on prospective customers who are only bemused by the new contraption because firstly it is way beyond their means and secondly it has nothing to do with their own perceptions of need.

I came across a memorable instance of this in a village in Sri Lanka. A group of villagers stood surrounding a curious object, their faces broken by disbelief. It was the prototype of a new, improved bullock cart. I parked the small Japanese car I was driving and pushed through the throng to take a close look at the object of their bewilderment. It was a bullock cart designed, according to the plaque on it, by the Industrial Development Board. Price, 6,000 Rupees (US $ 458). It had rubber tyres, unusually longer bars and a short yoke, an undercarriage of heavy truck shock absorbers, and wheels close-fitted to the axle, evidently to prevent excessive give. It was designed to make life easier for the bullock, easier on its neck, easier to draw.
I asked: "Have any of you bought this thing?"

"You must be mad," the man next to me replied. In Sri Lanka when someone flings the charge of insanity at you it is not meant to be insulting. It is just an expression of an unwillingness to suspend disbelief.

"Why's that?" I asked.

"You think any one of us can afford 6,000 Rupees to buy bullock cart?" the man said in tones which are used to respond to all "gentlemen" who have come from Colombo to preach some new gospel.

I asked a hypothetical question. "Supposing I gave you 6,000 Rupees, would you buy this cart?"
The man said: "If you gave me 6,000 Rupees I would try to borrow 6,000 more and make an offer for your car."

That "appropriate technology" was standing between the man and his perception of need. He did not want an improved bullock cart, he wanted to get out of the bullock-cart age which he and his grandfather had been assigned to by class economics. If my car was appropriate for me to use in spite of the high price of petrol, and the "international" community's concern about non-renewable energy resources, etc., why was it inappropriate for him to aspire to a car?

The worthies who had designed the new improved bullock cart had never troubled to ask the people for whose benefit they were supposed to be working what they themselves thought was appropriate for them. It has never occurred to them because they already knew.

I saw the same kind of insensitive - and in this case dangerous - nonsense practiced in an atoll nation. To reduce the spread of bowel disease by faecal contamination, the experts had begun a campaign to stop people from using the beaches and to get them to build and use pit latrines instead. The people - thank heavens decided to ignore the advice. If they had followed it, they would have polluted the entire water table which was only two or three feet below the surface.

There are also many appropriate technologists busy designing new model kerosene oil and wick lamps for villagers who look up at the giant pylons straddling their fields and homes carrying electricity from the high dams to the capital cities where the oil lamp age ended 50 years ago, and curse the fate which has condemned them to live in the past, seemingly for ever.

But this is not to suggest that Schumacher and the appropriate technology movement he stimulated were mistaken. It is just that those ideas are often poorly understood and often misapplied. The clearest sign of the inappropriateness of a design is that it has to be "sold" to the people. When they have to be persuaded that they need a new technology, it suggests that they need something else because they are expert in survival and regeneration against very long odds. The experts on industrial development boards can indeed serve valuable technical and supply functions if they would talk with rather than at the people and respond with their expertise to needs and priorities as perceived by the villagers. Listening to and responding to the message from the village is the essential first step to avoid irrelevance.