| Appropriate Technology in Post - Modern Times |
|Part I Kynote papers|
The first part of this book contains the views of workshop participants. The contributions were so numerous that a fairly rigid selection had to be applied for the workshop and even more so for this publication. Many authors focused on similar or closely related issues, and many complementary and contradictory remarks were made during the workshop discussions. The five major presentations to the workshop plenum reproduced here cover a substantial part of the debate. This introduction tries, in addition, to capture the spirit of the discussions and to record the views of many participants.
One of the most interesting philosophical aspects of the workshop was the wide variety of references made to its title: AT in Post-Modern Times. These ranged from the provocative statement that before declaring modernity a thing of the past and talking about post-modern times, the North should allow the rest of the world to reach "modern times", to praise of the title for its encapsulation of the political, economic, environmental and cultural state of the world in a single slogan. In the words of one of the keynote speakers, Rodrigo Medellin-Erdmann from Mexico, it provoked a brainstorm. Medellin-Erdmann insisted that our present times "urgently need brain storms, if we are to understand and make any sense of the economic and political storms that are taking place in our world today."
Those storms, most participants would agree, are caused by an ever increasing and ever more merciless world-wide domination of an economic system that is itself highly contradictory. It concentrates wealth, prosperity and consumption on a minority of the world's population: "the global middle class" who are a majority in the North and a small elite in the South. Its proponents try to convince the world of the universal benefits of economic liberalism. Where ideology alone is not convincing, economic power is applied to enforce "structural adjustments". The devastating effect on the lives of the poor is swiftly glossed over by orthodox economists and technocrats as the "social costs of adjustment" to a modem global economy.
The most outspoken contributors from both South and North shared this concern about the overdevelopment of the industrialized countries and the inherent denial of the right to be economically and culturally different. And they voiced a common criticism of the environmentally destructive effects of undifferentiated economic growth and cultural homogenization.
But there is one noteworthy difference between the Northern and Southern critics of neo-liberalism or neo-conservatism: The Northern perspective, with its focus on the destruction of diversity, often appeared more a cultural concern. It seemed motivated by disgust over an ever increasing, ever more senseless spiral of consumption that cannot be wound back even if recognized as the cause of unprecedented environmental destruction. This loss or deformation of culture emerges as a main driving force behind the search for alternatives in the North. It is in this context that post-modern has a particular meaning in the North which is not easily accepted in the South: this criticism of the modern growth paradigm from a cultural and ecological perspective appeared to many as a luxury that only those who live in affluence can afford.
The Southern perspective is more concerned with global economic inequality and its local consequences. Cultural alienation and, more frequently, environmental destruction are repeatedly referred to, but the primary cause is seen to be mass poverty. Deprivation is perhaps a better term than poverty, because the most terrible aspect of our present economic system is that increased wealth is achieved "at the expense of increased poverty."
Consequently, the new and very important role demanded of AT in challenging "the grand economic and political vision of neo-conservatism" is to participate in the struggle for selfsufficient autonomy. This demand may be a mere projection of "revolutionary targets" when made by those in the North who fail to bring about significant changes in their own societies. But in a Southern perspective, it amounts to a complete reversal of what is all too often associated with "participation" in the rhetoric of development cooperation: that people should participate in the projects offered to them from outside. In this context AT is still a very political concept that continues to play a vanguard role in its relation to the development mainstream.
It is from the mainstream standpoint that the political or ideological "bias" of AT has in the past so often been criticised. More recently, claims that the main issues and criteria of AT have been incorporated into the overall practice of cooperation have become frequent. This reaction, formulated by leading representatives of the German Ministry for Economic Cooperation and the GTZ in their opening speeches to the workshop, shows that AT has had some conceptual impact but it is certainly no excuse to sit back and rest. Willy Bierter shows how conventional perceptions of appropriateness are still biased by purely economic or technical notions of efficiency, and how much need there is for alternatives based on local autonomy. The political orientation of AT is now far more mature and less "ideological". Approaches like Participatory Technology Development are practical manifestations of Medellin's and Bierter's insistence that AT can work with grassroot groups rather than merely for them.
Several participants from the South looked at Bierter's ideas from the critical perspective of political economy. Their focus on wealth distribution and poverty was expressed in a question that brought up the issue of class structures: Does AT just promote the middle classes, whose wasteful growth-dependent lifestyle is at the expense of the rural poor? This question challenges Bierter in that his very general concept of self-reliance in a "globe of villages" does not take local class differentiations into account. His "global middle class" should not be confused with the "classic" middle class of village entrepreneurs, landowners and professionals.
The "middle class" question pinpoints the most critical aspect of many AT concepts: a focus on economic viability may in the short term exclude the poorest. But criticising approaches like Small Enterprise Development for not immediately alleviating poverty fails to recognize that poverty alleviation can only be done by the people themselves. Otherwise it will remain social welfare rather than sustained development practice. We may have to accept that highly subsidized welfare interventions are inevitable if anything is to be done for the very poor and the destitute. Most programmes show a rather poor record in this respect. The findings of the German Ministry for Economic Cooperation show that only about 10% of all bilateral German development assistance directly reaches the poor. Small Enterprise Development cannot be more remote from the real challenge of development than other forms of cooperation. On the contrary, it should be as close to the people as possible. If "skill enhancement and technology evolution takes place in the firms and on the farms that are the primary holders of local technological capacity", they become instruments of empowerment for large groups of self-reliant actors. Facing the realities of the huge informal economies in which the majority of the poor survive may be more a poverty alleviation strategy than a "capitalist" one.
Thinking strictly in terms of class analysis ignores the real multitude of social relations - as well as ecological factors. The need to integrate these aspects is reflected in several of the conceptual approaches to AT. The urge to change consumption patterns (Bierter's "culture of enough") opposes the global market economy's basic paradigm of perpetual growth and its negative consequences of waste, pollution and resource depletion while calling for social justice and emancipation at both international and local levels. If there is to be sustainable development, the consumption patterns of the rich and the poor must change. It is the global disperity between rich and poor societies and the internal social disparity between wealthy elites and deprived majorities in the South that aggravates the pressure on natural resources through wasteful excess on the one hand and poverty-driven overutilization of resources on the other.
The "global middle class" (20 per cent of the world population) propagates a globally uniform and wasteful lifestyle that is destructive to socially and environmentally harmonious cultures. The technology that this "class" propagates and depends on works towards corresponding political-economic centralization and excludes the majority. AT can help to overcome this with a decentralized, culturally and ecologically sensitive, technological and economic practice.
Khosla's estimation that in India about 150 million people (20 per cent of the country's population) participate in the industrial and consumption system, while 700 million people are excluded, mirrors Bierter's dichotomy between the global middle class and the poor. The failures of the market and the shortcomings of conventional economic paradigms are very similar at both the global and the national level. But ideas and experiments seeking economic and technical solutions are more effective at the national and still more so at the local level. In the industrial countries proposals for change are rather philosophical (e.g. breaking the universal growth imperative in a "culture of enough"). There are more concrete ideas about alternatives in the South ( e.g. promoting self-reliance in autonomous communities). AT's most concrete proposals, however, refer to single countries and regions, because it is by definition a situation-specific concept. Khosla's market analysis identifies the reasons why poverty alleviating innovations are not available on any reasonable scale: the Indian rural market is large but dispersed, it differs seasonally and regionally, it faces scarce and unequally distributed resources and production factors, it is partly nonmonetary, and it is very poorly served by transport and communication facilities.
It is the specific features of such markets that AT has to master in order to succeed in a particular country or region. Innovations must be commercially viable to achieve mass dissemination. Khosla's paper is an example of how emphasizing AT's economic viability widens the perspective through incorporating a whole range of micro economic considerations. Some passages are strongly reminescent of business management textbooks, but they do point to some basic truth which was long neglected in AT practice. The insistence on economic viability is not necessarily anti-innovative and does not contradict Bierter's call for alternative economic thinking. It is itself a radical departure from rigid traditional economics in that it recognizes how different these rural markets are from the highly centralized and uniform markets of the "global middle class".
Although Khosla uses conventional terminology such as "economies of scale", his new organizational elements and his contextual consideration of technology take his approach far beyond traditional economic thinking. They include:
(1) The integration of centralized and decentralized elements (franchised networks) to combine the institutional and economic strength of the Big (economies of scale) with the responsiveness and initiative of the Small (member organizations and firms).
(2) Achieving economies of scale in diverse markets by spreading design and production costs over a range of products (technology clusters).
(3) Achieving the necessary comprehensiveness through marketing technologies incomplete packages(sets).
Critics doubt whether franchised networks will ever function without substantial subsidies. But in its comprehensive integration of technology, organization and economy, this approach has at least come away from the one-dimensional and technically biased image that others still project onto AT. The AT concept seems to be reaching maturity just at the time when the hegemony of the "free market" as the regulator of all development has become greatest. "Free market" dominance with its obvious social and environmental shortcomings make practical alternatives ever more urgent. This feeling was manifested throughout the workshop as a desire for more practical action and more cooperation. It is widely manifested in the continuous expansion of grassroot groups and activities, and in a certain "renaissance" of AT in this sphere. To what extent this will result in a significantly different practice largely depends on the ability of institutions to adopt new cooperation structures and procedures.
The need to advance beyond the traditional project-bound form of cooperation was frequently voiced during the workshop. Many organizations have made progress by organizing practical and conceptual work in a way that benefits will not be restricted to relatively small and isolated projects. The diversification of cooperation instruments for the sake of broad impact based on people's own activities is not limited to the AT movement. However, AT plays a certain vanguard role through numerous examples and pilot programmes: networking on various levels, technology centers with extensive external linkages, information systems, and sectoral approaches such as small enterprise promotion in particular spheres of the economy.
One of TOOL's principal positions was that strengthening the infrastructure of information transfer is more important than the supply of information itself. The aim is more autonomy for the countries of the South than has hitherto been conceded. International cooperation still does not show many signs of overcoming structural knowledge and information gaps. Nevertheless, TOOL's approach seems to include an element of this disparity, though in a pragmatic form which bears reference to an adverse reality: "It seems unlikely that most of the developing countries will ever be able to invest as much (as the industrialized countries) in R&D. Why should they? Rather they should select from the immense array of available technologies those that best suit their development goal."
This position incorporates a strong element of Technology Transfer while trying to blend in more control of the technology by its users. The final passage of Engelhard's paper shows it to be an emancipatory approach: it aims to render the services of the mediating agency unnecessary through increased local autonomy. But it faces a dilemma. It tends to separate structural aspects (the relationship between the actors in technology transfer) from the nature of the technology in question. Can real autonomy be promoted by relying on solutions that come from a different context and transmit different cultural and economic messages?
Laurens van Veldhuizen proposes changes in cooperation structures that go beyond the proposals of TOOL and other AT agencies. The Participatory Technology Development (PTD) approach involves a radical break with the historic pattern of Northern dominance (including that of the development agencies) in favour of local autonomy and the development of appropriate solutions by the local actors themselves. This perspective sees in much of the current AT practice a danger of alienation from the grassroots. The PTD approach seeks to avoid many common AT pitfalls: too much concentration on technology development in specialized and isolated research institutions, too much direct focus on technology (in market analysis, for example), too little attention to community structures that can strengthen the capacity for autonomous technology development.
One reason why PTD seems more genuinely and comprehensively oriented towards participation is that it has so far been mainly applied with resource-poor small farmers and pastoralists. This allows the range of technologies to be kept at a level that is within the scope of people's experiences and learning capacities. AT includes a much wider range of technologies than the relatively simple, understandable, controllable and widely applicable ones that form the focus of PID. AT includes technologies that are "black boxes", as users cannot develop them further themselves. Furthermore, AT is often produced in workshops and factories or imported; often the production process has to be formalized on an economically viable scale. It would, however, be misleading to conclude from this that the "more technical" spheres are generally unsuitable for participatory approaches.
The tension between autonomous innovation and external inputs and influences is obviously a very basic question in connection with AT. Each approach seems to answer it pragmatically and differently as demanded by its own context and objectives. For the movement as a whole, this is not a weakness but a strength; that it may lead to a certain inaccuracy in the definition and delimitation of what AT is and stands for, should not bother us. This is well summed up in Patterson Kuria Gathuru's resume of the workshop:
AT is not a minority. What has happened is that we have dissolved ourselves in many activities. And we operate better that way since we are just like salt: we dissolve, we work with many communities, with other people. Here I saw some tendencies to crystallize AT. Once you do so, you will be able to patent it or put a label on it. I think that will be dangerous.