|GATE - 1/94 - Hospital Technology: A Problem Case (GTZ, 1994, 50 pages)|
by Peter Bosse-Brekenteld
Thailand is one of Southeast Asia's newly industrialized countries. For years now, its economy has been booming, with growth rates of more than eight per cent. Thai society sweeps the ecological consequences of this boom under the carpet. Currently, the idea of an appropriate technology that is both ecologically and socially compatible is difficult to popularize in Thailand. How can Appropriate Technology Association (ATA), GATE's partner in cooperation, hold its own in this environment?
I ask Chanchai Limpiyakorn, General Secretary of Appropriate Technology Association, whether the idea of Appropriate Technology is obsolete in modern Thailand. Limpiyakorn, Professor of Engineering at the Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, vigorously denies this. In environmental problems in particular, the 50-year-old professor sees new challenges for appropriate technological solutions.
The visitor to Thailand's capital can only affirm this. With its
more than eight million inhabitants, Bangkok is one of the world's ten most
emission-polluted and noise-polluted cities. Automobile traffic races constantly
through the Southeast Asian metropolis along twelve-lane motorways.
The city's traditional canal transport system is obsolete. Many of the "klongs" have been filled in. Those that remain give off a terrible stench. Industry and households discharge their sewage, some of it untreated, into the canal system, through which it finds its way into the Chao Phraya River.
Focus on environment
High water consumption in Bangkok causes problems for the farmers in Thailand's central provinces. The metropolis and 22 provinces take their supplies from the waters of the Chao Phya system. The city's inhabitants consume approximately 400 litres of water per capita and day - to the disadvantage of the farmers, who no longer have enough water to irrigate their fields in the dry season, and who in the last two years have been urged by government authorities not to sow second crops. Water, which was once available in abundance, is now becoming a scarce resource.
In the critical words of Virayut Sujirakulkit, the manager of ATA, We are solving our problems in the city at the expense of other regions. The national government is citing purportedly national interest to push through the interests of the metropolis". He claims that the government is stalling an environmental impact analysis, for which environmental NGOs in Thailand have been calling for for years now.
Yet the orientation towards money and material goods and the imitation of a Western lifestyle meet with widespread approval among the urban population. Sceptical voices about this growth model, such as ATA activists, are in the minority.
Since its foundation more than ten years ago, ATA has always campaigned for a harmonization of urban and rural economic interests. In 1978, a group of lecturers and students from the College of Engineering at Chulalongkorn University founded this organization, or rather its predecessor, the «AT Club».
In 1982, ATA gained government recognition as a nonprofit development organization. In 1993, this was followed by registration as an environmental NGO. "How ever, we are not an environmental NGO in the narrow sense", says General Secretary Limpiyakorn. ATA seeks to cooperate with these groups. For example, it is also a member of the "Forum for Annual Reporting on Environment" (FARE), which began meeting annually in 1991. This conference is sponsored by the government and industry.
NGOs are ambivalent in their attitude towards participation. On the one hand, they do not want to allow themselves to be abused as propaganda for industry. On the other hand, as Virayut stresses, it is "Thai style . . . to put one's relations first". However, FARE's sole "masterpiece» is a voluminous report that has so far had no consequences for government action.
The fact that ATA is active in environmental matters is a result of the two main spheres of activity of the organization's 500 members. Its office in the Bangkok district of Thonburi is a meeting place for students interested in appropriate technology, the starting point for information campaigns aimed at the urban middle classes and students and, of course, the nerve centre for ATA's concrete development projects in rural areas of Thailand.
ATA's target groups are therefore the urban middle classes (in the
case of campaigns to create awareness) and poor village inhabitants and national
development NGOs which require technical know-how and information when choosing
technology. When working with the latter groups, the following principle
applies: "Problem analysis based on technology and economic principles IS not
sufficient, but other social and community factors have to be taken into
The organization defines its goals as follows:
· to conduct research and develop appropriate technology which is low-cost, easy to manufacture and emphasizes community self-reliance;
· to select existing appropriate technologies from both local and international resources and to modify transfer and dissemination to the public;
· to disseminate to the public appropriate technology that has already been researched and modified;
· to provide technical services and consultation on AT application with a view to solving community problems of both individuals and groups.
Transfer of "Hardware"
Accordingly, like comparable organizations in other countries, ATA has been active in the transfer of "hardware". It has devoted itself to renewable energy technology, often in cooperation with government offices. Biogas plants have been built in villages in the north of Thailand. Micro-hydropower plants have been installed in many villages, generating electricity for light and food processing. Other projects have promoted fish raising in rice fields and well digging.
The projects have helped provide higher productivity and a higher standard of living for village dwellers. However ATA staff are sometimes dissatisfied with the way these projects are run. There is, for example, the case of a micro-hydropower project where the turbines could not always operate because too much water was diverted for irrigation during the dry season.
Water resources had also declined because of (illegal) deforestation in the mountainous region in which the project was situated. The dryer cabinets in one micro-hydropower project were sometimes "misused for laundering clothes instead of drying fruits or vegetables". Additionally according to an evaluation report, "the village members tend to have a lack of confidence in each other when personal benefits become the main priority".
No perfect solutions
"We do not have any perfect solutions", says General Secretary Chanchai. "When we think we have solved one problem, along comes the next one». Furthermore, the farmers living in the area covered by the micro-hydropower plant project have since found themselves confronted with other problems. This region has meanwhile been connected to the national power grid. Village head Cham Chareon describes how individual demand is rising. More televisions and video-recorders have been bought. This leads to debt, causes extra work and also tempts certain persons to start (illegally) clearing trees. The area is part of the Mae-rim National Forest Area north of Chiangmai, in northern Thailand. Government authorities want to reduce the area cultivated by farmers and at the same time persuade them to help reafforest this watershed area. If no new areas can be opened up, then soil fertility must be improved to bring about higher yields.
Together with the Chiangmai University "Multiple Cropping Centre", ATA advises farmers.
Suporn Am-Maruekachoke, who works as agricultural adviser in the region, reports that her work has shown encouraging progress. However, her propaganda work is not easy. Although the farmers accept that the organic farming methods recommended by the expert improve soil quality, in everyday practice they still fall back on chemical fertilizers which government agricultural advisers sometimes leave behind free of charge.
Following the request of a Buddhist NGO working in the watershed
area, ATA has provided farmers with know-how for their dispute with the forestry
commission. A model of the areas utilized for farming in the region was worked
out jointly, and maps showing present utilization drawn up. "We are working here
practically as middlemen between the village population and the government",
says Chanchai. Providing the village population with know-how gives them an
opportunity to articulate their interests.
Further evidence that ATA's appropriate technology approach has meanwhile become "softer" can be seen in the "local weaving with natural dye" project in four districts in the three northern provinces Roi-et, Srion and Srisaket (see gate 3/93). The project helps women produce and market handwoven silk cloth. As the project is well established in the individual villages and there is a well organized sharing of experience with other groups, the project can be expected to hold its own even after support by foreign donors has come to an end.
According to the evaluation of the project by GATE and other NGOs in the study "Participatory Technology Development", the project shows that the "philosophy and approach of ATA have developed over the years.
Presently, developing technologies is not seen as a means to an end, but rather as a tool in development. This also implies that, in their projects and activities, they do not concentrate exclusively on technology.
For example, marketing of products and strengthening of organizational and managerial skills are now also important points of attention. Networking and sharing experiences with other NGOs is considered important".
The two projects in northern and north-eastern Thailand are currently the most important ATA projects which appeal directly to the rural population target group. Apart from project work, information is a further important focus of ATA's work. This is provided firstly in the five rooms of its Bangkok office and, secondly via village workshops, to which they take at least one mobile AT exhibition.
Virayut reports that the central office's five staff members receive 15 to 20 letters every week, as well as several times that number of telephone calls. Its library is open to other development NGOs and to students, also via interlibrary loans. Roughly three-fifths of all enquiries come from NGOs.
ATA has a well-stocked library and subscribes to international periodicals. It has itself prepared many publications or translated works into Thai (including, for example, the GATE book "Documentation Made Easy").
It is planned to extend this work. Above all, there is a plan to begin data exchange on an electronic mail basis, including cooperation with the Asian network APPROTECH in Manila. Chanchai hopes that this will then allow them, for example, to provide better answers to the increasing number of questions from
Thai NGOs about the health risks of industrial production processes.
Last year, publication of ATA's "Appropriate Technology Journal" was infused with new energy. The topics of this journal, which is written in the national language, include domestic wastewater treatment, water for sustainable development, pest control with flowering plants, and genetic resources collapse in Thailand. A short summary in English accompanies each of the articles.
General Secretary Chanchai would now like to use the journal, which is published in an edition of 1500 every two months, as a vehicle for new financial sponsors. His aim is to persuade industrial enterprises to adopt the journal as a recipient of"social sponsoring».
Financial support from foreign donors is becoming increasingly more of a problem for ATA. At the end of the 1970s, when Thailand was in a similar economic situation to India or the African countries, this was more acceptable. "We have to rethink the situation today", says Chanchai.
The general secretary and the manager of ATA also feel that it is important to activate old members and attract new ones. This is also being helped by an alternative trade outlet, in which "green" products are to be sold. This shop has been set up on the Chulalongkorn University campus. ATA members contributed 60,000 Baht, which is the equivalent of roughly 2,900 dollars. Some of the products on sale, such as bamboo shoots, vegetables, fruit and handicrafts, come from areas where ATA once organized projects. In the meanwhile, green products can now be bought in many alternative "green movement» shops in Thailand. Selling these goods can be the start of a conversation about natural farming.
Chanchai has a further way of increasing awareness m mind. He would like to encourage his students to "think critically about their participation in forest conservation". In cooperation with a Buddhist NGO, he wants them to be trained in an ashram that is to be set up in Maerim District, where they will "develop their spirituality, mentality, and awareness of the environment, appropriate technology and a lifestyle in harmony with nature, work and health".
This is a further example of how today's ATA is more than a traditional AT-oriented development organization. As manager Virayut says, ATA does not see itself as a technocratic organization, but wants to sow the seeds of groups that will change society.
"Today our approach is softer"
Interview with ATA General Secretary Chanchai Limpiyakorn
gate: Some people say appropriate technology (AT) is an obsolete concept. How would you respond to that?
Limpiyakorn: It is true that appropriate technology holds less popular attraction today. But that does not make it obsolete. This allegation cannot be right, considering that we are facing so many problems stemming from advanced technology. AT has a relative meaning. It is not a technology that creates vast wealth for the user, and nor does it create any illusion of convenience. Generally speaking, AT inspires and motivates those who use it What is more, users of AT must be more aware and more socially-minded than other people. One of society's main problems today is environmental degradation, so AT should be not only socially but also environmentally sound. Spirit, mind and matter should be in harmony. AT is not only for the poor and the disadvantaged, it is for everyone.
gate: What lessons has the Appropriate Technology Association (ATA) learned from its practical experience during the last fifteen years?
Limpiyakorn: ATA's approach today is "softer". Ten years ago we preferred to work with hardware, such as biogas plants or well-drilling equipment. Now we concentrate more on informing people. We produce a journal. We work as advisers in community projects and are less involved in construction work.
There are many reasons for this shift from "hard" to "soft" technology. One is a change in our approach to development thinking AT cannot be created and developed in isolation, without spiritual factors. Therefore, we should also consider spiritual and intellectual factors as well. This dimension has to be taken into account seriously, otherwise appropriate technology is meaningless.
Another reason for this new approach is a manpower problem. We are facing a severe shortage of technicians to do the work of AT organizations such as ATA. For some years now, the wages of more experienced technicians in Thailand have been quite high as a consequence of economic growth. If we hire technicians our overheads are higher.
gate: Since September 1993, ATA has been recognized by government authorities as an environmental NGO. Is that what ATA is becoming?
Limpiyakorn: I think environmental degradation is a major problem and that we should make it our concern. And AT is a strategy for solving environmental problems. But ATA is not a political organization. We will confine ourselves to exercising our role and our know how in the field of AT.
gate: Are ecological movements enjoying more support in Thailand now? Are more people joining these organizations?
Limpiyakorn: Most of the people joining ecological organizations are young, mainly students. Political activity in Thailand originated in the universities twenty years ago. Today, most students put personal success first. But a few are still concerned about society.
During the past ten years, Thailand was honoured with a surprising economic growth and the majority of people are stepping towards such change.
They appreciate the future of the country in a view of modernization as an industrialized country like European countries and Japan. Meanwhile, a negative impact that occurs is that they have strived for material needs which cause drastic natural resources exploitation due to a lack of experience. Money becomes the most need while various social values have been deteriorated. An awareness and concern of people on public interest under a very complicated and clumsy administration in accordance with the economic system, seems to be a new thing in Thai society. This causes various social and environmental problems.
The rural people are victims of such a change. However, the middle-class group that is a minority group in the present society has the potential to forecast the future realistically and review the past experiences based on their educational background and their accessibility to both positive and negative information from the current development. This group of people tends to play a strong role in building awareness on ecological problems during the first period of time; then time and experiences will equip the other groups to give more support and participation.