Introduction

A general reevaluation of the potential and role of A.T. as an important part of development strategy has been taking place in recent years. Progress has seemed slow to many observers, and aid projects intended to push appropriate technologies have often been ineffective. Yet the experience in the last twenty years, as documented by the books reviewed here and incorporated in the A.T. Microfiche Library, points to an exciting number of successes, new insights, and advances in technology in almost every field.

Much has been learned from the failures in the past, which deserve some attention. In the first ten years of widespread, enthusiastic A.T. activity around the globe, the same 15 items were built and rebuilt, and research centers acquired cemeteries of artifacts with which to impress international visitors. Most of this equipment was not very economical or practical. One common reason for failure has been that the economic viability of new technologies was not explored.

Technology is fundamentally the application of human knowledge to create a tool or technique to perform an economic task. To ignore the economic aspects of a technology is to ignore the main factor determining eventual success or failure of that technology in the outside world. To many readers, this linkage between technology is self-evident, yet it is widely ignored by voluntary organizations and R&D institutions in the developing world. A simple economic evaluation is an important first step in considering technology projects. It allows technologies with little or no economic value to be screened out, and those with strong economic advantages (and benefits to the users) to be more readily identified.

There are now many A.T. success stories, typically the result of long-term (five years or more) programs with strong field testing components. Hundreds, thousands and tens of thousands of units of these technologies have been sold and installed and are providing good service. Examples include improved cookstoves in Sri Lanka, Nepal, Kenya, Indonesia and elsewhere (more than 25,000 distributed); hand-operated Rower pumps for irrigation in Bangladesh

(5000-10,000 distributed); foot-operated treadle pumps for irrigation in Bangladesh (20,000 distributed); double-vault water seal latrines in India (60,000 installed); water turbines for mills in Nepal (hundreds installed, providing milling services to hundreds of thousands

of people); oral rehydration mixes to combat infant diarrhea (millions of packets distributed). The World Bank, one of the largest of the international institutions, has made a great contribution in searching for, compiling, evaluating and field testing low-cost water supply and sanitation technologies. They have demonstrated that there are a number of economical, technically-proven alternatives to the costly municipal water and sewage systems seen in rich countries. Thousands of insightful, creative people around the world have become intrigued by the possibilities, and have conducted solid experiments that have led to a variety of maturing technologies. The 125 books added to this edition of the Sourcebook document many of these.

Although funds for appropriate technology work are short, the largest single factor preventing more rapid progress is probably the lack of understanding of how organizations can combine funds and human resources to efficiently develop and market technologies. In the case of international aid agencies, the challenge is how to effectively support local groups in their work. There are, for example, a number of communications tasks or “overhead functions” that need attention. These include smoothing the flow of technical documentation, disseminating information on successful policy measures, supporting dialogue between partner institutions, and channeling small amounts of funds to grass-roots technology research and development efforts. Some of these might be tasks that existing international agencies or networks should take on or support others to take on. Other tasks are perhaps best initiated and financed by local networks or individual groups. Yet differing languages and cultural attitudes are barriers to building systems that work, and the differences in organizational forms among cultures make the challenge more difficult.

There continue to be well-funded pilot projects demonstrating too expensive “village” technology. Genuine grass-roots practitioners are scarce at conferences, where sympathetic non-practitioners, unfamiliar with the daily obstacles to technology improvement in the field, have difficulty identifying the truly useful “overhead functions” that coalitions and aid agencies could perform.

Institutional Change

Now that appropriate technology is being added to the activities of national and international organizations, it is catching the interest of those who would like to use elements from it to repair the creaking, battered bridges of development aid A.T., however, is an awkward approach to incorporate into large agency planning efforts. The concept of “local self-reliance”, for example, is difficult to define or quantify and will vary from place to place. Furthermore, it is a quality that can be either nurtured or destroyed from the outside, but never created. “Self-reliance” also sounds vaguely utopian or ideologically tainted. To many planners it looks unnecessary, and out it goes.

Equally difficult is the concept of “people’s participation”. “Participation” is probably the most often invoked and least often attempted aspect of rural development programs. Participation is often interpreted to mean the carrying out of instructions. This kind of interpretation makes participation simply a measure of the degree of local acceptance of a project, not a strategy for success and human development. Nor does this approach to participation contribute at all to an ongoing process of community problem-solving. A higher state of participation may be reached when community reaction is sought to the activities planned by the intervening agencies. Such an approach is sometimes taken in the hope that local enthusiasm will be increased and gross mistakes (due to factors unknown to planners but evident to the community) can be avoided. Yet even this leaves the community in essentially a passive role, as Denis Goulet aptly points out:

“One may plausibly argue that to structure feedback is merely to assure that any participation elicited will be a mere ‘reaction’ to what is proposed. To propose is thus, in effect, to impose, inasmuch as those who plan initial arrangements do not provide for a feed-in at the early moments of problem definition. Feedback prevents non-experts from gaining access to essential parameters of the decision process before these are congealed.”

—Denis Goulet, The Uncertain Promise: Value Conflicts in Technology Transfer, 1977

In true participation, community members are involved from the outset, beginning with the setting of the development priorities. Large development agencies generally lack the local contacts and rapport with community members required for project participation. They may be further constrained by a need to move quickly in project implementation.

Another important concept in the A.T. approach is that development should increase (or at least not reduce) the ability of the poor to cope with their problems. Yet the project designer is hard-pressed to insure this; no project’s consequences can be fully known beforehand. Unpredictability must be kept in mind when evaluating the kinds of activities that are chosen. We should ask ourselves: What new risks come with the proposed activity? Will this project make the poor more or less capable of dealing with unforeseen problems and crises which may arise? These questions are particularly important when we consider projects that tie the poor into the world economy. Planners and decision-makers have pointed to international markets and invoked the benefits of “interdependence,” but have neglected the question of who stands to lose out when times are difficult. For it is the poor, in the end, who will be hit by famine when the crop fails, be left with their equipment idle when fuel is unavailable, and find themselves on the street without work when fashions change and their exported handicraft product is no longer in vogue.

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