Introduction

The use of local materials not only offers opportunities for action where money is scarce, but has other advantages as well. Nicolas Jequier has pointed to a distinction between what he calls “systems-dependent” and “systems-independent” technologies (see “Appropriate Technology: Some Criteria” in Towards Global Action for Appropriate Technology, 1979). “Systems-dependent” technologies are those which require, for example, a supply line of materials, spare parts, fuel, maintenance and repair skills to be efficiently used. Any break in the chain of related elements results in the idling of a “systems dependent” technology.

“Systems-independent” technologies, on the other hand, can be efficiently used without such supply lines; they include tools, techniques, and structures that are made of local materials.

Local materials are thus often the key to what members of a poor community can afford to do. “Affordable,” in this context, has a very different meaning than “economically competitive.” A technology is termed “competitive” if, over time, it is cheaper than the conventional approach used to accomplish the same task. This does not mean, however, that it is cheap enough to be affordable and a better choice for the poor than what they currently use. For example, a windmill designer once told us that he was pleased that windmills were soon going to be economically competitive with diesel-driven pumps for water lifting, since oil prices were going up. To a poor person who couldn’t afford to buy or rent the engine-driven pumps when oil was cheap, a steel windmill is equally out of reach. This is not to say that steel windmills do not have a place in appropriate technology efforts; they may be an excellent product with good prospects for replacing engine-driven pumps in some areas. The windmill designs that are most likely to reach the poor, however, are those that emphasize the use of local materials in their construction, and thus minimize the cash investment required.

Similarly, a careful calculation of what constitutes an “affordable alternative” should he made when we look at investments in improved cooking technologies from the point of view of poor women. Because firewood used in cooking is the major form of energy consumed in rural areas, fuel-efficient stoves could be a major tool in the effort to increase available rural energy supplies (and reduce deforestation). Yet most firewood is gathered (not purchased), and traditional cooking stoves usually require little or no cash investment. Therefore, regardless of how fuel-efficient an improved stove may be, it must also be very inexpensive to be attractive and affordable.

A.T. and Income Distribution

Saving labor serves no purpose if it is your own job that is “saved” and no other real employment—and thus income—opportunities exist. In China, in l9th-century

England, and in the developing world today, a central question regarding mechanization and industrialization has been: Whose labor has been saved? Who will benefit and who will simply lose any opportunity to earn a living?

In the industrialized countries, new jobs are theoretically created to replace those that are destroyed. The fact that this has been an awkward, unequal and demoralizing process is generally overlooked, while much is made of productivity increases leading to benefits for all. (The stubborn persistence of high unemployment and increasing inequality of wealth and income in industrialized countries like the United States suggest that this process may finally come to a halt.)

Much mechanization and industrialization in the developing world has simply cut people out of the production process, changing who makes the goods (and thus who ends up with some purchasing power) without changing very much the amount of goods produced or their prices. For example, when aluminum pots replace clay pots produced by villagers, the result is a) a marginally better product, b) the same number of pots in use, c) perhaps a lower price when calculated over the life of the pots, d) a lot of unemployed potters who now have no purchasing power, e) a smaller number of new jobs in an urban-based industry, f) an enriched industrialist, g) a shift away from the products of village industry previously bought by potters (e.g., tools produced by local blacksmiths) towards a smaller number of highly processed foods, transportation services, and imported goods bought by urban residents. In this example “productivity” (as measured by the amount of product created per worker hour) has gone up, although total product has not. More people are unemployed, income inequality has increased, and village development has been set back. This process of destroying crafts has been repeated all over the world. Without a political commitment to full employment and the sharing of the benefits of technological change, the great technological gap created by the sudden arrival of

Imported technology can thus quickly increase poverty. It is in grappling with this kind of problem in societies shot through with inequalities that labor-intensive, decentralized, productivity-increasing technologies have a role to play. The need is for both national productivity increases and individual worker participation in production and consumption.

The need is acute in the agricultural sector of poor countries, where most of the people earn their livelihoods. To help the small farm family better use their resources, a program to adapt agricultural tools and equipment could be aimed at several categories of activities. One group of needed technologies are those that speed work at the points in the agricultural calendar when all available person power is released. Another tactic, one that the Chinese have used effectively in the commune system, is to mechanize the particularly low-productivity activities that are major time consumers in the rural sector, and shift this labor to other activities, such as making threshers, pumps, and hand tractors. (The production of agricultural machinery in the rural areas of China has meant that the equipment made is responsive to technology needs and that mechanization does not necessarily replace agricultural jobs with jobs in urban industry. This situation is virtually unique in developing countries [see Rural Small-Scale Industry in the People’s Republic of China, by Dwight Perkins, et. al, 1977]).

When land ownership is heavily concentrated in a few hands, this labor reallocation process is likely to be incomplete, leading to technology choices which may not benefit the majority of the population.

“To maintain … a rational growth of capital use in a low income economy, small farmers do not experience the same pressure to substitute capital for labor; no one wants to mechanize himself out of his job. Large farms are in fact the least economical, in social account, in the use of scarce capital and underemployed labor. Land reform countries generally exhibit a better record of a resource use that is rational in social account.”

—Folke Dovring, “Macro-Economics of Far Mechanization,” 1978, in Agricultural

Technology for Developing Nations: Farm Mechanization Alternatives for 1-10

Acre Farms, 1978, emphasis added, see review.

Farmers who hire labor to carry out low-productivity activities are likely to substitute machines when possible, thereby replacing a number of farm labor jobs with a smaller number of machine operation and maintenance jobs. If farm labor is in short supply, wages may rise with productivity and everyone benefits. This is rarely the case in poor countries, however. More likely, the landowning farmer reaps the benefits and some laborers lose their jobs.

The tenant farm family is less likely to be hiring labor, and has less capital in any case to invest in machines. These families are faced with the possibility that new technologies that raise the productivity of the land may lead to rent increases that capture the gains. There are of course many ways they can invest their own labor, through composting, tree planting, and general soil conservation work that pays off over a long term. But they probably will be unwilling to make this investment, fearing that they will not be around to reap the benefits.

These considerations make it unlikely that improved tools and methods for increasing agricultural production can be targeted primarily for the tenant farmer.

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