Introduction

Two of the most serious problems with this kind of approach are: 1) there is little room for “participation” by the beneficiaries except in the most minor sense— carrying out instructions; and 2) information flows almost entirely one way, from the central agency to the poor. It is therefore essentially impossible for the villager to get technical assistance with anything except what the extension agent is promoting. Not surprisingly, the technologies provided through this process have not been notably “appropriate,” nor have most extension programs achieved the success rate (measured in numbers of people adopting the prescribed technologies) expected.

What are some of the elements that should be incorporated into communication strategies to make them more consistent with A.T. concepts? If we agree that an active level of participation in problem identification and solution by the members of poor communities is highly desirable, this requires that they have:

a) access to information in a form in which it can be of practical use;

b) the ability to initiate communications in search of relevant experience and information from other communities, including information on the successful technologies that have been developed nearby, within the region, and around the world;.

c) support from those with more advanced scientific and technical skills, through technical assistance centers that respond to requests.

A key local informal communication mechanism is the network, created by the social ties of a community that lead people to help each other with skills and pass on information. When new skills and information get into such a network they become available for all members to tap. Car repair, home improvement and many other skills in the U.S. are usually shared this way. Individuals pick up skills and ideas from each other and pass them along to others. An approach designed to take advantage of this phenomenon has been used effectively in teaching people to build solar water heaters in the United States (see review of A Solar Water Heater

Workshop Manual, by Ecotope Group, 1978). A weekend solar training workshop was regularly offered to members of social clubs—natural networks. Later these people were in a good position to help each other properly complete solar water heater installations for their homes.

On local, national, regional, and international levels, networks of appropriate technology people are exchanging ideas and information in a highly active, decentralized fashion. Mimeographed newsletters can be low-cost vehicles for information exchange among groups across some distance. Grass-roots radio programs produced on cassette tapes can be used as a forum for questions and ideas about common problems (see review of Grass Roots Radio, by Rex Keating, 1977). In this way, people at the grass-roots level can listen to each other. Some of the other low-cost technologies for horizontal communication strategies, many of them affordable at the village level, are documented in the LOCAL COMMUNICATIONS chapter.

Organizations trying to help the poor find out more about technology options should consider the possibility of producing and distribution catalogs to document widely relevant technologies that are traditional and efficient, or new, or from outside the country. (Many examples of such catalogs are contained within this book, which itself is such a catalog. Perhaps the best examples of catalogs with information selected for a particular developing country are the Liklik Buk, from Papua New Guinea, and The People’s Workbook, from South Africa.) The cost of producing such a catalog is much less than the extremely high cost of operating a technical information data bank that gathers information from all over, stores it for retrieval, and responds to individual requests. Even in developing countries, when the total cost of running a conventional technical information data bank is divided by the number of requests, the cost per request can easily be $100-300—equal to the annual per capita income in many countries (see Nicolas Jequier’s discussion of this in Appropriate Technology: Problems and Promises, 1976). Catalogs, by contrast, can be produced at a cost of a few dollars each when several thousand are printed. They should be designed to anticipate and offer answers to many commonly asked questions, in addition to stimulating new thinking. This will not eliminate the need for information banks, but it should reduce the costs of having skilled staff respond to routine questions.

The A.T. Microfiche Library

An even more powerful tool for A.T. information is the library. If a high quality technical library is available, A.T. practitioners can find answers to the great majority of technical problems encountered in the field. The possibility of quickly finding a solution to the problem at hand, rather than waiting weeks or months for a book to arrive, means that far more questions will be researched, and fewer opportunities missed. Unfortunately, few A.T. groups have a good library. The cost of purchasing the books ($5,000 to $15,000 or more for a well-rounded collection) and organizing, indexing and housing the collection makes such a library too expensive for most organizations. With this problem of cost in mind, we took our own A.T. library, upon which the A.T. Sourcebook is based, and reproduced the books on microfiche, to form the Appropriate Technology Microfiche Library. Microfiche are plastic cards, 11 cm by 15 cm, which contain very small photographic images of the pages of books. Each microfiche card can hold 100 or more pages of information. A microfiche “reader,” which operates much like a slide projector, is then used to view the pages. By reproducing our 1000-title library in microfiche form, we are able to produce and sell copies for 1/20 of the paper cost. This has enabled hundreds of development groups with limited resources to have excellent libraries in their offices. Each book included in the A.T. Microfiche Library is reviewed and Indexed in this Sourcebook. Another powerful tool for information collection, storage and retrieval is the computer. Unfortunately, computerized systems for controlling and providing access to the information are ill-suited to a situation in which end users are scattered about the globe in remote parts of poor countries. In addition to high cost, the fundamental problem with such systems linking microcomputers to a centralized computer database is that the information going into the database has to be screened for relevance and accuracy. Unless this is done well by experienced and knowledgeable people, the computer system will become a processor of “garbage in, garbage out.” A related approach is for the local group to tap into international networks of microcomputer users for answers to their informational needs. The problem here is that someone at the other end needs to have the time, knowledge and resources to respond. Unfortunately, few people are in a position to volunteer such assistance, leaving this role to the high-cost technical information data banks mentioned above. Most productive applications of microcomputers in developing countries are going to be for data manipulation, record-keeping, and word processing, not technical information access, at least in the near future. Eventually, CD-ROM technology will have a role to play.

Tasks for International Efforts in A.T.

By their very nature, appropriate technology organizations working at the community level have few “disposable” resources to spend on anything but their immediate activities. Lower priority is therefore usually given to experimentation that is not linked to direct applications, careful preparation of documentation on successful and unsuccessful work and searches for other groups with relevant experience. Yet taking the opportunity to innovate at the community level and take stock of useful information and experiences (including that from other groups), is an important step towards the decentralization of technology choice and the strengthening of community self-reliance.

There seem to be two categories of needs in international A.T. cooperation.

One is for grass-roots groups to know more about what other grass-root groups are doing, both in terms of technology adaptation and strategy within the community. A second need is for large agencies to better understand the aims and activities of grass-roots groups so that assistance to them will be of greater value. One tactic which has been used extensively in attempting to address both of these needs is the international conference. Unfortunately, few if any people with direct experience working at the community level are included in such meetings because they are unknown to funders and conference organizers. Also, in many cases community workers are understandably reluctant to attend meetings at which, all too often, little is accomplished. Those who do attend risk being vacuumed up into a planning, advisory, or administrative role which takes them away from work in their communities. The more common conference-goers are expatriates and officials from developing countries for whom international trade is (an expensive) part of a way of life.

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