South Pacific, 1979–80: appropriate technology, ideologues and small gains

... In which a US appropriate technology organisation sought partners to work with innovative ideas in Papua New Guinea (PNG), Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Tonga and Samoa and then sought ways to bring the ideas into production.

After working in Dominica in the West Indies, I was offered a job as a consultant at an organisation called Appropriate Technology International (ATI) in Washington DC. ATI was the American equivalent of the British organisation Intermediate Technology Development Group (ITDG), formed to promote the ideas of Fritz Schumacher of “Small is Beautiful” fame. I found myself inside a world movement, that of appropriate technology (AT) — almost a world religion at this time as it had enthusiastic adherents in very many countries all over the globe. ATI was funded directly by Congress, which gives some idea of the importance that AT had in the USA at the time.

Wikipedia gives us today the definition of AT as being “a movement encompassing technological choice and application that is small-scale, decentralized, labor-intensive, energy-efficient, environmentally sound, and locally autonomous”. Much of what I worked on was indeed of this kind (food processing and preservation, water pumping, building components and prosthetics or equipment for the disabled), but, as 1 discovered, AT encouraged a way of thinking which allowed you to dream about and conceptualise larger ideas of technological choice - particularly around energy (wind, solar and water power, and biofuels).

My job was to seek possible partners for ATI in Southern Africa and the South Pacific. I was called a “bird dog” by my American colleagues, as my task was to spot interesting projects that ATI could possibly fund. This introduced me to AT enthusiasts all over the world who had taken up Schumacher’s ideas and run with them — often at great speed. I was allowed to join their chase in some of the most beautiful places in the world, in the South Pacific (PNG, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Tonga, Samoa).

Schumacher’s thesis was that of an economist: in situations where labour was plentiful and capital was expensive, or where the cost of technology was beyond the means of the locals, it made sense to use technology that emphasised labour and avoided expensive capital that also required a level of technological sophistication not available locally. He called this “intermediate technology”, pointing out that most technology that was being promoted globally was developed in the modem Western world to fit its balance of resources. It did not fit places that were remote, poor and dependent on their own resources, thus the need for an intermediate technology — some way between village technology and Western industrial technology. Those who added to his thinking emphasised the more flexible concept of appropriate technology — and the appropriateness was to be decided on the basis of local conditions and context.

AT attracted philosophical and political ideologues, sometimes displacing the technologists who saw what was technically feasible and made decisions on that basis. It also attracted Westerners (and those locals who had been exposed to Western thinking) who considered that they had a handle on what was locally appropriate. Its various titles reflected the different thinking — village, small-scale, decentralised, labour-intensive, energy-efficient, environmentally sound, locally autonomous, and also Buddhist technology. There was something for everyone.

What was ver)' important to the AT movement (although sometimes forgotten) was that the technology' should be context-specific — it should fit the situation in which the users lived. Thus, depending on the geography, the climate, the culture, the resource endowment, the level of education and the economy, a handpump with parts that could easily be replaced was more appropriate than a motor-driven pump relying on imported fuel; animal draught power for farming was more appropriate than a mechanised tractor; “barefoot doctors” rather than university-educated medical professionals.

AT does not necessarily mean simple technology — the amount of research required to make workable wind turbines or fuel-efficient stoves was and is considerable — but it does emphasise fitting the technology to the context in which people live. As Schumacher said, intermediate technology was “technology as if people mattered”.

The enthusiasts came from many backgrounds and persuasions:

There were those who were enthusiastic about historical technology that the Western world had moved beyond. Modem Western societies had moved into industrial technology, but “old-fashioned” technology still made sense in a different context — particularly one that was isolated and poor and did not have access to imports that they could afford. Thus, ram pumps were more appropriate titan motor-driven pumps in places where the geography was suitable, traditional medicine fitted better than a reliance on imported drugs, treadle power over electrical power, solar drying and preservation over refrigeration.

  • • There were those whose enthusiasm was for the use of renewable energy — falling water, wind, the sun, wave power. This was considered both for energy directly applied and as a means to create electricity which could be used for other purposes. Often this was connected to reducing the use of existing non-renewable resources (like charcoal), which led to a lot of work on fuel-efficient stoves.
  • • There were those who were enthusiastic about small business opportunities - how people could be helped to start enterprises without large amounts of capital through the use of microfinancing.
  • • There were those who were in revolt against an over-industrialised world - looking to the “back to the land” and “homesteading” movements of the American hippies.

A considerable number of the practitioners of AT were mavericks, and even eccentrics. I heard Fritz Schumacher say, to considerable acclaim: “People call me a crank. I like cranks - they are simple devices that cause revolutions.”

My work took me to some extraordinary places. As a consultant I was not living for extended periods with people at the coalface - I was a visitor and hopefully a useful one — but I had the opportunity to understand the living conditions and the economic and social factors that influenced many different kinds of people and discuss with them the possible ways in which carefully chosen technologies could help them.

Here are some of the contexts with which I was faced.

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