The Politics of Alternative Technology

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The Politics of Alternative Technology

by David Dickson

David Dickson is the Washington correspondent for Nature and a member of the Radical Science Journal collective. His book, The Politics of Alternative Technology, was published in 1975 by Universe Books.  

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 13, No. 3, May-June 1981, p. 10–14 & 32–34

One of the most significant by-products of the economic recession currently affecting almost all industrialized countries is that it has eclipsed much of the concern expressed at the beginning of the decade about the destructive impact of current patterns of technological growth. It is almost ten years since a set of computer models developed by Dr. Jay Forrester for the Club of Rome demonstrated that there were finite material limits to growth. The Club of Rome study legitimated concerns that had been expressed by environmentalists and other groups for a number of years, and led directly, in the U.S. at least, to stringent regulation aimed at curbing the worst excesses of industrialization. Yet as the economic situation has worsened, concern for the state of the environment has also faltered. On the one hand, excessive environmental regulation is itself blamed for poor economic performance, for example where air pollution standards have forced the closure of companies which claim that they cannot afford to comply. On the other hand, the U.S. public is increasingly being told that it must make a choice between the quality of life and economic growth, with the clear message that to neglect the second is to invite escalating inflation, poor industrial performance, and eventually economic and social collapse. Where, then, should one begin an analysis of technology? 

The last decade has seen a virtual revolution in ideas about the role of technology in the development process. According to most development economists, technology was considered to be an essentially neutral determinant of development, and the more advanced technology a country could introduce in the shortest possible time, the more rapidly was a general rise in the standard of living likely to take place. More recently, the willingness to look at technology, not merely in terms of its capacity to generate surplus value but also of its appropriateness to local conditions, has been an important step forward in development thinking. 

But there is another side to the argument which often gets overlooked, namely the extent to which both domestic and international patterns of technological growth reflect underlying power relationships between the various parties involved. The technology itself therefore comes to embody particular forms of social control. At the international level we see this in terms of the conditions which the rich countries are able to impose on technology transfer, for example so-called “black box” arrangements which prevent a recipient country from knowing the details of a technology which it is receiving. But the control is also exercised through hierarchical social relationships which are built into the productive system itself. Conventionally, criticism of the exploitation of the Third World by industrialized countries has focused on the imbalances of the economic transfers which are channeled through trading relationships. But we now also find economic surpluses from the Third World being channeled to the rich countries and used to expand international capital through a different route, the internal operations of an increasingly interdependent global system of production. To understand how these new forms of dominance operate, we must look at the way the distribution and control of technology maximizes the creation of profits, while promoting hierarchical and authoritarian ways of organizing work in the developing countries, and diverting efforts to meet social needs directly. Discussion of the role of technology in development, and in particular of the place of appropriate technology in this discussion, must therefore be located within the broader context of the strategies chosen by multinational corporations and banking institutions to create an international environment in which they can operate with minimum disruption and maximum profitability.

In the past such political issues were rarely raised in “technology and development” debates, partly because of the supposed neutrality of technological development. But the history of technology transfer shows that the neutrality assumption is frequently questionable. In many cases, the technology transferred from the developed to the developing nations remained under the control of multinational corporations, who are more concerned about exploiting cheap labor and low taxation than in meeting local social needs. And even where enterprises were developed under local control, much of the surplus generated had to be used to pay for license rights or for the import of necessary raw materials, while the profits were concentrated in the pockets of elites. Thus where the principle of accelerated technology transfer was turned into practice, the result was frequently patterns of technological development inappropriate to local resources and needs – for example, consuming scarce capital but ignoring plentiful labor – or which distorted the balance of productive activities to meet the interests of outside investors. 

Appropriate Technology 

Some have reacted to this situation by focusing on the technology itself, arguing that problems could be avoided primarily by designing and introducing appropriate or “intermediate” technologies more directly compatible with local resources and needs. Based on ideas developed by E.F. Schumacher from the writings of Gandhi, and pioneered in the mid-1960s by the London-based Intermediate Technology Development Group, intermediate technology offers a solution to the problems brought about by technologies of a less appropriate nature, where these may either be insufficiently sophisticated to make best use of available knowledge and resources, or too advanced to operate satisfactorily within the limitations that such resources necessarily impose. In its crudest form, the idea of intermediate technology is to provide a technological capability midway between traditional craft technologies and the sophisticated devices offered by Western suppliers. 

Yet appropriate technology can be interpreted as meaning more than just a technical fix, namely as including a strategy for reducing dependency on outside interests. During the early 1970s an awareness began to emerge within many developing nations that inappropriate technologies and distorted patterns of technological development were the results, not of individual mistakes made by industrial managers and development planners, but of structural imbalances within the global economy to which they had tied their fortunes. One obvious target was the activities of large multinational corporations, whose technology transfer programs were designed more to meet the interests of stockholders in the developed countries than the social needs of the countries in which they operated. Another was the actions of multilateral aid agencies such as the United Nations Development Program and the World Bank, which frequently seemed to concentrate on providing outside expertise than on building up indigenous technological capabilities. Each, it was argued, encouraged patterns of technological dependency which, far from promoting a greater equity between the developing and the developed parts of the world, merely reinforced the traditional dominance of the latter over the former. 

In the general economic sphere, discontent with the new forms of economic dependence provoked attempts to change the rules of the game by demanding the creation of a New International Economic Order. Supporters of this idea put forward a number of proposals for radical changes in the way that the world economy is organized; the results, it was hoped, would substantially increase the benefits of participation accruing to the developing countries. Particular attention was given ot the area of technology transfer; and demands from the Third World included a strict code of conduct designed to force multinational corporations to provide technologies more appropriate to host country needs, and international support for changes in patent laws and other measures designed to lower the cost of technology transfers to the “South”. 

When first presented with these demands, the initial reaction of the industrialized countries was to reject them out of hand. Any efforts consciously to distort international market mechanisms, they argued, would only introduce inefficiencies into the global economic system. It was therefore in the best interests of the developing nations to encourage the maximum growth of the overall system – and this meant accepting the economic and technological logic which the global trade system imposed upon them. Advocates of appropriate technology were either ignored as irrelevant, since rapid industrialization – it was argued – would only be achieved by promoting the rapid transfer of the most sophisticated technologies to Third World countries. Or they were criticised for trying to impose on these countries a second-best solution, to fob them off with second-rate solutions to their technological problems.

Yet the industrialized countries soon began to realise that, even if the developing countries lacked economic power on the world scene, their recently won political independence enabled them at least to control the economic operations and enterprises within their borders. Anxious to preserve access to raw materials necessary for their own continued growth, as well as to expand their foreign markets for industrial goods, the developed countries soon began to shift ground and indicate a willingness to open negotiations on topics such as a possible code of conduct for international technology transfers. Furthermore, during the late 1970s a growing number of economists within the developing countries began to argue that the economic growth of the Third World was itself an essential element in the health of the global economy. This meant that the developing countries were no longer seen merely as neutral suppliers of raw materials and consumers of finished goods, but as important vehicles for securing the overall efficiency of the global economy through maximizing the production and circulation of an economic surplus. It was therefore argued that it was not only in the humanitarian interest of industrialized countries, but in their economic and political interests as well, to encourage the strength of developing country economies, hoping that they would provide some of the dynamism to help fend off a general global recession. Such, for example, has been one of the strong arguments put forward by the World Bank to justify low interest loans to the developing countries, as well as the report of the Brandt Commission which sought means of escaping the stalemate into which North-South negotiations seem to have fallen.

 The Bandwagon 

An important element of this new ideology is a growing awareness of the pragmatic arguments in favor of appropriate technologies. It soon became obvious to both development economists and industrial planners that if a technology was introduced in a country in an insensitive way that not only failed to work successfully, but also disrupted existing social processes, then however advanced or otherwise desirable the technology it was not likely to help the general development effort. It was not only the intermediate technologists who could point out the ridiculousness of introducing an automated plastic-sandal factory into a country where shoemaking and mending were an important craft industry and source of employment. One of the first established institutions to accept the technical logic of the appropriate technology argument was the Development Center of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development – the O.E.C.D.– which published a series of papers under the guidance of Nicolas Jequier in 1976 called “Appropriate Technology–Problems and Promises”, followed last year by an “Appropriate Technology Directory”, both of which are impressive compilations of the arguments in favor of taking factors from the social environment into consideration when deciding what type of technology should be introduced into a particular development situation. 

The interest of the O.E.C.D. has been the prelude to similar initiatives from other international development bodies. The World Bank, for example, shifted its policies in the late 1970s away from merely concentrating on factors which influence economic performance to the need to build up a social infrastructure which could guarantee this performance, and in many cases this meant developing an indigenous capability to produce food or power through techniques that could exploit locally available resources. In a similar vein, many large multinational companies realized that they were likely to sell more of their products abroad if these products could be tailored to the specific needs of one country or another, and therefore started to produce goods which were “appropriate” to local market conditions, such as the solar heaters produced for India by the Grumman Corporation, or the Ford Motor Company’s efforts to produce a car designed specifically to operate in Third World conditions. Further evidence of the extent to which what was a novel idea ten years ago has now entered the mainstream of development thinking is provided by the report of the Brandt Commission, published earlier this year. This report states in supporting the need for appropriate technologies in Third World countries, that there is an “urgent need to provide new incentives to develop appropriate technologies and, almost more importantly, to make them known to everyone”. Finally appropriate technology thinking has even penetrated the spheres of the Trilateral Commission, the organization formed by New York banker David Rockefeller to coordinate the response of private, industrialized-world institutions to the demands being made on them by the newly emergent economic powers in the Third World. In an article in the Commission’s regular magazine, Trialogue, Dr. Umberto Colombo, head of Italy’s Nuclear Energy Commission, argues that appropriate technologies are “indispensible for the survival of hundreds of millions of people who would otherwise be completely left out of the development process.”

Such arguments illustrate a fundamental shift in attitude that has occurred within the industrialized countries towards the type of technological strategy that they feel the developing countries should adopt. There has been a relative weakening of the idea that the rate of development can be maximized only through transferring highly advanced technologies and letting the effects trickle down through the society; at the same time, Dr. Schumacher’s ideas that technology should be tailored to specific social and environmental conditions have slowly gathered force. But this process has coincided with a completely separate one within the developing countries themselves. The more they have tasted the fruits of scientific and technological progress, the more effectively they have been able to recognize and articulate demands for greater control over those fruits and the processes which produce them. Frequently this had led to direct challenges to the multinational ownership and control of productive enterprises, and in forums such as the United Nations the developing countries have been able to use their political power as sovereign states to compensate for their economic weakness in demanding a fairer share of the rewards of “progress.” 

by Ricardo Navarro 

Ricardo Navarro is President of the Centro Salvadoreno de Tecnologia Apropriada (CESTA) in San Salvador, El Salvador. CESTA is a non-profit independent organization, in charge of promoting the implementation of technologies appropriate to the social and economic conditions of the country.  

One problem with the A.T. (appropriate technology) movement is that appropriate technology is usually not clearly defined, sometimes meaning different things for different people. Frequently it is thought of as technology which is small scale or of an intermediate size, labor intensive, light capital, and uses renewable resources. Such technology is considered “appropriate” and its use is promoted without questioning its direct effectiveness or indirect consequences for the development of a country or region. While it is true that several of these new technologies carry a human dimension greater than conventional technologies, it is also true that their use involves considerable danger, since they may represent a subtle new form of economic exploitation. Furthermore, the A.T. movement contributes to creating the impression that appropriate technology is a necessary and sufficient condition to get the poor countries out of the underdeveloped state.

Does this mean that, what people call “appropriate technology” is necessarily a bad movement? The answer is no. But in order to be a good movement it has to meet some requirements. Any technology is appropriate for something, and we must discuss what it is that we want the technology to be appropriate for. Do we want a technology appropriate for exploiting a particular natural resource, or appropriate for concentrating the power and well being of a few, or appropriate for strengthening the ties of economic dependence of one country on another country, or appropriate for maximizing the profits of a multinational corporation? There are a lot of technologies appropriate for achieving those goals and some people would argue that they are also “appropriate technologies.” 

How do we limit our definition of A.T. so that it is “appropriate” for people, and its conception does not become corrupted and misused by the international capitalist system to exploit the poor people of the world? It seems to me that a straightforward definition is, a technology is appropriate if and only if IT CONTRIBUTES TO THE LIBERATION OF THE OPPRESSED PEOPLE IN THE WORLD. With this definition, appropriate technology is the technology which is oriented towards placing a country in a position of being capable of satisfying the needs of the people (physical, spiritual and social needs). But that satisfaction is not only a technological problem; it is also, and more importantly, an economic problem. It is the structure of an economic system that allows small sectors of the population to accumulate huge profits, leaving large groups of people without the resources to satisfy their basic human needs. Therefore, to talk about appropriate technology, we must concomitantly talk about an “appropriate economic system”, that is, a system in which the economic forces are efficiently oriented towards satisfying human needs.

The fact that an “appropriate economic system” is a requirement for “appropriate technology” to exist, by no means implies that nothing can be done on technological grounds until a given country has a desirable economic system. A lot of experience can be gained by developing pilot projects to see the performance of a new idea or the cultural problems of the adoption of a given technology – but always bearing in mind their limitations. Furthermore, if my definition is taken seriously, there is always the possibility of developing a technology that in and of itself helps create the conditions for the installation of an “appropriate economic system”. But it is crucial that no false expectations be created by letting people believe that technology has the answers to their social problems. Technology certainly will help, but a social change might be an indispensable requirement for development.

In summary, no technology is appropriate for a country, when there is an “inappropriate economic system”; on the other hand, an appropriate economic system will not grow and develop if it is not sustained by appropriate technology, that is, technology that makes efficient use of resources, and contributes to accelerating the process of national and human liberation. 


The Reaction 

The developed countries have reacted to this by maintaining their commitment to supporting growth in the Third World, but at the same time by doing what they can to ensure that the patterns of growth present a minimal challenge to the operations of private capital. If the technical norms which structure technology transfer agreements are those determined by the demands of “efficient” production, then the political norms structuring the same process dictate that private capital should retain the right to organize and control production. The economic and political aspects of technology transfer coincide in this way to ensure that the creation of private profit is maximized; and one of the main problems with this is that it implicitly undermines any attempt to create a development strategy in which the search for private profit, and the forms of social exploitation and control which this frequently entails, are not allowed to dominate all other considerations. 

Appropriate technology does not escape this dilemma. Intermediate technologists, in particular, like to argue that technology is politically neutral. At the same time, however, those Western institutions which are increasingly beginning to support appropriate technology ideas clearly have a political as much as an economic goal – even if they are not prepared to accept it as such – namely to develop a rational system of global production and consumption which, eventually, provides optimal conditions for the continued expansion and dominance of private capital.

There is for example, the frequently heard argument that one of the values of appropriate technology lies in its ability to stimulate and encourage local entrepreneurial talent. To quote Dr. Colombo of the Trilateral Commission, “The main function of appropriate, low-cost technologies would be that of helping initiate a process of development by stimulating the innovative forces that exist in any community, and that would be penalized by an industrialization process based on capital-intensive, large-scale technologies which, in a narrow market economy, have a higher productivity than the more labor-intensive, smaller-scale technologies suitable for decentralized economies.” In other words, appropriate technology as Dr. Colombo sees it is essentially a formula for small-scale, rather than large-scale, capitalism, of the type which needs to be encouraged.

Such an approach to appropriate technology feeds directly into a foreign policy which stresses a desire by the industrialized countries to remain in control of the restructuring of international patterns of production. It is an idea characterized by what former President Carter’s National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski called the “stable management of global change”. Its purpose is to mould the debate between the rich and poor countries – or between the North and the South – in a way that ensures that the outcome conforms to the interests of the global centers of economic power. Having agreed that a new agenda needs to be negotiated between the two sides in terms of their respective approaches to the development process, part of the strategy of the industrialized nations is to attempt, where possible, to ensure that the terms of reference under which each agenda item is discussed tend to coincide with these interests. This is as true of the appropriate technology debate as it is of more conventional trade and technology transfer negotiations. Dr. Colombo writes that “In the context of the North-South negotiations, scientific and technological policy should be given adequate attention, as it is a necessary ingredient in managing complexity and change”. The key question, of course, is: In whose interests will such complexity and change be managed? And how do the techniques of management reflect the interests that they serve? 

As Dr. Colombo suggests, the developed countries are concerned that they should retain control of the way production is organized and controlled in the developing countries, so as to ensure that any surpluses generated should make their way back to the owners of private capital, usually in the developed countries. If we see technology as a process rather than merely a set of products – and by this I mean as a combination of techniques and the social relations that they embody – then controlling the forms taken by technological development will ensure that social relations develop that are appropriate to the financial interests of outside investors. One could describe technology transfer policies as providing the scaffolding for a system which can be used to exploit through its internal operation, rather than through the more conventional trade relationships that dominate the market-place.

Many multinational companies explicitly acknowledge such a strategy, although perhaps more in discussing their own production needs than in putting forward their arguments for appropriate technology. Although many were initially opposed to outside “political” interference in the technology transfer process, such corporations have more recently emphasized that they are willing to adopt a more flexible stance, and to discuss how their operations may be brought closer in line with the goals, needs and resources of a host country. At the same time the corporations stress that the price of their cooperation must be the willingness of the host country to accept the way in which the company operates. Not only must there be a guarantee of a stable political environment – i.e. one which is favorable to foreign capital and to the removal of profits – but a host country is frequently also required to accept and respect the particular way that a company has decided to exploit and control the dissemination of technical knowledge, in terms of who shall have access to it and on what terms.

As a result, even where the notion of appropriate technology is absorbed into a development strategy, unless strong countermeasures are taken, the pattern of growth of such an economy can be successfully manipulated without the more obviously inequitable imbalances of trade relationships. Frequently this seems to be done with the active participation of Third World elites, ready to reap the domestic profits. And often offical government policies in the industrialized countries towards technical aid provide the environment in which this strategy can operate. At the time when multinational corporations were opposing demands for a New International Economic Order, the developed countries fell in line with the general argument that equitable relationships with the Third World could be adequately maintained through traditional channels of trade and aid, and that the political balance of economic power was irrelevant in a situation where everyone, it was argued, shared a common interest in maximizing the efficiency of the overall system. Now that even the industrialized nations have begun to realize that some conscious restructuring of the global economy may be desirable, the result has been that the new need is not to oppose but to steer this restructuring process – and the strategies of government have changed accordingly.

The US, for example, has explicitly made use of its position of technological dominance to demand that, if other countries require access to its store of technical knowledge, this will only be granted on the condition that the political rules are respected. In other words, technical knowledge must be respected as private property, so that its allocation and use can primarily be determined by the private capital which owns and therefore controls it. Productive efficiency in the developing countries is promoted in this way, even where forms of appropriate technology are used to provide the material bases, such as food, shelter and energy, on which the reproduction and expansion of capital depends. But the net result is a system that can, unless conscious steps are taken to prevent it, primarily serve the economic and political interests of elites in both the developing and the developed nations. 


 Various conclusions seem to emerge from the historic failure to produce any significant change in how applying science and technology to development is perceived. For example, however much agreement there is on the need to build up indigenous research and development efforts, these are likely – unless countermeasures are taken – to be undercut by the strategies of multinational corporations who choose specifically not to decentralize their R&D activities, preferring merely to transfer the results of their research from a research base in the developed countries. Various reasons are given for this, ranging from the difficulty of recruiting adequately trained research staff to fears that foreign governments might demand access to the results of this research – a form of nationalization of knowledge whose threat drove both I.B.M. and Coca-Cola out of India – and that this would eliminate the competitive advantages of proprietary protection. The main argument used is that it is more efficient to concentrate research facilities near the centers of command in the developed countries, with greater access to research resources; but one of the principal purposes is to minimize the vulnerability of the knowledge produced to any political challenge to the rights of ownership and control by international capital. The effect is to discourage efforts at establishing research capabilities within the developing nations, particularly in areas where these might conflict with multinational strategies. And even where a domestic research effort is mounted, for example into technologies designed to meet specific local agricultural or energy needs, the resources available to these are minimal compared to the resources devoted to more mainstream technological developments. 

The second conclusion concerns the price of access to technology. In recent years the developed countries have begun to realize that their store of what is referred to as “intellectual capital”, generated by more than a century of industrially-oriented research and development, has become an important factor in determining their international economic strength. One result of this recognition is that, rather than liberalizing the access of the developing countries to this intellectual capital by making it more freely available, the developed countries are being tempted in the opposite direction, demanding a higher price to exploit its full commercial potential. They place emphasis on a need to develop a “free market” in technology, with the price supposedly set by classical ideas of supply and demand, but equally reflecting the dominance by the developed countries of the technological marketplace – and their preference, from the economic point of view, to export advanced, capital-intensive technologies with high margins of profit, rather than the relatively unprofitable small-scale, labor-intensive technologies which many developing countries really need, but on which the profit margins are that much smaller.

These two tendencies implicit in the global political economy – to control the dissemination of research results, and stress those which promise the greatest profitability – mean that the general terms in which the debate is framed pose limits on any alternative patterns of technological development which are likely to receive support. This is even true in official discussion about the New International Economic Order, where stress is again frequently placed, even by the developing countries themselves, on economic performance, to the exclusion of broader social and ecological factors from decisions about technological strategy. But in many of the debates about alternative and appropriate technologies the need is stressed for experimentation with new forms of control of the technologies of production and consumption (even if this particular dimension is frequently ignored in some of the intermediate technology debates, which concentrate on what is claimed to be more pragmatic concerns). The need is for both production and consumption decisions to be opened up to collective participation and decision-making, thus directly challenging the authoritarian and hierarchical forms of control which tend to be embedded in technologies exported or adapted directly from the industrialized world.

Alternatives are also needed to the antagonistic attitude which these technologies frequently assume towards the integrity of the natural environment. Again, however, the debates about appropriate technology as framed by international capital concentrate primarily on the material parameters of social need and resource availability. However important these may be – and I do not want to be misinterpreted as implying that I do not believe these to be important – the equally important political component, that can frequently mean the difference between success and failure, may be discarded or conveniently ignored, and the idea that appropriate technology should be based on a new concept of harmony between human actions and the social and natural environment is relegated to the “irrelevant” sphere of metaphysics. Where there is a challenge to capitalist forms of control, this is banished to the fringes of the appropriate technology debate; the husks which are left are easily co-opted by institutions that promote on a global scale the social relations of capitalist production, neglecting the extent to which these may be at the root of the problem of ”inappropriateness”.

My basic argument, then, is that however important we regard the need for appropriate or intermediate technologies in Third World countries – and indeed frequently in the industrialized world as well – we can only talk about appropriate technology as part of a development strategy if we do so in the context of global patterns of technology transfer, and their underlying political determinants. With the growing internationalization of production, we seem to be witnessing a shift from a system of international trade between supposedly independent partners, to one in which countries are bound together through multinational banks and corporations and their investment strategies in a common exercise to generate greater profits. Rather than providing greater equality between all those engaged in this exercise, the system tends to magnify the inequalities that already exist, as illustrated by the growing gap between rich and poor nations, and between the elites and the masses in many developing countries themselves. Furthermore, this growing technological interdependence has also tended to institutionalize the control mechanisms by which international capital is able to dictate the policies and strategies that best serve its interests. Unless new ways are found to break the cycle of what I would call internal technological dependency, the developing countries are likely to find their technological policies determined by this fate. What is required is not merely forms of technology which are genuinely appropriate to local needs, aspirations and human and material resources, but the ability to place these in a political context which will demand greater control, by both producers and consumers, over the directions of technological development. It is in the process of struggle for this control, to take technological choice out of the hands of the banks and the multinational corporations and place it in the hands of the people who are most affected by it, that a truly appropriate technology will be conceived and born.