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The paper by George McRobie, reproduced here in abridged form, appeared in "North-South Co-operation" 1992. Dr McRobie is co-founder of the Intermediate Technology Development Group, Rugby, England. He argues that the large-scale and capital-intensive technologies of the North are inherently unsustainable, and to continue exporting them can only exacerbate the problems of the South. He describes some of the achievements of the Alternative Technology movement, and explains the factors that make for success or failure.

The choice of technology is the most important decision that confronts governments and others who determine what is produced, how it is produced, and by whom and for whom. Until quite recently it was assumed that cheap and abundant energy and rapid technological progress had opened up an era of limitless and potentially world-wide economic growth. This was seen as the obvious way forward for the newly independent countries of the Third World.

Small is Beautiful

The critical role of technology in such development was first brought into focus by the late E F Schumacher thirty years ago. In his famous book he argued that large-scale capital-and-energy-intensive industries would exacerbate rather than solve the problems of the poor countries. Such technologies, he pointed out, were inappropriate because they:

  • offer few and expensive work-places, whereas the poor countries need a lot of cheap work-places;
  • are located chiefly in cities, whereas it is in rural areas that most of the poor live;
  • tend to displace traditional non-farm activities formerly carried on in rural areas;
  • accelerate the drift to the cities;
  • make poor countries dependent on rich countries for spare-parts;
  • Distort the culture as well as the economy of the poor countries by breaking down rural structures (technology is not culturally neutral).

To encourage an alternative form of technology transfer, the Intermediate Technology Development Group was formed in London in 1965. We began by aiming to create a larger number of cheap work places in rural areas, using simple production methods based on local materials. We did not put the fashionable emphasis on GNP, believing that development should mean the development of people by giving them help in educating and organising themselves, and access to the equipment with which they could work themselves out of their poverty.

We further aimed to create an international network of like-minded organisations, to change the whole emphasis of aid and development towards small-scale technology capable of bringing appropriate industry into rural areas.

Small is Possible

For some years progress was slow. However, by the mid- 1970s the increasing failures of the large-scale industry strategy led to corresponding recognition of the relative success of our alternative. Then came the failure of African agriculture; the huge and unrepayable Third World debt; and the relentless growth of unemployment in developing (as well as in some large developed) countries.

These events highlighted the folly of directly transplanting rich-country technology, and the damage done to the poor. Huge cities have proliferated in the Third World, largely from an influx of rural poor desperately seeking usually non-existent jobs. The UN expects that by 2000 Mexico City, San Paolo, Calcutta, Cairo and Jakarta will have more than 15 million inhabitants, some of them up to 30 million. In 1950 only six cities in the world had over five million inhabitants: within the next decade there are likely to be 60. By then the UN estimates that another 1.2 billion will enter working age, 900 million of whom will be unable to find a regular source of income. This is surely a prescription for misery and violence on an unprecedented scale.

Despite this evidence of the failure of efforts to transplant Northern technology to the South, it is still argued that, as the developing countries demand Northern lifestyles, with the technologies and kind of economic growth these bring, we should aim to adapt our existing technologies so they can be absorbed more gradually and equitably. On this view, small-scale technologies should be simply a stepping-stone for the South to the conventional technologies and lifestyles of the North.

This is a dangerous misconception. Northern technologies, in their predominant form, are not sustainable - either in industry or in agriculture. Readers will be aware of the disasters - human and environmental - that afflict much of the world through following that path.

An area of prime significance in the under-developed world is agriculture. Chemical agriculture is inappropriate for developing countries. The appropriate technology is biological husbandry, based on ecological principles, eschewing chemical inputs and treating the soil as a living organism to be nurtured.

Because most poor people make a living on small farms, in small businesses, or as artisans, the appropriate technologies will be small, simple, cheap and non-violent towards people and the environment. Devising and adapting such technologies is a slow and laborious task: it must be capable of raising its users' real income on a sustainable basis. It should be capable of local operation and maintenance, of local (or at least indigenous) manufacture; such use as far as possible local and renewable raw materials and energy sources; and should lend itself to widespread reproduction using indigenous resources and through the medium of local markets.

Already there are at least 20 AT (Alternative Technology) organisations undertaking practical research and development to these ends. The movement 25 years ago had two workers - now there are more than 170. Between 1984 and 1988 some 1,200 small enterprises were set up with AT International's help in 22 countries, at an average cost per workplace of US$1,500.

Today, low-cost technologies exist in agricultural equipment and food-processing, water supply, building materials, textiles, energy and transport. Technology choices can be created for all practical purposes right across the board. When high-quality engineers turn their minds to devising small-scale, capital- and energy -saving technologies, they can produce remarkable results.

Yet this is only a start. A huge amount of research and development is needed for the expansion of such projects over far wider areas. Aid-giving governments and institutions should be giving top priority to the provision of finance and facilities for the further development of these alternative technologies.


Transplanting rich technologies to cities of the South is of little help to the mainly poor rural majorities there. Success in establishing appropriate technologies that enable the poor to work themselves out of their poverty is achieved only by collaborating with local people in identifying their priorities and their resources. The appropriate technology to meet those needs must then be embodied in a package that includes credit, materials supply, marketing and technical training and back-up.

There is now plenty of evidence that AT is an efficient, cost-effective way of meeting a wide range of human needs. The relatively slow progress so far reflects the fact that national policies in many countries of the South very often work against the spread of alternative technologies through the market.

Nevertheless, the widespread growth of ATs is likely to accelerate, with the expansion in the number and expertise of voluntary organisations in the South. The influence of these organisations at local and national level helps to ensure the control of the poor. The voluntary organisations become more important as economic and political power becomes more centralised. As redistributors of economic power their role is crucial, and not only in the countries of the South.

Source: Pacific World, No. 28, Aug. 1993.

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