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Def i ni ng appropri ate technology (AT) is difficult; it means many things to many people, and what may be understood as appropriate to one community may not be consistent with another. In broad terms, the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT) describes AT as a technology that is simple to apply, is not capital or energyintensive, uses local resources and labor, and protects environmental resources and human health. Practical Action, a nongovernmental organization (NGO), suggests that AT takes advantage of local resources, uses and employs recyclable materials, is affordable, and generates local employment in its application.
AT emerged as a movement during the 1960s in the context of economic theory that argued that Western models of development were unsustainable, environmentally degrading and would not provide benefit to the world’s poor. Ernst Schumacher is regarded as the founder of the AT movement and is best known for his seminal work, Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered. Schumacher, an economist, argued that the world’s poor did not benefit from modern technological advancement because it wasn’t affordable, accessible, or appropriate to their circumstances. Therefore, he suggested that an intermediate or appropriate form of technology should be developed, at a small scale that built upon the existing skills and knowledge base of local communities. The use of such technology would ensure all people, including the poor, maintain improved standards of living and that natural resources are managed sustainably for future generations.
In 1966, Schumacher founded the Intermediate Technology Development Group, designed to reduce poverty around the world by the application of AT principals. Now known as Practical Action, the group coordinates projects in Latin America, East Africa, Southern Africa, and South Asia. Their projects are established to assist communities to develop AT in the areas of food production, agroprocessing, energy, transport, small enterprise development, shelter development, small-scale mining, and disaster mitigation. For example, projects aimed at encouraging the use of indigenous food crops and the sustainable harvest of wildlife have been trialed in order to facilitate increased food production without degradation of the natural environment.
Unlike Practical Action, NCAT was founded to improve the living standards of poor Americans, not those in developing countries. During the 1973 energy crisis, the cost of fuel rose dramatically because the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) stopped supplying the United States and Western Europe with oil due to their support for Israel during the Israeli war with Egypt and Syria. Consequently, many poor Americans could not afford to heat their homes. To help conserve and reduce the amount of energy required to heat a building, NCAT devised AT solutions, such as super insulation, and designed technological solutions that were appropriate for poorer households. NCAT now primarily focuses on sustainable farming techniques, such as reducing chemical use.
In Australia, the Centre for Appropriate Technology (CAT) manages projects designed to improve the lives of Aboriginal peoples living in remote areas where access to modern technology is limited, unaffordable, or not appropriate in environmental or cultural contexts. Like indigenous peoples all over the world, Australian Aborigines face severe socioeconomic challenges. CAT provides AT that is not only cheap and easy to maintain, but also helps build the skills capacity within a local communities through the provision of training and information sessions in appropriate formats (such as brochures and training guides in local languages).
Appropriate Technology Advocacy
The AT movement also performs a significant advocacy role. For example, CAT advocates funding for capacity-building programs and for the adoption of the Sustainable Livelihoods model into Australian policy design and decision-making processes for remote aboriginal communities. The Sustainable Livelihoods model is an international program that evolved from a research paper by Robert Chambers and Gordon Conway in 1991, called “Sustainable Rural Livelihoods: Practical Concepts for the 21st Century.” This model, which has since been championed by government and NGOs, aims to reduce poverty. It is based on ensuring that when development decisions are made in poor countries, the decisions are designed to be appropriate and will ensure benefits accrue to the whole community, not just the ruling elite. Practical Action advocates for the development of policies and practices within the United Kingdom and European Union (EU) that will benefit the world’s poor.
It is important to note that AT does not advocate abandoning modern technology. Rather, modern technology should be delivered on a small, localized scale, such as a Remote Area Power System (RAPS) that will generate electricity for remote communities where it is not technically or economically feasible to be connected to a main power supply.
As the pace of technological advancement increases, developing nations are being left farther behind and the gap between the technologically rich and poor is growing ever wider. Increasingly, developed countries are defending their economic interests more aggressively and only countries with strong institutional arrangements are able to take part and benefit from globalized markets. Therefore, AT will increasingly play a significant role in providing the world’s poor, isolated, and rural communities with access to technology that enhances and provides benefit to their lives.
- R. Chambers and G. Conway, Sustainable Rural Livelihoods: Practical Concepts for the 21st Century (Institute of Development Studies, 1991);
- R. Grieve, “Appropriate Technology in a Globalizing World,” International Journal of Technology (2004);
- S. Lall, “Industrial Success and Failure in a Globalizing World,” International Journal of Technology Management and Sustainable Development (v.3 2004).