RUGBY, United Kingdom — “Find out what people are doing and help them do it better” is the underlying philosophy behind Practical Action’s work towards technology justice. Founded in 1966 under the name Intermediate Technology Development Group, Practical Action set out to bridge the technological gap between industrialized and developing countries.
Since then Practical Action has launched independent businesses focused on power generation and transportation, expanded into over 45 developing countries and made a shift away from a specialized emphasis on technology, toward a more holistic approach to reducing poverty. Still, their near five decades of success has been underpinned by their incisive and nuanced understanding of the role of technology.
Technology has been the driver behind most of humanity’s development, from fire to fuel cells, and ceramics to computing. It affords well-being with less effort. As technology and knowledge lay the foundation for more advanced technology, a virtuous cycle is established and reinforced. It is precisely these elements of technology that explains, partly, the incredible differences in living standards and technological capacity across the globe.
However, these elements add a layer of complexity to using technology, especially the transfer of technology, to end poverty. Developed country technology is capital-intensive and is influenced by the needs and wants of a much wealthier population. Generally, developing countries lack sufficient capital, technical skills and large markets to make the adoption of developed country technology very effective.
By recognizing these patterns, Practical Action realized that technology transfers to help the world’s poor were not so simple. Practical Action developed the idea that “intermediate technologies,” that are based on the needs and skills of local people in developing countries, is the path to properly using technology to end poverty. Transfers of technology needed to be appropriate to the local conditions, and in order to optimize the power that technology provides, transfers should build skills and know-how.
The areas that Practical Action has chosen to focus on reflect this understanding. They work in a variety of thematic groups including development of markets, access to energy, urban water and waste, food and agriculture and adaptation to climate change, all of which are critical in lifting people out of poverty.
Earthen dams that collect and filter water during droughts, home composting systems that increase yields and incomes, solar powered water pumps, floating gardens, micro desalination plants for poor coastal communities and clay pot refrigeration systems are just a sampling of “intermediate technologies” that Practical Action uses to help over 1 million people out of poverty every year.
These technologies are inexpensive, targeted to the specific needs of poor populations and are used to teach technical skills to increase the capacity of the poor community so that they may help themselves in the future. Their work will continue to identify problems and create solutions to the myriad of location specific challenges that poverty presents.
– John Wachter