Appropriate technology is an approach of using environmentally conscious, cost-effective, small projects rather than high technology and huge expensive projects to improve the lives of people around the world. Mohandas K. Gandhi was an early advocate of appropriate technology use, arguing that the massive Indian population could not afford the waste and expense involved with many development projects advocated in the West. Gunnar (d. 1987) and Alva Myrdal (d. 1986), an economist and a diplomat from Sweden, also supported the use of appropriate technology in Third World or Global South development projects. In Asian Drama: An Inquiry into the Poverty of Nations and the Challenge of World Poverty: A World Anti-Poverty Outline, Gunnar Myrdal focused on ways to break out of the cycle of poverty whereby low productivity led to low income that in turn contributed to low savings and low capital.
A number of countries and individual development experts have successfully utilized appropriate technology. In the poor West African nation of Burkina Faso numbers of young people were given short training courses in administering shots; they then went out to rural centers in the countryside, where they gave shots to children. Thus at low cost the nation’s children were inoculated for the five major childhood diseases.
The Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy (d. 1989) attempted to solve the problem of providing low-cost housing by using cheap mud brick that was easily available and aesthetically pleasing. After World War II he built an experimental village, Gourna, in southern Egypt, entirely of mud brick structures; unfortunately the project was mired in bureaucratic and political problems, and Fathy’s approach was only adopted by some artists in Egypt and wealthy Americans in the Southwest.
In 1977 Wangari Muta Maathai of Kenya initiated the Green Belt movement, in which women were mobilized to reforest degraded land; she also fought for the cancellation of African debt and an end to political corruption. Her work for the environment was recognized with the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize. In another small but successful project pest-resistant grasses were planted around crops to increase productivity and the grasses were fed to livestock, increasing profits from both crops. In the field of health care President Carter’s center in Atlanta, Georgia, aimed to eliminate guinea worm disease, which afflicted many poor people, especially in western Africa. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the richest private philanthropic organization, established programs to raise vaccination rates and eliminate other virulent diseases.
In Asia microfinance projects such as the Grameen Bank provided loans for poor women (who had a more reliable rate of repayment than men) for start-up money for small businesses or the purchase of farm animals such as chickens, goats, and cows that provided much needed income and protein to supplement meager diets.
Until late in the 20th century the World Bank and other aid organizations tended to fund high-tech projects such as dams, factories, or roads. Toward the end of the century agencies shifted their priorities but, politicians preferred larger, more visible projects with investment from the top rather than on the grassroots level. Although advocates of appropriate technology and environmentalists argued that bigger was not always better, that it was not necessary to build the world’s highest skyscraper or biggest dam, nations as diverse as Egypt, Turkey, and China went ahead with the huge Aswan Dam, Atatürk Dam, and Three Gorges Dam, and others continued the construction of environmentally damaging projects.
- Fathy, Hassan. Natural Energy and Vernacular Architecture: Principles and Examples with Reference to Hot Arid Climates. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press for The United Nations University, 1986;
- Sachs, Jeffrey. The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time. London: Penguin Press, 2005;
- Tenner, Edward. Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of the Unintended Consequences. New York: Vintage Books, 1997.
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