On 29 August 1965, an article was published in The Observer entitled “How to help them help themselves” written by Fritz Schumacher the distinguished economist with support from his close friend Observer editor, David Astor. In it Schumacher pointed out the inadequacies of aid based on the transfer of large scale, capital-intensive technologies and argued for a shift towards “intermediate technologies”, based on the needs and skills possessed by poor people themselves. This article helped shape the future of development.
It clearly caught the imagination of readers judging by the following Sunday’s letters, leading Schumacher and his associates to create an ‘advisory centre’ to promote the use of efficient labour-intensive techniques in the developing world. The Intermediate Technology Development Group, now known as Practical Action, was born.
Schumacher went on to write “Small is Beautiful – A Study of Economics as if People Mattered”. This was published in 1973 and, along with Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring”, helped to kick start the modern environmental movement. Schumacher was voted the second most influential environmentalist of all time in a Guardian readers’ poll in 2006 (with Carson at number one).
From the outset the Group pioneered the idea of participative technology development, where people are engaged directly in the development of technical solutions to problems they face. Typical examples have included:
- Working with small farmers in Darfur in Sudan to develop a plough that could be pulled by donkeys in the 1970’s – the only potential draught animal available locally – massively increasing the area of land that could be cultivated by farmers who had previously only used hand tools such as the hoe
- Building local capacity to manufacture turbines in Nepal in the 1980’s, which subsequently allowed over 2000 micro hydro-electricity projects to be built across the country, providing electricity for the first time to hundreds of thousands of people.
- More recently, introducing techniques that allow farmers who have lost their land due to river erosion in Bangladesh to continue to produce food using floating gardens in the monsoon and techniques to cultivate crops in the barren sands of dry river beds for the rest of the year.
- Providing an online enquiry service for people who want to harness technology for development that, last year, answered over 60,000 individual requests for advice and saw over 1.6 million downloads of technical information from its websites.
Fritz Schumacher and David Astor believed strongly both in development aid and the role technology could play in lifting people out of poverty. But they wanted assistance delivered differently, in a way that helped people help themselves. They also saw the need for a different form of technology, human in scale, that allowed a form of economic development ‘as if people mattered’. 50 years on, Practical Action still practices the same philosophy of Technology Justice, arguing for access to the basic technologies essential for a minimum standard of life for the 2 billion people currently living in poverty and for a shift in the focus of technological innovation away from consumer wants to the two great challenges of our time – eliminating poverty and providing a sustainable future for life on this planet.
Readers of the Observer and The Guardian have been supportive of the organization over the years, giving generously to Christmas appeals in 2006 and 2013. Thanks to them, Fritz Schumacher and David Astor, we can continue to show that technology holds the answer to many of the world’s problems and has the power to transform lives.