5 Principles of democratising technology
5 Principles of democratising technology
The issues of HIV/AIDS, climate change and nanotechnology all highlight the global imbalance of power between those who are affected by the applications of technology and those who, until now, have possessed almost completely unaccountable power to develop those technologies. The nine experiences described here suggest that, even if large organisations such as transnational corporations, governments or civil society organisations decide to begin to redress this balance by providing spaces for those they have previously marginalised to have a voice, turning an intention into a reality requires them to face up to numerous new challenges.
A common assumption made by those trained in scientific or bureaucratic cultures is that there will be a particular participatory methodology - a 'magic bullet' - that can be devised to facilitate dialogue between scientists, technologists and citizens at large. In reality, participatory initiatives are most effective when they acknowledge that each situation will require a different design, using a new combination of tools as part of a continuous cycle of action and reflection.
Because any participatory initiative contains a unique mix of people and institutions, each process will necessarily include elements from a range of approaches and methodologies. Misguided attempts to strictly standardise and replicate protocols, in line with conventional scientific practice, can only undermine the participatory process.
An analogy from natural science
Scientists might find the following explanation valuable: when describing a scientific experiment, it is vital to explain the context in which that experiment takes place. Were the plants in test tubes or in a farmer's field? Were the rats well fed or starving? This logic also applies in attempts to interpret a participatory process, and is roughly analogous to the conditions of an experiment. To be effective in achieving its aims, each process needs to proceed from an understanding of its political, scientific, institutional and practical constraints.
In designing a participatory initiative, any particular methodology - for example, a scenario workshop, participatory video, citizens' jury or stakeholder panel - will be partial and incomplete. An effective process will be achieved by combining a variety of individual approaches that together give rigour and credibility to the whole exercise. Getting the balance of techniques right in any particular context becomes easier as everyone involved in the process reflects with each other on what worked in the past.
Instead of recommending a single mechanism or optimal formula, this document outlines provisional working principles for individuals and organisations who wish to transform the power relations that govern the development of technologies. Each is followed by examples taken from the experiences described above.
No useful knowledge without opportunities for taking power
Participatory initiatives must not only look at the know-how and technical knowledge that is pertinent to a particular decision or issue, but also anticipate how the power relations between different groups will be affected by potential outcomes. In particular the power relations between those who are currently marginalised and companies, that can protect their technical knowledge through intellectual property rights systems and restrictive commercial practices, must be considered.
Girijan Deepika looked at power relations between marginalised rural people and government agencies such as forest-produce extraction agencies and pesticide promoters. They decided that they would retain more power by collectively campaigning for tighter controls on forest-produce extraction.
Farmer Field Schools and ITDGPractical Action's Chivi project analysed the power of local farmers relative to those who were making decisions on their behalf about pesticide and seed policies in the national government. Their response was to organise farmers' unions and women's organisations to ensure that greater investments were made in non-pesticidal management of crop pests. Similarly, the Shambob project in Sudan helped local brick makers to organise their own co-operative that made the use of innovative brick-making technologies economically viable. Having analysed the threat presented by GM crops introduced by Monsanto to the self-reliance of smallholder farmers, the Landless Workers Movement joined other organisations in a national campaign to oppose GM crops.
Policy-makers generally make decisions based on the political pressure they are under, together with the evidence they can obtain to justify their decision. Being able to push both these levers is therefore vital to bringing about change.
Building alliances with other social justice groups is as important as collecting data
No initiative attempting to provide alternative technological perspectives can hope to provide the body of evidence that will have already been gathered by the technology's advocates. Without the resources of governments or large corporations, people can never win the battle of numbers with powerful techno-scientific agencies. However, the voluminous official data can be challenged by the judicious use of smaller quantities of highly valid evidence, often gathered using qualitative as well as quantitative methods.
Phase II and Seagate workers have worked with sympathetic researchers in Scotland and Thailand respectively, who found evidence that contradicts corporate and government claims of the safety of the semiconductor industry. However, the achievement of a policy impact has relied upon political support from wider social movements such as the union movement and CSOs.
Prajateerpu was designed, undertaken and disseminated by a transnational collective of co-researchers from the UK, India and the Netherlands. As well as allowing a jury of marginal farmers to develop a detailed critique of World Bank and bilateral aid agency plans for their region, the process included coalition building with NGOs such as ITDGPractical Action, Friends of the Earth, Christian Aid and ActionAid, whose advocacy added political weight to the research findings.
Allowing people to draw on the best of both worlds
Conveners of initiatives should avoid terminology that romanticises or demonises either 'traditional' knowledge or the 'techno-fix'. Different knowledge systems have been developed by different groups for different purposes.
The Quality Research in Dementia network has been careful not to give those proposing laboratory-based projects - for example, those relating to treatments or genetic tests for Alzheimer's - undue weight compared to research into better physical and social measures for those caring for existing sufferers. In so doing, it values the knowledge of carers equally with the technical knowledge of professionals.
Some Telegu-speaking witnesses in Prajateerpu used English scientific words, acronyms or jargon that could not be understood by most jurors. The facilitators of the process, who included native Telegu speakers who also spoke English, made sure the jurors understood such terms. Jurors in the UK GM Jury process did not favour GM crops being planted in the UK or abroad, but, on the evidence they had heard, some felt that the TV and newspaper coverage had not allowed pro-GM organisations enough space to defend possible future applications of such crops, which made them suspicious.
Lowering the entry requirements for involvement
The assumption that marginalised communities are necessarily passive or apathetic in response to initiatives aimed at democratising decision-making has long been discredited. The myth rests on a failure to acknowledge the many barriers to political participation that exist, particularly for those who have historically been the most disadvantaged. For example, people forced by poverty to work long hours may lack both time and energy to engage in political dialogue and community involvement.
When working in societies where an oral culture is still stronger than one based on the written word, it is important not to exclude non-literate people. The snowballing of any small campaign into something larger, especially one that embraces marginalised groups, will always depend upon the building of face-to-face relationships.
The Landless Workers Movement and the People of the Forest both originally developed their networks largely via activists, many of whom could not read or write. Though both organisations have adult literacy programmes, the movement is essentially run through meetings that use participatory tools to ensure that they are accessible to all, irrespective of formal educational attainment or whether not they are yet literate. Prajateerpu used three locally made films in the participants' own language to outline three contrasting visions for rural agricultural development. This film-making was followed by oral evidence from witnesses who were cross-questioned by members of the jury face to face.
Valuing existing knowledge
While elements of education and information provision can be a useful part of initiatives, opportunities for the emancipatory use of existing knowledge systems and critical assessment of new knowledge should also be provided.
ITDGPractical Action's Chivi project, People of the Forest and the Farmer Field Schools were all peer-education initiatives that also allowed farmers to critique the prevailing bias of their agricultural extension systems. All three schemes allowed farmers and local health workers to build on their existing knowledge, much of which was recognised as valuable, and build more self-reliant systems of agriculture and health-care.
A prerequisite for the involvement of non-specialists in the development of new technologies is that they should have a say in deciding what issues need to be discussed. Unless there are compelling reasons that can be explained to participants, the agenda in any initiative should reflect the issues raised by those who have been previously marginalised from power. These groups or individuals should also be allowed to share control over the process as it proceeds.
The People of the Forest and the Landless Workers Movement are both owned and operated by those marginalised groups who have been denied the right to participate in decisions in the past. They decide on the agenda for deliberative processes and grassroots campaigns. The multi-stakeholder GM Jury was unable to allow participants to decide the agenda for discussion, because the jury's funders wanted the jurors to have a say in advance of an imminent government policy pronouncement. This political context was explained to the jurors, who were allowed to ask for witnesses and written information in addition to those chosen on their behalf.
Safeguarding validity and balance
A broad-based oversight process is vital and should include safeguards which ensure that multiple perspectives and a variety of stakeholder interests are represented.
Prajateerpu and UK GM Jury were both designed as high-profile contributions to politically sensitive debates. It was therefore important to set up an oversight committee containing representatives of a wide range of interest groups and funders. This safeguard ensured that the process could not be captured by any single lobby or organisation with a strong stake in the issue, as has been the case in other juries.
'Do as I do, not just as I say'
In order to gain the trust of the people outside their organisations with whom they work, those advocating greater accountability must also build mechanisms for the involvement of marginalised groups, particularly women, within their own organisations.
It is symptomatic of the difficulty of practising, rather than just preaching, participatory approaches that the most powerful organisations that have pioneered innovations in participatory democracy have often failed to apply such practices to themselves. Referring to his experience with one such organisation, development analyst Nick Hildyard has suggested that:
"� perhaps the first thing that agencies serious about participation and pluralism might take is not to reach for the latest handbook on participatory techniques, but put their own house in order: to consider how their internal hierarchies, training techniques and office cultures discourage receptivity, flexibility, patience, open-mindedness, non-defensiveness, humour, curiosity and respect for the opinions of others."
In any organisation - large or small - this is easier said than done. Yet a failure to implement internally the very approaches that agencies are attempting to encourage externally soon becomes apparent to all those associated with the project, undermining the morale of all those involved.
ITDGPractical Action's Chivi project, the Landless Workers Movement and Farmer Field Schools have all made efforts to address issues of hierarchy within their operations, particularly as they relate to gender. Women undertake the majority of farm tasks in the regions represented by all three initiatives, and their influence on the policies and practices of each organisation has increased in recent years.
Build bridges between technical and non-technical cultures of knowledge
As well as drawing on the know-how and common sense of non-elites, especially of women, initiatives in this area should build bridges with scientists, technologists and associated analysts who are willing to build relationships of solidarity with people who are marginalised from policy-making processes.
Scientists and technologists who become involved in such processes are often enthusiastic about joining non-specialists in opening up and challenging areas of scientific knowledge, rather than treating them as sacrosanct. The Shambob project in Sudan saw the sharing of knowledge and experiences between local innovators, who knew the materials available and what worked in buildings, with ITDGPractical Action specialists in efficient fuel use.
Phase II made links with academic epidemiologists, allowing workers to obtain assessments of the effects of exposure to toxic chemicals in semiconductor factories that were conducted independently of their employers. These assessments in 'lay epidemiology' exposed flaws in the government inspections that forced the agency responsible to improve its system of monitoring.
The Quality Research in Dementia network built links between research scientists and those caring for Alzheimer's sufferers during the meetings at which decisions about future funding were made. Farmer Field Schools involved interactions between agricultural scientists and farmers, leading to a greater understanding between the two groups and the improvement of non-pesticidal pest control methods.
Build global-local coalitions
Where an issue has global ramifications, attempts should be made to build a transnational community of enquiry, which recognises diversity of local know-how and knowledge systems.
ITDGPractical Action's involvement in Prajateerpu led to a sharing of skills between the different project teams. The following year, ITDGPractical Action built on the Indian process, using it to develop the Izwi ne Tarisiro process in a Zimbabwean political context. A growing international community of enquiry involving CSOs, unions, and even some government officials is now attempting to strengthen mechanisms of democratic accountability in agricultural development.
Beginning in 2000, the Landless Workers Movement has built links with international solidarity movements outside Brazil to develop the World Social Forum process that has spawned many national and regional forums. Events in different parts of the world invite those active in diverse social justice initiatives to come together every two years to look at common issues on which they can build their collective capacity for social change.