Small is Working

Technology for Poverty Reduction

Thirty years after Fritz Schumacher wrote his groundbreaking work Small is Beautiful, which challenged previous assumptions about the relentless pursuit of profit and progress, giant organisations and modern technology, pollution, global warming and the loss of biodiversity continue to spiral out of control, while the Millennium Development Goal of cutting poverty in half by 2015 is looking harder than ever to achieve.

For Schumacher, an intermediate technology, which put people and the environment first, provided another way. But is his message still relevant?

George McRobie (friend and colleague of Schumacher, and co-founder of ITDGPractical Action): "Well, I think it’s more relevant than it was when he first gave it. First of all, the gap between the rich and the poor in developing countries is increasing. The rich are getting richer, and the poor, if they’re not getting poorer, are standing still. That is a disaster for the poor, and a disaster for the developing countries, and probably in the long run a disaster for us as well.

"We are persisting in our globalisation, big-scale technology, eliminating people from the process of production, making people simply pawns of large-scale technology. I think in all these ways we are going in the wrong direction, and we need the arguments of Schumacher for greater localisation to prevent being ground into the earth by big technology."

Since Small is Beautiful was written, thousands of projects have proved that small is working. But ensuring that people have the freedom to choose and control the way they use resources, and at a scale that works for them, is still not always given top priority.

George McRobie: "Some things can only be done on a big scale - but not many. It’s perfectly possible to think of electric power which has very, very few big generating stations. At the moment, if it’s done on such a scale that the majority of people are excluded, you should ask the question, is it appropriate? And the answer is, it usually isn’t.

"I’ll let you into a secret. I went to see Schumacher about a week before he died, and the subject of our conversation was, should we not now be applying the concepts of intermediate technology to the rich countries? And he said, decisively yes.

"I come back to my question. We need to ask of technology, and of any economic activity: Is it good for people? Is it good for the environment? Is it good for the resource base? These are the three questions that Schumacher basically was asking. We need to ask these questions about our own societies every bit as much as we need to ask it in developing countries."

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Women’s Development Associations in Sudan

In Sudan, Africa’s largest country, over half of its population live in poverty, yet now a project which began with simple food processing techniques is unlocking women’s potential and transforming their economic and social status in a country which adheres strictly to traditional values and where women are expected to stay in the home.

Mahommed Majzoub (ITDGPractical Action Sudan): "We started by implementing an agro-processing training project. Later we realised that we managed to build community-based organisations for women: we called them the Women’s Development Associations. We realised that this could be a nucleus for building a real women’s movement."

Zakia Bashir attended a food processing course in 1998. She’s a member of a network of women’s subgroups represented by the Kassala Women’s Development Association, or WDA, which administers a revolving fund to which women can apply for funds each week, and also provides regular training. Individuals can borrow up to US $40 and groups up to US $150

Zakia Bashir: "Thanks be to God, our situation has greatly improved. From this work in particular, we have benefited a great deal. We work, we process it, we sell it, and we benefit."

Not only have the women increased food security for their families, they are using their strength as a group to get greater access to the market, by demanding more licences for stalls, as the bustling central market is a male preserve and without a licence they risk police harrassment.

The income-generating benefits of the programme mean that this women’s movement is being welcomed, even in rural communities.

Arafa Hussan: "Before, we didn’t go to the doctors, and we just used medicine bought from the shops or neighbours. If someone had a fever, we’d diagnose it ourselves, but now we can take children to the doctor because we can afford a proper examination."

There are now 13 WDAs throughout Sudan, six in the east and seven in the west. Over 9,000 women have be trained, and in the next 12 months, six more women’s groups will learn new skills.

Hanan Zayed: "We have trained lots of women in technical and administrative skills. Now this course has given people confidence in technical skills, but also skills like book-keeping and chairing meetings."

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Improved Maasai housing

In Kenya, combining local knowledge with new techniques which enhance the Maasai’s traditional and intangible cultural heritage has been key when adapting their homes to more permanent structures.

Sharon Looremetta: "Maasai people "go settling". By this I mean, they have changed their old ways of moving, this nomadic way of life. We are settling down, because we can no longer move from place to place so we need to have permanent house structures."

A Maasai herself, Sharon is helping the women to work out what kind of homes they want to live in. Changes must reflect Maasai tradition, so the women, who have long been the builders, take part in planning and redesigning their homes.

At this workshop, they draw their ideal home. All of them come up with the same floor plan, a code for traditional Maasai family living.

Sharon Looremetta: "The drawings I was doing with them, they were showing me their traditional houses and the improved traditional house, as opposed to them drawing the conventional type of house - none of them has even got an idea, but when it comes to drawing their own traditional house, they can then do the right interior designs."

Any improvements or innovations need to find a way of incorporating these designs. If they don’t, there’s the risk that the changes won’t be adopted.

It’s the roofs that differ most from the traditional nomadic homes. They’ve been specially designed with guttering and a tape to catch rainwater. This innovation cuts down on the number of hours women spend collecting water. As in the past, the Maasai women build their homes together, use wood to construct the main frame and cow dung to plaster the walls.

Sharon Looremetta: "In the traditional improved house, we have lighter windows or openings whereby air can come in. We have enough light. We have private rooms for the owner of the house. We have enough cooking space so that a lot of house accidents are not found.

"To me, I would say a traditional improved house is better, simply because I can build. The moment you are a Maasai your mother or your mother-in-law shows you how to build a house - so I think, I can do it!"

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Renewable energy in Sri Lanka

In Sri Lanka, we see how a people-centred approach to technology is making a difference to the lives of the poor and addressing their basic energy needs. This reflects the kind of work that inter-government organisations like UNESCO, and non-governmental organisations like ITDGPractical Action have been doing.

Lahiru Perera (ITDGPractical Action South Asia): "More than 50% of people in Sri Lanka haven’t got access to grid electricity, and it’s over 70% in the rural areas."

At this test site, a wind turbine is providing enough energy for 22 households. But for long-term success, community ownership is critical, and they formed an electricity consumers association to help with planning, construction and operation.

George McRobie: "It’s one of the questions that we should be asking: Is it good for people? Can the poor afford it, can they understand it, and can they control it?"

Renuka Vittaranage: "We’re very happy to have electricity. Now we can watch TV and do our housework properly. With lamps with had very little light and accidents would happen when children fell asleep doing their homework. The lamp would topple over and cause accidents. Now this doesn’t happen and we can save the money we would have spent on kerosene."

Lahiru Perera: "It’s incredible what they are saying now after getting electricity. Some people are saying that children’s education has gone up, and that they also feel like they belong to the society. Some people say that they are not alone any more because they have light."

If wind power is going to take off, local maintenance and manufacture is essential.

Lahiru Perera: "We have done technical training. So far we have had no problems with the maintenance."

Schumacher’s message is not just applicable to the so-called developing world, and renewable energy is one area where rich and poor countries alike can make a difference in protecting the environment.

Lahiru Perera: "I think the potential for wind power everywhere around the world is so high, and it’s an untapped resource."

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Further information

An extended version of the Small is Working video will soon be available, together with a book containing further examples which demonstrate that human-scale technologies can be an important part of the process of people meeting their needs and realising their rights in a way that is environmentally and socially sustainable.

Both the book and video are co-published by ITDGPractical Action with UNESCO and the Television Trust for the Environment (TVE), who produce the multimedia Hands On Earth Report series. The video and book have been produced in commemoration of the 30th anniversary of the publication of Schumacher's influential book, Small is Beautiful.

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