Monday, October 5, 2009

Technology Transfer: not always a good solution for sustainable development

Climate Change discussions are filled with ideas for technology transfer, and every time I hear the discussions I shudder. From decades of attempts at building sustainable development, we can say for sure that technology transfer is, at best, a mixed blessing. Too often it is based on an old idea that has not yet been retired as it should have – that technology is good and will bring economic growth and development and that technology is transferable. But technology is not always transferable. And that includes renewable energy technology, a favorite among Sustainable development folks.

Let’s take the example of cooking stoves. Women in Southern Africa chop down trees (or gather dead wood if its available) for fuel to cook food, especially those women for whom petrol is too expensive. This contributes to deforestation and, when the cooking is done indoors, it can increase respiratory illness. Not a great situation for people or planet For the past decade, there have been various attempts to change this pattern to enhance sustainable development. They have rarely been successful.

Most of these ‘technological fixes’ have come from the West, designed in American or Dutch laboratories and then taken down to Southern Africa. There are problems of uptake, problems of usefulness, of familiarity, and of countless little things those who designed these new stoves didn’t think of. People prefer the taste of food made with fire. The new designs (there have been several of them) break easily, or take more time, or are not suited to other aspects of the culture.

So what does work? One really had to get to the heart of sustainable development. And that means, remembering that in putting people and planet first, that includes putting the knowledge of local indigenous people first. Technology should not be designed far away and then assumed to work. It needs to be designed with the local people as much as possible. Those times when that has happened, using local materials and local knowledge, has led to greater success.

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