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Appropriate Technology

By Hans Shenk, RMM staff writer and Josiah, RMM worker in North Africa – From the August 2015 Beacon

Appropriate Technology (AT) is a field of study and an approach to development that seeks to solve problems in the developing world through tools and methods suited to social, economic and environmental realities. The African continent has been called “the graveyard of western technology” because of the long history of well-intentioned outsiders who provided solutions that did not adequately match local needs. In some cases, the “problem” was not considered a problem by local people, and when the outsiders left, the “solution” was neglected or repurposed. In other situations, a machine met a need, but local people lacked the training and/or resources to maintain the machine over time.

With this in mind, AT projects involve collaboration with locals to ensure that the technology meets a genuine local need and can be used and maintained by locals. In this approach—particularly from a Christian perspective—outsiders first enter communities as learners. They understand poverty not just as material need, but in a broader context of spiritual poverty. They recognize that they also have areas of poverty and that they can learn, for example, from the rich faith of local brothers and sisters or the supportive relationships exhibited in local culture. This humble attitude can be difficult to maintain in contexts with oppressive colonial histories. “...with appropriate technology and the attitude of a learner allows workers to share the gospel holistically—caring for both the physical and spiritual needs of the local community.”The materially poor often view Westerners as “saviors” who can magically meet needs, assuming they themselves have nothing to contribute. Because of these underlying assumptions, working toward change in a healthy way can be a slow process of identifying local strengths and using them to meet local needs (a learning posture called Appreciative Inquiry). An ideal AT is one that meets a recognized need for the local community and is designed and carried out in collaboration with local people. It also uses inexpensive (or even recycled) locally available resources and renewable energy, and is relatively simple in design.

AT principles have been applied around the world in both business and nonprofit settings to improve sanitation, housing, agriculture, health, energy, business and other sectors, mostly in developing countries. Many people in the materially developed world, however, are also reexamining the need for more sustainable ways of living in cultures marked by overconsumption and waste.

Numerous universities offer courses in AT, and some offer minors or majors in the discipline, among them Appalachian State University, the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and the Chalmers Center at Covenant College. Various Christian organizations such as ECHO offer training or resources in using appropriate technology for the benefit of the materially underprivileged, and to spread the message of Jesus’ love to the world. A helpful introduction to holistic, sustainable development in a Christian perspective is When Helping Hurts by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert.

A career in AT can open doors for long-term work in developing countries, providing opportunities for building relationships with local communities through collaborating on problem-solving technologies. Most importantly, combining missional goals with appropriate technology and the attitude of a learner allows workers to share the gospel holistically—caring for both the physical and spiritual needs of the local community.