In previous posts we have discussed issues of universal application of certain water management tools in diverse contexts, and the process of adaptation of water policy innovations in new concepts. This post deals with a related subject of technology transfer and the transformation of technologies in this process. By Ayşem Mert and Eleni Dellas, Partnerships for sustainable development have become the official UN instruments to achieve the Millennium Development Goals. Among those working on water and sanitation, many focus on technology transfer projects. Transferred technologies are seen as tools not only to combat water scarcity or poor sanitary conditions, but also to alleviate poverty, promote gender equality, improve health and the environment. However, technological improvements cannot fulfill all these functions on their own: technologies that provide quick and easy access to water are not necessarily the most suitable ones for sustainable development of the receiving communities. A number of such projects fail to secure community support or to ensure their equitable use of the water provided. In these cases, improvements in water access remain insubstantial; intentions of poverty alleviation are frustrated; and the technology ultimately faces rejection. Even where more suitable options would be possible and available, preferences for a specific technology are often entrenched into development politics. This paper suggests that the appropriateness of a technology for the recipient communities deserves more consideration in the choice of technology or the necessity of the partnership project. To avoid negative implications, assessment of water partnerships and technologies should not be solely based on efficiency calculations but also take social implications into consideration.
With this aim, our paper uses a new framework to assess of technology transfer by water partnerships. Building on Science and Technology Studies (STS) and the institutional spectrum of Ivan Illich, our framework examines various contrasting characteristics that influence a technology’s social acceptability and desirability, especially from the perspective of the receiving communities. Hence, this framework aims to assess whether a technology preserves the autonomy, flexibility and self-reliance of a community or has predominantly manipulative and monopolistic tendencies that induce dependence. Our framework generally identified small- or medium-scale projects (such as rainwater harvesting) as having fewer negative implications for the recipient communities. Such small- or medium-scale projects run the risk of appearing less marketable than large-scale infrastructure projects, as they cannot be replicated universally, and are less efficient in quantitative terms. Nonetheless, our assessment indicates that, there are various more important considerations for the recipient communities: They often prefer accessible, flexible, and free (or low-cost) sources of water, even if access is less convenient, over costly large-scale infrastructure projects that require frequent repairs by professionals, or exclude some (poorer) members of a recipient community.
At the same time, all partnerships, including those engaged in larger-scale projects, had a subtle, but important influence on the process of technology transfer by reintroducing design flexibility: partnerships demonstrated that in most cases, there is some potential for adaptation of the technology, to make it more accessible and affordable to the recipient communities. However, this requires responsiveness to local needs and demands, as well as sufficient room (platforms and time) during the project design and implementation process for the project to be appropriated and adapted. In sum, partnerships of different scale need to pay particular attention towards different criteria, and the general lesson for transferred technology design corroborates the findings of E. F. Schumacher that ‘small is beautiful’ as well as sustainable.