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Local solutions to third-world needs

Blowing up with everthing else in Iran and South Korea these days may be the idea that poor countries can modernize without chaos. Can the fruits of Western progress ever be consumed by developing nations without causing indigestion?

I think so. There is a little-publicized shift in many developing countries these days that gives considerable reason for hope.

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It is a move toward economic development that is more sensitive to national needs and traditions. New uses are sought for existing local skills and resources instead of just blindly importing Western models and ideas that may backfire socially.

For example, a group in West Africa has developed a device that jabs seeds into a furrow while being pushed along the ground. That may not sound like much , but it saves a lot of backbreaking work for farmers. It also makes more sense locally than capital-intensive Western systems with imported tractors that deplete foreign exchange, eat gas, take away jobs, and need expert repair. The change from traditional planting is not so profound, nor so alienating.

A small firm in Colombia has developed a simple way to make bricks. Dirt and some cement are put in a metal box and compressed with a lever. Out come bricks to dry in the sun. It costs less than fancier methods. Once again, it makes better use of local materials, local labor, and local pride.

And there's a vocational school in Honduras that is using discarded tire inner tubes for a forge and bellows. Elsewhere, bicycles are being used to thresh grain, cardboard cartons to smoke fish, scrap auto parts to shell nuts, and empty oil drums to mix cement or make charcoal.

You don't hear about these things much on the news. And it is eary to dismiss them as clever Yankee Ingenuity without the Yankees, or as desperate tinkering by the poor. But more and more thinking people within developing countries are seeking just this kind of "appropriate technology" that uses local materials, fits existing social patterns, is small-scale and labor intensive. It is a significant shift in many parts of the developing world, and one that promises progress without such severe social dislocation.

"We want technologies that will work for Nicaragua," one young planner told me recently in post-Somoza Managua. "We want techniques that can be taught to farmers who cannot yet read. The reason is that we cannot be dependent on other countries for our ideas and machines."

The search for such local solutions to problems is especially active as regards energy. The energy crisis in developing countries now is not to find gas for weekend car trips, but firewood for cooking, kerosene for lanterns, or electricity for hospitals.

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Solar power is thus becoming popular. Re flecting solar cooking discs were used in Morocco and elsewhere more than a decade ago. Solar heaters, cookers, and ovens can now be found thoughout the developing world. Ironically, the poor nations may in the future provide one of the most receptive audiences for US solar experts.

A lot of work is also being done to develop better wood stoves. Wood is the primary cooking fuel for most poor abroad, but forests are being cut down by growing populations. Several groups are therefore trying new stove designs of clay, stones, or scrap metal instead of just shipping over microwave ovens for the rich.

One clay model first developed in India has now been adapted for Guatemala, Africa's Sahel, and elsewhere. A Thai charcoal stove made from a cut-out can or bucket is being tried in Tanzania.

Windmills are becoming more popular, too. They have long been used in Thailand, Crete, and a few other places. But now others are trying them. There are projects in Mexico, India, and Tanzania, to name a few.

A group in Papua, New Guinea, is trying small-scale hydro power. Fuel-efficient farming systems are being tried in Nigeria. A more exotic idea is the methane digester, which converts human and animal wastes into methane gas and fertilizer. It is widely used now in China and India.

It is true that this growing interest in local gadgetry and "appropriate technology" comes in part because some developing countries could not afford high-tech, modern equipment even if they wanted it. But in more and more cases, they don't want it even if they can have it.

Some developing countries are "less willing to adopt the inevitable energy indulgent technologies of the developed countries," Sri Lankan agricultural engineer Ray Wijewardene wrote me recently.

Even a mass turn to "appropriate technologies" doesn't mean that progress will come smoothly, of course. But recent events are certain to make planners in both industrialized and developing countries think ever harder about ways to lift countries up from the mud without shaking them to pieces in the process.