How Appropriate?

Development engineers shouldn’t automatically prefer locally made goods over imports.

Evan Thomas

December 2014


Ask a dozen professionals working in global development, and you’ll likely get a dozen (or more) definitions of “appropriate technology.” There is a rough consensus, however, that one should consider whether the technology is small scale, energy efficient, environmentally sound, labor intensive, controlled by the community, and maintained locally before it earns the label “appropriate.”

As a member of the ASME Appropriate Solutions Evaluation Program Steering Committee, I’ve had a chance to hear and consider these views. I’ve found that this definition has often led to the interpretation that manufactured goods imported into the country are inappropriate. Yet, due consideration to the relative benefits of an imported product versus a locally produced alternative are not often critically considered.

Which is more appropriate—a water filter, made out of locally procured, low-cost clay, that employs local residents in producing, selling, and maintaining the filters, or an ultrafiltration membrane and plastic contraption produced in China?

Easy choice? What if you learn that the local ceramic filter has never been shown conclusively to improve health, while the imported Chinese filter has a strong track record in the epidemiology literature of improving the health of its recipients? Which, then, is truly more appropriate?

Or what about a locally produced stove built with local clays, but that has an emission profile that’s no different from an open fire? Is that more appropriate than a clean, imported Chinese stove? Is a 500-watt solar panel really more appropriate than a similarly priced 2,000-watt diesel generator that’s part of a pre-existing supply chain?

The pitfalls of a strict definition of appropriate technology can arise when rigorous, multidisciplinary trade evaluations are neglected. While the local stove or filter may check 9 of 10 boxes for “appropriate technology,” it fails on the fundamental purpose of that technology—to improve health. Recognizing this requires a respect for public health, business, policy, and engineering expertise simultaneously. 

The strict interpretation of appropriate technology can, effectively, be somewhat paternalistic: “What we have is too fancy for you, so we’re going to teach you how to build a version out of sticks and mud.”

A caricature of this accidental tension looks like this: The public health folks think the engineering is “solved” and that what matters is behavior change. The entrepreneurs think the mark is missed if you don’t charge people for a product. The engineers, meanwhile, are baffled by all the touchy-feely. And the public policy folks wonder how to manage unfunded mandates.

My team has weighed these considerations with our own program in Rwanda. Through a partnership between the for-profit company DelAgua Health and the Rwanda Ministry of Health, imported household water filters and cookstoves will be distributed this summer to about half a million people. The program will earn revenue from the generation of carbon credits under the United Nations, and will be evaluated by a team of researchers led by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

Our priorities when designing this program were primarily to target a health improvement, starting with the leading causes of illness among children, diarrhea and pneumonia. So we evaluated which technologies could most effectively reduce drinking water contamination and indoor air pollution. Secondly, which technologies were most likely to be adopted by households? Which technologies were eligible for carbon finance? Which technologies were durable, and could be maintained by a team of technicians under our employ? We reached consensus around importing water filters that exceed the World Health Organization “highly protective” rating, and improved wood fuel cookstoves that would most easily be adopted by communities while still reducing emissions.

Engineering, public policy, climate change, public health, all working together. 

Evan Thomas is an assistant professor of Mechanical Engineering at Portland State University, COO of DelAgua Health and CEO of SweetSense Inc.