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Abbie Trayler-Smith / Panos Pictures / Department for International Development

Chapter 8 Communities and technology: choice and innovation

Ownership, control and participation

Photo: Abbie Trayler-Smith / Panos Pictures / Department for International Development

Technologies for DRR are more likely to be appropriate – and used – if local communities have been involved in their choice and development, and if due priority is given to building local capacities to use and adapt them. This approach should underpin any efforts to reduce vulnerability through technical measures. However, it still happens all too rarely. More usually, a standard ‘technology transfer’ approach is adopted: technical specialists from outside are deployed to identify problems, develop and test new or improved technologies and promote their use among communities through conventional training and public education programmes. Even though these technologies may be relatively cheap, use local materials and be suited to use by local people, they are still generated externally; they are not the result of a participatory process; people do not ‘own’ them; they may not be what people want or need; and uptake may be limited. This problem can be overcome by adopting a more participatory approach to technology development that gives potential users the decisive role in selecting and developing alternatives. Participatory technology development (PTD) approaches have been applied in a number of development contexts, mostly in agriculture but also in some aspects of DRR, including drought mitigation and safe housing (e.g. Case Study 8.5: Participatory technology development in reconstruction).

Case Study 8.5 Participatory technology development in reconstruction

In May 1990, the Alto Mayo district in north-east Peru was hit by an earthquake that destroyed over 3,000 houses. Most damage was done to homes built with rammed earth that were poorly built or maintained. Community groups, local government and NGOs spent two months drawing up a long-term reconstruction plan for the region which covered economic and environmental aspects as well as disaster mitigation. As part of the plan, meetings were held between national and local organisations, and with communities, to identify and select a construction technology that was more earthquake-resistant. Building consensus over this took six months. The technology selected, quincha mejorada, was a modified form of a traditional style based on light timber frames, with wall panels of bamboo plastered with mud, on concrete foundations. In April 1991, when a second earthquake struck the area, only 70 of the new houses had been built. However, all stood up well to the shock, whereas 10,000 other houses were damaged. With this demonstration of its resilience the technology began to take off quickly. An evaluation in 1995, after the project had ended, found that quincha was widespread across Alto Mayo.

Following an earthquake in the coastal Ica region of Peru in 2007 a similar reconstruction project was undertaken by Practical Action (the NGO that had led the Alto Mayo initiative), again using the improved technology. A review of this project in 2013 found that the houses were liked by their inhabitants, and many had made improvements. But in the area that was studied there had been no more building using the technology once the project ended. There appeared to be two main reasons for this. One was that the municipality did not adopt the suggested building codes for quincha, so that it remained outside formal regulations; the other was that local inhabitants subsequently got access to government housing funds and subsidies, which required them to build in bricks and cement. It was also suggested that some residents wanted a house that was more ‘modern’-looking than traditional quincha housing.

T. Schilderman, ‘Disasters and Development: A Case Study from Peru’, Journal of International Development, 5(4), 1993, pp. 415–23; T. Schilderman, ‘Adapting Traditional Shelter for Disaster Mitigation and Reconstruction: Experiences with Community-based Approaches’, Building Research and Information, 32(5), 2004, pp. 414–26; T. Schilderman, ‘Peru: Building on the Vernacular’, in T. Schilderman and E. Parker (eds), Still Standing? Looking Back at Reconstruction and Disaster Risk Reduction in Housing (Rugby: Practical Action Publishing, 2014), pp. 217–31.

One of the main characteristics of participatory technology development is that it takes time, as the approach must be inclusive and allow for extensive discussion and testing of different technical options. Gaining the confidence of communities can be time-consuming and difficult. Where the working environment is tough, or there are problems with technical innovations, it may take a long time before a project begins to make much impact. Even a project that runs relatively smoothly may take some years to reach a wide number of beneficiaries.

In an increasingly networked world it has become much easier to find partners, resources and opportunities. This stimulates collaboration and helps organisations and individuals that are new to DRR to become involved. Modern ICTs also have the capacity and potential to engage affected communities as participants, and to make DRR interventions more accountable and effective. Communities all around the world are increasingly using ICTs to investigate problems, organise themselves for action in response to those problems, obtain resources and communicate and coordinate with other stakeholders. These same capacities for information gathering and communications also enable them to monitor external agencies’ performance more thoroughly, making those agencies more accountable as a result. The humanitarian sector has experimented with the use of ICTs in this way: for instance, in Somalia, where conflict obstructs conventional monitoring and evaluation methods, the Danish Refugee Council has piloted an accountability mechanism in which beneficiaries submit feedback by SMS text and the data are collated on an online platform.+Humanitarian Innovation Fund, Case Study: SMS Feedback and Accountability in Somalia (undated), http://www.elrha.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/36951-HIf-case-study-DRC-Somalia-proof-v7.pdf. The growing availability of open-source data, as the result of participatory mapping and ‘citizen science’ initiatives, strengthens people’s capacities to explore problems, explain situations and press for change.

This way of working has significant potential for community DRR, but it also brings challenges. One of the main ones is that access to technologies is not equal within societies. Mobile phones, especially the more technologically advanced models, tend to be used more by younger people, and men are more likely to own the only mobile phone in the family. Those least likely to have access to technology – the poor, the uneducated, women, people with disabilities – are often also the most vulnerable to disasters. Many people lack what is known as ‘digital literacy’ – the knowledge and skills to use new communications technologies – which, together with lack of literacy more generally, restricts their ability to communicate and interact. Local organisations in low-income countries, which have to respond when disaster strikes, are also less likely to possess such technologies, to have the capacities to use them effectively and to be able to afford commercial data.

One final, but important, point to remember is that communities may not necessarily trust outsiders to act in their best interests, even if those outsiders have specialist technical expertise. For example, in Istanbul, which is at high risk of earthquakes, a very large number of unauthorised, self-built homes are likely to collapse when an earthquake strikes. However, a research study found that residents believed the formal housing market to be corrupt and, as a result, were unwilling to use professional engineers and contractors to build or upgrade their homes. They were not prepared to pay high fees with no guarantee of high-quality, safe buildings, preferring to manage the design and construction process themselves and hire family members or local labourers and builders. Some even doubted that engineers had expert knowledge, and engineers offering free advice were ignored.+R. A. Green, ‘Unauthorised Development and Seismic Hazard Vulnerability: A Study of Squatters and Engineers in Istanbul, Turkey’, Disasters, 32 (3), 2008. Trust also shapes community reactions to new information technologies. Communities may be reluctant to share information if they are unsure where that information will go, who will see it and what it will be used for.