The notion of “appropriate technologies” is familiar; it’s similar to saying we should use the right tool for the job. In developing countries, this usually implies that we should find tools that fit with the local culture, knowledge base, environment, and existing technologies, for example, donkeys might work better than automobiles when the roads are in poor condition or non-existent.
There’s a related idea, in which the user is not just a passive recipient of some technology, but an active (re-)creator of it. People can actively appropriate technologies, interpret, use, and even re-design them to fit their needs. An excellent example of this is the alternate uses people have found for insecticide-treated nets:
Insecticide-treated nets (ITNs) are a simple, cost-effective way to fight malaria and are distributed to pregnant women and children in Kenya, often for free. But when Noboru Minakawa of the Institute of Tropical Medicine in Nagasaki, Japan, and colleagues surveyed villages along Lake Victoria, they found people were using the nets for fishing or drying fish, because the fish dry faster in the nets than on papyrus sheets, and the nets are cheaper (Malaria Journal, DOI: 10.1186/1475-2875-7-165).
In Zambia too, ITNs are being used for fishing, straining fruit and even for wedding dresses, says Todd Jennings of non-profit health group PATH in the capital Lusaka. “An ITN in the water is one not hanging in the fisherman’s home protecting his children,” he says.
It would be tragic if these uses of the nets mean that children are unprotected. Can we imagine a day come when people are not forced to choose between providing food and preventing disease?
Bruce, B. C., & Rubin, A. D. (1993). Electronic Quills: A situated evaluation of using computers for writing in classrooms. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum. See especially Chapter 9.
Eglash, Ron, Croissant, Jennifer L., Di Chiro, Giovanna, & Fouché, Rayvon (Eds.) (2004). Appropriating technology: Vernacular science and social power. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
New Scientist (2008, December 23). Malaria bed nets’ usefulness is their downfall..