George Walford: Small is Unsuccessful

Some twenty-five years ago Fritz Schumacher, author of Small is Beautiful, launched his Interediate Technology Development Group (ITDG), intended and expected to produce a revolution in ways of living, especially in the less developed countries, by the introduction of small-scale technology. Unlike The World Wildlife Fund and Amnesty, both founded around the same time, ITDG has not taken off. Ian Smillie’s new book, Mastering the Machine, shows that – in the words of the reviewer – “progress on the ground has been limited arduous, and slow” [1] , and the reviewer describes this as tragic, believing that the failure means diappearance of all hope for improvement in the condition of the vast numbers – he mentions one and a quarter thousand million – who live in absolute poverty.

The reasoning behind this conclusion does not immediately leap to the eye. The countries in which the people generally now enjoy a high standard of living did not reach that condition by restricting themselves to small equipment and low technology or even – to use the more cautious phrases sometmes favoured – to intermediate technology and equipment on a human scale. They reached it by driving ahead as far and as fast as they could go, and if they now begin to find it necessary to impose restrictions upon their own expansion that is very different from choosing non-expansive methods to begin with.

Smillie’s book includes the inevitable optimistic forecast, claiming that supporters of Schumacher’s ideas have now located the hold-up and started to deal with it by allowing local people to teach them instead of vice versa; they now recognise that it may take many years to develop a successful technique. Since it has taken them twenty-five years even to find the comer that success is just around, we may perhaps be forgiven for some hesitation in starting to cheer.

IC appreciates the advantages of hindsight as much as anybody; we do not claim to have predicted, or even foreseen, what would happen. But retrodiction can help with understanding for the future, and the success of The World Wildlife Fund and Amnesty helps to explain ITDG’s lack of progress. These two movements both undertook to restrain activities considered excessive, in the one case the destruction of wildlife, in the other the ill-treatment of prisoners. They appealed to the reformist minority already engaged in efforts at restraint, asking it only to extend the range of is efforts, or slant them in a slightly different direction, and they have succeeded at least to the extent of winning widespread recognition and support. It has become conventional, sometimes even expedient, to express support for the Fund, and to a lesser extent the same can be said of Amnesty.

ITDG took on the very different task of attempting to stimulate activity where it fell short of meeting requirements, and it tried to achieve its end by the self- frustrating method of imposing further restrictions. It tried to induce the general body of the people in the less advanced countries to adopt the attitudes and values of the ideologically-advanced reformist minority to which its own members belong.

This appears from the report of ITDG’s future intentions. They are beginning to work with local entrepreneurs and to use normal marketing techniques, such as attending to the appearance of products. These come as new departures, showing that in the past they have tried to use other methods, namely the non-commercial, restrictive approach characteristic of reforming socialistic intellectuals. They, like other aid workers, have in the past “abhorred” those local entrepreneurs. They have ignored the evidence of history: the countries able to afford aid have been brought to that condition by, among other things, the activities of entrepeneurs.

Schumacher’s people would probably repudiate the suggestion that they have intended restraint, but the preference for “intermediate” (i.e. restricted) technology and, even more clearly, the high valuation ation placed upon smallness in the title of his book, show how their thinking runs.

Small size and low technology have their place; bicycles and fishing-rods can do things can and diesel trawlers cannot. But acceptance of smallness and lowness where they do the job best is a different thing from placing a high valuation upon them; that indicates advanced ideology, and the attempt of ITDG to obtain widespread acceptance for this does much to explain the lack of response. Small is the Way to Big, while less attractive to Schumacher’s movement, offer a better chance of positive response from those they address.

Socialistic restraint finds its place in controlling the overweening success and expansiveness of high technology. You have to get the technology first, and we have no reason to think that this can be achieved except by using the commercial and entrepreneurial methods so distasteful to all right-thinking intellectuals. To begin by imposing restrictions on size and technology is to emulate those novelists of whom Roy Campbell wrote:

You use the snaffle and the curb all right,
But where’s the bloody horse?

[1] Observer 10 November.

from Ideological Commentary 54, Winter 1991.