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Small Is Ugly in the Third World


Washington. -- Thirty years ago, the invention of small-scale technologies such as portable electric-power generators and radio phones led to the dream of a planet in which people would consume less and waste less, sharing the earth's bounty under an ethic known as "small is beautiful."

Solar cells would open pasture gates or irrigation channels; remote villages would be alerted to impending storms, pests or the changing market prices of their crops; television would bring primary and high school education where there were no roads or schools.

Such a world exists today, unfortunately, only in the pages of science fiction by Arthur Clarke and poet Robert Nichols. In most Third World countries small-scale technology has been co-opted by the rich and powerful. Those cute portable devices are being used to enable the elites to enjoy First World standards while the public sinks further into squalor.

The wealthy increasingly can live without the decaying public systems of energy, communications, transport, security and education. They turn to personal electric generators, cellular phones, private security guards, private schools, private couriers, cable TV, chauffeured transport, private water supply and even private roads.

As a direct result of this new insulation and isolation from the lower and middle class, the elites are barely aware of the crumbling public-service infrastructure, which they know only through articles in the newspaper or perhaps the grousing of servants who must spend hours in filthy, crowded, unsafe mini-vans and buses to get to work.

In Lagos, Port-au-Prince, Caracas and Delhi, one can see exhaust pipes of small but powerful diesel electric generators rising over the glass-tipped walls surrounding the apartment blocks of the rich. Each night, when the brown-outs hit, working-class neighbors crowd onto balconies and alleys to escape kerosene lamp fumes and the thick indoor heat. But the generators of the rich swiftly ignite and purr through the tropical blackouts like futuristic ships cruising though another time zone.

In the 1960s, optimists like Arthur Clarke believed that radiophones, solar cells and small generators would allow remote villagers to electrify their homes, rice mills and sewing machines, and to tune in to the markets, knowledge and latest skills that the city dwellers enjoyed.

Instead, for much of the Third World, the truth is far closer to "small is ugly."

In Lagos, the embassies and homes of the wealthy enjoy private generators, air conditioning and fresh water deliveries. But a Nigerian editor said that his family had spent Christmas and New Year's Day "sweating in the dark" as the electric outages spread.

A German supplier of electric-power technology to Nigeria admitted: "If this country took all the money spent on those small power plants, and invested it in fixing the public power grid, they could fix it and end the brown-outs. But so long as the rich and the politicians aren't hurt by the power outages, they won't feel it necessary to fix it."

In the downtown restaurants of Caracas, it seems that three of every four diners have cellular phones next to their wine glasses or held to an ear. The regular phone system is so bad it can take up to 10 tries to reach a number. So the wealthy increasingly rely on the cellular system.

It's true that small engines in the villages of Thailand and Indonesia power electric lights for children to study at night and for adults to watch the news and soap operas, frequently infused with development concepts. The engines also drive paddy plows, rice huskers, water pumps and small wagons.

But Thailand and Indonesia are exceptional places. The phones work and electric power is constant for both rich and poor.

In most of the rest of the Third World, the small-scale technologies have been turned away from the dream of the 1960s. Instead of spreading education, communications, health and development, they have insulated and isolated the elites. Where there is no will to behave compassionately and share the resources, wealth and technology of a nation, even the finest tools do not build a more just society but become instruments of social and economic repression.

Ben Barber is a free-lance journalist.

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