Reconstruction: rethinking participatory methodologies in technology development
The critical analysis of the political bias in technology development invites us to take a closer look to the second question posed in this article: ‘to what extent is a reconstruction of technologies possible?’. Taking the above into account, this question in fact refers to the extent that endogenous development of agricultural biotechnologies is possible, and to the extent that current approaches to development allow a redesign of these technologies.
The notion of endogenous development fits into a wider theoretical perspective on development that moves away from primarily economic analyses of development, a linear path to development, and a focus on urban growth centres. The ‘alternative development approach’ has instead aimed at taking local conditions and social relations as starting point for an analysis, not of how national economies can be encouraged to grow, but on how to alleviate poverty in marginalized (often rural) areas (Potter, et al. 2004).
One of the central elements in studies or programmes of ‘alternative development’ has been the use of participatory methods to ground development in a specific local situation, and to ensure sustainable learning, change and empowerment of communities. Next to practical goals in terms of improving the innovation process, this approach may serve an important social and political purpose in challenging the marginalization of poor farmer communities. Those who may be considered to be passive receivers of technological innovations, delivered to them by a supposed ‘trickle down’ effect, are now redefined as active participants in the process with legitimate demands, experiences and useful knowledge.
However, different levels of participation have been described. Depending on the project and aims of involving stakeholders, users or consumers, various methodologies have been applied. The issue here is in what ways participatory methods are operationalized and whether this influences their ability to actually allow technological redesign.
These questions are addressed by studying the case of the Andhra Pradesh Netherlands Biotechnology Programme (APNLBP), in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. The programme has been set up as a ‘Special Programme on Biotechnology for Development’ of the Dutch government and after a pre-project phase, work on projects has started in 1996. The programme was suggested as a potential mechanism to close the North-South gap through technology development, and was remarkable in its setup, since it embodied a conscious effort to build capacity and instil concern for biosafety issues within the recipient country, and to focus explicitly on ‘resource-poor farmers in a participatory manner’ (Clark, et al. 2002).
In starting up, the programme encountered a challenge in having to deliver relatively rapid results to the group of involved stakeholders in order to maintain momentum and to gain legitimacy among local farmers as a helpful programme. However, the development of some modern biotechnologies that might be useful to address some of the problems that had been identified and prioritized in earlier workshops, would take considerable time. Therefore, the programme has made a strategic decision in focusing on traditional biotechnologies, like tissue culture, vermiculture and biopesticides, in its first operational phase. In doing so, the programme aimed to build support for the projects. Moreover, it was expected that the need for more sophisticated technologies would emerge along the way. In practice, a small number of advanced biotechnology projects were started in parallel, some of which involve transgenic technology. This situation provides an interesting starting point for comparing both types of projects that were part of the same programme. With respect to the conceptualization of technology, as operationalized in the innovation process, important differences emerge.
The commonly followed participatory approach within the APNLBP is to have a workshop with local farmers, NGOs and scientists in which priorities for farming innovations, or pest management are determined. These priorities are studied to determine whether ready-made solutions can already be found. If not, the demand articulated in the workshop will be translated into a scientific question which will allow (molecular) scientists to work on a specific topic and to come with potential solutions. These solutions are then incorporated into new products or crops and evaluated with the end-users.
One of the projects that involved the development of modern biotechnologies, is the project working on isolating stress inducible genes from pigeonpea (Cajanus Cajan L.). This project showed a typical feature that emerges in some participatory projects, which is an implicit separation of phases of priority setting, technology design, and evaluation of the technology. Starting from the prioritized aim to develop crops that would be better able to cope with the arid conditions in the state of Andhra Pradesh, the project set out to isolate genes responsible for drought resistance in pigeonpea that may be isolated, characterised and later transferred to target crops like groundnut, castor or sorghum. This implies that a trajectory has been set out to battle drought tolerance in these target crops, through a transgenic approach, since crossings of pigeonpea and the target crops are not possible. The participatory element in the project, identifying both priority traits and crops did not extent to the long-term strategies taken and the repercussion of this strategy for biosafety issues, regulatory affairs or the redefinition of social roles that goes along with these strategies.
A key point in the participatory process adopted for this project is the translation of certain user (farmer) needs or desires, into a scientific problem statement. After solving the identified problem at the scientific level, the solution can be disseminated to farmer groups again, accompanied by participatory evaluation schemes. This process is clearly executable and can result in extensive communication between scientist and farmer. However, it shows a conceptualization of the innovative technology as an object or tool that will solve the problems prioritized in communication. This will usually not be considered problematic, as long as there is enough communication between scientists and end-users to guarantee a technology design that is attuned to their needs and circumstances. However, the approach does imply clear limits regarding the extent to which technology development can be steered in different directions; if only because the translation of farmer/consumer needs into a scientific problem is not challenged in a participatory vein. In fact, the scientist and his vocabulary of possible solutions is never being challenged as ‘obligatory point of passage’ in coming to new, improved technologies or farming practice. Neither is the implicit ideology of a rather reductionist approach to technological progress in farming practices challenged in any way.
The failure to challenge the position of the scientist in translating the farmer’s need into a scientific research question is related to the conceptualization of the technological solution as an object, rather than as socio-technical ensemble. The introduction of transgenics in the farming systems of resource poor farmers in Andhra Pradesh can be expected to go along with much more fundamental changes in farming practice and regulatory regimes. While a conceptualization of technologies as objects places the technological solution centre stage and will deal with the socio-economic effects afterwards, a conceptualization of technologies as socio-technical ensembles would choose to involve end-users or stakeholders in the entire process of innovation and technology design, since the integration of new technologies is as much a social affair, as it is a technical affair. The reasons for stakeholder involvement are then to reach a process of iterative, reflexive technology design, in which the distinction between phases of design and evaluation is fading. A much more fundamental challenging of positions of central actors is a result of such a dynamic. Farmers or other end-users are not only addressed as ‘consumers’ of technology, but are recognized as innovators themselves. This in turn would qualify the resulting technology development as much more ‘endogenous’, since the technology is not only grounded within the specific local context, but also attributes a powerful role to the farmers themselves.
Although the methodological separation of phases of prioritizing, design and evaluation may occur in any programme, especially the development of modern biotechnologies (genomics, genetic modification), which demand a higher level of scientific expertise, seem to stimulate such separation of phases of design and evaluation. The extent to which farming innovations are not only about introducing new technological artefacts or tools, but are explicitly engaged in the production of new social roles, becomes clear from the study of some other projects within APNLBP, focusing on more traditional biotechnologies.
Some projects have focused on vermiculture production, which can be carried out at household level, and gives rise to biological fertilizer which can be used to increase the fertility of the soil. The same product can be used for the rooting and hardening of tissue culture plantlets, which is traditionally a step that is carried out under controlled laboratory conditions, in agar medium. The transformation of this step from the laboratory to the field, and from lab assistant to farmer has significant implications for the social roles that are being shaped around this technology. Next to the much cheaper production of virus-free plantlets, bringing them within reach of resource poor farmers, farmers gain a central role in the production of tissue culture plants, redefining them from passive receivers, to active innovators. Similarly, as part of the same program, the production of a Bt-spray (to be used as bio-pesticide), shows a process of redesign that allows a decentralization and an active involvement of villagers. Traditionally, the production of Bt required specialized equipment and a continuous power supply. By redesigning the production process, allowing the fermentation to take place in a solid medium rather than in liquid medium, cheap and locally available materials can be used. This allows the process to take place at village level, where the farmers themselves are actively involved in producing their bio-pesticide (Puente, et al. 2006, Vimala Devi and Rao 2005).
Also in these projects, the methodological separation of phases is apparent. Still, where the drought resistance project marginalized the farmer’s role in the innovation process, by taking the project to that lab and treating the technology in relative isolation of the wider socio-economic repercussions of embarking upon the use of transgenic crops, the other projects enabled farmers to be more involved in the process of innovation itself. By doing so, the concrete products developed in these projects of the APNLBP programme serve an important sub-political function. This demonstrates how technologies may be conceptualized as socio-technical ensembles, but how at the same time the concrete characteristics of the technological artefact itself remain highly relevant.
Summarizing, participation with respect to ‘technologies as objects’ runs the risk of framing the participatory issues too narrow, allowing a smoothly running participatory process, but limiting the range of potential outcomes. Therefore, the ability to distinguish between levels of participation, and to apply the appropriate one with respect to the goals set, is crucial. Participation can be a powerful part of articulating and developing alternative technology development trajectories, but it needs to operationalize a conceptualization of technologies as socio-technical ensembles, rather than as objects. It needs to open up the black box of what in effect technologies are, revealing the relevant social and political dimensions that need to be addressed if a reconstruction of (bio)technologies is to take place.