Technology And Development: What Kibria Has Taught Us

Ghulam Kibria has written at great length on the subject of development and technology. His writings include books, consultancy reports, newspaper articles, technical papers and populist pieces. These are available for any one who wishes to read them. I have read them all and in their unedited and unabridged versions. This is because whenever a chapter of any of his books was completed, he sent it to me and asked for my comments. Sometimes we disagreed. But then, from his students such as myself, the younger generation and the grass root activists and mistries, Ghulam Kibria welcomes disagreement and wishes to understand the reasons behind it. He is usually not so generous with his generation and members of his own class.

Since his writings are available on the subject of technology and development, I will not interpret them or reproduce them in this brief paper. What I will do is to put down five important things that I have learnt from him and applied in my work on this subject as a result of our long association. However, before putting these points down I would like to say a few words about this association.

In 1974 I received a call from a certain Ghulam Kibria who I had never heard of. He told me that he was the Chairman of the Appropriate Technology Development Organisation (ATDO) and wanted to see me. I offered to come to his office but he insisted that he would come to my office. He was a grade 22 government officer and I a 31 year old architect. Ghulam Kibria came and to my surprise he knew all about me and about the work that I was trying to do. He had done his home work. He also knew how he could make use of me at the ATDO. The meeting was brief and to the point and he invited me to Islamabad. I said I would come in two or three days. He responded “why not tomorrow?” and so it was tomorrow and he came to the airport to receive me. I mention all this to emphasise that Kibria was no ordinary grade 22 officer!

I worked with Kibria as an ATDO consultant until he resigned after Ziaul Haq’s take over. Then, on his suggestion, we formed a company Ghulam Kibria, Arif Hasan and Associates and worked together on development projects and research programmes. The important thing in this relationship was that Ghulam Kibria simply refused to look at accounts or even to question them in anyway. “I am not interested. I am sure they are okay”, he would say. Later, he introduced me to the Orangi Pilot Project and our association has continued since then.

The five important things I have learnt from Ghulam Kibria are discussed below.

1. There can be no appropriate macro level policy formulation without a micro level understanding.

Ghulam Kibria firmly believes in this and the failure of Pakistan’s five-year plans supports his contention. In every five-year plan there is a review of the previous plans and these reviews are perhaps the most telling parts of the plan document. The reasons for the failure of the plans are an absence of appropriate research by academic and professional institutions. This is primarily because there is no link between professionals and academics on the one hand and communities and grass root developments on the other. Very few attempts have been made to create this link. One of the major hindrances in creating such a link is that mind-set of the academia and professionals and the textbooks that they teach or borrow from, are produced in the First World. And there is a world of difference between the First World and conditions in Pakistan. In addition, the research agenda, whether academic or NGO, is increasingly donor driven. There are very few social scientists and professionals who document and analyse local conditions. Akhtar Hameed Khan and Ghulam Kibria are among this handful. What limits the promotion of this research further is the mind-set of politicians and intellectuals that fail to relate development and technology to larger social and political issues.

2. For technological advancement you have to build on what exists

Ghulam Kibria always says that all societies have some form of technical knowledge and skills. It is necessary to build on them. If these are ignored and new technologies are introduced without taking those that exist into consideration, a “dependence syndrome” will make society more backward than it was previously. But then, to understand what exists you have to interact with communities, which professionals, who usually prefer to work on their desks and computers, are not willing to do. Whenever I have worked with Ghulam Kibria, he has tried to identify social activists and technicians in the community. He has tried to understand the nature of the skills available, their weaknesses and strengths, and the constraints to the manner in which they can be upgraded. He refuses to see technology as something divorced from social reality and economic well-being for the majority of the population. Many of his proposals have centred around linking small informal workshops run by mistries with formal industrial production. Unfortunately, these proposals have not been supported by the state or by formal sector entrepreneurs.

3. Technology transfer takes place through doing and making mistakes and not through ideologies and classroom training

This is the corner stone of Ghulam Kibria’s thinking. I will give examples of this. In Swat and Kohistan, Ghulam Kibria introduced small hydel technology. The hydels for the most part were made by local people and local materials. Local technicians were trained to manufacture them. Ghulam Kibria refused to follow the simpler course of getting them built by government departments. He insisted that if people built them, they would learn how they function, and if they knew how they function, they would maintain them. He was right. His hydels put up in the seventies still function whereas many of the more sophisticated hydels put up by government agencies and donor programmes are inoperative.

There are many other similar examples. A concrete block making machine of German origin was being used in Karachi. Ghulam Kibria wanted similar machines manufactured for the building industry. He refused to have them manufactured in a formal sector factory and insisted that it should be manufactured at the workshop of a small mistry. He argued that at the factory the cost of manufacture would be too high for small contractors to afford and also that the knowledge of manufacturing such a machine would not be transferred to the informal sector which is the backbone of the construction industry. So a mistry was chosen and at his workshop he worked on manufacturing the machine. He made numerous mistakes but in the process also removed many of the problems that operators of the German machine had in operating it. I remember someone enquiring, “Why are we inventing the wheel all over again?” Ghulam Kibria replied, “For the mistry it is inventing the wheel even if it is not so for you”.

4. For technological advancement and innovation you have to develop an appropriate culture

This culture is of two sorts and is closely inter-linked. First is a culture of research and development, and second is a corporate culture. Ghulam Kibria has promoted both these cultures in theory and practice during his career.

While Chairman of the ATDO, Ghulam Kibria gave Pakistani professionals, technicians, scientists, entrepreneurs complete freedom to experiment with their ideas. He simply said that if you have an idea, do not explain it, just come and do it and we will finance it. If it fails, it does not matter as long as we can document the causes for its failure and learn from them. It is because of this that there was a blossoming of ideas and young men and women became involved in a development process that was related to the issues that the common people of Pakistan face in their daily lives. Of course, there were many failures but one learnt from them. It is interesting to note that after Ziaul Haq’s take over, a military enquiry into ATDO affairs considered these failures as a waste of money. Ghulam Kibria laughed. “They do not know what research and development is. It is not their fault.”

The promotion of corporate culture has been another obsession of Ghulam Kibria. While Chairman of the ATDO he sought the assistance of banks for financing his research and development programme and for its extension. He did not depend on government funds. In this he was successful and in the process he created a relationship between development initiatives that catered to the grass root development process and the banking institutions. He changed the mindset of both the corporate sector and innovators and small entrepreneurs. This emphasised entrepreneurship and cash relations above personal relationships and in the process undermined feudal values. He emphasised that the product has to be available to those who can make it spread. After I had completed the construction of a low cost school in the Sargodha district using technology that required moulds and small machinery, I was bringing the machinery and moulds back to Karachi. He told me to simply hand them over to the small contractor who had built the school. “He will use it for other buildings and other people will copy it.” He was right. The technology spread.

5. There are reasons for the reasons of failures and successes

Ghulam Kibria has always asked for reasons for reasons. For example, at a development project at Hawks Bay an engine was not performing as it should. The reason for it was identified as a faulty gas kit. Some one other than Ghulam Kibria would have simply ordered its replacement but Ghulam Kibria wanted to know why a faulty gas kit was there in the first place. The reason was identified as a lack of knowledge regarding the engine on the part of the foreman of the project. This led to the foreman receiving instructions and education. Similarly, whenever people have attacked the elite and intelligentsia of Pakistan, Ghulam Kibria has wanted to know why the elite and intelligentsia are what they are. He has tried to answer to this question in his writings.

Ghulam Kibria’s ideas were developed and put into practice in a period when throughout the world there was a tension between market forces and political processes. The welfare state was alive and well and indirectly, the Soviet Union was an important player in determining global economic directions. Today his ideas are more important than they were previously because the tension between the market forces and political processes is over. The market dominates. There is a need therefore to relate the principles I have mentioned, which are all about building people and people’s institutions, to current economic theory which is all about making people subservient to global business interest.

At the end, I would like to say that to convey Ghulam Kibria’s message to those who will benefit from it most, a relationship has to be established between Urdu and development and technology. Such a relationship does not exist. A technician or a mistry would require an MA in Arabic to understand development and technical Urdu literature or translations from English. There are three reasons for this. One, the mother tongue of most mistries is not English. Two, technological and trade related vocabularies in common use are distortions of English terms of which the translators are not aware. And three, the populist vocabulary is not considered adabi by the translators who are usually very adabi people. In 1982, when we translated some of Ghulam Kibria’s writings for skilled labour being trained for employment abroad, the artisans laughed at it. Irtiqa should look into this issue. Its resolution would be a tribute to Ghulam Kibria. It would make his dream come true and create a link between the intelligentsia and the artisan who is the backbone of Pakistan’s economy.

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