Refugee camps are often typical examples of complex and degraded contexts. The Greek island of Lesbos, near the border with Turkey, is one of the European Union’s hotspots1. In 2019, 27 000 migrants arrived from different Asian and African countries. The island, which was already facing a major economic recession, currently has almost 16 000 asylum seekers on it, even though the main camp, Moria, was built for a maximum of 2500 people. Each year, the delay before asylum applications are assessed gets longer, so that it now takes three years to get a first appointment. During that time, the migrants live in extremely crowded and unhealthy conditions; there is no heating in winter, it is difficult to keep clean, there is physical and sexual violence, and there is tension between the communities2.
Given the humanitarian emergency, aid organisations provide assistance that often creates aid dependency (the importing and distribution of food, clothes, etc.). What can be done, in such a situation, to preserve the dignity and autonomy of asylum seekers and to make the most of their skills and the time that they have on their hands? Could low-tech know-how, frugal innovation (also known as juggad) and the frugal economy reverse the positions of ‘beneficiary’ and ‘saviour’, ‘learner’ and ‘teacher’ and the relations between North and South?
Conventional humanitarian action does not take environmental issues into consideration a great deal (the daily distribution of tens of thousands of plastic water bottles and containers, blankets that are burned after being used, latrines set up over septic tanks that are emptied by a continuous flow of trucks, etc.). In an interconnected, inter-dependent world, the environment, the climate, and limited resources contribute significantly to the causes of migration: wars related to geo-strategic questions of access to oil, the desertification and loss of fertility of farmland, political instability linked to the extraction of non-renewable metals that are needed to produce nuclear power, make telephones, etc. What can we do to make our actions effective and coherent, while limiting negative externalities?
In a context where resources are very limited, particularly financial resources, it is important to consider the efficiency of solutions, and not only their effectiveness. For example, distributing small electric radiators is effective to heat tents… except if electricity is only available four hours per day, they break down very quickly and they cannot be repaired in situ.
What are ‘low-tech’ solutions?
Low-tech solutions are simple technical systems that meet basic needs: housing, access to energy and water, production and conservation of food, etc. A low-tech approach analyses needs, focuses on what is essential and discards what is superfluous. A low-tech solution, for example, could be a multi-function pedalboard, a solar cooker, or a small Piggott wind turbine, etc.3 They need to be accessible, both economically (cost of purchase, running costs, etc.), and in terms of skills (the ability to self-build and repair them, their ease of use, the availability of information in open source formats4, etc.). As a result, needs (whether latent or expressed) can be dealt with as closely as possible to those most concerned (applying the principle of subsidiarity), and the wide dissemination of these solutions can contribute to the economic development of an area.
In addition, these solutions are ecological/sustainable, that is to say, sober (in line with the Negawatt scenario5, and the 5Rs6), solid, long-lasting, repairable, adjustable and evolving, with a low carbon footprint and low energy use over their lifecycle. What is more, they are made of renewable and recycled local materials, they produce little waste or pollution, can be recycled, etc.
Each technology is adapted to its context, both in terms of needs, material and human resources available and socio-cultural contexts. In Lesbos, the members of ‘Low-tech with Refugees’ make, for example, insulating mattresses for the tents made with foam from life-jackets washed up on the beaches, external batteries to recharge phones made with old computer batteries, desert fridges made with buckets and recovered material that allow food and medicine to be kept cool without electricity.
These accessible, reproducible and often self-built technologies can be appropriated by the affected people. They use their know-how, empowering them and contributing to greater individual and collective resilience. ‘Low-tech with Refugees’ has shown how important low-tech solutions are, not only to meet psychological needs, but also to increase dignity, reinforce self-confidence, provide a way to be socially useful to the community and use/develop know-how that could be useful to find work in the future.
‘Low-tech’ is not just a way of qualifying technical systems and know-how: it is a philosophy, a way of life and an approach. In the field, the relevance of a solution is only 30% based on the quality of the technical solution itself: it is essential to adapt and integrate it to the context, to needs, to the locally available resources and to the specific features of the culture. The way that the technical solution is deployed also needs to be as integrated, holistic and appropriate as possible.
To implement a low-tech solution, the Low-tech with Refugees project follows a five-step method:
- Step 1: Collaborative design and development of prototypes based on needs (the majority of the team members are beneficiaries/users themselves) and by analysing the locally available resources (materials, skills) to ensure that the solution is really adapted and not just copied.
- Step 2: Preparation of materials, including the organisation of ‘waste hunts’.
- Step 3: Collaborative workshops facilitated by members of the community to make low-tech objects and learn how to use them.
- Step 4: Using the solution and gathering feedback to contribute to continuous improvement.
- Step 5: Sharing lessons using an open source format.
Thus, for the ‘Low-tech with Refugees’ project, low-tech solutions and resilience are both the ends and the means of the project. Technological sobriety encourages us to focus on what is essential by coherently integrating the complexity and inter-dependence of societal issues in a single action.
The issues at stake in a ‘low-tech’ approach
The migrants coming to Europe generally expect more material comfort. As technological sobriety is caused by the degraded context and limited resources, it is endured rather than chosen. For example, the upcycled ‘desert fridge’, inspired by traditional conservation techniques, is used in the Moria camp, in the absence of a better option due to the lack of electric fridges. Sometimes, a technological preference is only due to the social image of the low-tech object, so there is a need to promote this image.
Beneficiaries are often focused on the response to their needs, and are not very interested in environmental issues. It is therefore not useful to promote these aspects, unless they lead to direct improvements in living conditions in the very short term. So, it is not important, for example, that efficient wood-burning cookers limit the cutting of olive trees in the groves around the camps; the advantage for the beneficiaries is that they have less wood to carry and that it improves their relations with the neighbouring Greek farmers.
A low-tech approach means that you have to take numerous issues and factors into account, prepare the action, adjust it incrementally and collaborate with the ecosystem of local actors. Cost is not the only criterion to influence a purchase or a choice of means of transport. As a result, the implementation of simple solutions and the related communication, can be temporarily more complex: the general public will more easily understand why we should ‘save a refugee from drowning’ or ‘plant a tree’ than why we should ‘use low-tech solutions in camps’ or ‘manage the forest sustainably’. Awareness-raising and information should help to accompany a project and make it understandable.
In emergency situations, it is always simpler to make similar decisions to those already made in the past, to stick to familiar territory, and reproduce conventional solutions and ways of functioning. In order to introduce low-tech solutions and a low-tech approach, support is needed to accompany change and overcome different barriers, including those of a psychological and institutional nature. It may be useful to promote the organisational opportunities a low-tech approach brings in terms of agility, the implication of different sectors, limited costs in the short and long term, and in terms of fundraising, by meeting the requirements of donors who are sensitive to environmental issues and long-term impact, etc.
Regardless of an aid organisation’s field of activity, a low-tech approach helps to address societal issues and specific local characteristics through a simple, impactful action.
‘EKO!’ is a state-approved charity (association reconnue d’intérêt général) that runs positive and innovative projects in favour of sustainable and solidarity-based development7. It promotes individual and collective fulfilment and resilience that is respectful of nature and cultures. It runs the ‘Low-tech with Refugees’ project in the camps in Lesbos which has led to the creation of a ‘Low-tech Makerspace’, training in permaculture and bicycle repair, and low-tech workshops.
Marjolaine Bert is the founder and President of the association, EKO!, and the ‘Low-tech with Refugees’ project. She facilitates projects as part of the ‘Low-tech Lab’ collective, is a social entrepreneur and sustainable development project coordinator.
- Reception and selection centre where migrants are registered to request entry to the European Union.
- For more information about the context of the ‘Low-tech with Refugees’ project: https://medium.com/low-tech-lab-les-news/low-tech-%C3%A0-lesbos-des-solutions-simples-et-durables-aux-mains-des-migrants-1f6c276650c0
- For more examples of low-tech solutions, see the platform of tutorials by the ‘Low-tech Lab’ association: www.lowtechlab.org
- Open source is used to qualify a software, a work or content, which is copyright free and free to be redistributed, under Creative Commons licenses, for example. As the source code and the initial work can be improved by anyone, open source not only facilitates dissemination, but also collaboration.
- First issued in 2003, and updated several times since then, the négaWatt 2050 energy scenario for France is now a well acknowledged and recognised thorough piece of work to discuss the country’s energy future, and options to engage in a sustainable energy transition.
- The 5 Rs are: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Repair and Recycle
- For more information about EKO!, visit: www.asso-eko.org