There was a time when experts in the industrialized countries believed that they had ready-made solutions to the problems of underdevelopment in the so-called Third World. All that was needed, they believed, was to transfer already existing expertise and equipment, and then development and modernization would immediately ensue. Unfortunately, that was a costly fallacy, resulting all too often in the hasty introduction, or even imposition, of systems that were at variance or conflict with the existing environmental, cultural or socio-economic conditions. False starts and faltering initiatives have plagued attempts at technology transfer. Huge investments of resources often led to disappointment and disillusionment.
Most capital expenditures for irrigation in developing countries have
been on large-scale projects, in the hope of achieving quick and massive increases in
production. Typically, a well-meaning national or international agency would conceive and
finance a showcase project, based on elaborate engineering. Experts would be hired from
abroad to design the system, then contracting and supplying firms would be engaged to
implement the design. Subsequently, the marvel of modern technology would be assembled and
demonstrated, with great pride and fanfare. The gap of centuries had been bridged, so it
seemed, in a single master stroke. Then the foreign contractors, having done their job and
reaped their profits, would disappear. Soon afterwards, the elaborate system would cease
functioning, because of the failure of a single cog or inexpert or uncaring operation.
Lack of local resources and the difficulty of obtaining replacements or expertise from
abroad, exacerbated by an underpaid and indifferent workforce deprived of incentives,
would combine to delay the necessary repairs and to perpetuate the failure. The entire
expensive system would then stand idle, a mute monument to inappropriate technology
A case in point are the large-scale centre-pivot sprinkler systems, prefabricated abroad and assembled in various countries in Africa where the traditional scale of farming, the cost of energy and the availability of equipment and technical services contrast sharply with those in industrialized countries. In many places, these imposing machines have become white elephants.
Most organizations responsible for designing irrigation projects have a strong civil engineering orientation, and therefore have tended to emphasize the design and construction of large-scale water supply systems over the small-scale, on-farm management aspects of irrigation. In some countries, there is still a dichotomy between the agency that is responsible for developing water resources and for allocating and delivering the water via canals, and the separate agency responsible for utilizing the water in the field by local farmers. Often the water resources agency is endowed with greater power, funding and prestige than the on-farm management agency, so the first is unlikely to accept guidance from the second on the proper options for water allocation.
Key decision-makers have tended to favour high-visibility capital projects with impressive works, while neglecting the more modest needs of indigenous farm units, as well as the issues of training and maintenance that are of interest to lower- level personnel without decision-making power. Top-level decision-makers have also tended to harbour unrealistic expectations as to the time required for irrigation development and have tended to be impatient with technical or human constraints. Some have been insufficiently aware that the technology they were trying to transfer from the industrialized countries had evolved in a capital-intensive market economy based on the ready availability of technical services and a complex economic infrastructure. Moreover, financing agencies and corporations serving as contractors have naturally tended to prefer large projects providing for the sale of expensive hardware and services, whereas in reality it is often small pilot projects with major emphasis on human skills and local labour that are more likely to achieve sustainable progress.