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Hello. My name is Simon Trace and I’m the Chief Executive of Practical Action. I don’t want to talk to you about what we do; I want to talk to you about why what we do is so important.
Important not just for the 2¼ m people who have directly benefited from our projects over the past three years, or for the many more that may have benefitted indirectly from the changes in other people’s policies and practices that we have been able to bring about. But important for all of us on this planet.
I want to talk about why the ideas of justice, equality, well being and sustainability that dictate what we as Practical Action do and how we do it, are solutions not just to the problem of poverty in the developing world, but to how we are going to find a sustainable future for all of us on this crowded earth.
And I want you to feel not just that you are supporting an organisation that does good projects to help poor men and women in the developing world, but also that you are a part of a greater movement for change. A push for a different set of values to govern our lives. A set of values that is more likely to ensure an end to poverty in the developing world but also a set of values that is more likely to lead to happiness for us, for our grandchildren and for their grandchildren to come.
To do this I’d like to start by taking a couple of minutes to talk about two pieces of research published last year. Neither was specifically about poverty in the developing world. Neither was about Practical Action. But both serve to show that the principle ideas behind the basic recipe for a happy and sustainable society that our founder, Fritz Schumacher, laid out 38 years ago, remain as valid today as they were when Small is Beautiful was published.
An equitable society
The first piece of research is summarised in an excellent and very readable book published last year called The Spirit Level (or why more equal societies almost always do better). The authors were two British social scientists called Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett.
The study focused on Europe and the USA. It looked at indicators of health and social problems in society ranging from life expectancy, the incidence of mental health problems and killer diseases such as cancer and heart disease, through to factors such as the size of prison populations, the number of teenage pregnancies, literacy rates, and, even, how much people trust one another.
Wilkinson and Pickett looked at these factors separately and together in a combined index of health and social problems. But however they analysed them their 2 main conclusions remained the same:
- Firstly, there is no relationship – I repeat no relationship – between how wealthy a country is and how bad these problems are in society. Richer countries do not automatically have fewer of these problems; poorer countries do not automatically have more.
- Secondly that there is, however, a very strong relationship between how unequal a society is and how bad these problems are. In societies where the disparity in incomes between the poorest and the richest is very large, the incidence of all of the problems is very high; in societies where the disparity in income between the poorest and the richest is very small, the incidence of all of these problems is very low.
So, if we assume that a happier society is one where fewer of these problems exist then, according to this research, its not the size of a country’s income that determines its citizen’s happiness, but its how that national income is shared out and, perhaps, how it is used that matters.
And that’s a big problem for all of us, I think. Because at the moment it’s the former – the size and rate of growth of national income that economists and economic policy are generally obsessed with!
So if it’s not national income growth that we should focus on if we want to be happy, what is it?
That’s where the second piece of research I want to talk about comes in – a study commissioned, interestingly, by the President of France, Nicolas Sarkozy to answer precisely that question. Apparently President Sarkozy has become very disillusioned with the use of national income (or GDP as it’s often known) as an indicator of economic performance and social progress. So he pulled together a group of very eminent economists including the Nobel prize winner Amartya Sen and charged them with the task of coming up with an alterative.
President Sarkozy’s Commission published its final 300 page report in September last year. In effect the key message of the report is: what you measure is what you get. So if our key measure of progress is national income, then all of our policies and all our efforts will be aimed at maximising national income – whether or not that makes us any happier as a society. But if what we are really interested in is whether we feel happy with our quality of life, and whether that quality of life can be sustained into the future, then that’s what we need to measure. If we focus on sustainable well-being as the goal against which we measure progress, then the policies and actions that are necessary to optimise this will flow as a result.
Why does this matter to us? To Practical Action and to its work?
Well, although Wilkinson and Pickett’s book concentrated on Europe and North America, inequality is self evidently not just a problem for the western world. Vast inequalities of income and quality of life exist within developing countries as well. I was in Nairobi in Kenya last week and the inequalities between rich and poor there are only too apparent, with the shopping malls, tourist hotels and the well kept streets and houses of the better off minority contrasting starkly with our working area – the insanitary, cramped, precarious and insecure conditions of the slums that house 60% of the city’s population.
And wellbeing is not a concept that is just the concern of the citizens of Europe and North America either.
The need for a different model of development, a model which seeks to maximise the well-being of all sections of society, not just today, but for future generations as well, is as relevant to the developing world as it is to the developed.
An alternative approach
So what would an alternative approach that focused on sustainable well-being look like? And how would Practical Action’s work measure up against such an approach?
Well most studies of how people themselves define well-being, whether they are carried out in rich or in poor countries, conclude that well-being has two components.
- The first is a material component. People want their material needs satisfied – food, shelter, access to basic services such as water and energy, education and health, and an income to pay for all of this. Practical Action’s work – on food security in Sudan, on access to energy services around the world, on water, waste, housing and sanitation services in urban slums, on securing incomes for poor farmers through making markets work for the poor – shows that our core focus is on some of the most important aspects of material well-being.
- The same research shows that the second component that contributes to a sense of well-being is a relational one. The sense of well-being comes from more than just having one’s basic material needs met. It requires also a sense that you have a degree of control and power over your own life, that you can be a part of decisions that have a major impact on the way you live, that you can live in dignity, that you have the respect of your fellow citizens, and that you can live in peace with your neighbours.
This is incredibly important because it means if we are to focus on well-being, it’s not just what we do that’s important, but how we do it as well. This is a critical part of the way Practical Action works. People participating in decisions and taking control of their own development is a golden thread which weaves its way through all of the work you have seen here today, whether its participating in market chains to influence how they work, participating in how technologies are actually developed and used, winning the right to control the natural resources they depend on for their livelihoods, or participating in planning processes to make sure town councils or water utilities live up to their responsibilities to deliver basic services to the poor.
The focus of our work is on the material aspects of well-being. The way we work addresses the relational aspects of well-being.
We do all of this in the knowledge that it is not just the well-being of people today, but the sustainability of that well-being into the future that matters. So I’d like to look quickly at how our take on technology plays a critical part in delivering the ‘sustainable’ bit of ‘sustainable well-being’.
We live on planet earth in an environment that is, in effect, a closed system and we are now reaching the limits of that system to sustain us.
As humans we only have two tools to manage our interaction with the environment we live in.
One is technology. It is technology that allows us to convert the natural resources available in the environment in to the goods and services that support our material well-being. And it’s technological innovation that allows us to do that in ever increasingly clever and different ways.
The other tool we have is the rules we choose to govern ourselves by – the systems of government, law, religion, politics and economics that, at the end of the day, determine who controls access to which natural resources, what technologies are developed to exploit them, and who benefits from their use.
Whether humanity can find a sustainable future for itself depends largely on us getting this relationship between our systems of governance and the technology we develop right. In Practical Action we describe this goal as ‘technology justice’ – the right of people to decide, choose and use technologies that assist them in leading the kind of life they value, without compromising the ability of others and future generations to do the same.
If that all sounds too academic a simple example should help:
The approach of big aid agencies like the World Bank to the problem of growing enough food to feed the developing world is to ignore small farmers on less fertile lands and instead focus on big commercial farmers on the most productive areas and on the use of large scale industrial technologies – fertilisers, pesticides, mechanisation, and, in some cases new crop breeding techniques such as GM. We believe this approach is wrong. In sub-Saharan Africa 60% of the population rely on small scale subsistence farming for a living. Focusing aid on the most productive lands and on commercial farmers denies 60% of the population the help they need to improve the efficiency of their farming methods. And focusing on industrial farming technologies, we believe, also damages soil fertility over time and reduces the ability of future generations to feed themselves.
Practical Action takes a different path. We support small farmers. We recognise that with often quite simple improvements they can increase their production many times over and create surpluses. And I’ve seen this for myself when visiting our projects with small farmers on rice in Sri Lanka, potatoes in Peru and maize in Zimbabwe, for example. Building on what they already do, we promote technologies which are described as agroecological – which build the fertility and moisture retention capabilities of soils and so preserve and improve their capacity to grow food not just now, but into the future. In other words, we help small farmers use technologies which allow them to continue to live the life they value without compromising the ability of others and future generations to do the same.
Practical Action’s way of working conforms to the idea that sustainable well-being should be the principle goal of development. We focus our efforts on the main material components of well being: food, basic services, an income and a means of livelihood. And the way we work is in tune with the relational aspects of well-being – people’s need to have control over their own destinies and a voice in their own societies. Our underlying principle of technology justice means that we also work not just to create well-being today, but to assure that it is sustained into the future.
The thing is, for us these are not new ideas. We have followed this approach for more than 40 years because it is our inheritance from Fritz Schumacher’s philosophy and Small is Beautiful. It’s in our organisational DNA.
So am I happy that the President of France and British academics have finally caught up with our current-day interpretation of Fritz Schumacher’s philosophy and theory of ‘economics as if people matter’?
Well yes and no.
Yes because it’s focusing attention on the alternative idea that sustainable well being should be the principle goal of development.
No because, nearly 40 years on from Small is Beautiful these ideas are still not making it across the barrier from academic discussion into mainstream practice. The rhetoric may be about sustainability and wellbeing, but the reality is that policy and practice in developing and developed countries alike is generally still very much driven by ideas we know do not work.
For that reason there is more need now than ever for organisations like Practical Action to trail blaze and to show how things could be different, to make that transition from theory to practice, to show how ideas of technology justice and wellbeing can lead to a different more equal global society with a real chance of a sustainable future.
This is an edited version of a speech delivered to supporters of Practical Action in June 2010.