Alexis is Research Assitant with Practical Action's international Markets and Livelihoods programme.
Recommended reading: http://www.practicalaction.org
Posts by Alexis
I’d done lots of reading and my conversations with local staff had painted in some detail. But I was utterly unprepared.
It takes 9 hours to drive from Colombo to Kilinochchi.
Colombo is the prosperous-looking capital of Sri Lanka, a middle income country. I’d chatted to a man working at my hotel in Colombo. He described to me how Sri Lanka is working for the Big People. But for him – a family man with two kids working 18 hour shifts as attendant and earning less in a month than the rate of my hotel room (a big overstatement, for certain, but we all understand his point) – life is difficult. High inflation of prices for essentials is just making it harder. He was describing a common predicament – large gap between rich and poor in middle income countries – and I felt for him.
But the road up to Kilinochchi is a journey into a different, more complex world. Not simply the inequitable one that I have seen before.
At first, from Puttalam to Anuradhapura, the evidence of conflict is not what you might expect. We’re in the heart of elephant country. A recent ‘census’ counted over 7,000 wild elephants in Sri Lanka. Human-elephant country is a serious problem. Government policies yo-yo between discouraging settlement in elephant passes to intentional development in the areas. I see houses abandoned. The patchwork of rice fields remains untended.
After Anuradhapura we begin to pass garrison after garrison of government troops: A silent, ominous, quickening drum roll. A war occurred here.
Buddhist Sinhalese and Hindu Tamils have lived side by side on the Island for over 2000 years. Mostly they have been able to find peaceful co-existence. Throughout history however Sri Lanka has suffered invasions from India. These have periodically stoked popular resentment amongst the Sinhalese towards the Tamils, who share deep ties with populations in India, Tamil Nadu in particular. Tamils have been treated as outsiders. There have been times when large numbers of Tamils have evacuated or been expelled to India.
The British colonial period threw toxic yeast into the mix. In an account that so echoes what I understand of Rwanda, my colleague Rane puts me straight. When the British took control of the island in 1815 they sought to take the power away from ‘trouble-making’ Sinhalese leaders by eroding the institutions on which their statuses were founded. They abolished slavery and replaced in kind servitude with salaried labour. The British promoted the minority Tamils into a ruling class, appointing them to all the leadership roles of public office. They invested in their education, already at a higher level than the Sinhalese, in so doing entrenching this divide and rule order. When Sri Lankan Tamils were not malleable to the plan, the British brought in Indians to do the job. By the time Sri Lanka (which was called Ceylon at the time) achieved independence in 1948 the British had transformed the economy (tea anyone?), turned the structures of power in the country on their heads, and created an environment ripe for ethnic conflict.
Support for Buddhist-Nationalism grew strong. When in power populist leaders took increasingly steps to reaffirm the Sinhalese at the centre of culture and Buddhism as the dominating religion. In 1972 the number of Tamil places in universities was capped and Buddhism was written into new legislation as holding the “foremost place” amongst the island’s religions. Widespread unrest ensued and groups of young Tamils, including The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), called for an independent Tamil state in the north and the east. They established jungle guerrilla bases.
Boiling point hit in 1983 when the Tamil Tigers ambushed and massacred an army patrol in the Jaffna region. The Sinhalese retaliated with a month of killing and looting, now known as Black July. As many as two thousand people were slaughtered, and whole areas were levelled.
The war lasted 26 years. The war had its ebbs, including an unstable ceasefire from 2002 to 2005. But its crests were horrific. Upwards of 100,000 women, men and children, a large proportion of them civilians, were killed. Over 1 million people were displaced. War crimes were almost certainly perpetrated by both sides, but with no independent observers allowed into the war zones, nothing can be confirmed.
Kilinochchi town was the base of the Tamil Tigers, the symbolic capital of their Eelam. The district was the place of the Tamil Tigers’ last stand to the Sri Lanka Army’s massive offensive in 2008. By the time President Rajapakse declared the final victory of the Sri Lanka Army in May 2009, and a conclusive end to the war, Kilinochchi had been utterly flattened.
Kilinochchi is where I am heading. (This blog was written in October 2011).
I’m on assignment to provide technical support for pro-poor market development as part of Practical Action’s one-year rehabilitation and recovery project here. I’m delivering training to our staff and a number of other agencies working in the conflict affected north and east – CARE, Oxfam, Worldvision and UNDP. I am the first Practical Action head office staff to go there.
It was as we passed Vuvuniya, after the army checkpoint, that my stomach started turning.
On the final 70 km stretch to Kilinochchi there are more bunkers than other buildings put together. Hardly a single building from three years ago remains. The buildings that stand are mostly the result of the UN’s Refugee Agency: corrugated iron shacks covered with waterproof sheets, and occasionally, newly built ‘permanent resettlements’. There are far more soldiers than civilians. Every road, bridge and irrigation channel has been blown up.
It’s dark by now. On the insignificant upside, there is so little around that there’s no light pollution. As the driver, Bandara, and I take a cheeky pee on the side of the road, I can see the Milky Way.
In the two and a half years since the end of the war, reconstruction and rehabilitation has started apace. Road building, bridge repair, irrigation rehabilitation. De-mining programmes abound. Large scale programmes to return internally displaced persons have made swift, safe and effective progress. ‘Return’ often proves to be a misleading word though, many ‘returnees’ have been resettled in new locations, bringing both challenges and opportunities. All work is led or closely monitored by the government, and financed by the international humanitarian and development industries. Faith-based groups (especially Christian) tend to be at the forefront of putting civil society roots back in the ground.
The private sector is patchy. The biggest companies who are kitted out to cope with high risk have re-established themselves. Cargill’s national supermarket chain, for example, has set-up a new supermarket even before the road leading to it is completely finished. Individual entrepreneurship is also strong. This is a consequence of many not having access to natural resources; traditional occupations on which they used to depend difficult to return to. This entrepreneurship comes in every flavour: Small shops selling small goods; tractor rental; basic eateries; and also prostitution, largely serving the humanitarian expats. My colleague Sampath tells me that in Batticola, another conflict-affected district, as much as 40 % of women who have lost their husbands in the war have entered into prostitution. There’s also a missing middle to the business environment: small and medium enterprises do not have the skills and resources to understand the risks and opportunities of this post-conflict world.
Practical Action’s project here is called A New Beginning – Rehabilitating Irrigation Infrastructure and Initialising Market Development. It is funded by the United States government Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA).
The team here is working with recent returnees and government engineers to rebuild traditional water tanks in two locations. The tanks are little more than natural bowls, each around half a kilometre in length and width. The natural edges of the bowls are raised with soil covered in grass, and strategic channels and gates are installed to allow locals to control the flow of water. Maintenance of the banks and the irrigation gates is traditionally carried out by the communities living around the tanks. Rain water is captured and stored during the monsoon and channelled into fields in the torrid dry season. The bowls also raise the surrounding water table, keeping wells filled higher and for longer and create an oasis for wildlife. To me this is a perfect example of indigenous, intermediate technology.
With Kilinochchi in the heart of the conflict zone for the most of the 26-year war, these communities have had to flee their homes and lives, sometimes on a number of occasions and often for years at a time. Families are now returning, but empty handed and often penniless, they do not have the resources to maintain the tanks as they had done in the past.
To get the tanks back into good shape the project uses a common humanitarian approach – ‘cash-for-work’ – offering incomes to returning locals by hiring them to do the work.
As Suganthan, the project’s technical officer tells me, this approach is much harder to use effectively and not necessarily desirable.
Most other humanitarian cash-for-work programs around here are really just trying to shift cash to returnees, and use cash-for-work as a guise to argue that they are not creating aid dependency. In practice though these programmes hardly judge their performance on getting the ‘work’ that is carried out, and care little whether those hired actually work or not. Often they don’t. Workers sit under trees all day and they still collect the cash in the evening. The work doesn’t get done, is it is done poorly and no-one cares. Aid dependency still festers.
The approach in this project is different. We really want the work to be done. The completion of the tank rehabilitation in time for the end-of-year rains will determine whether the returnees can grow anything in the dry season in the new year. So Suganthan calls Practical Action’s approach ‘work-for-cash’. If locals want to work, they can, and they’ll earn something, he explains. “If this doesn’t happen, we hire local construction companies to get the work done.”
In reality around 60 % of the work is carried out by the poor. Poor people spend some time working on the tanks and spend the rest of their time rebuilding their homes and preparing their fields.
(written a few months later) Now in March, with tanks full, irrigation systems ready and the dry season arriving, the project now helps the locals around the tanks to recommence vegetable or fruit production. These are crops that can bring in income, what these people say they really need most.
Many other livelihood support programmes around here and elsewhere focus entirely on agricultural production and end up panicking when the project ‘beneficiaries’ produce a glut of produce no-one wants to buy. Again Practical Action’s team is taking a different approach.
We are working with the farmers and other people who work in agriculture to think about the demand for crops in the end markets: local ones, those in Jaffna up north, and those down south and identify what can be done to meet this demand. The team is facilitating a process that enables poor returnees to produce in-demand fruit and vegetables in an environmentally sustainable way and sell them for reliable prices into the markets that want them.
To make agriculture work again for those most in need, the team realises that production needs to be demand-driven and the market system as a whole needs to work well. The team therefore works not just with the poor farmers but also with other actors in the whole supply chain that takes produce from the field to the kitchen table and the fruit bowl. These actors include traders, buyers and retailers. We also work with the people who provide important services for the farmers such as agricultural advice and inputs. Many of these actors face their own huge challenges in this post-conflict situation: they feel the risks and cost of doing business here are too high, they are ill-equipped and have poor skills. The networks and relationships their occupations depend on are non-existent or hostile, as a result of the war and the displacement it caused. If their problems are not addressed alongside those of the farmers, then the returnees’ produce will not find reasonable and reliable prices.
In this way the project is demonstrating the potential of the area and its farmers, encouraging the government and others take seriously the opportunities that exist here and begin to reinvest in small farmers.No Comments » | Add your comment
Read my review of the conversations, sharing and learning that went on at the SEEP Network Annual Conference and find out what the Bermuda Triangle of economic empowerment is all about.
I presented Practical Action’s Bangladesh work in one of the Vulnerable Populations workshops. Alison Griffith and Lucho Osorio were also at the conference, presenting lessons of engaging with the national level private sector in Nepal and managing complexity in market development, respectively.1 Comment » | Add your comment
I just read this in Guardian’s G2 magazine about Angelina Jolie winning another humanitarian award for her philanthropy. I enjoyed it, thought others would to. While Practical Action is not a humanitarian agency (though we do plenty of work to influence humanitarian agencies to improve their practices, see our Recovery and Reconstruction work) I feel this article is also a tribute to the unsung, hard-working, tired heroes I have a privilege to work with around the world.No Comments » | Add your comment
“Check this out”, Deepak, Nepal’s Head of the Markets and Livelihoods Programme called over to me. When I came over, he had his phone in his hand, texting ‘pai symrabies’ to 4321. Immediately he got a text back: ‘Aggressive, drooling, choking sound, sensitive to noise and movements, lack of appetite and excessive sleeping. SMS “treatrabies” to 4321 for treatment options’.
Of course we texted ‘treatrabies’, and we got this message back: ‘Isolate animal. Do not touch or come in contact with Saliva. Call vet or para vet. SMS “vet” and your location number. E.g. “vet1” if you are in Dullu’.
The next text had a couple of names, addresses and phone numbers.
This text messaging service is part of a new project in Nepal called Access to Information (A2I). You can see that it’s new because Deepak’s demonstration is not completely ready. Shortly the service will have its own dedicated number and once that’s set up, you won’t have to put ‘pai’ in front of your requests. That just stands for ‘Practical Action Information’ and is required because 4321 is Focus One’s number. Focus One is the company behind text message horoscopes and dating compatibility tests in Nepal. Who better to partner with to deliver a virtual encyclopedia of information for agriculture, livestock-rearing, and foraging of non-timber forest products to the poor!?
Each text costs 3 Nepali Rupees, that’s about 2 pence. Of that, 2 rupees go to NTC, the national mobile network. Half a rupee goes to Focus One, and half a rupee comes back to Practical Action. The reason for that half rupee coming back to us is that we hope the demand for the service will grow enough to pay for a permanent person to keep the system up to date. So this model is built for sustainability.
And it’s built for scale. The service works anywhere in the country.
Practical Action Nepal is drawing on its network of experts in agriculture in the government and private sector to feed the system with up-to-date information about market prices, disease outbreaks, local weather forecasts and much more.
A lot of this information is already out there, publicly available, but the problem is that poor people out in the hills and mountains, who could really make use of it, can’t get hold of it. Like everything Practical Action does, the need came before the idea. Practical Action Nepal has drawn on a wealth of analysis conducted with the participation of poor farmers to find out what their biggest problems are. Lack of basic information is one of the biggest issues.
All well and good, but what happens if you don’t have a phone. Good question. Although Nepal’s phone ownership has been growing nearly exponentially in the last few years, it’s still fairly low compared to other countries, including those in Africa. Furthermore the distribution of phones is heavily weighted towards the urban population, and in rural areas towards those in the service sector. That’s why for A2I, this mobile text messaging service and its sister Voice Messaging (VM) service are not intended to reach the last mile.
(The last mile is part of Practical Action’s development-speak. It means that last distance (spatial, economic, social…) between those doing ok in difficult situations, and those that aren’t. Reaching those that aren’t – that last mile – is what Practical Action is all about.)
A2I’s text messaging and VM services are designed for local animal health workers, agricultural service providers and community forest chairpersons to access useful information. In many places these are the only people reaching the last mile and providing them with advice. A2I’s services are designed to help them provide the last mile with much, much better, up-to-date, advice.No Comments » | Add your comment
A locally appropriate, low cost answer to cattle malnutrition …
1. Take 1 kilogram of that red mud that’s at the back of the homestead;
2. Dry it out in the sun for a couple of days and pound into a powder;
3. Roast 10 egg shells (just the shells – eat the contents youself with your family), pound into a powder and add it to the red dirt;
4. Mix this with around 1 kilogram of regular salt, the stuff you can buy at the shop a few doors down;
5. Add 1/2 a kilogram of flour to bind the mixture;
6. Finally pour in some water as required until the mixture holds together and can be shaped into blocks. Shape them into donut shapes (making sure you leave a hole in the middle of the block);
7. Leave to dry for a week in the shade, then another week in the sun until hard;
8. Use the hole in the middle to string the block up in your cow-shed. Make sure that your cow can reach the block at a stretch, but not easily. String up one of these blocks for each of your cows.
That’s how you make a Nepali Khanij Dikka, a mineral block. It’ll cost you around 30 Nepali Rupees (22 – 28 pence) to make a block that weighs 2.5 kilograms. That cost comes from 14 – 16 Rupees for the salt and 13 – 15 Rupees for the flour. Obviously the red mud is free, and you’re probably eating eggs so those shells are a free by-product. Each block will last one cow for about a month.
Your cows will natural lick the mineral block when inclined, taking in iron from the red earth, calcium and phosphorus from the egg shells, and iodine, sodium and chlorine from the salt. These are all essential minerals necessary for the good health of your cows and so that your cows produce a good quantity of milk that is high in fat!
Thanks to Prakash Poudel, Dairy and Livestock Specialist on the Market Access for Smallholder Farmers (MASF) project, for providing all the technical input for this post!
P.S. Read my recent blog about why Practical Action Nepal is working in the dairy sector and what it is doing to help farmers improve the nutrition of their cows so that they can produce milk of appropriate quality and in large enough quantities to attract commercial buyers.6 Comments » | Add your comment
Kathmandu 44600, Nepal, Kathmandu
May 22nd, 2011
Remittances – money sent from people working abroad back to their home countries – represent between US$ 250 – 300 billion of income for poor countries. That dwarfs international aid which sits somewhere in the region of US$ 100 billion. In some places, such as Nepal, it represents one of the biggest contributions to national income: the World Bank this puts remittances to Nepal at 23 % of GDP, in joint second place with the services industry behind agriculture at 30 %. This puts Nepal in second place behind Bangladesh in terms of least developed countries with biggest remittance proportions of GDP and in the top 5 across all countries world-wide.
The social implications of people working abroad and sending remittances back to their families are incredibly complex. How the aid industry, including Practical Action’s work, should fit into this architecture is even more contentious, and the jury amongst the ‘great thinkers’ is still out.
On the one hand, given the sheer volume of income that remittances represent, it makes sense that charities and development agencies should try to leverage their funds to help make remittances be more effective. Some of the things we could do include: influencing migration regulations to make it easier for people in poor countries to reach big labour markets in the Middle East and East Asia; helping people to lobby for governments to clamp down on the rampant corruption of middle-men who manage the migration process; working with vocational training institutions to develop courses that build the skills of young people so that when they go abroad they do not face those 3D jobs: dirty, dangerous and difficult; developing innovations to make transferring money across borders easier and less costly.
But on the other hand, it also makes sense to step back and think about the impact of the exodus of young people out of countries like Nepal. How can Nepal overcome its huge challenges if the resources that Schumacher considered more important than all others – the people, ideas and skills – are running out of the country? This blog is inspired by an article in Nepal’s leading English language newspaper, Nepali Times, which I just read. It’s written by a young journalist called Anurag Acharya. Read here the heart-breaking reality of what labour migration and remittances mean for Nepal.
The Markets and Livelihoods programme at Practical Action in Nepal has just commenced a new project funded by the European Commission – Raising Opportunities for Jobs. This is one of a number of past and present projects across Practical Action that has training of youths at their heart. In this project the Markets team in Nepal mapped the labour market of young people in the far western region of Nepal and identified existing employment patterns and industries with an unmet demand for labour at home. Once this complex system was understood, the team targeted a few sectors where under-educated young people in Nepal could be trained up so that they would have the skills to find decent jobs right here in Nepal.
Practical Action is thinking past the length of the Raising Opportunities for Jobs project, and beyond the limited number of beneficiaries we can help directly. By working indirectly through leading vocational training institutes in the country, Practical Action is collaboratively developing syllabi which these institutes will roll out across the country to hundreds of thousands of youths and far into the future.
Of course we can’t stop these young people, once they have built up these new skills, from deciding to go abroad anyway. However, these skills will also help them, should they choose to go abroad, to avoid those three Ds, and bypass some of the horrors described in Anurag Acharya’s article. In any case it’s important to remember that going abroad is not really an exciting adventure for young Nepalis. It means leaving their families and the lives they have known their entire lives and going places where they are treated as the lowest class of people – grunts of society. As 21-year old Surya Man Lama told Nepali Times’ Acharya: “We don’t like to go abroad, we are forced to”.
Addressing the problem of basic skills of youths is only one small part of what needs to happen in labour markets in Nepal to keep young people at home or find decent jobs abroad without being exploited. And Practical Action in Nepal hopes to grow this area of work in the future. One step at a time though…1 Comment » | Add your comment
Get a great opinion of the state of Nepal from top journalist Rabi Thapa.
This is a bit of a different blog for Practical Action. But if you are interested in the context that our great team in Nepal work, check this fantastic article that was in one of the national papers a week or so ago.No Comments » | Add your comment
Chitwan National Park, Bharatpur 110 085, Nepal, Bharatpur
May 20th, 2011
Between two and three million farmers in Nepal are involved in the dairy sector in Nepal. That means people who own cows or buffaloes and produce milk that they trade for income, or people who are involved in producing the feed, looking out for the health of the animals, or collecting, transporting, processing and selling dairy products. It is estimated that every 10 to 20 litres of milk marketed a day creates one additional job for someone not farming themselves, but earning a living from supporting the chain that produces milk and takes it to those who drink and eat milk-based products.
Many of the people working in the dairy sector are poor, and at the same time big dairy companies in Nepal expect large growth of the industry in the coming years, so Practical Action’s Market and Livelihoods programme in Nepal has targeted the dairy sector and works to improve its efficiency, and all importantly the ability of poor people to participate in it and pull themselves out of poverty.
By mapping the market for dairy in four districts of Nepal – Chitwan, Gorkha, Tanaha and Dhading – Practical Action, together with farmers themselves, cooperatives, businessess and the government, identified basic health of cattle as one of the big problems in the sector. Nutritional deficiencies in cattle have meant that poor farmers have not been able to produce high quality milk in large enough quantities to attract the interest of cooperatives and companies to buy their milk, and has generally limited the growth of the industry nation-wide. Of course, that’s just one of the problems in the market system, but one that can be solved!
So Practical Action’s Market Access for Smallholder Farmers project, in partnerships with others, have designed two ways to help poor farmers improve the nutrition of their cattle, and in turn increase the quantity and solids content of their milk.
For those farmers who have been able to invest in ‘improved’ breeds of cows, Practical Action has partnered with Nimbus – a leading feed manufacturer in Asia, famous in Nepal for its poultry feed – to research and test high nutrient, low cost feed for cows. Through September 2010, Practical Action helped Nimbus understand more about the needs of those poor farmers who have one or two cows of high-yielding breeds. Nimbus went away to their labs and came up with something special! Trialing of the new feed amongst poor farmers showed that without increasing their costs, farmers could increase the milk produced by their cows by around 20 % and the quality of this milk substantially, resulting in big gains in income. Since then Nimbus has rolled out this new high nutrient, low cost feed across Nepal, the first of its kind in the country. This partnership has enabled Practical Action to reach, with extraordinarily small amounts of funds, hundreds of thousands of farmers across Nepal, many of them poor.
Of course, the big question here is: what about the really poor farmers without improved breeds? For them this new feed is less useful, as the improvements in milk quality and quantity is slighter for local breeds of cows and buffaloes. And for these farmers, switching to this commercial feed will cost them more money. That’s why Practical Action has worked with those farmers and forest users to come up with another strategy as well. By spending lots of time with the farmers, Practical Action realised that many feed their cows straw or bran that has practically no nutritional content. It just fills up the cows’ stomachs – not good for milk quality! Much better would be to feed cattle different types of green grasses. So Practical Action encouraged farmers to change the diets of their cows and start feeding them grasses.
But it’s not as simple as that. In Nepal, land is scarse, with steep hills and lots of good land covered with protected forests. So there’s not much space to cultivate grass. That’s why Practical Action teamed up with Community Forest Committees and User Groups – local people tasked by the government to use forests responsibly – to explore careful cultivation of grasses within segments of the forest, at once protecting the forests and delivering this much needed input for healthy cows. On top of that, Practical Action also works with ‘forest nurseries’ – small entrepreneurs who cultivate local plants that are used by the government and local people to regenerate the forests and local biodiversity – to cultivate some high-nutrient, foreign grasses that local farmers can buy. In these controlled ‘forest nurseries’, cultivation of valiable non-indigenous grasses can be carried out safely, without harming the environment, and bring great benefit to poor farmers hoping to improve their milk quality so that they can link up to commercial buyers, and transform their lives.5 Comments » | Add your comment
Sirajganj, Bangladesh, Sirajganj
November 25th, 2010
I like community theatre. Over the past couple of months I’ve seen amateur performances of Amadeus and Lady Windermere’s Fan. The former in particular was great. But what I saw last night was something else!
In the playing field of a rural upper school in the Sirajgunj district of Bangladesh, a troupe put on a drama about good practices in small scale agriculture to a packed out local crowd. By a conservative estimate at least 400 children and adults of all ages, women and men, came from nearby villages to laugh (a lot) and sigh (not cry, although the wedding scene I must admit was quite touching) while learning about how to improve their cattle rearing, vegetable farming, and pond fishing.
It was part of Practical Action Bangladesh’s Making Agriculture and Market Systems Work for Landless, Marginal and Smallholder Farmers project, which is funded by the European Commission. Through the project Practical Action is already helping 15,000 farmers and 300 micro enterprises directly, but in order to reach even greater scale, the team is raising awareness much more widely through the region with activities ranging from agriculture fairs to community-based drama shows like the one I was lucky enough to catch.
It was really something special! My Bangla isn’t up to scratch so I didn’t catch every word (Read: my Bangla doesn’t exist and I didn’t understand a word) but the slapstick comedy, hilarious characters, touching story, and important messages were easy to see. The show had everything: music and dance, advice about cattle vaccinations, stick-on beards, tips on how much and when to fertilise your vegetable crop, a crazy old match-maker, how many fry (baby fish) to put in your pond cage, over-sized sun-glasses…
I was particularly pleased to see lots of women standing together enjoying the show. Often kept away from public gatherings by cultural norms, women make up the majority of livestock carers in Bangladesh. So getting these messages to them is particularly important.
The evening went down a storm. And that’s a great sign that people will talk about it in weeks and months to come, remember and share its lessons with others.
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