Simon Trace is Practical Action's Chief Executive Officer.
Recommended reading: http://www.practicalaction.org.uk
Posts by Simon
On Tuesday this week I attended a conference in London sponsored by DFID, the Omidyar Network (set up by the founder of the on line shopping empire eBay) and WIRED magazine. The topic of the conference was the use of new communications technology (social media, mobile phones and the web) to promote open government, transparency, participation and development. It was a high profile conference with a video message form the UK Prime Minister and a speech by the new UK Secretary of State for Development Justine Greening. More information on the conference itself can be found at www.openup12.org or on twitter at #OpenUp12 . DFID is clearly interested in this area and used the occasion to announce a new $50m fund created together with USAID and SIDA called Making All Voices Count to support the development of web and mobile technologies in developing countries that can empower citizens.
At the conference there were some interesting examples of social media being used to promote transparency. The Ushahidi platform which was initially developed after the violence of the 2008 Kenyan elections was one. It allows individuals to post information by SMS, MMS or via the web about election irregularities, intimidation, violence etc. to create a real time map of problems that is available on line and which can be used to force government to take action. Ushadhidi has since been used in the Ugandan and Congo elections and in various disasters including the Haitian earthquake. The Ushadhidi platform (and another simpler version called crowdmap which can be set up and used in a few minutes) are open source and can be downloaded and used for free and have the potential to be used for non-emergency situations as well where you want large numbers of people to contribute to information that could be displayed on a map (for example – latest market prices for tomatoes at different town centres or the location of broken water points or villages without electricity connections). There was also an interesting presentation on the use of Facebook and Twitter in Nigeria to co-ordinate political protest.
One thing that struck me during the many presentations and discussions was that, just as in the real work, in the digital world there are many technology injustices. For example, depending on whose statistics you believe, in Africa, out of a population of over 1 billion people, somewhere between 400 and 750 million people have access to a mobile phone. But the cost of use, the level of connectivity, and the availability of electricity to recharge phones means that 90% of those people use less than 1 MB of data a month (in comparison the average data consumption in Europe and the US is between 150 and 400MB per person per month). This means most people are not really able to use the technology to access and exchange information beyond the most basic level.
It also means that when we are talking about a new wave of political engagment through the use of social media, be it during the “Arab Spring” or the co-ordination of political protests in Nigeria, we are talking essentially about political engagment by a relatively small ‘middle class’ urban group, who has the connectivity and who can afford the telephone bills. There is a danger, as one participant of the conference noted during a question, that we overestimate the power of social media to change the balance of power and give voice to the marginsalised. Its use (at least at the moment) is just as likely to simply accrue more power and voice to those who already have it.
There is also a digital technology gender injustice to contend with as 300 million more men than women have access to mobile phones world-wide.
Practical Action is certainly not Luddite in its approach to new technology. Around the world we are increasingly using social media and the web in our programme work, most obviously in Practical Answers, where we see the use of the web and YouTube videos in Latin America to provide information to farmers, podcasting in Peru, Zimbabwe and Nepal to get recordings out beyond the reach of the internet, SMS messaging for agricultural help lines in Nepal and Bangladesh, and mobile phone networks being used to provide advanced warning of floods in Nepal.
But we need to remeber that social media technology alone is no panecea and cannot, without other parallel action, overcome the more fundamental causes of poverty. You can’t join a twitter protest campaign if you live in a place that has no electricity to charge your phone!No Comments » | Add your comment
I’m sitting in the airport waiting for a plane back to London having spent the past week with a small team from Practical Action at the Rio + 20 negotiations. We’ve been particularly focussed on the discussions around energy access for the poor that were a theme through side meetings and discussions throughout the week.
This is the first time I have attended an event like this. And my impressions? Largely disappointing. Speaking with a fellow conference attender a minute ago we both came to the conclusion that if you were going to design a process to ensure agreement was reached on steps to ensure a sustainable future for all of us on the planet, this would not be it. In the formal part: endless and inconclusive negotiations on the minutiae of text, with national governments treating the process as if they were bartering for terms of trade as opposed to trying to prevent global disaster. And in the informal part: hundreds of side events – some really fascinating, others really dull, but none having any impact on or relationship to the sterile and hopeless process going on in the main negotiations.
That said, there were some positives to take away from the week. The issue of energy access got a lot of attention in the side events and was one of the few areas where hard financial commitments were discussed during the week, albeit outside of the formal proceedings. I attended the signing ceremony for 3 agreements between the Norway and Ethiopia, Kenya and Liberia for energy access programmes under the Energy Plus initiative. And although the UN Secretary General’s Sustainable Energy for All initiative attracted some criticism for its lack of engagement with civil society (the UN could learn from the Norwegians who seem to have made a better job of civil society consultation under Energy Plus), they too announced a whole series of commitments from governments, donors, private sector and NGOs (including Practical Action). I was also heartened to attend an event discussing alternatives to GDP as a measure of social and economic progress, which included presentations about work going on in the EC and in the OECD to develop national systems of accounting that would incorporate ideas of wellbeing and natural capital.
So all in all my take would be: an abysmal meeting in terms of the formal proceedings, with a complete lack of leadership from heads of government and a final document generous only in its use of platitudes and worryingly short on concrete proposals, but some interesting side events showing that civil society and sometimes even the EC and the OECD are occasionally still doing interesting stuff!
For me, Rio+ 20, coming after the failed Copenhagen Climate Change talks and some eminently forgettable global meetings in between, marks the terminal decline of the big set piece international conference. The global leadership and vision that delivered the international conventions on biodiversity and climate change 20 years ago at the original Rio conference have disappeared. We need a different format if we are to make progress in the future. Maybe we should subcontract Avaaz to run the next one virtually and crowd source some common sense instead?2 Comments » | Add your comment
I returned from a visit to our Nepal programme last week and so thought I’d use my next couple of blogs to provide some news from there.
In a previous blog I have talked about our work with dairy farmers in Nepal – helping small farmers increase milk yields through improved animal health and nutrition. In Nepal there is, in theory, a huge opportunity for small farmers to earn income from milk sales as there is a national ‘milk deficit’ with very large quantities of both fresh and powdered milk being imported from India to meet the demand of urban centres.
For increased yields of milk to lead to higher incomes for farmers however, improved technology and technical knowledge is only part of the changes that have to occur. The technical side of ensuring access to improved feedstock, the services of vets, cooling facilities to allow milk from lots of small farms to be bulked up and stored until collection by dairy processors etc is all very important. But often there are other problems in the way market chains work which can prevent small producers from realising the potential value of their produce. That is why Practical Action works not just on the technology but also on making markets work for poor people.
I saw an example of the latter on my first day in Kathmandu, when I attended a seminar on barriers to small holder farmers’ engagement in the dairy market, hosted by Practical Action. It was held under the auspicies of a Practical Action dairy project (funded by UK AID) and was part of the process of bringing key market actors from across the dairy market chain together to discuss policy blockages to further expansion of smallholder dairy production. The seminar was attended by about 100 people including small farmers, private sector dairy processors and government officials. The latter included the Minister for Agriculture, the Permanent Secretary for the Ministry of Agriculture and the Director General of the Livestock Department of the Ministry of Agriculture. A representative of the UK’s Department for International Develoment was also present as a speaker.
The workshop was good evidence of our Nepal office’s convening power, in this case bringing together and facilitating discussion amongst the whole range of different players that make up the dairy market chain in Nepal. The first part of the morning included speeches by the main guests and a key note speech identifying some of the main problems in the dairy market chain today that hamper dairy businesses from operating efficently and which prevent small farmers from obtaining the best value for their milk. The principle problems listed were: limitations on the ability to improve the quality of livestock (because of an embargo on cross border cattle movement from India and very limited artificial insemination facilities), limited access to credit for small holder farmers, and the depressing effect on supply of the price fixing system used by the Government’s Dairy Development Board.
The meeting went on to 4pm in the afternoon, 3 hours after its due closure time, because of the intense interest of the participants in the discussion. One outcome was that government officials agreed to look into the possibility of an official visit to India to, amongst other things, hold discussions on cross border cattle movement.
This sort of meeting is part of a participatory market mapping and facilitation process that Practical Action has developed over the past few years to help all actors in a market chain better understand how a market works and what could be done differently to improve the value to all participants but, in particular, to make markets work for the poor. For more information see our website at: http://practicalaction.org/markets-22 Comments » | Add your comment
In the 19th Decmber 2011 issue of the magazine New Statesman, Bill Gates authored an opinion piece on why he believes that “the world is on the cusp of finally unleashing innovation for the poorest”. As evidence he cites a number of examples including the development of new varieties of maize that can be 50% more tolerant of drought, a breakthough last year in the development of a more accurate and simple TB test, the Serum Institute of India releasing a low cost vaccine for meningitis A, and recent examples of technology transfer from Brazil and China.
Bill Gates has, in recent years, consistently raised the issue of a ‘tragic misallocation of resources’ in global technology research and development, complaining in an often referenced TED talk a couple of years ago that more money is spent annually on research a cure for male baldness than for a vacinne for malaria. He is absolutely right to raise this as an issue and a barrier to the poor having access to the technologies they need to achieve a reasonable standard of living.
But the New Statesman article reads as if technological innovation is all that is needed to end poverty (e.g. “Yes we have a global food crisis. But with innovators all over the world focussed on the problem, we also have a good chance to fix it”). But its not. Many of the technologies poor people need already exist, and in some cases have been in existance for centuries. Its their inability to access to them that is the core issue – due to a assortment of barriers ranging from simple affordability, to the poor having no voice in decisions around allocation of investments for basic services.
We need innovation not only in technology itself, but also innovation to over come the social, political and economic barriers that prevent poor people from accessing existing technology and that prevent innovation really focussing on the interests of the poor. So, for example, we need innovation to help utilities in urban centres in the developing world overcome their reluctance to provide water, sanitation and electricity supplies to the residents of informal settlements and shanty towns, which often make up half or more of the population of developing country cities. And, in an era where governments have largely handed over resonsibility for technology R&D to the private sector, we need ways of sponsoring research and innovation into knowledge which cannot be commodified but which is never the less helpful to the fight against poverty – for example research into improving the productivity of traditional agro ecological forms of agriculture.
Like Bill Gates, I too am an optimist. I believe this is possible and that a growing number of people are beginning to understand and respond to the challenge.1 Comment » | Add your comment
I was absolutely delighted last Thursday to be present at the headquarters of IBM UK in London to witness the launch of a new charity, Energy Aid. The idea behind Energy Aid – that British Industry support the creation of a new initiative to help tackle energy poverty in the developing world – emerged from a suggestion made by Practical Action during an IBM sponsored conference at HRH The Prince of Wales’ START festival last summer. (START was a festival aimed at inspiring people and businesses in the UK to start taking action to make their own lives and activities more environmentally sustainable.)
From our work at Practical Action, we know that access to modern forms of energy – electricity in the home, a clean source of heat for cooking, energy for small enterprises to earn a living- is a prerequisite for development. Without access to basic energy services movement out of poverty simply isn’t possible.
We also know, from our experience in developing countries, that this is not an insoluble problem. Although the vast bulk of people without electricity live in rural areas, out of reach of connections to national grids, affordable electricity can still be provided by simple micro hydroelectricity projects, small wind turbines or solar panels. And clean and efficient cooking stoves can make huge improvements in terms of reducing the time and effort spent collecting fuel and reducing the death toll from smoke pollution in the home.
But we also know that, 132 years after Edison introduced the incandescent light bulb, 1.4 billion people are still in the dark and 2.7 billion still cooking over open fires. This cannot be right and we must find a way of tackling the problem. That is why I was so pleased to be part of the launch event last week.
As one of the founding Trustees of Energy Aid I am tremendously excited by the prospect ahead and look forward to being involved in what I believe is a ground breaking and innovative new charity to tackle one of the most pressing problems of poverty – the lack of access to energy services in the developing world. If you want to find out more about the charity please go to www.energyaid.org1 Comment » | Add your comment
Continuing on the theme of my previous two blogs about the interlinkages between water, food and energy security, one of the recurring themes at the Bonn conference last week was the impact of modern farming practices on the environment, most notably the seepage of nitrogen from fertiliser and residues from pesticides into ground water and rivers around the world. As many have argued, industrial systems of food production, relying on heavy applications of agro chemicals and an increasingly narrow range of seed varieties are unsustainable, polluting, and slowly reducing the genetic diversity of the crops we desperately need if we are going to develop a form of agriculture resilient to climate change. More support for an alternative agro ecological approach to food production is not just good for small farmers in sub Saharan Africa, as I have argued before in this blog, but also for production and the environment in the rest of the world too.
The overuse or misuse of agro chemicals is not just of danger to the environment of course. It’s also a hazard to health. This week I was sent a link to an interesting experiment about to take place in India. The Pesticide Action Network (PAN International), a global network of more than 600 organisations in 90 countries has been working on the hazards of chemical pesticides since 1982. In December it is planning to bring together witnesses and experts from around the world in Bangalore, India to convene a ‘global tribunal’ seeking justice for victims of the pesticide industry. From December 3rd – 6th 2011, a ‘People’s Tribunal’ will convene to hear 25 cases bought by “farmworkers, mothers, young people, scientists and consumers..” against six transnational pesticide producing companies, the IMF, the World Bank, the WTO and the US, Swiss and German Governments (where the 6 companies are domiciled). If you want to find out more about this please follow the link: “people’s trial” against the Big 6 pesticide corporations .No Comments » | Add your comment
The Bonn conference on the ‘nexus’ between food, energy and water security closed last Friday. Following on from my last blog post on this, some thoughts on the relevance to Practical Action’s work.
The relevance of Practical Action’s work to future international development policy
Listening to the various sessions of this conference brought home to me the relevance of Practical Action’s work to these debates and to the trends being set out in the new EC development policy. Our work on energy access, agriculture and food, and urban water, sanitation and waste map directly onto the three securities being discussed here and two (energy and agriculture and food) map directly onto the main priorities of the EC’s ‘agenda for change’. With the UN Secretary General’s backing, energy is likely to be a key topic at the Rio+ 20 summit and so a major component of development debates and policies in the coming years. Climate change and the growing realisation about the inter-linkages between energy, water and food mean these two subjects are also likely to be increasingly at the centre of international development policies and priorities.
I like to think perhaps the world is in fact catching up with us. We should all be proud of the part we have played, however small, in the growing realisation globally that a sustainable future for all cannot be achieved without (a) addressing natural resource use by everyone on the planet and (b) doing this at the same time as addressing global poverty.
Speaking with a stronger voice
But just because there is more interest amongst governments and the main development agencies in our areas of expertise doesn’t mean that our job is done. Although many of the right noises are being made about the need to address poverty, to support small holder farmers and to provide access to energy services for all, there is still plenty of room for disagreement over ‘how’.
The message underlying the new EC agenda for change and many of the presentations at this Bonn conference was that these problems will be addressed through growth and a trickle down of benefits to the poor, an approach we and many others believe simply does not work . There were still at least three models of agriculture being discussed at the conference, only one of which really looks at the role of food production as a livelihood for millions of poor people and as an expression of culture. And the conference was full of technical fixes to technical problems but notably quiet on the human aspects of development and the need for poor people’s voices to be heard and their interests to be better represented in some of these debates.
There is still plenty of room for a voice that talks about technology justice and wellbeing in these discussions. And there is plenty of room for Practical Action to work with other like-minded organisations, to use the momentum and potential that is coming from increased international attention on the links between food, water, energy and poverty, to push for real and substantial change that actually benefits the poor.
And, of course, there is still plenty of real work for us to do on the ground in developing countries to turn policy rhetoric into something real.
Hochstadenring 45, 53119 Bonn, Germany, Bonn
November 18th, 2011
I am writing this blog from a conference hosted by the German Government in the old parliament building in Bonn.
Influencing the Rio +20 summit
The Bonn conference is being attended by over 500 people, including ministers, senior government officials, representatives from the UN agencies and development banks, researchers and civil society groups. It is the German Government’s attempt to put an issue on the agenda for the next ‘earth summit’ – Rio + 20 summit next year, and it is confirming for me the relevance of our work to the subjects which will be increasingly central to future international development policies.
The Germans held a similar conference, which I also attended, just ahead of the last ‘Earth Summit’ in 2002. That conference focused on freshwater, with a big emphasis on water and sanitation. It gained momentum for the move to get a sanitation target into the MDGs and ensured the topic got a good airing at the Johannesburg summit. So this conference has a bit of a track record of getting issues onto the ‘Earth Summit’ agendas.
The subject of the conference this time is the critical importance to both poverty reduction and a sustainable future for all of us of three inter-related ‘securities’ – food security, energy security and water security – and it this that the German Government would like to see centre stage of the discussions for Rio +20. Interestingly, the EC has just announced its new ‘agenda for change’ which outlines a new and tighter focus to its development assistance, with a big emphasis on two of these three securities – food and energy.
There are some fascinating figures being quoted in the various sessions here. Did you know, for example, that globally 70% of freshwater extraction and nearly half of energy production is consumed by the agriculture sector? Or that the amount of cultivated land per capita is expected to be just 1.61 ha per person by 2050, compared to 7.91 ha per person in 1900?No Comments » | Add your comment
Over the past 12 months or so we at Practical Action have been been working on a concept we call Technology Justice. I have talked a bit about this in my blog before, but last week a Practical Action supporter, Sam Charles-Edwards, put up a really interesting and thoughtful post on his own blog, reviewing the idea and commenting on how we plan to use it. You can see his blog here. Sam raises some valid points, including asking why we might be interested in using such a concept in the first place. He suggests one of the principle purposes of using a term such as “justice” might be to highlight injustices that exist in the world today. In this he is spot on. Practical Action is interested in promoting public debate about the huge injustices that result from the way the world develops and uses technology today.
I thought it might be useful to talk a little about these injustices today, which I believe can be thought of under 3 headings:
1. A large part of humanity cannot access already existing technologies that would help them achieve a decent standard of living
Human development has always gone hand-in-hand with technical change. Technology development and adaptation enables people to achieve wellbeing with less effort and drudgery, or at lower cost and with fewer resources. Improved technologies can make a huge difference to people’s lives – providing access to basic services such as water, energy, transport and housing; helping in the development of sustainable livelihoods and providing for reliable and sufficient food supplies; providing the platform from which improvements in health, education, income and wellbeing can be achieved. In short, though the development and use of technology has not always been for the good of all, we know access to improved technology can be an effective lever out of poverty and that conversely, its absence is almost always a key feature of living in extreme poverty.
But today a substantial part of humanity still lacks access to the basic technologies that would help them achieve even a very basic minimum standard of living. For example: 1.6 billion people do not have access to electricity; 2.4 billion people still depend on traditional biomass for cooking; 1.5 billion people still live in inadequate shelter; 1.3 billion people still have no access to safe water; and 2.6 billion have no sanitation. In many cases the technologies necessary to solve these problems already exist. The injustice is that a substantial part of humanity is excluded from their benefits.
2. Our technological efforts to innovate are now focussed mostly on the ‘wants’ of consumers rather than the ‘needs’ of those least well off.
This is the Bill Gates argument that there must be something wrong with our priorities given that we spend more each year on researching a cure for male baldness than we do for finding a vaccine for malaria. There are many areas where the interests of the poor in the developing world would benefit from further research – improving the efficiency of the small scale low input farming techniques that around 60% of the population of sub Saharan Africa rely on for their food and livelihoods being one such example. The injustice here relates to the misapplication of technological effort. Today’s technology research and development is largely financed by commercial institutions and, consequently, concentrates on technologies which have the potential to produce the greatest financial return rather than having the greatest impact of quality of life.
3. We make technology choices today that limit other people’s ability to make choices now and in the future.
The choices we make in developing and using technologies shape our society and can, ultimately, limit or impact on the choices others can make now, and in the future. There are examples of this all around us today. The development of bio fuel based on corn in the US leads to a rise in the price of corn in international markets and a corresponding rise in the price of tortillas, the staple food in Mexico; so in this case US consumers choice of fuel impacts on the affordability of food for people in Mexico. Or another example – our addiction to fossil fuel based technologies will leave a legacy of climate change for our grandchildren to deal with; in this case our choice of technology today limits future generations’ ability their choices and options. The injustice here is that those who make the choices (generally consumers or those representing their interests today in the developed world) are often not those who will face the negative consequences (the poor and marginalised or future generations).
Do have a read of Sam’s post on his blog and, if you feel inspired to post a comment yourself I’d be very interested to hear you views.
Practical Action has adopted the principle of Technology Justice to try to focus attention on these issues. We define Technology Justice as combining a right – that all people should be able to choose and use technologies that assist them in leading the kind of life they value – with a corresponding responsibility – that this right could be enjoyed only so long as that choice does not compromise the ability of others and future generations to do the same.
We hope to use this to start a debate on how we want to govern technology development and use in the future. It is a debate, we believe, that is central not just to the fight against poverty in the developing world but also to the understanding what a sustainable world for al of mankind might look like.5 Comments » | Add your comment
It’s Sunday afternoon and I’m writing this blog on a train heading north from London to Bradford to give a lecture at the British Science Fair tomorrow. This is part of a whole series of events we’ve been attending this year to publicise the centenary of the birth of our founder, the economist Fritz Schumacher’s birth.
Tomorrow I will be talking about the ideas Schumacher espoused back in the late 1960’s and, in his book Small is Beautiful, in the early 1970’s concerning an alternative view of economics ‘as if people mattered’. Given that it’s a science festival I will also be talking about how Schumacher came to believe that the choices we make around the development and use of technology shape the societies in which we live and can have huge consequences in terms of limiting the choices others can make now and in the future. There are examples of this all around us today, if you think about it. The development of biofuels in the US leads to a surge demand for corn in international markets and a rise in the price of tortillas, the staple food in Mexico. Our global addiction to fossil fuel based technology creates an inheritance of climate change for our children and grandchildren. Schumacher argued that we need to rethink our relationship with technology. And so on…
It’s my belief, and that of Practical Action, that to ensure greater equity of opportunity for a decent standard of living for everyone on the planet today, and a chance for a sustainable future for all of us, we need a new principle to govern the development and use of technology. That principle we at Practical Action call technology justice. Technology justice combines a right – that all people should be able to choose and use technologies that assist them in leading the kind of life they value – with a corresponding responsibility – that this right could be enjoyed only so long as that choice does not compromise the ability of others and future generations to do the same. My point tomorrow will be that the principle of technology justice is as relevant to our lives here in the UK as it is to those of the poor and marginalised living in the developing world. Our challenge in our own society and as a global community is to find a way to govern the development and use of science and technology so that it better meets the principle of technology justice in the future.
I’m looking forward to an interesting debate!No Comments » | Add your comment
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