Sadly, today is my last day here at Practical Action because in January I will be starting a new job at another international development charity. I have worked here for three and a half years and been writing my blog for the last two and a half years. As one of the youngest people in the UK head office, I feel like I have done a lot of growing up at Practical Action. I have worked with, and learnt from, some brilliant colleagues across the organisation. They are bright, committed, passionate people, and I have been very lucky to know them.
I am leaving with some very happy memories of my time here. My trips to Sudan and Kenya are particular highlights, and I will never forget the warmth, hospitality and helpfulness of all the overseas colleagues I have had the honour of meeting.
I have been very privileged to have had the opportunity to meet and interview some of the millions of people Practical Action has helped. Those conversations are perhaps my most treasured memories.
When I was in Kenya I met a woman called Syprose. Syprose was a beautiful woman, with the most magnificent face – the sort of face which has a whole life etched into it. She lived in a slum village called Nyalenda, just outside Kisumu city. She was a mother, and a grandmother. Her husband Daniel had died 3 years ago after stepping on a nail and contracting septicaemia. She was 63 years old, and she had the responsibility of looking after her five little grandchildren alone because she’d lost her four children to AIDS.
Syprose’s village did not have a system of clean water, although it did have a natural spring. But because it just flowed along the land, it was often polluted by animal and human waste. So people would get cholera, and die. Sometimes there were as many as 10 deaths a day. Syprose’s big fear was that her grandchildren would die too. So we worked with the villagers to protect the natural spring by constructing a low concrete wall round it and directing the water through a pipe. This simple technology means that people in Syprose’s village no longer die of cholera, and they have a constant supply of clean water.
And everyone was delighted, particularly Syprose. When I asked her how this made her feel, she took my hand, and her hand, and placed them both onto her heart. And then she said “it makes me feel like God is here.”
Syprose’s words will remain locked in my heart forever. I am leaving Practical Action safe in the knowledge that as an organisation, we do change and save lives in a very real way. I feel really proud to have been a small part of it.
Thank you for reading my blog over the last few years.
Wishing everyone a peaceful, relaxing and happy Christmas, and all good things for 2013.
2 Comments » | Add your comment
Hobbits, hyacinths and happiness
Who would’ve thought that hyacinths and happiness would go together so well? But they do in flood prone Bangladesh. Practical Action works with some of the poorest people, forced by their poverty to live on land that shifts with the annual floods, so nowhere is ever really home, and making a garden is an act of faith. With water comes water hyacinth in abundance, a weed which Practical Action helps communities turn into floating gardens – an example of a really simple technology that works wonderfully well. The hyacinth leaves, supported by bamboo poles, are woven into a bed, on which is laid soil, into which seeds for lettuces, okra, sweet onions, pumpkins, etc., are planted. The plants’ roots reach down through the hyacinth bed to the flood waters, and nature does the rest. What could be simpler? It doesn’t have to be just hyacinth leaves; any material can be used to create a floating garden in this way, enabling food to still be grown when floods make normal planting impossible, bringing happiness to communities who previously struggled to meet their families’ food needs.
This is just one example of a project which Trusts and Foundations are helping Practical Action implement….and we have many more for which we need support. If you’re a Trustee of a Trust or Foundation and would like to know more, contact me on Liz.Frost@practicalaction.org.uk.
And the hobbits? They don’t have anything to do with floating gardens I’m afraid, but being keen gardeners themselves and enjoying at least six meals a day, I think they would really approve of such a simple but productive technology.No Comments » | Add your comment
What is the weirdest Christmas present you could give any one? For me the Shit Box, cardboard crapper must be a contender. I’m amazed that people seem to be buying it. My daughter gave me a link to a ‘great’ website for Christmas presents and its 33 on their top 100 gifts!
Why would you do it? Why spend £16.99 plus P&P on a cardboard box with a hole in it? AND then use it to go to the loo!
Okay so I’m not their target audience.
But at the risk of sounding like someone’s self-righteous aunt, children are dying from the lack of a loo. Diarrhoea kills 1.5 million children each year, on top of this it’s a leading cause of malnutrition in children under 5. Shit is serious!
So if you have £20 to buy a ‘weird’ prezzie do something more useful – join up with a friend and give money for a decent loo to your favourite charity (overseas of course).
You still have the kudos of buying something weird without the problem of recycling (or contamination – having used a very clean long drop loo I know how hard ……I think any more might just be too much information – but you get my point)
If you are struggling for loo inspired prezzies have a look here.
Give a present that really can make a difference – not one that shows you are a plonker
Whatever you do (and buy) this Christmas have a happy and very, very peaceful one
Auntie Margaret1 Comment » | Add your comment
If you were hoping for an environmental twist on ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’, I would move on now. But if you’re interested in how communities living in the cloud forests of Peru and Bolivia are beginning to experience the fifty shades of green forest that their ancestors once enjoyed, then read on.
For many years, settlers have lived in areas of the forests also inhabited by the Awajun, the indigenous communities. Renting land from the Awajun, the settlers’ preferred method of farming was to clear away the forest and plant seasonal crops to feed their families until the quality of the soil was so depleted that it was no longer productive. The families then had to move on. This was clearly not sustainable and led to conflict with the Awajun, whose land no longer had any value.
Working with the Awajun and settlers, Practical Action researched how the forests used to look, using local knowledge to identify the diversity of plants and trees (hence the fifty shades of green) that once grew naturally in the area. Using this knowledge, we worked with the communities to find ways of recreating the cloud forests while still providing them with a realistic living. An agro-forestry system was devised, which ensures that areas of indigenous forest are conserved for future generations, while at the same time communities are able diversify their crops, for eating and selling. I love the diagram below, illustrating simply how by working together, the Awajun and the settlers really can bring ‘fifty shades of green’ back into their lives now, and for future generations. It’s also a partnership beyond the cloud forest communities – we have been able to achieve this because of the partnership with three great Foundations: Innocent foundation, Waterloo Foundation and Z Zurich Foundation.
No Comments » | Add your comment
While my fellow Americans woke up early and fought long lines for big sales on what has aptly been named Black Friday, I was happily working away in the Communications office here at Practical Action.
Back in America, the holiday season officially started on Thursday with Thanksgiving. Immediately after Thanksgiving, chaos ensued at retail stores across America, as people pushed their way through crowds in pursuit of big savings on Black Friday. This is a day when most major retailers open extremely early and offer promotional sales to kick off the holiday shopping season.
Following the big in-store sales is Cyber Monday, taking place today. It’s a day for huge online shopping sales.
While I’m upset to have missed Thanksgiving, I can’t say that I miss the chaotic aftermath. It seems the true meaning of the holiday season has been lost.
Enter #GivingTuesday - a national campaign to brand the Tuesday after the holiday as an annual day of giving. It celebrates and encourages charitable activities that support nonprofits.
Over 1,000 businesses and NGO’s including big businesses like Mashable and Sony have signed up to the campaign. It’s sweeping the nation in America as a popular social media phenomenon, but it doesn’t mean that it can’t go international. I’m happy to be working for a charity who wants to bring the UK in on it.
At Practical Action, our Practical Presents are the creative gift ideas that people can buy for people in the developing world. They range from fluffy ducks that help people in Bangladesh earn an income to clean water taps that give a lifeline to people in Zimbabwe. You can donate the money to have one of these gifts sent to developing countries as a gift to someone in your life.
This #GivingTuesday I hope you will join in with us online and give a gift to someone in your life that will help the lives of people all over the world. Let’s remember what the holiday season is meant to be about!No Comments » | Add your comment
Although I have been very, very lucky to have had the opportunity to travel to Kenya and Sudan to visit our projects, I have not visited all of Practical Action’s countries of operation. I have hundreds of colleagues who, sadly, I have not been able to meet in my three and a half years working for Practical Action. We communicate through email and Skype, and although these technologies promote good working relationships, nothing beats having a real conversation in person.
So last week it was a real joy to meet one of Practical Action’s most dedicated project workers, Nazmul Islam Chowdury, from Bangladesh. Nazmul is currently visiting the UK as part of our work campaigning for more political action, leadership and funding for the fight against climate change.
Nazmul is truly inspirational. We speak at length about the Pathways from Poverty project which he manages in Bangladesh. This ambitious project, one of the largest in our history, endeavours to help 119,000 of the poorest women, men and children in rural areas of the country to take the first step to a life beyond poverty.
Many families here are achingly poor, and have been impoverished for generations. Their poverty is not just a shortage of money with which to buy things. It means starvation, dirty water, ill-health, inadequate shelter, limited access to education. It is the lack of sufficient resources with which to keep body and soul together.
At the beginning of the Pathways from Poverty project, people had lost hope of things ever being different or better. Nazmul’s assurance that, within 12 months, communities would have enough food to overcome their hunger was met with huge suspicion. That suspicion only intensified when Nazmul shared his idea of a beautifully simple farming technique, sandbar cropping, which could secure food for life. “People thought I was mad!” he says.
Floods in Bangladesh don’t just destroy homes and lives when they arrive; they also leave a crippling legacy when the waters subside. The ‘char’ – the silted sand plains that the floods leave behind – are too infertile for even the most skilled farmers to tend. Nazmul’s idea was to simply dig holes in the sandy plains and fill them with manure, compost and then plant pumpkin seeds. Within seven days the pumpkin seeds start to germinate fresh green shoots. And hope springs once more.
“I remember one woman in particular who was so delighted with her pumpkin harvest. She told me ‘I’ve fallen in in love with this. Before I hated spending time in the field because it seemed so futile. Nothing grew. But now I want to spend all my time tending to my crop of pumpkins. I’ve never seen so much food. This technology is helping us to grow food in the sand. It’s a dream.’ Listening to stories like this makes me feel immensely proud of the sandbar cropping technology. I think it is the best example of ‘small is beautiful’.”
The Pathways from Poverty project is already having a huge, transformational impact on the lives of some of Bangladesh’s most desperate people.
I ask Nazmul what drives him, and am so inspired by his response:
“I feel a great sense of responsibility to the Bangladeshi people. Everyone pays their taxes. And those taxes have paid for my education. I feel it is my duty to pay people back. I use this philosophy to inspire my team. I want to see people in my country enjoying their lives, not spending every moment worrying about their survival, about their children’s survival. We may never be rich like the Americans. But I want to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to earn what is sufficient for life. Everybody in the world has the right to food, shelter, and education, healthcare. These are the basic rights and choices.”
As I listen to Nazmul’s words, I feel so immensely lucky to work with such visionary people who are so committed to challenging the numerous injustices in our world. Practical Action is an organisation, but our good work is only possible because of people – our committed team of project workers, the people with whom we’re working who revolutionise their own lives, and of course, you – the lovely, wonderful people who support us.1 Comment » | Add your comment
Some years ago Practical Action was called Intermediate Development Technology Group – am I pleased we changed it! Moving from ITDG wasn’t a universally popular decision but calling ourselves Practical Action better describes what we do.
Many of our projects also have titles which describe perfectly to an organisation, say like the European Commission, what the project is about, but do they tell you what a difference the work will make to someone’s life? Take, ‘Community Led Approaches Complementing Sustainable Service Delivery for WASH Action in Zimbabwe’, for example. Nothing wrong with the title, it describes exactly what the project is about, but does it tell you what the project will achieve? As a fundraiser, I want to give Trustees/Administrators of Trusts and Foundations, an immediate and human sense of what a difference the project will make to people’s lives. If you don’t engage very busy people, who receive hundreds of proposals a year, in the first few words, how can you expect them to read on to learn more about what an exciting project it is that you’re pitching to them. So what did we call ‘Community Led Approaches Complementing Sustainable Service Delivery for WASH Action in Zimbabwe’ – while pondering an alternative title, a staff member who happened to be passing, suggested ‘Now Wash Your Hands….’ – genius! Familiar, short and says exactly what one of the aims of the project is. Because that’s what the project hopes to achieve – providing clean water and good quality sanitation for communities in rural Zimbabwe, but as importantly, the water supply to wash their hands after using the toilet, and the knowledge that such an action significantly reduces diseases previously spread by poor hygiene habits.
Any suggestions for an alternative title for ‘Improving the Capacity of Sub National Risk Management Systems and Building the Resilience of Communities Vulnerable to Disaster in Peru’?No Comments » | Add your comment
Yesterday was a particularly good day. A sizeable cheque arrived on my desk from a Trust which is winding up. Actually, every day that a cheque arrives on my desk from a Trust or Foundation is a pretty good day, whether the cheque is large or small. I often receive a letter with a cheque apologising for what the sender thinks is a small amount. No amount is too small – we do truly believe in the famous words of our founder, E F Schumacher, that ‘Small is Beautiful’! Practical Action will make sure that every penny, every pound of the donation I received yesterday, and of all those donations from the other Trusts and Foundations that support us, makes life better for those who are the poorest of the poor, marginalised and vulnerable.
The cheque that arrived yesterday was ‘unrestricted’, meaning we can use the funds where we want. That choice won’t be my decision – I leave that to our finance and programme staff. But I do know that in the coming months, even years, it could help, for example, a family have access to clean water in Kenya, it could ensure children in Zimbabwe are protected from killer diseases as a result of refrigerated vaccines thanks to energy from Practical Action’s micro-hydro schemes, and the donation might enable a family in Bangladesh, whose lives have been decimated by floods, begin to earn a living from growing pumpkins.
Funding from Trusts and Foundations are vital to our work, and to the futures of the people we work with. Looking forward to tomorrow’s post already!No Comments » | Add your comment
If, like me, you’re filled with excitement at the thought of tonight’s final of The Great British Bake Off, I think you’ll enjoy this story of how the fortunes of Peruvian baker Luz Marina Cusci Cáceres have been transformed, with a little help from Practical Action.
It is a Thursday morning in September 2012, and visitors are gradually arriving at a huge food festival that is a highlight for many Peruvians. Within a few hours, the place will be packed with hungry diners and long queues will form at the myriad food stalls. There is no respite for Luz Marina Cusi Cáceres, who has just returned to her stall after she has run out of stock. Her stall is to be found among the organic producers section, where delicious home-grown Peruvian goods are sold.
But what is so special about Luz Marina? And what does her story have to do with Practical Action?
Several years ago Luz Marina participated in Practical Action’s project ‘Development of productive uses of electricity in the Cusco region’. During her participation in this project, she developed her baking knowledge, and learnt how to bake traditional kiwicha [a traditional Peruvian cereal] biscuits in a more efficient manner.
Luz Marina used to make kiwicha products by hand until Practical Action came to her town, San Salvador, and worked with the community to introduce a variety of electricity-generating technologies such as solar panels.
“We knew nothing about electrified machinery before, but with the help of Practical Action engineers we began using kitchen appliances, like the electric whisk, which need electricity to operate.”
Luz Marina had always sold kiwicha, but she did not do anything to the raw kiwicha to add real value to it. An Italian woman in the town who knew how to make biscuits shared her baking skills with Luz Marina.
“She taught me that I could sell biscuits made out of kiwicha, which would fetch higher prices at market than raw kiwicha products.”
Once Luz Marina learnt how to bake the biscuits, rumours of her delicious culinary treats spread across town, and people started asking for more.
“People would eat them and then buy them. So I kept making the biscuits better, and although there is still room for improvement, I am now a much better baker than I was before. In 2009 I decided to start a baking business with three of my friends who also cook with kiwicha. It is very helpful to work as a group; we have a lot of confidence, we know each other, and we are united.”
The real turning point came when Luz Marina met a customer named Hugo. He was so impressed by the biscuits and the commitment of Luz Marina and her friends he helped the bakers to obtain the official hygiene certification they needed in order to sell their products in larger markets.
“Now we sell our biscuits in Ayacucho and San Gerónimo. We have to stock the stalls with 1000 packets every two weeks! What would we do without electricity? We use an electric whisk to make our biscuits. It saves us time and means we can make better quality biscuits that sell in their thousands! We still need more encouragement from the council though – it would help if they advertised and promoted our products.”
In addition to the biscuits, Luz Marina and the bakers are now selling kiwicha-based pastries and honey. At the bustling food festival these have been hugely popular.
“We have sold 6000 packets of biscuits in three days! I am very grateful to Practical Action – without electricity we could not have made a productive or profitable living from baking. The electricity has transformed our baking. And baking has changed our lives”.No Comments » | Add your comment
When I was 12 years old, my life revolved around playing with my friends, and trying to do my best at school. My biggest worries were whether I’d finish my homework on time, and more importantly, whether it would get an A* (I was a very conscientious pupil). My greatest responsibilities were helping my mum with chores around the house, and looking after my little brothers.
I was safe, protected, and enjoying my childhood, exactly as any 12 year old should.
But if I had been born into poverty – in Bangladesh, Mali, or Niger, for example – chances are, that at age 12, my childhood would have ended. I could have been forced into marriage. Into pregnancy. Into giving birth to a child, while still a child myself. If I survived all that, I’d have faced a life of drudgery, of doing whatever necessary to support my family. That might entail selling everything I had, including my body, to men, for sex.
10 million girls around the world are forced into early marriage each year. That’s about one girl every three seconds.
Think of yourself aged 12. Or your daughter. Or your granddaughter. Is this the childhood you would choose for her?
Today, Thursday 11 October 2012, marks the first ever International Day of the Girl Child: a chance to amplify awareness of the inequalities which confront girls, just because they are girls. In announcing this day, the UN has demonstrated its commitment to ending the discrimination, violence, and poverty that disproportionately affect girls.
But we need more than just this one day. We need, every day, to remember the millions of girls who graduate from childhood to womanhood far, far too quickly. We need to remember this injustice, and act, and advocate for global change.
We need to recognize that when girls’ rights as children and human beings are valued and respected; when girls are educated, not forced to marry, not made mothers when they’re still children themselves; when girls grow up and have the confidence, knowledge and skills to make a decent, dignified life and living; they become women who have the power to break the cycle of poverty forever.No Comments » | Add your comment