Do you remember the movie Sliding Doors? The one that asks the question ‘what if she never caught that train?’
A colleague and I were exchanging ‘what if’ questions recently and I told her my favourite ‘what if’ was ‘what if Coca Cola was never invented?’ I started outlining my current theory which includes a lot of yoghurt-based drinks like India’s Lassi or Turkey’s Ayran.
My colleague told me her dad’s favourite ‘what if’ was ‘what if there was no Google?’ We both rolled our eyes of course, laughing at what a typical dad-type question that was. Amidst the sarcastic giggling, there was something about this question that struck a chord. Being the life-hack addict I am, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to once again experiment on myself and I decided then and there to abstain from Google and all other search engines for a month.
I started excitedly buzzing about my plan to ‘go Google-less’ and a friend suggested that I fundraise off the back of my crazy experiment and donate to Practical Action’s Technology Justice work. Given my tendency to give up on things halfway, I figured fundraising for a worthy cause would spur me on to achieve my goal so I set up a Just Giving page and the rest is history.
Actually, I only wish it was history – my experiment started just a few days ago, at the beginning of September…
If I’m honest, I had very little idea what it would be like without instant access to information apart from the obvious: London would be tough to navigate without Google Maps, my poor memory of song/band names would be exposed once and for all and (the most scary perhaps) I would never know when to take my umbrella with me. Less than a week into my ‘Life before Google’ experiment, I am already on quite a different type of adventure.
If I could name one thing that has truly impacted me so far it would be the simple act of asking for help. Instead of feeling ‘help-less’, asking friends and family for information has made me feel much more warmth and connection with other people in my life. Today I asked my Colombian friend to translate the word ‘Chévere’ which I had seen being used online. His answer was: ‘it’s a very Colombian word. It means “cool” or pleasant, nice, fun… yeh, more like cool and fun’. I couldn’t help but bask in the warmth of his wonderful, personalised answer and the subtle shades of meaning he conveyed – a far more enjoyable experience than frantically using Google Translate in the cab en route to an Airbnb.
Asking for help is sometimes a bit scary too, especially when you think you already know the answer. For example, I am forever getting confused between sea bass and sea bream. Last night I was convinced that I’d finally remembered the long skinny one (my favourite) was called sea bream. Unfortunately my boyfriend was of the opinion that this was actually sea bass. After several minutes of debate, I habitually reached for my phone but then remembered: no Google during September. There I was in the kitchen, the realisation slowly dawning on me that I might have no other option than to trust my boyfriend (at least for September). A scary thought for someone like me who is always right!
I remember my dad saying to me once that when people can help you, it makes them feel really special. I have a feeling that over the next few weeks I’m about to make a lot of people feel special. Either that or they will stop answering the phone when they see who’s calling them to ask for help… again.2 Comments » | Add your comment
Recently we had a meeting with a highly respected, investigative journalism programme at the BBC. The idea was to find out what they were interested in and ways we could work together. The feedback was interest in any scandals, particularly if involved corruption, sex and/or children and in the wake of the factory disaster in Bangladesh anything on seriously abusive trade linked to UK companies. To be honest we weren’t that impressed – any channel will do sex and scandal – we hoped the BBC with its clear public sector remit would want to look at vital issues not covered by others. (Of course they often do which is why we were hoping for more)
But if you want stories of child abuse and trade – there are plenty around.
Years ago when I worked in fair trade I was taken to a remote village in The Philippines where small kids who looked as young as 7, worked on powered circular saws to cut out the tiny components for costume jewellery. I was told that young children were used as their fingers were nimble – but they had no protective equipment and the risk of accidents was very high. Personally I would have lost fingers in minutes!
I talked to buyers in the shops whose labels were attached to the jewellery when I got back to the UK – big brand names – and had the normal response ‘we will do something about it but the supply chain is difficult, our subcontractor contracted out, who then contracted out – but we will sort it’
In the UK we don’t hear as much push for fair trade now – at one level that’s because it’s become more integrated (in my view at often a pretty basic level) into mainstream business. Also because there are less organisations shouting about it! Personally I’m all for insider engagement (working together with people) backed up by public pressure (the shouty bit – or the news bit – or the lovely grannies buying and selling fair trade products and telling others why it’s so important)
In the last week I also read a Guardian piece basically saying that while the sweat shops in Bangladesh are appalling, for many women they are the best option available by far! This was so sad; however it ties in with my experience. When I visited at the end of last year the procession of young women heading for the clothing factories looked despondent, depressed, girls with no life in their eyes – the idea of the day being so crushing – yet when you talked to people there was little else available – and for many women these jobs were prized as a way to feed their families.
We need fair trade!
We also need technology Justice!
We need a fairer world!
But I don’t think my exclaiming will make it happen.
So on reflection I’d like the BBC to talk more about fair trade and why changing the way we do business is vital, I’d also like them to talk about technology and the way our technology choices impact on society, I’d like them to talk about positive solutions to poverty (the good news stories we so rarely hear) but above all I’d like them to be brave – use the public sector remit as its meant – to tell different stories, stories that need to be heard – of course do it in an engaging way. The BBC is great – they can do it!
As with all blogs – a personal view! And I do love the BBC!1 Comment » | Add your comment
‘Climate warming greenhouse gas reaches 400 parts per million for the first time in human history’ – The Guardian
Did you see this? I thought it was very scary. Scary for us and scary for the people we at Practical Action work with who are being hit first and hardest by climate change.
Yet we, in the UK, very largely carry on as if nothing is happening – I also heard at the weekend recommendations from MPs to build not one but two new runways at Heathrow.
I started to think about why we don’t act. One of the biggest reasons is maybe that science confuses and scares us – not enough of us are scientifically literate and able to make choices on this basis. We hear arguments about scientific division and disagreements so we take no action. We are confused and inaction is easy.
This is what brings me back to measles and another piece in the newspapers. In 1996 when my daughter was born the MMR vaccine scare was just starting. I heard the doctor on the radio putting forward his view that MMR was responsible for the big growth in autism. I read the literature, I knew what I thought were the risks yet I had my child vaccinated. It would have been very easy not to do anything. The science in favour of MMR vaccines was sound, the worries spurious but by 2002 24% of parents believed that there was a greater risk from the vaccine than from the diseases it protected against. The measles epidemic in Wales is a direct result of people not acting.
I do think on climate change there is a lack of leadership. Another newspaper report talked about the freedom of information requests being blocked and now challenged – trying to get hold of HRH, The Prince of Wales, letters to government. We are told that they are mostly about the environment. Prince Charles is our Patron at Practical Action. He may not want his letters read but if they do say ‘beware’ and ‘take care’ I say well done to him – he has a consistent history of caring for and championing the environment.
We can never be 100% confident in the future, we don’t know what will happen and science is about probabilities. The probability as I see it is that climate change is caused by greenhouse gas emissions and we should act urgently now.
Reading in Practical Action I came across this from Leoncio Leando in Peru. Leoncio is 76
“The changes in our climate have driven some animals away. For example snakes have disappeared, lizards are missing, water frogs are missing, farm frogs are missing, pichaco birds – things are not like they used to be, Now there are lots of rats and plenty of flies. It looks like there may be no water at any time. We are ready and waiting, we are already experimenting. If we wait until there is no water first before we start thinking about what to do, then we aren’t doing too well’
He is wise. It seems to me that we are waiting for catastrophe before we start seriously taking action – so to echo his words – we aren’t doing too well.
Climate change drives poverty deeper for that reason alone its vital we act now.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
I’ve been very short-sighted since I was 8 years old. An optician seeking somebody to blame told me it was my own fault – I’d read too many books when I was younger. As my mum is also very short-sighted, I think it was more a case of bad genes.
So for the last 17 years, I have worn contact lenses and glasses. There is nothing more excruciating than losing a contact lense behind your eyeball, and nothing more infuriating than losing your glasses in the middle of the Indian Ocean when you’re on holiday. My short-sightedness has meant a lifetime of horrible eye infections, irritated eyes after long days of writing, and innumerable pairs of lost lenses and glasses.
Six months ago, after a particularly severe eye infection, I was told by an eye specialist that I would never be able to wear contact lenses again. I have spent the first half of 2012 wearing very big glasses. They were cool glasses, but mostly they felt like a huge barrier: between me and the rest of the world. So I decided to do something about it.
12 days ago my life was utterly transformed by laser eye surgery.
Waking in the morning and being able to see – actually see – the world in all its magnificence feels miraculous. Everything is more beautiful, more colourful, more perfect than before. I have had 12 whole days of 20/20 vision but it still seems unreal, as if tomorrow when I wake, my world might be a sleepy blur once more. I feel so overjoyed – and very lucky – that modern day technology has fixed my broken eyes.
When I was in Sudan I met a woman, Randa, who also couldn’t see. But her poor vision was nothing to do with short-sightedness. She was going blind because of the smoke caused by cooking on an open fire in her kitchen.
Randa is from a small village in North Darfur called Kafut, and has cooked with wood for her whole life. This means walking for maybe three or four hours to collect firewood, which she then carries on her head.
Cooking with firewood means that Randa’s whole house is constantly polluted by toxic smoke. Her house is made of hay, and the inside is burnt black. Randa’s lungs are also blackened by smoke, and like all the other women in her village she has suffered from countless chest problems.
But the cruelty of the smoke is that it is stealing her sight, and Randa is beginning to go blind.
Since working with Practical Action, Randa has been introduced to a new kind of cooking, using a stove which uses a clean energy source: liquid petroleum gas. The benefits of this are multifarious: not only is it cheaper for families, it also reduces the pressure on the dwindling supply of trees in North Darfur.
But for Randa, the most wonderful thing about her new stove is that it does not aggravate her eye problems:
“The LPG stove has totally eliminated the smoke… I think it has saved my sight. Before my eyes would stream constantly but now this has stopped. And I can breathe easily.”
Randa belongs to the Women’s Development Association in her village, and she is now educating other women about the benefits of cooking on an LPG stove, and also helping to distribute 19 stoves to families across her village, and 61 to other communities nearby.
Meeting the beautiful, determined Randa , and listening to her story, confirmed to me that simple technologies – such as a new stove – really can be life-changing. I know Randa was thrilled that the stove had saved her sight.
But how I wish that she’d never had to lose it in the first place. And that like me, she could benefit from wonderful new eyes.
What fills me with fury is the injustice of it. Because Randa’s near-blindness wasn’t inevitable. It need not have happened. I know that Practical Action’s work is helping her now, but for thousands of other people, it’s already too late.
Nelson Mandela once said “overcoming poverty is not an act of charity, it is an act of justice”. I think he is right.
We are not being charitable by helping. We are helping to restore some sense of justice to this world of ours that is so unbalanced and just so unfair.5 Comments » | Add your comment
On August 8th, I’m off to the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) for their Energy Day (part of their Festival of the Future). I’m going to be there for Practical Action, to talk about our work on energy access and hopefully meet lots of people interested in energy issues.
The day will have lots of activities, including interactive energy workshops, panel discussions with leading environmental thinkers, presentations from CAT experts, talks, and energy-themed kids’ activities and games.Visitors will get to grips with renewable technologies in ‘behind-the-scenes’ tours of CAT’s on-site renewables. Householders can discover more about how they can make small, achievable changes in their homes and communities to support the transition to a more sustainable and energy efficient society. As well as Practical Action, Friends of the Earth will talk on the UK’s energy policy, and the Guardian’s John Vidal will lead an insightful panel discussion on our energy futures.
CAT’s own Zero Carbon Britain research team and experts will be on hand to discuss sustainable solutions to our current energy scenario, whilst renewable energy companies and representatives from community energy projects will be here to share their industry experience.
The day will also be packed full of entertainment for children and young people. Energy-themed workshops and activities will take place throughout the day, and specially designed wide-games for kids and adults will be taking place across the CAT site. There will also be film screenings, music from a bike-powered sound system and pizza fresh from a wood-fired earth pizza oven.
For more info: see http://visit.cat.org.uk/energy-dayNo Comments » | Add your comment
One of the most exciting elements of visiting our overseas offices is the opportunity to build relationships with our field staff. They are the people who implement our projects, who work with vulnerable communities, who know the women, men and children living in poverty. Our field staff are Practical Action’s beating heart.
So today my Sudanese colleagues and I spent several hours discussing what Practical Action means to us as individuals – how would we describe Practical Action in one word to someone who has not heard of us before? And how would we want to be described by our supporters, donors, partners, friends? It’s a fascinating subject because I think how we feel about the organisation for which we work is crucial to our success. If we are proud of and energised by what we do, I think it makes us better, more effective, more inspiring.
We conjured up a delicious myriad of words:
There were many more, but this is just a snapshot. The words chosen create a compelling picture of the Practical Action in which I believe.
The most moving word to me is “home”, which was suggested by Mazen, a young water engineer working in Sudan’s turbulent Blue Nile state. I asked Mazen why he chose this word, and he told me simply “for many poor people that we work with, Practical Action is like home to them, we’re like their family. We’re always there, supporting people and their communities. People trust us. If things go wrong, they know Practical Action will be there to help. We care. We’re home.”
I think this reflects positively not only on Practical Action as an organisation, but also on the culture of our Sudanese staff, which is the most generous, welcoming, warm and hospitable that I have had the privilege of experiencing.
There is a phrase in Arabic, “Al-Bayt Baytak”, which means “my house is your house”. In a matter of days I have felt at home with Practical Action in Sudan. So now when I ponder that question “what does Practical Action mean to you?”, one of my thoughts will be “home”. What will your answer be? What does Practical Action mean to you?No Comments » | Add your comment
Khartoum is hot. Today it was 41 degrees. It’s beautiful sunshine, but the air is heavy, one long dolorous exhalation.
June to September are the rainy months. When I discovered this, before my arrival to Sudan, I was expecting sheets of endless rain, like the UK has experienced recently. But the rainy season here means rain perhaps once a fortnight. So there is little abatement from the heat.
Khartoum is quiet, almost peaceful, and so very different to the Kenyan capital of Nairobi. People here do not rush – the heat is too debilitating for that. As someone who is always running (metaphorically), adjusting to a slower pace is not easy. But then today I’m actually exhausted – a combination of the heat and only 4 hours sleep I think – and so I welcome a more relaxed way of being.
Today I have been listening to and learning from my colleagues about how we work here in Sudan. Due to the political situation, things are never straightforward. The liberty to travel freely is absent, and there are countless rules and restrictions which change frequently, with little explanation.
Operating in such a fragile context is challenging and frustrating. But Practical Action has a clear and distinct advantage because out of a team of around 70 people, only two are British expats. Everyone else – including the country director – is from Sudan. This enables us to carry out project work effectively and sensitively, and handle politics sensibly, because as locals, we understand the local cultural practices and the delicate, fraught nature of Sudanese politics.
Only a few weeks ago, seven international NGOs were expelled from Eastern Sudan, and all the foreign expat staff forced to leave. We are one of the few NGOs that is permitted to continue working in this area – and this is surely due not only to our inspirational work which helps women to set up farms to grow enough food to eat and sell – but also because we are, uniquely, a local international NGO.
This is just one of the reasons for my pride in Practical Action. Our small-scale, local approach means that we can be there for the most marginalised and vulnerable of people, working in partnership with them to help them change their lives for the better, forever. We find out what the people themselves need and want (even though we’re local, we don’t make any presumptions), and then give them the skills, tools and knowledge they need to make change themselves.
And I can’t help but feel awe for my wonderful colleages for managing to achieve anything in the heat. “I guess you’re just used to it, this weather?” I remarked to one colleague earlier today. “I assure you we’re not – we struggle just as much as you!” she replied. Which made me feel a little less pathetic for being bothered by it, and filled with just a little more awe.
Tonight while crossing the bridge over the river, I glimpse the sparkling sun illuminate the Nile and and feel another sort of awe shimmer through me. I think this may be the budding of the famous magical “specialness” of Sudan, for which I have been hoping.No Comments » | Add your comment
When I am not working at Practical Action’s headquarters in rural Warwickshire, I spend my time with my friends in Notting Hill in London. Yesterday, after a yoga class and a cup of coffee, I walked home, along Ledbury Road, one of Notting Hill’s most famous thoroughfares. It was a glorious springy sunshiney morning, much longed for after two weeks of seemingly endless rain. Towards one end of the road are huge white Victorian villas, with spring blossoms veiling the balconies and graceful Greek columns framing impressive porches. As the road progresses, the white elegance fades into brown dinginess. The other end of the road is home to council estate flats: small and drab. I smile at two little girls hopscotching in a yard that’s around 10 foot by 10 foot.
One of London’s greatest qualities is its diversity, yet all I could see during my walk along Ledbury Road was the injustice of the ‘haves and the have nots’. This phrase – ‘the haves and the have nots’ was one I heard lots during my trip to Practical Action’s work in Kenya in August 2011.
While travelling to a project in the informal settlements outside Kisumu city in western Kenya, my colleagues pointed out the narrow road which divided the ‘have nots’ from the ‘haves’. All that separated the people without life’s essentials: food, water, sanitation, shelter, energy, health care, education, a livelihood, from the people who had them, was a mere dirt track.
Walking along Ledbury Road yesterday was a useful reminder that sometimes the physical distance between those who have enough and those who don’t is negligible. But bridging that gap can seem an insurmountable task.
Technology Justice is one movement that is needed to help with this challenge. At Practical Action, we envisage a world where there is a balance between meeting the practical needs of people with less, while satiating the technological appetites of those with more. A world where all people, regardless of geography or wealth, can choose and use the technologies that will help them to live the life they value, without compromising the ability of others and future generations to do the same. A just, fair and equitable world, with a smaller gap between the people who have lots and those who have less. Technology Justice isn’t really about technology, it’s about people – and doing what is right.1 Comment » | Add your comment
In the day-to-day minutiae of working life it’s easy to get hung up on the bad stuff:
The stresses of multiple deadlines. Or the pressures of huge fundraising targets. Exasperations with organisational bureaucracy, which exists everywhere, in spite of the efficiency of your processes and procedures. Or anxieties about re-structure, as experienced by Practical Action’s UK staff for the last eight months.
But last week a very wise colleague reminded me:
“Just remember – everything you do here is for the people of Bangladesh. Or Kenya. Or Peru. Sudan. Sri Lanka. Zimbabwe. Nepal. That’s why we’re here. That’s why we’re trying. The people are the only reason.”
Her words were like a bell tolling me back from encroaching negativity to a place of clarity. I looked at the photos beside my desk and once more started to marvel at Practical Action’s work around the world:
The dreamlike magic of a floating garden which allows the poorest families in Bangladesh to grow enough food to eat and sell all year round, even during the floods.
The simple genius of a solar powered water pump that harnesses the energy of a resource which exists in abundance in Kenya – the sunshine – to produce one which does not – clean water.
The quirky innovation of an eco-san loo which gives farmers in the mountains of Peru decent sanitation AND a means of preserving dry human waste to make good quality compost for their crops.
No matter how frustrating my day is, I do feel very blessed that I can go home safe in the knowledge that I spent my time trying my best to make life better for someone in need of a helping hand. That everything I do here is “for the people of Bangladesh. Or Kenya. Or Peru. Sudan. Sri Lanka. Zimbabwe. Nepal.”
I repeated my colleague’s words to a friend this weekend and he warned me that I risked sounding holier-than-thou. I don’t feel pious or saintly, and I certainly hope I don’t sound like that. I just think that sometimes it’s important – perhaps even essential – to remember why we’re here.No Comments » | Add your comment