Mobile phones, smartphone apps, mobile internet connectivity and mobile payments are frequently touted as silver bullets in the fight against poverty. Through a combination of frugal innovation and disruptive business models, mobile phones have become increasingly affordable and accessible to an ever-widening customer base. They are often considered ubiquitous among even very poor communities by designers and development practitioners, with statistics suggesting access to mobile phones across developing countries to be at 51%. (more…)3 Comments » | Add your comment
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has launched a new Open Access policy for all material published from work it has funded, as of January 2015. This is a huge step by one of the largest development funders in the world and it could pave the way for others to follow suit. (more…)5 Comments » | Add your comment
There are many great challenges facing the world in the coming years, from climate change to feeding and housing a rapidly growing population. Yet the direction of the research, innovation and development efforts globally are acutely failing to meet the needs of billions of poor and disadvantaged people. Even worse is that even the research which is specifically targeted towards addressing these global challenges is based on a flawed system of ‘technology transfer’, rather than locally developed appropriate solutions. (more…)No Comments » | Add your comment
Open source approaches to research, development and design are becoming increasingly popular, whether it is crowd-sourcing designs for rainwater storage systems or creating bespoke software for the Raspberry Pi. These more open approaches to technological innovation could help create more equitable Technology Justice for the poorest and most marginalised societies worldwide, working to meet the needs of these communities. (more…)No Comments » | Add your comment
I was lucky enough to be part of a panel discussion today marking the European launch of the UN Decade for Sustainable Energy for All. The event was hosted by the Scottish Government in Glasgow as a cultural side event to the Commonwealth Games.
Scotland is an interesting place to host such a discussion. It’s a country with some fairly remote, small and difficult to serve communities in the highlands and islands, for whom a connection to the national grid would be prohibitively expensive – mirroring some of the problems faced by rural communities in the developing world.
One such example is the Isle of Eigg, off the west coast of Scotland, which only got 24 hour electricity in 2008. You can read more about this on their great website: islands going green but, in short, universal access to energy on Eigg was achieved through the efforts of the Eigg Heritage Trust via a community-owned company Eigg Electric. Their scheme is a hybrid one in that it delivers power via a mini grid attached to 3 renewable sources (hydro power, wind and solar) plus a diesel back-up generator. It was financed from a mixture of sources including the European Regional Development Fund, the Big Lottery, HIE Lochaber, the Highlands and Islands Community Energy Company, the Scottish Households Renewables Initiative, the Energy Saving Trust, the Highland Council, the Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust and the residents of the Isle of Eigg themselves.
At 184kw of total renewable generating capacity, 11 km of grid, and a few hundred consumers the Eigg system is not dissimilar to the sort of mini grid projects Practical Action would work on in places like Malawi. What’s particularly interesting is that it is owned and operated by a community organisation and that its capital costs were financed (judging from the list above) at least in part from grant funds.
Why is that interesting? Because at the moment there is a largely unchallenged assumption in many circles that the additional energy infrastructure needed to ensure universal access by 2030 will be funded through the actions of markets responding to unmet demand. All we need to do, the narrative goes, is get regulation right, remove market barriers, perhaps do a bit of capacity building and then stand back!
That assumption does hold true to an extent, in certain circumstances – witness the progress made in Bangladesh with over 4 million solar home systems installed since 2004. But even in this great success story, if you dig a little deeper, you find the assumption holds true only for a certain segment of the ‘market’. As a recent World Bank study shows, people who install solar home systems in Bangladesh have, on average, twice the landholding and three times the non-land assets of those who do not. In other words the poorest and most marginalised are still being left behind (not surprising when a solar home system costs around $450).
In terms of up front capital costs, the gap between what people can afford and what systems actually cost gets much bigger when you move from solar lamps or solar home systems to mini grids with the capacity to power more than just a few lamps. Which was why, I guess, the people of the Isle of Eigg’s energy needs were not resolved by a market responding to unmet need, but through the actions of their community organisation and the availability of grant financing.
The Isle of Eigg is not a unique example in the ‘developed’ world of how remote rural communities have eventually got access to electricity. In the US difficult to reach rural communities were connected to electricity in the 1930s and 1940s through the actions of farmers’ cooperatives and subsidised funding from the government. Indeed 11% of all electricity sold in the US today is still provided by those cooperatives, helping to connect the 16 million rural citizens living in places where it remains too difficult for commercial utilities to generate sufficient return to invest (see the NRECA website for further details).
We need to remember this experience when we make assumptions about how the goal of achieving universal energy access will be financed. Markets, the private sector and private finance will make a huge contribution to this process. But for the poorest and most difficult to reach, history in the ‘developed’ world shows that markets alone will not bridge the affordability gap.
In her contribution to the discussion at the launch of the UN Decade of Sustainable Energy for All today Lynne Featherstone, the UK Under-Secretary of State for International Development, emphasised a principle of ‘leaving no one behind’ as we pursue development. My main point in the same discussion was that, if we are to achieve that with respect to energy, if we are truly to ensure energy for all, then we cannot just leave everything to the market. There will still be an important role for civil society organisations and public finance.1 Comment » | Add your comment
Jeremy Leggett, ‘social entrepreneur’ and founder of SolarAid and SunnyMoney, alerted me to a recent article in the Daily Telegraph newspaper here in the UK. The full article can be see here but, in short, the piece suggests that the oil industry is the new great ‘sub prime’ investment of the current economic cycle, replacing the US housing market which, you will remember, triggered a global recession in 2008. Investment is pouring into exploration in oil shales and deep fields in the Arctic and elsewhere, but these investments are not yet returning any cash and, indeed, require higher oil prices to deliver a real profit.
Whilst gambling on higher oil prices might have seemed a fairly safe bet a few years ago, there are now two potentially significant threats to making money out of oil. Firstly, if a global deal is eventually done to maintain atmospheric carbon levels at 450 ppm then, according to the International Energy Agency, two thirds of the oil reserves that oil companies currently have on their books will have to stay in the ground, unburnt, as ‘stranded’ (i.e. unusable) assets. This means the book value of the oil industry is vastly overstated and we can expect to see a mass withdrawal of funds, or a demand for profits to be paid out as dividends rather than re-invested in more drilling, as this eventually becomes clear to the big institutional investors.
Secondly, the article notes that “staggering gains in solar power – and soon battery storage as well – threatens to undercut the oil industry with lightning speed”. The author (the Daily Telegraph’s International Business Editor Ambrose Evans-Pritchard) goes on to note that photovoltaic energy already competes with fossil fuels in much of Asia without subsidy and that “once the crossover point is reached……it must surely turn into a stampede”, predicting that the energy landscape “will already look radically different in the early 2020’s”.
For this sort of article to be penned by the business editor of the Telegraph, a newspaper associated with the British establishment and business, is, as Jeremy remarks, truly momentous. The world’s current addiction to a fossil fuel based economy represents a massive inter-generational technology injustice – with the choice to use carbon emitting technologies by this generation having potentially profound negative consequences for future ones.
One can only hope that the Telegraph’s analysis is correct in this instance and that we are, indeed, seeing the beginning of the end of the age of oil.No Comments » | Add your comment
Nestled in the shadows of the Alps, I joined 400 people at EPFL in Lausanne last week to talk technology justice. For many it was the first time they’d heard their work framed as a justice issue. But this lively mix of academics, development workers and technologists from 70-odd countries had something in common: their vision for all people to be able benefit from essential technology; for that technology to be more environmentally sustainable; and to overcome the injustice faced by billions of people who go without food, shelter or water each day, despite humanity having the technological ability to provide it.
A compelling address from the World Health Organisation drove home that in medicine there is plenty of available technology, as well as big business interest and a huge research and development effort. But even then, very little technological effort is aimed at benefiting the vast numbers of people in the developing world who don’t already access even basic medical technologies, and yet carry the world’s burden of disease and medical risk. Still today, 800 mothers die each day in childbirth: many of whom could be saved by the having access to simple, existing medical devices. Adriana Velasquez Berumen reminded us of a pressing need for new innovation of devices that are appropriate for use in remote, harsh environments or where there may be minimal services such as electricity and water.
I presented Practical Action’s work in urban areas of Bangladesh, Nepal and Kenya as part of a discusson on essential technologies for the mega-cities of the future.
The conclusions: the people are more important than the specific technologies. Involving them in decision-making and planning is crucial to creating cities where all citizens can enjoy all essential basic services – waste collection, water connection and toilets. The technology itself is secondary.
This perspective is one that I hope will be shared by the LBNL Institute for Globally Transformative Technologies (LIGTT). Recognising that R&D into technologies that serve the needs of the poor just is not happening at the necessary scale, they’ve compiled a list of critical problems and promising interventions for priority development and deployment. I’ll be keeping an eye out for publication of their 50 breakthroughs for sustainable development in the next few months. What would be top of your list?No Comments » | Add your comment
I’m sitting in a tiny, overly hot hotel room in London planning how to talk about knowledge with our international directors tomorrow.
Our work on knowledge sharing – maximising the benefits of everything we do by sharing with the people who need to know the details of our work and/or learning – how to do it – is brilliant!
I remember hearing of a group in the Democratic Republic of Congo who had communicated with our technical enquiry service about the design of a micro hydro system to power a village – the report was branded IT (as in Intermediate Technology even before my time with Practical Action) but only now after many years were they in a position to put it into action. And they intended to build – they had been dreaming, waiting for the right time.
On the other hand I recall talking with a woman in Nepal who through Practical Answers had learnt about low cost home produced organic pesticide – the immediate impact on her crop was fantastic and the increased income had transformed her life and that of her family.Beyond this our work in Publishing and Education is so impactful. Have a look at ‘Engineering in Emergencies’ to get a sense of how vital our knowledge work is.
Not to go on and on but ….
Another form of knowledge sharing is through our consultancy service – this is a great example of working together with Action Aid in Afghanistan.
And I’ve just heard that our podcasting, which is making a massive and practical difference to poor farmers in Zimbabwe, is shortlisted for a prestigious award as one of the most impactful technologies of the century for poverty reduction.
Fritz Schumacher in Small is Beautiful talked about how ‘the gift of knowledge sets people free’ and for Practical Action this remains central to our thinking.
So you may ask – what’s the problem why do your international directors need to discuss?
In part it’s about how big donors – in part it’s about us. How big donors work is all about delivering certain out puts – and knowledge isn’t considered an important output important by most. With Practical Action it’s about us finding the resources – irrespective of donors to grow our knowledge work. We have evidence that shows our knwoledge work helps many millions of people every year.
Knowledge of course isnt all thats needed to get rid of poverty, but not sharing what you learn about what works for poor families so others can replicate is just wrong!!
Looking forward to hosting the knowledge day tomorrow.
And as far as knowledge is concerned – my ask of you is to tell people about Practical Action. We are exciting and our work is too!
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Listening to the news this morning I realised that the two young girls in India, aged 14 and 16, who had been gang raped and murdered died as they had gone into the fields looking for a discreet place to go to the loo. Somehow it made it even sadder. Sanitation is a pretty easy fix given money and will to provide latrines, sludge management and hygiene education. It’s truly do-able.
The girls remain nameless as it’s illegal under Indian law for the media to identify the victims. The fact that we don’t know their names seems somehow wrong – but that may just reflect our news norms in the UK – we want to sympathise personally and share in grief and support. It also makes them representative of the millions of young girls who each day risk attack just by looking for somewhere to go to the toilet, walking to fetch water or firewood for their families, or carry maize to a mill for grinding.
Women are frequently at risk – you only have to look at some of the other stories from India.
But the stories from India are not alone. Also on the Today Programme this morning were reports of a woman in Sudan convicted of changing her religion from Muslim to Christian, who has been sentenced to death (commuted for 2 years – and hopefully for life!). She was forced to give birth in a prison cell (rumoured to have been shackled throughout). And a third which told the story of a pregnant woman in Pakistan stoned to death in public by her own family for marrying the wrong man. The man she married had already murdered his first wife by strangling but was let off prison as his son forgave him.
The school girls kidnapped in Nigeria are no longer in the news.
What draws these stories together is a view of women and girls that somehow says we are lesser – viewed as unimportant, as processions or to be controlled. We have no voice.
At Practical Action we work on the practical things in life – like loos. We also work with people trying to help them – women and men – gain voice. We call this material and relational well-being – material well-being is about having the things you need for a decent life, relational well-being is about having a say in your society and how things are shaped. Both are needed for sustainable development.
I was horrified by each of these stories.
But strange attitudes to women, women somehow invisible are not just something that happens in countries far away from those of us who live in the UK.
Not on the same scale but a story closer to home had me shouting at my Twitter feed the evening before. It was an image of the UK Prime Minister David Cameron meeting Jimmy Carter to talk about how we remember those people who died in the holocaust – the meeting consisted of lots of men in suits. Not one woman. 2 million women died.
(I do know there are women on the Holocaust Commission – my question s why when there are 7 people visible around the table are all of them men?)
And finally – on my catch up weekend – I came across the just released list of the 100 most powerful women in the world. Angela Merkel is ranked number 1 – probably politically not completely aligned with me but even so as a woman taking centre stage she made me smile! And it felt very good to read a news story about women, women with power and influence, that could make me smile.
Let’s remember the girls in India. Let’s work to make women more visible, let’s work to make women around the world less afraid, let’s aim for an equitable view of women and men.
I want to hear great stories of women doing brilliant things as I listen to my radio in the morning – not stories of oppression that just make me so sad. And I want those great stories to be because we have a world in which women are free to flourish.6 Comments » | Add your comment
Ethnic communities living in remote areas are not only geographically isolated, they are technologically isolated too – that’s what I thought while going to the hilly part of Bangladesh lately. And I was wrong!
I was visiting Bolipara – a remote place in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) of southern Bangladesh, a region famous for its hills, rivers and forests. With 13 ethnic groups, cultural diversity is also an attraction.
While talking with the Khumi, the Tripura and the Marma ethnic communities separately, I asked them to tell me three things that they were happy to have. Water points, treatment from local traditional healers, and schools were mentioned by more than one group. These were logical choices given the water, health and literacy related challenges they often face even at the end of the MDG-era. To my surprise, the other two things made them happy were mobile phone and solar home system.
I calculated that there was roughly one mobile phone for 12-16 people in Bolipara. Maintaining a mobile phone in Bolipara is, however, a big challenge. To top-up your credit, you may have to walk up to 9 km to the nearest market. Since there is no electricity supply from the national grid, you also need a solar system in your house or at least in your village to charge your phone. Although mobile phones are cheap (as low as $30), solar home systems are not (minimum price $350). So, solar panels on the thatched roofs of quite a few traditional houses made me happy.
In this age of ICT and renewable energy, I was very pleased to see ethnic people of the CHT were no longer technologically isolated and were improving their lives with advanced technologies. This is what Technology Justice is all about!
(A quick note: Technology Justice can be defined as the right of people to decide, choose and use technologies that assist them in leading the kind of life they value without compromising the ability of others and future generations to do the same.)
But, by living in one of the poorest areas of the country, how are the people of Bolipara paying for solar home systems? In fact, unprecedented blanket cultivation of tobacco in this formerly forested area is allowing them to earn quick, good cash from large companies. Tobacco may be destroying the local environment and traditional agro-systems; it is also supporting good investment in technologies to make traditional life comfortable.
This recent technological transformation of Bolipara represents a complex interaction among culture, poverty, private sector, environment and technology. Development is about making balanced choices. When the gap between the haves and the have nots is vast, it is often hard to advise the poor what they should do and shouldn’t do to make their lives better. Fighting technology injustice is tough, but achieving technology justice is probably tougher.2 Comments » | Add your comment