Blogs tagged as technology justice

  • Technology Justice Global Dialogue @ Small Is…

    Jonny Casey

    October 7th, 2014

    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…)

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  • Energy for the poorest – going beyond the reach of markets.

    Simon Trace

    July 24th, 2014

    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.

    Technicians George and Lisungu working on the MEGA project in Malawi

    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.

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  • The beginning of the end for oil?

    Simon Trace

    July 14th, 2014

    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.


    Solar powered water pump in Kenya

    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.

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  • What technologies are essential? Well, that all depends on the person.

    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.

    Unserved by Nairobis water supply. slum dwellers connected illegally through so-called spagetti connections

    Unserved by Nairobis water supply. slum dwellers connected illegally through so-called spagetti connections

    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.

    this water seller now has a formal agreement with water company and can deliver clean water, legally in a way slum dwellers want it

    this water seller now has a formal agreement with water company and can deliver clean water, legally in a way slum dwellers want it

    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?

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  • Fritz Schumacher said ‘the gift of knowledge sets people free’

    Margaret Gardner

    June 11th, 2014

    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.

    Fulkumari from, Nawalparasi, Nepal with her improved crops

    Fulkumari from, Nawalparasi, Nepal with her improved crops

    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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  • Loos, murder, rape – the status of women in our societies

    Margaret Gardner

    May 31st, 2014

    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.

    Girls from Bengo school, Gwanda, Zimbabwe helping to construct new toilets

    Girls from Bengo school, Gwanda, Zimbabwe help construct new toilets

    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.

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  • A tale of tradition, technology & tobacco

    Haseeb Md Irfanullah

    May 23rd, 2014

    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!

    IMG_1600I 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.)

    IMG_1601But, 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.

    Haseeb Md. Irfanullah leads the Disaster Risk Reduction and Climate Change Programme of Practical Action in Bangladesh. He is available at

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  • EU needs to take action on climate change now!

    Margaret Gardner

    March 20th, 2014

    Our world leaders are working towards action on climate change – not a grand top down plan but a bottom up approach whereby all countries will set out their intended national contributions on the basis of what’s fair and equitable. The contributions are then pulled together to form the agreement. The intention is that this treaty will be agreed and signed at a meeting in Paris at the end of 2015.

    Should we be worried about this? I think so – let me explain why

    1. My action’s bigger than your action!

    Have you noticed that governments have a tendency to talk up commitments but somehow when it comes to delivery everything is smaller or somehow more difficult?  One current example –where there has been confusion at least over funding – is the Green Climate Fund.  It’s a UNFCCC flagship programme intended by 2020 to provide by $100 billion a year to assist developing countries mitigate and adapt to climate change.  It started operations this year after three years of planning but so far has been mired in debate about the level of finance to be provided by governments and what can be provided by the private sector.  Currently  only a fraction of this sum has been pledged so far, mostly to cover start-up costs’ according to Climate Finance and Markets 

    Kenyan women march against climate change2.  Maths – will the sum of the parts be enough?

    Today 49 less developed countries (LDCs) are calling for the process towards the Paris meeting to be speeded up. They worry that looking at all the commitments as a whole it just won’t be enough to deliver a maximum 2 degree average temperature rise, protect vulnerable countries like Bangladesh and/or that the timetable will be so elongated that by the time all of the pledges are in there won’t be sufficient time to work out if what’s proposed is enough.

    3. What about the poorest and most marginalized people?

    Keeping average global temperature rises to 2 degrees will now require urgent and transformational action. However even if we do managed to contain warming the impacts on poor people often living in the poorest and most marginal areas will still be significant. Their voices and needs are not sufficiently heard and represented in the climate change processes. Read our East Africa director, Grace Mukasa’s blog where she talks about the current unreported drought in Kenya.

    4. Why now?

    Today and tomorrow we could see the EU lead the way – leaders are coming together for a crucial EU Council meeting where they could decide Europe’s climate and energy targets until 2030. They could set ambitious targets supported by binding actions, they could lead the world on climate change action and by their decisions prompt other countries to be ambitious, to make declarations early and to adopt legally binding frameworks.

    Paris is still the best hope for global action on climate change. Now is the time to work hard and push for action. But even if we get a deal in Paris we are still likely to exceed the 2 degree rise. So climate adaptation must go up the agenda on the UN and all the countries attending the talks. Practical Action will be pushing for this at the next UN climate talks in Peru in December.

    Take action

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  • Save our soil

    Amanda Ross

    February 26th, 2014

    Last week I went to a talk at my local history society by a local (Warwickshire) farmer, Graham Robson who recently retired after 80 years in the business.  Both his film and the subsequent discussions were very thought-provoking. He took us through the dramatic changes in farming methods, crop selection, machinery and financing that had taken place in his time. It became clear to me that many of the changes he experienced also affected the small scale farmers that Practical Action works with in the developing world.

    He stressed the importance of the soil – it’s a farmer’s basic raw material and maintenance of its structure and quality is essential. Many modern farming methods combined with more severe weather conditions pose a threat to the food security of the UK and the rest of the world as Robert Palmer shows in his paper in ‘Soil use and management’.

    When Graham Robson learned to farm, he ploughed with two shire horses.  Today, even a small tractor has 50 horsepower and the weight of this machinery on the earth compacts the soil, making is less permeable to rain.  So water runs off more quickly making flooding more likely.  Coincidentally, just that morning I’d read George Monbiot’s article in the Guardian  voicing similar concerns.  And this image clearly showed just how much of our precious soil is being washed away to sea.

    Martha's early crop suffered from heat stress

    Martha’s early crop suffered from heat stress

    Such problems are not confined to the UK.  Small scale farmers around the world face suffer from soil erosion. In Zimbabwe Practical Action’s food and agriculture programme has developed some successful conservation farming techniques. These include planting in stations to enable targeted feeding and watering of crops and  inter-cropping with ground cover plants such as pumpkins and melons to protect the soil from the heat, reduce run-off and increase infiltration.

    Martha Sibanda from Gwanda in Matabeleland participated in training in these techniques and was delighted with the improvement in  her crop yields:

    “Crop cover is important for moisture conservation and reducing soil loss. What I want to do is to use a combination of practices which is why I have a dead-level contour, use basins and inter-cropping to try and maximize moisture conservation,” she said.

    Martha's crop after using planting holes

    Martha’s crop after using planting holes

    The innovative use of podcasting has enabled these agricultural techniques to be communicated more widely by extension workers

    For farmers in the UK a tractor with caterpillar tracks is available which does less damage to the soil surface.  Currently, only very large models are available but soon, Graham hoped, a similar one would be developed to suit small scale farmers.

    The UN’s food and agriculture organization have designated 2014 the International Year of Family Farming.   Small scale farmers around the world face similar problems, so it’s important that we work together to share information on some of the solutions.  

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  • What will make headlines in 2014?

    Simon Trace

    February 6th, 2014

    Last month Thomson Reuters Foundation asked its correspondents what stories they thought would make headlines in 2014.

    In response I asked directors at Practical Action to draw up 10 pressing issues they thought would make headlines in 2014. Here is their list. I’d welcome any feedback on the points or any issues that you think should have been included.


    1. Climate change and economic growth will collide

    Our changing climate will bring yet more extreme weather events. The trend started by record cold temperatures in the USA and severe flooding in the UK will continue unabated with more countries affected by climate related disasters like Typhoon Haiyan. By contrast world leaders will continue to ignore the crisis and instead push for universal and sustained economic growth.  In 2014 this divergence will become more pronounced with increasing voices starting to question what price we are willing to pay to protect the climate.

    1. ‘Technology justice’ will come of age

    ‘Appropriate new technology’ will help lift many more people out of poverty. Until recently in rich countries technology has been something to consume, not to discuss. 2014 will see the role of technology highlighted in global meetings culminating in the United Nations climate change talks in Peru in December. This will help start an important debate about whether we can deliver ‘technology justice’ for the poor.

    1. 22397Projects not meeting the Millennium Development Goals will struggle to get funding

    With the deadline for the MDGs now just over a year away we will see resources directed towards getting as close to the targets as possible. Large scale projects delivering large numbers of beneficiaries will be favoured. Small scale work – even vital work – which does not meet the targets will find it increasingly hard to attract funding.

    1. Political instability, insecurity and conflicts will continue in Bangladesh and other developing countries

    Developing countries will make headlines around the world but again for the wrong reasons. In Bangladesh nearly 60%  of the days between October and December 2013 were marked by political strikes, closures, violence and insecurity. These trends will continue in 2014 with many developing countries suffering heavy economic losses and the poorest being the most hard hit.

    1. The poor in middle income countries will be forgottenclean water

    As more nations become middle income countries, donors will understandably withdraw their financial support and instead focus on the poorest.  But there are many poor people who live in middle income countries.  In 2014 if more international development organisations withdraw, there will be generations of people who will not escape poverty.  Southern national governments will try to step in but how effectively?

    1. Deaths associated with uncollected urban waste in Africa will rise

    In Southern Africa, over 22 million people have no access to a clean water supply and sanitation facilities, especially in urban areas. In urban slums between 30-60 per cent of all the solid waste goes uncollected, a figure which will increase in 2014. As a result many more people will die of associated diseases such as diarrhoea, cholera and dysentery.

    1. Mobile technology will help transform the lives of the poor

    Mobile phone technology will continue to rapidly change the face of communication in poor countries. By the end of 2014 out of the seven billion people in the world, approximately six billion will have a mobile phone and most will be in developing countries. In response companies, governments  and NGOs will use phones to do everything from transferring money to letting people know of an impending disaster using a text alert.


    1. Renewable energy will struggle to attract the investment it needs

    Progress in exploiting shale oil, shale gas and other unconventional fossil fuel sources will erode any incentives the big oil companies have to work on renewables as future alternative revenue streams. At the same time this will tempt governments to focus on short term energy security issues rather than long term environmental sustainability issues such as climate change. In this atmosphere further progress in climate talks or the management of carbon will be very difficult.

    1. The inter-dependency between food, water and energy will become more pronounced

    The need to think about food, water and energy in a holistic manner will  become ever more apparent as trade-offs between food and energy crops, agricultural inputs and food prices and the scarcity of water in many parts of the world increase. In developing countries this will result in continuing conflict over resources and globally more environmental refugees seeking a better life.


    1. More poor people will get energy

    The recent focus on energy access issues at an international level will reduce the numbers of people lacking electricity or still cooking over open fires. However, the current over reliance of markets and private sector finance to solve the problem will leave big holes in cover for the rural poor, where returns on investment for much of the needed infrastructure will not be high enough to attract private investment.

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