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
It rained all day here in Warwickshire yesterday, but one of the top stories on the news was the hosepipe ban in the south and east of England. We take an instant supply of clean water for granted, because most of the time we have more than enough rain in the UK. How would we feel if we had to carry every drop into our homes ourselves? I for one would think twice before taking a bath!
In the Mukuru settlement in Nairobi, Kenya, residents pay more than 5 times as much for water as we do in the UK – and they don’t have the luxury of a piped supply into the home. Water has to be collected in containers from a communal tap – often some distance away. And, in times of scarcity, water prices inevitably rocket. In many rural areas of Africa, women and children walk for miles to collect water from wells.
In the UK we struggle to reduce our use of water and government water saving advice mainly covers non essential activity such as washing the car and watering the garden.
In contrast, according to this article, Kashmiri children resort to shaving their heads when water is short so that their hair doesn’t appear unkempt. I can’t see this being a popular piece of government advice here!
Practical Action has innovative ways of helping people gain access to clean water. By developing a partnership between local people and the utility company, improved access to clean water has been achieved for many thousands in the Mukuru settlement. Restricting our supply may help us to appreciate just how good (and comparatively cheap) our water is and encourage us to do a bit more to help the 1.3 billion people who lack access to safe water.3 Comments » | Add your comment
….there was a little girl who loved stories. As a little slip of a thing, she used to stand and swing on the garden gate, waving to passers-by in the hope that she could chat to them and ask them questions to find out their stories (she was a very curious little girl). A few years later, her very patient, very wonderful mother would read her favourite Maurice Sendak stories Outside Over There and Where The Wild Things Are to her every night. When she was at school, she’d set her alarm super early so she could wake up and read Enid Blyton books before going to lessons. English was always her favourite subject, and characters such as Elizabeth Bennett, Scout Finch, Jo March and Scarlett O’Hara were as familiar to her as her oldest friends. And then she studied the art of telling a story – for it is an art – during an English Literature degree at university.
Now that little girl (who’s not so little anymore) works for Practical Action.
I am that girl. And I work at Practical Action because I want to change the world. But my passion is storytelling: both discovering a good story, and then telling it in the best possible way. But how do you change the world with a story?
Well, this week, we at Practical Action launched our next five year strategy. It is bold and ambitious and exciting – but challenging too. The targets, both in terms of fundraising and impact at scale, are high.
But that’s because there are huge problems to solve. Right now 1.3 billion people across the world don’t have clean, safe water. 1 billion people don’t have enough food to eat. 2.6 billion people don’t have adequate sanitation. And 1.6 billion people don’t have access to modern energy. Too many people live in abject poverty. It is a world of great technology injustice.
There is no question that this needs to change. So over the next five years we will work towards four universal goals:
- Sustainable access to modern energy service for all by 2030
- Systems which provide food security and livelihoods for people in rural areas
- Improved access to drinking water, sanitation and waste services for people living in towns and cities
- Reduced risk of disasters for marginalised communities
And by the end of this next strategy period, in 2017, we will have transformed the lives of 6 million people.
That is an exhilarating prospect for me.
Because 6 million people = 6 million stories to find and tell.
Each of those 6 million is not just a ‘project beneficiary’ but a living, feeling, thinking human being with their own unique life story. And those 6 million life stories are 6 million more reasons to support Practical Action, today and for the future.
I can’t wait to get started.
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As dawn breaks in 2012 we enter the season of technology forecasting. What will new technologies bring us in 2012 and beyond? Most of these forecasts seem to dwell on the fortunes of the developed world. What about the majority of humanity (4 billion people live on less than US$5 per day)?
IBM put forward five forecasts for 2016, (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-16302566) one of these is that the digital divide will end. Whilst it is likely that more people in Asia and Africa will be able to own a cell phone or connect to the Internet it would be stretching credulity to suggest that these same people will have a similar level of affordability of digital technologies as those living in the developed world. Currently, in India there are 1.2 billion people who are not connected to the Internet. Most of these people live in rural areas where there may be a lack of ability to pay and a lack of access to electricity. So the digital divide in terms of affordable, accessible and appropriate devices is unlikely to be at an end by 2016. More needs to be done on energy access and on education to build the capabilities needed to use the technology.
In remote rural areas of developing countries few people have access to electricity. So ownership of a mobile phone might be a measure of “connectedness” or even of “progress” but if the phone can only be charged after a walk of 10 kilometres we may argue that there is a lack of appropriate accessible technology. A second important prediction relates to bio fuel cells (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-15305579) reported by the BBC as “power from the people”. Perhaps that could be re-phrased as “power to the people”. Yet, in all likelyhood the applications of this new technology will be in medical appliances in developed countries. What if resources were put into developing this technology as an alternative, local power supply for rural communities in developing countries?
Technology will likely bring much that is new and exciting in 2012 and beyond. What can we do to increase the probability that these technologies will be applied to real need in developing countries? We need to work together with scientists to ensure that technologies are accessible, affordable and appropriate to the needs of people. Only then can we approach a state of technology justice in the world.
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On a recent holiday in Sicily I visited the tomb of Archimedes, engineer and inventor of the 3rd century BC – famous for his ‘eureka’ moment. Born in the rich and powerful city of Syracuse, he benefited from the financial support of its ruler Hiero II.
He was considered the greatest mathematician of the ancient world and was responsible for many important discoveries. The Archimedes screw is still extensively used throughout the world as a method of raising water.
His home city of Syracuse was at war with Rome and under siege for two years with the result that Archimedes was obliged to devote a great deal of his time to the design of the machinery of war. He proved remarkably good at this. But imagine what he might have achieved if his work had been devoted to inventions for human good rather than human destruction.
In our sophisticated modern world we still devote a disproportionate amount of our budgets and great scientific minds to the pursuit of war. The technologies in which we invest most in the developed world are designed either to provide us with an even greater level of comfort and ease than we already enjoy or to destroy our enemies. And we expend vast sums in the destruction of our beautiful planet. Only a small proportion of our enormous wealth is devoted to finding solutions to the basic needs of more than a billion people in the world who live in poverty.
This is a great injustice and one which Practical Action is determined to address. Providing clean, sustainable energy systems, more easily accessible water supplies and better sanitation give poor men and women the opportunity to live healthier and more rewarding lives. Surely that’s worth fighting for?3 Comments » | Add your comment
I almost forgot…one more thing…the poor pay more for technology than the rich. That is a technology injustice. Don’t settle.
Anyone who has done Economics 101 knows why this is the case. The cost of supplying a technology to a small market can be high. The dogma would suggest that prices will remain high. Yet, if we think out of the box we can imagine different ways of working. Markets are the facilitator of choice. Remember the central role of choice in enabling human development. So we need to work towards business models that enable choice. This can be done. Schumacher outlined the case for what he called “Buddhist Economics” in his book: “Small is Beautiful”.
I am reminded of the story Schumacher (1979:6) told of three people – a surgeon, an architect and an economist – debating whose was the oldest profession. The surgeon said there is no doubt because Genesis says that the Lord took a rib out of Adam to make Eve and that was a surgical operation. The architect protested that long before that the universe had been created out of chaos: that was an architectural job. The economist merely asked, “who created chaos?”. Don’t settle.
Schumacher, E.F. (1979) Good Work, Jonathan Cape: London.No Comments » | Add your comment
There is little doubt that Apple did things differently from other computer companies. In no small measure that unique approach came down to the inspiring leadership of Steve Jobs, the co-founder of Apple who died at the age of 56, at the height of his powers. Practical Action, built on the inspiring leadership of Fritz Schumacher does things differently from other international development organisations. The comparison might end at that point had I not listened to the speech Steve Jobs gave at Stanford University in 2005. It gives me hope. Don’t settle.
During the day there have been many poignant tributes to Jobs. The BBC evening news ended with the words of Jobs (quoted directly here): “Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything – all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart. Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle.”
Practical Action is in the business of human development. The process of human development is to enable people to choose the life they have reason to value. Promoting and enabling that choice is key to success in our business. Today we have more technology available to us than any previous generation. You and I (living in the UK) can choose to buy an Apple, or not. In the world at large 2.6 billion people lack basic sanitation and 1.3 billion lack access to safe drinking water. Those people have no technology options. Why? Many reasons are apparent but geography and the place of birth have a major role to play: that is an injustice. Don’t settle.
It is an injustice that there are unmet needs in the world while much of the world is driven to innovate by consumer wants. A world that chooses wants in preference to needs is an injustice. Don’t settle.
Don’t settle for less than technology justice for all people where ever they live. Join with Practical Action to dispose of the dogma…follow your heart…have the courage that there is a different path to create.1 Comment » | Add your comment
Over the past 12 months or so we at Practical Action have been been working on a concept we call Technology Justice. I have talked a bit about this in my blog before, but last week a Practical Action supporter, Sam Charles-Edwards, put up a really interesting and thoughtful post on his own blog, reviewing the idea and commenting on how we plan to use it. You can see his blog here. Sam raises some valid points, including asking why we might be interested in using such a concept in the first place. He suggests one of the principle purposes of using a term such as “justice” might be to highlight injustices that exist in the world today. In this he is spot on. Practical Action is interested in promoting public debate about the huge injustices that result from the way the world develops and uses technology today.
I thought it might be useful to talk a little about these injustices today, which I believe can be thought of under 3 headings:
1. A large part of humanity cannot access already existing technologies that would help them achieve a decent standard of living
Human development has always gone hand-in-hand with technical change. Technology development and adaptation enables people to achieve wellbeing with less effort and drudgery, or at lower cost and with fewer resources. Improved technologies can make a huge difference to people’s lives – providing access to basic services such as water, energy, transport and housing; helping in the development of sustainable livelihoods and providing for reliable and sufficient food supplies; providing the platform from which improvements in health, education, income and wellbeing can be achieved. In short, though the development and use of technology has not always been for the good of all, we know access to improved technology can be an effective lever out of poverty and that conversely, its absence is almost always a key feature of living in extreme poverty.
But today a substantial part of humanity still lacks access to the basic technologies that would help them achieve even a very basic minimum standard of living. For example: 1.6 billion people do not have access to electricity; 2.4 billion people still depend on traditional biomass for cooking; 1.5 billion people still live in inadequate shelter; 1.3 billion people still have no access to safe water; and 2.6 billion have no sanitation. In many cases the technologies necessary to solve these problems already exist. The injustice is that a substantial part of humanity is excluded from their benefits.
2. Our technological efforts to innovate are now focussed mostly on the ‘wants’ of consumers rather than the ‘needs’ of those least well off.
This is the Bill Gates argument that there must be something wrong with our priorities given that we spend more each year on researching a cure for male baldness than we do for finding a vaccine for malaria. There are many areas where the interests of the poor in the developing world would benefit from further research – improving the efficiency of the small scale low input farming techniques that around 60% of the population of sub Saharan Africa rely on for their food and livelihoods being one such example. The injustice here relates to the misapplication of technological effort. Today’s technology research and development is largely financed by commercial institutions and, consequently, concentrates on technologies which have the potential to produce the greatest financial return rather than having the greatest impact of quality of life.
3. We make technology choices today that limit other people’s ability to make choices now and in the future.
The choices we make in developing and using technologies shape our society and can, ultimately, limit or impact on the choices others can make now, and in the future. There are examples of this all around us today. The development of bio fuel based on corn in the US leads to a rise in the price of corn in international markets and a corresponding rise in the price of tortillas, the staple food in Mexico; so in this case US consumers choice of fuel impacts on the affordability of food for people in Mexico. Or another example – our addiction to fossil fuel based technologies will leave a legacy of climate change for our grandchildren to deal with; in this case our choice of technology today limits future generations’ ability their choices and options. The injustice here is that those who make the choices (generally consumers or those representing their interests today in the developed world) are often not those who will face the negative consequences (the poor and marginalised or future generations).
Do have a read of Sam’s post on his blog and, if you feel inspired to post a comment yourself I’d be very interested to hear you views.
Practical Action has adopted the principle of Technology Justice to try to focus attention on these issues. We define Technology Justice as combining a right – that all people should be able to choose and use technologies that assist them in leading the kind of life they value – with a corresponding responsibility – that this right could be enjoyed only so long as that choice does not compromise the ability of others and future generations to do the same.
We hope to use this to start a debate on how we want to govern technology development and use in the future. It is a debate, we believe, that is central not just to the fight against poverty in the developing world but also to the understanding what a sustainable world for al of mankind might look like.5 Comments » | Add your comment
In mid-September, Oxford University held their annual alumni weekend, where a Schumacher centenary lecture was one of the events on the programme. This was held at Rhodes House, where Schumacher was enrolled as a Rhodes Scholar in 1930. Speaking to a packed house, Dr Donald Markwell, Warden of Rhodes House outlined details of Schumacher’s time at Oxford and his subsequent career, concluding that the Foundation had chosen very well when they selected him as a Scholar.
Schumacher’s daughter, Barbara Wood, author of his biography ‘Alias Papa‘, talked about her father and some of the influences that formed his philosophy and shaped his work.
Other speakers were Practical Action’s Simon Trace, who described how Practical Action is putting Schumacher’s ideas into practice in the developing world. The final speaker was Ann Pettifor of Advocacy International, who talked about the world’s current economic woes and the need to revisit the principles expounded in ‘Small is Beautiful’ to tackle our current crises both financial and environmental.
A lively crowd of science buffs came together on 14th September to discuss how engineers can help tackle poverty in the developing world. This event formed part of the British Science Festival which this year took place in Bradford and was one of a series of events that Practical Action is organising to celebrate the centenary year of our founder, E F Schumacher.
Taking as their starting point Schumacher’s ideas in ‘Small in Beautiful’ published nearly 40 years ago, Simon
Trace of Practical Action and Sacha Grodzinski of Engineers without Borders (EWB), led a lively discussion of technology options for poor communities in the developing world.
Technologies debated included biogas for cooking, animal vaccination programmes and the transport of crops across the mountains of Nepal. The audience were full of ideas and technical wizardry to solve these tricky problems, during a game of technology bingo.
Sacha Grodzinski then described how EWB harnesses the expertise of engineers from the UK to assist with projects in the developing world. Their programmes enable engineers to volunteer in projects in the developing world which take in account the a sustainable use of natural resources and minimise impact to the local environment by adapting existing low risk technology and using modern engineering methods.
Animated discussions were ongoing as the crowd departed for their next event at this exciting exploration of science and its impact on the world.No Comments » | Add your comment
It’s Sunday afternoon and I’m writing this blog on a train heading north from London to Bradford to give a lecture at the British Science Fair tomorrow. This is part of a whole series of events we’ve been attending this year to publicise the centenary of the birth of our founder, the economist Fritz Schumacher’s birth.
Tomorrow I will be talking about the ideas Schumacher espoused back in the late 1960’s and, in his book Small is Beautiful, in the early 1970’s concerning an alternative view of economics ‘as if people mattered’. Given that it’s a science festival I will also be talking about how Schumacher came to believe that the choices we make around the development and use of technology shape the societies in which we live and can have huge consequences in terms of limiting the choices others can make now and in the future. There are examples of this all around us today, if you think about it. The development of biofuels in the US leads to a surge demand for corn in international markets and a rise in the price of tortillas, the staple food in Mexico. Our global addiction to fossil fuel based technology creates an inheritance of climate change for our children and grandchildren. Schumacher argued that we need to rethink our relationship with technology. And so on…
It’s my belief, and that of Practical Action, that to ensure greater equity of opportunity for a decent standard of living for everyone on the planet today, and a chance for a sustainable future for all of us, we need a new principle to govern the development and use of technology. That principle we at Practical Action call technology justice. Technology justice combines a right – that all people should be able to choose and use technologies that assist them in leading the kind of life they value – with a corresponding responsibility – that this right could be enjoyed only so long as that choice does not compromise the ability of others and future generations to do the same. My point tomorrow will be that the principle of technology justice is as relevant to our lives here in the UK as it is to those of the poor and marginalised living in the developing world. Our challenge in our own society and as a global community is to find a way to govern the development and use of science and technology so that it better meets the principle of technology justice in the future.
I’m looking forward to an interesting debate!No Comments » | Add your comment