Frequently Asked Questions
Practical Action is an international non-governmental organisation (NGO) which specialises in helping people to use technology for practical answers to poverty.
Practical Action is striving for a world free of poverty in which technology is used sustainably to the benefit of all equally. It seeks to demonstrate and advocate the sustainable use of technology to reduce poverty in developing countries.
A growing number of concerned global citizens oppose the current economic model of globalization, arguing that it fails to eliminate poverty and inequality and degrades the natural environment. They are searching for alternative, sustainable models of development.
Practical Action will play a key role in this search, drawing on its position within three overlapping international movements:
- The non-governmental international development sector
- The movement for environmental conservation and protection
The non-governmental sector that has emerged out of the tradition of appropriate technology
In doing so Practical Action takes on the following challenges:
- To work with women and men living in poverty on the management of technical change for sustainable livelihoods, while the economic and technological forces around them are affecting those livelihoods with bewildering speed;
- To research, test and analyze the impacts of new technologies on the lives of people in developing countries, suggesting ways to use them ‘appropriately’, or proposing alternatives
- To demonstrate to others the potential of appropriate technology as a key element in an alternative, sustainable model of development
- To demonstrate the continuing role of direct, practical answers to poverty in local partnerships with women and men living in poverty
To link the lives of its local partners to the remote policy frameworks which condition their livelihoods and environment, and to change those frameworks in their favour.
Practical Action's Vision
A world free of poverty and injustice in which technology is used to the benefit of all.
Practical Action's Mission
Practical Action aims to eradicate poverty in developing countries through the development and use of technology, by demonstrating results, sharing knowledge and influencing others.
The core principles which inform all of Practical Action's work are:
Practical answers to poverty
Using our expertise in simple and appropriate technology, we make technology work for people living in poverty through innovative thinking and simple ideas that can change the world – technology for people's sake.
Sustainable solutions Sustainable development is crucial if poor people are to improve the ongoing quality of their lives. Our technologies are easily replicable, affordable and sustainable. We create innovative solutions for a sustainable future.
Community confidence We work in partnership with communities, building mutual respect and helping people gain increasing control over their future. We help people to create their own solutions, apply and share ideas and skills that make their lives better and their communities stronger.
Putting people first
Our work with technology is people-centred i.e. focuses support on what matters most to the people with whom we work, respects their rights, and supports their own efforts to improve the quality of their lives;
Working in partnership
People living in poverty are partners in their own development. Practical Action can help them to get access to information, knowledge and options – to identify their priorities and choose the way to deal with them.
A concern for future generations
Practical Action projects aim to be sustainable – economically, environmentally, socially and institutionally
Respect for diversity
Practical Action policies and practices respect basic human rights of all people regardless of their differences in terms of gender, ethnicity, religion or physical ability.
The Practical Action approach to its work is sees technology as a vital contributor to people's livelihoods – but defines ‘technology’ as including the physical infrastructure, machinery and equipment, and the associated knowledge and skills, and the capacity to organize and use all of these.
Practical Action works in partnerships at all levels to enable women and men to access new and improved technologies and to make informed choices from the range of technical options available to them. It seeks further to empower women and men to change in their favour the institutions, policy processes, legal standards and development decisions that affect their lives – building from the local to the national and international levels.
Practical Action gains knowledge and experience through practical projects with local partners. We combine our learning with partners with research and best practice around the world. While our practical work is at a local level we aim to maximise our impact on poverty reduction by informing and influencing the national and international practices and policies that affect the lives of women and men living in poverty.
Practical Action was founded by radical economist and philosopher, Dr. EF Schumacher, author of Small is Beautiful.
Born in Bonn, Germany in 1911 Fritz Schumacher emigrated to England in 1936 to contribute his skills to the building of a caring socialist economy. He soon won the admiration of fellow economists Keynes, Beveridge and Cripps and from 1950 to 1970 held the post of Economic Advisor to the National Coal Board.
It was in 1955 while on secondment as Economic Adviser to the Government of Burma, that he first became interested in the problems of developing countries. He began to formulate his ideas of using low cost, appropriate, small-scale development ideas to help people to help themselves. He later expressed this as 'find out what people are doing and help them to do it better'.
In 1965 Dr Schumacher, together with three friends, founded the Intermediate Technology Development Group (later renamed Practical Action) with the aim of propagating approaches to managing technical change that are effective in enabling people with few resources to work their own way out of poverty.
In 1973 Dr Schumacher published his first book Small is Beautiful, outlining his beliefs and philosophies. The book became an international bestseller, influencing a generation of ecologists and concerned economists. A further two books made up a trilogy: Schumacher’s own A Guide for the Perplexed, and the posthumous Small is Possible, edited by his friend and colleague George McRobie and published 1981.
Dr. E.F. Schumacher died while on a lecture tour of Switzerland in 1977 aged sixty-six.
Today there are tens of thousands of organisations around the world inspired by the Schumacher philosophy. Several of his original collaborators remain closely involved with the governance of Practical Action, as members who elect the board of Trustees. The Schumacher Circle links together various organisations that have all been inspired by E.F.Schumacher's vision or involvement.
'Appropriate' or 'intermediate technology' can be defined in different ways. A definition used in our education work with young people is given below.
For Practical Action appropriate technology is the means by which Practical Action propagates approaches to managing technical change that are effective in enabling people with few resources to work their own way out of poverty.
Technical change drives wider changes in economic, social, cultural and political life. The current era of ‘globalisation’ is strongly driven by progress in technologies such as those of information and communication and the life sciences.
The majority of technological innovation occurs in industrialised countries. But the technologies which result are not necessarily affordable, appropriate or accessible for people in developing countries. On the other hand, traditional technologies used by communities in developing countries is frequently inefficient and unproductive, and increasingly threatened by the pace of technical change.
Practical Action’s founder, Dr E.F. Schumacher, saw ‘intermediate technology as belonging between the capital-intensive advanced technologies of the ‘West’, driven by large scale production and profit, and the traditional subsistence technologies of developing countries.
‘Intermediate’ or ‘appropriate’ technology is intended to build upon the existing skills, knowledge and cultural norms of women and men in developing countries, while increasing the efficiency and productivity of their enterprises or domestic activities. By and large it also seeks to sustain the local environment.
NB: Practical Action views ‘technology’ as not only meaning the hardware or technical infrastructure, but also the information, knowledge and skills which surround it, and the capacity to organise and use these.
At present 75 per cent of the world's population shares just 15 per cent of the world's wealth. The area in which these people live is commonly known by a variety of titles – the South, the Third World, the developing world.
The philosophy in which Practical Action is rooted – of ‘economics as if people mattered’ – is equally applicable to industrialised ‘North’ and the developing ‘South’. It suggests an alternative way of doing things which is on a human and local scale, which does not replace human beings, which values their cultures and environment.
But ‘North’ and ‘South’ are two very different contexts. Practical Action’s own principal aims have always concerned assistance to people in developing countries, initially to improve their technical knowledge and methods, but for the last 25 years as a development organisation with a mission to reduce poverty.
Practical Action believes that, with its limited financial and human resources, but with a wealth of development knowledge and experience, and with a good part of its leadership now coming from within developing countries, it should retain this specific operational focus on ‘the South’.
It therefore does not carry out direct projects in industrialised countries, although it maintains good relationships with those who do, such as the UK’s Centre for Alternative Technology.
Beyond its direct project work, however, significant parts of Practical Action’s work are addressed to Northern targets. Practical Action advocates for UK, European and international policies and practices which would benefit poor women and men in the South – for example, for environmental agreements which protect the natural resources and indigenous knowledge of poor people in developing countries such as the International Undertaking on Plant Genetic Resources.
Practical Action puts substantial resources into disseminating the best lessons, knowledge and experience from its project work to relevant Northern audiences such as development institutions, development ministries, and other non-governmental organisations. Its publishing and consultancy operations are particularly important here.
Practical Action’s education work aims to raise the awareness and knowledge of school students in the UK and elsewhere regarding alternative and appropriate technologies. All its educational resources draw on examples of the use of these technologies in both North and South, so that students are aware of its direct relevance to their own lives.
Around the world there are millions of people running or considering running small businesses to increase their incomes and improve their lives.
The simple fact is that formal employment in the industrial, retail or public sectors is scarce, while the potential labour force increases year on year with population growth. The majority of people – ranging from 55% of the population in Latin America to 75% in sub-Saharan Africa – must make ends meet through their own enterprise, in the subsistence economy or the ‘informal private sector’.
Although small scale production can provide secure livelihoods under the right conditions, small scale producers face many constraints and barriers to success.
This is especially the case now that 'globalisation' has created an aggressive market-based economy, which stretches into almost every neighbourhood in the world. This rapid, sweeping change has outstripped the capacity of ordinary people's existing technology to provide them with secure livelihoods. Either it is not productive enough, or the goods produced are not the right type to compete in this new global market place.
Poor women and men working as small scale producers in developing countries first of all face isolation. Either they are geographically isolated, in rural areas, or physically isolated in the informal settlements of urban areas.
The basic questions such as what is the right business for them? should they produce for subsistence or the market? is there a viable market for their product, and if so, where is it? what prices can be brought in different markets, and what is the competition? are difficult to answer when you are isolated, marginalised and probably poorly educated.
Second, there is the lack of basic infrastructure and services, such as energy, water and sanitation and transport, which may be important to making a business viable.
Third, poor women and men have little access to current information and knowledge about production and markets. Where there are few or no phones and a limited mass media it is difficult to find out what technical choices are available. To gain information may be costly, as it can involve an expense of money and time to travel physically to a market or to a technical or materials supplier to find out first hand. Poor people’s ability to make technical choices or price comparisons, for example, is therefore highly constrained.
Fourth, poor women and men in developing countries are starved of capital. Their own or their communities’ abilities to save in the cash economy may be minimal. Like any producers they need access to credit for starting up or investing in a business. Yet mainstream lenders normally regard poor people as a high risk or a weak market and will not lend to them, despite evidence that poor people are the best repayers and that credit can transform development prospects.
Finally, business services and training services – whether government-run or private sector – rarely reach small scale producers. This makes it difficult for them to build their skills and knowledge, to learn and make use of marketing and business techniques, or to link up with other similar producers in co-operatives or trade associations.
Practical Action depends on the support of individuals, trusts, NGOs and governments to deliver its work to poor communities worldwide.
In 2011-12 Practical Action had an income £30.9 million. Of this, 37% was raised from voluntary donations by individuals or by small family trusts and companies.
A further 53% came from grants made by the UK and other governments for development assistance, by multilateral development agencies such as the World Bank, and by other large funders such as international trusts, and 10% came from the income of Practical Action's publishing and consultancy subsidiaries.
Practical Action spent £25.9 million in 2011-12. The majority of spending, 77%, was directly on our programmes round the world. 10% of expenditure was on the operations of the subsidiaries, and 12% was reinvested in further fundraising. Only 1% of expenditure was on management and administration (calculated by UK Charity Commission-regulated norms).
Income and expenditure | Annual report and accounts
Practical Action employs around 650 people worldwide, the majority working in our regional and country offices.
Practical Action is not a grant-making agency and is unable to offer financial assistance other than to identified project partners.
If you are seeking financial assistance you are probably finding it hard to know where to go for information, so we have prepared a leaflet which gives details of grant-making organisations, sources of reference and useful contacts.
You can also request a printed copy by e-mailing email@example.com – but don't forget to give your full postal contact details for reply.
The majority of Practical Action’s staff are drawn from within the countries in which we work. In this way we ensure that our programme staff are truly ‘close to local people’ and able to work in genuine partnership with them.
We therefore do not run a volunteer programme.
However, a guide to other organisations offering volunteer opportunities outside the UK is available, along with information on courses of study in international development. We also support experiencedevelopment.org, a website offering information on the international development sector
Opportunities for employment do arise for people with relevant skills, and are always advertised openly on an equal opportunity basis. These appear in national and international publications and also on this site – see Jobs.
Finally, there are occasional opportunities for consultancy work for people who are listed by our consulting subsidiary, Practical Action Consulting. Check their pages for their areas of expertise and contact them if you believe you have relevant skills and experience.