Practical Action: our story
This is a story about two billion people living in poverty ... and what we can do to help change their lives forever
"We didn’t have any clean water and had to dig wells. The water I did find was often dirty which meant my family used to suffer from diarrhoea all the time. Now we have a solar powered water pump we don’t get ill anymore. I have enough clean water for my children, my animals and my crops. Soon I won’t be going to the market to buy vegetables – I will be going to sell my own instead." - Eshe, Kenya
Since the economist Fritz Schumacher founded our organisation over 40 years ago, we have supported millions of people like Eshe to transform their lives. We have worked alongside people and partner agencies to come up with new solutions to old problems, such as podcasts to disseminate animal health information to farmers in Zimbabwe. Or solutions to new problems, such as using ‘floating gardens’ for Bangladeshi farmers made landless by river erosion. The rafts are from the stems of water hyacinths and enable communities to grow food during the monsoon. Simple, Sustainable, Successful.
Schumacher’s groundbreaking book ‘Small is Beautiful’ is as relevant today as it was in the 1970s. We are still living in a world where economic growth and technological advancements offers little for the two billion people living in abject poverty. And we still treat our planet as expendable – exploiting it beyond its natural capacity – with global warming being one such devastating result.
So we find ourselves in the twenty first century in a world that is truly at tipping point. There is a very real danger that, unless we take radical action soon, the opportunity will be lost forever to secure a just and sustainable future for everyone on this planet. But equally, there is also the very real possibility, we can build a world free from poverty and injustice. A world where happiness replaces growth as an indicator of economic success. Where natural resources are truly valued and cherished, and consumerism is no longer rife. A world where technology is harnessed to meet the basic material needs of all people on the planet rather than pandering to the desires of the developed world. To build such a world we need a paradigm shift in our thinking. For us, at Practical Action, our blueprint for this new world is based on three big, bold ideas that can inspire and bring about lasting change: equity, wellbeing and technology justice.
Equity, wellbeing and technology justice
Greater equity is key to achieving a better world. The New Economics Foundation found that during the 1990s, for every $100 of economic growth, only 60 cents trickled down to people in deep poverty. But it doesn’t have to be like this. Studies have shown that poor people living in countries that have a more equal distribution of wealth fare much better than those from more unequal societies – they get more share of the development cake. But, it’s not just the poor in developing countries who benefit from a fair and just society. Developed countries which have less extremes of wealth also have less social problems. For example, crime is lower, communities are more cohesive, there is less bullying at school and life expectancy is higher, compared with countries that have big differences between the rich and the poor.
Our wellbeing is also an important indicator for a new world based on happiness. But what does wellbeing actually mean? Critically it’s about people getting their basic material needs met. Our work in areas such as food security and access to energy and clean water, are all key to improving material wellbeing. But wellbeing is also more than this. It’s about the degree of control people have over their lives and the quality of relationships within their communities. What this means for Practical Action, is that it’s not just what we do that’s important, but also how we do it as well. People participating in decisions and taking control of their own development, is a golden thread which weaves its way through all our work.
Finally, we believe technology justice is vital to developing a just and sustainable world. Technological advances have increased productivity and income, improved quality of life and raised life expectancy … in the developed world. The truth is that technological innovation is focused on meeting the wants of rich consumers rather than the most basic of needs of poor people in the developing world.
Take drinking water - the very essence of life. The Romans built a magnificent network of pipes and aqueducts that brought fresh water to many cities in their empire. Yet over 2000 years later, more than one billion people worldwide still can’t get the safe, clean water they need for survival. Every year 1.5 million young children die from water and sanitation-related diseases. This is technology injustice hitting you in the face. We have both the knowledge and technology to prevent these deaths. Technology justice must be a rallying cry across the world.
Schumacher said the gift of knowledge sets people free. This philosophy still drives Practical Action and we actively share what we have learnt – it’s part of our organisational DNA. He also said ‘an ounce of practice is generally worth more than a ton of theory’. After 45 years of practice, Practical Action remains confident of our role in the world, and look forward to working with others to help build a sustainable future for all.
Download this page as an illustrated PDF, or read more about our story in our "narrative" - what we do, why we do it and the values that inform all our work.
This is a story of 2 billion people living in poverty - and what we can do to help change their lives forever. This is the 20 page version of Practical Action's "narrative" - who we are and the val...
Technology justice: Simon Trace, Practical Action's chief executive, explains why a greater movement for change is a movement for Technology Justice in the world.
Read more about our work
A series of short illustrated leaflets about Practical Action's work to achieve these aims. (PDF format)
Even today, millions of people living in developing countries have no access to modern energy. This six-page leaflet gives an overview of how Practical Action works to put the power in the hands of the people who need it.
A short, eight-page leaflet explaining Practical Action's unique approach to international development, with examples of how we work together with people and their communities to reduce poverty.
A brief introduction to Practical Action's work in Latin America, providing a snapshot of the problems communities in Peru face and how we are helping them overcome some of these difficulties.
A brief introduction to how we are working with poor communities to help provide access to basic services such as energy, water, sanitation, adequate shelter and transport.
A brief introduction to our Markets and Livelihoods programme, supporting small producers to overcome poverty and sustain their livelihoods by improving their ability to access, and get more from, the market.
In this edition we present our perspective on the recent Qatar Convention - Doha Climate Change talks. We reiterate our commitment in advocating for Sustainable Energy for All (SEA4All) where we present the 'Waterbuck Declaration' - a commitment we drew in December 2012. We also present stories...
This is a story of 2 billion people living in poverty - and what we can do to help change their lives forever. This is the two-page version of Practical Action's "narrative" - who we are and the values that inform our work. A longer 20-page version is also available.
An introduction to how we are working with communities living in environments that are prone to hazards such as floods, landslides and drought.
A guide for organisations seeking funding for development projects. It suggests various publications on grant making agencies and offers advice and suggestions for preparing a project proposal.
An overview of Practical Action's transport work - from helping communities construct roads that will not be washed away to installing gravity ropeways to help remote communities get their produce down mountains to local markets.
A four-page overview of Practical Action's work with urban communities in Bangladesh, Kenya, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Sudan and Zimbabwe, helping families find solutions to the problems arising from the environment in which they live.
Millions of people in the developing world rely on waste collection to make their living. This leaflet explains how we are working with some of the poorest communities to help make changes to their waste collection methods to improve not only their income but also their environment.
More than a billion people do not have access to water. We are working with many of poor communities in the developing world introducing simple technologies that will enable them to have access to safe clean drinking water, as well as water to irrigate crops.