Archive for October, 2009

Would you prefer a mobile phone or a toilet?

Tuesday, October 27th, 2009 by

Would you prefer a mobile phone or a toilet?View the presentation made by Dr David J. Grimshaw

Yesterday the Triple Helix Society at Cambridge University posed the intriguing question: “Would you prefer a mobile phone or a toilet?”   The aparently simple question raised many important issues around the area of the use and role of technology in development. The question itself could be answered from many different perspectives, for example, empirically, gender based or in support of livelihoods.

Most of the evidence would suggest that people in developing countries would prefer a mobile phone, especially if you happened to ask a man rather than a woman. Whatever the “answer” to the question might be, the panel were united in the view that the preferences of people are at the heart of development.   If you take the view that development is about freedom then choice is key to unlocking that freedom. But whose preferences are taken into account when development interventions are planned and implemented?  

The debate after the short panel presentations was perhaps the most interesting part of the evening. Questions raised included the following: what is the role of technology in development?; what is the best way to introduce new technologies?; can open innovation models help “ownership” of technology development?; and are there some good examples of countries that have used a “technology route” to development?

Climate change and vulnerable countries

Friday, October 23rd, 2009 by

As the big players in the climate change negotiations meet time and time again this year – as G20, MEF, and in bilaterals, it is great to hear that a meeting of the most vulnerable group of countries has been convened by the Maldives, one of the most vulnerable countries that faces disappearing unless much larger emissions reductions are agreed than are currently proposed. The meeting is to take place on 9-10 November, just after the last negotiating session before Copenhagen.

These most vulnerable countries together number around 100 (who they are is defined in the Bali Action Plan) and their emissions total only about 3% of the global total – a real illustration of climate injustice. Their voice is usually very muted in the political environment of the negotiations, since they form part of the negotiating group, G77 + China – a group where countries such as China, India and Saudi Arabia usually speak the loudest.

This initiative for them to meet together is really significant, and those of us who work to support these countries at the negotiations are doing all we can to urge the invited heads of state to attend, and to support them in defining their key messages to the world.

Reaping the benefits: farmer first or science first?

Wednesday, October 21st, 2009 by

The raw statistics are alarming: by 2050 there will be 9 billion people to feed and climate change will make water and land more scarce.   A report published today by the Royal Society: Reaping the Benefits: Science and the Sustainable Intensification of Global Agriculture highlights these statistics and goes on to recommend an investment of £2 billion publicly funded research on global food security over the next 10 years.   If you think this is to be welcomed…think again.   For example, read the expert opinion of two prominent people quoted below and ponder who is setting the research agenda: farmers or scientists? developed countries or developing countries? rich or poor? public or corporate?

“There is no panacea for ensuring global food security. Science-based approaches introduced alongside social science and economic innovations are essential if we’re to have a decent chance of feeding the world’s population in 40 years time.   Technologies that work on a farm in the UK may have little impact for harvests in Africa.   Research is going to need to take into account a diverse range of crops, localities, cultures and numerous other circumstances. ”   Source: Professor Baulcombe, Royal Society, 2009.

“Scientific evidence proves that low input systems, such as organic, can provide sustainable solutions to food security. The IAASTD report, produced by 400 international scientists and supported by 60 governments, including the UK, backed organic agriculture and similar ‘agro-ecological’ approaches as part of a ‘radical change’ in the way the world produces food.” Source: Emma Hockridge, Soil Association Policy Coordinator.

The report from the Royal Society takes a science-led approach to the exclusion of other approaches that have been advocated from sound evidence.   Earlier in 2009 two new books emphasised the importance of putting farmers at the centre of agricultural innovation and development: Farmer First Revisited: Innovation for Agricultural Research and Development and Innovaton Africa: Enriching Farmers’ Livelihoods. According to a panel at the launch of these two books, farmer centred innovation needs to do four things:

  1. Move from an exclusive focus on farmers, farms and technologies to broader innovation systems.
  2. Revamp agricultural education systems for a new era.
  3. Overhaul incentive and reward systems to put farmers first and promote ‘participatory innovation systems’.
  4. Put ‘a politics of demand’ at the centre of a new set of accountability mechanisms for research and development.

Whilst these four things are advocated in the context of agricultural research, if we change the context to some other kind of “science-led new technology”, it would be worth thinking about how generic these issues might be.   Perhaps it is time for donors to hear the message that research needs to be demand-led, participatory, and focused on innovation systems.

Climate change diaries: Zimbabwe

Wednesday, October 21st, 2009 by

Hello, I am Lasten Mika.

You may have heard a lot about Zimbabwe in the media in recent years, yet an often unreported side of life here is the changes that are taking place in our climate.

Did you know that in the last twenty years, we have been hit with the extremes of weather? And that since 1987, my country has experienced the six warmest years on record?

We have had to deal with ten droughts during this time, leaving us with less freshwater and destroyed biodiversity. Our agricultural zones have now also shifted. Yet while some communities have struggled to cope with a dry and sparse landscape, others have faced the exact opposite as devastating floods persistently hit the lower Guruve.

These events have revealed just how vulnerable parts of Zimbabwe are to weather events and the high price we have to pay.

Let me explain: Any changes to the climate exacerbate Zimbabwe’s problems with poverty. When the impacts of climate change hit those living in poverty, it starts a dangerous cycle. Disasters can strip people of their basic needs for survival and all changes in climate can undermine any progress we make in reducing poverty.Many people rely on the climate to provide the conditions for water and food supply, essential factors for maintaining health and creating opportunities for economic growth.

Yet these are now at risk; climate predictions for our country show that the situation is likely to continue and even get worse.

The UN Development Programme believe that agricultural production – the main livelihood source for nearly three-quarters of the population – could decrease by up to 30 percent this century, with our growing season shortening by up to 35 days.

For people already balancing precariously on the poverty line this means a decrease in maize, the country’s staple food, along with a loss in livestock production as it becomes difficult to find areas for grazing. Water is likely to become a problem in two respects; with fewer rain days there will be greater stress on our supplies as the water table lowers, but when the rains do occur they will continue to happen with greater intensity, increasing the risk of floods and other natural disasters.

Zimbabwe must prepare for what threatens to one of the most serious food security challenges of the 21st century. Practical Action is working with groups of farmers living in Zimbabwe’s most vulnerable regions to protect water and food supplies.

Together we have taken urgent steps to save the water catchment areas in Matabeleland, Masvingo and Mashonaland through reforestation and promoting proper land use.

We are also working with farmers to enhance their agricultural practices in ways that conserve the local ecosystems, are relevant to their needs, and allow them to be flexible to changes in the future. Typical techniques include; minimum soil movement, maintaining surface cover with crop residues or live plants, and crop rotation.

The starting point for protecting ecosystems is the farmers’ local knowledge. In order to deal with the new challenges of climate change, this needs to be combined with emerging agricultural innovations.

The ‘Learning Centre’ developed by Practical Action is a place for this, creating an interactive forum for raising awareness, and promoting techniques that help adaptation at the farm-level.

The learning centre helps share information about good techniques widely, yet it would struggle to reach all farmers. And, as I mentioned earlier, the impacts of climate change go wider than the farming sector, threatening most people living in vulnerable areas; we now need investment to support and scale up adaptation projects that include strengthening of early warning systems, disaster preparedness, water harvesting and many others.

The people of Zimbabwe need a climate deal to be agreed in Copenhagen – a deal which can limit the effects of climate change we will experience, while providing support for Zimbabwe to implement its adaptation plans.

Despite all the other issues Zimbabwe has faced, this country was among the first to show its commitment to addressing climate change by ratifying the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Now the industrialised countries have the chance to correct climate injustice. Are the leaders of these countries prepared to take seriously the concerns of people in developing countries and tackle climate change? Zimbabwe has many challenges for the future, but climate change should not be one that we are unprepared for.

Our work in Zimbabwe
More about Practical Action Southern Africa

Stop Climate Injustice
Make the link between climate change and poverty

Working to adapt
Practical Action’s work to help communities adapt to climate change


Global food crisis: Existing technologies and small-scale farmers will have most impact

Wednesday, October 21st, 2009 by

The report “Reaping the Benefits: Science and the sustainable intensification of global agriculture”, published today, is the result of four months work by a small group of British scientists specially convened by the Royal Society.  After the launch of the study, questions were raised by NGOs and others about the value of yet another review of agricultural science, following publication last year of the comprehensive IAASTD report, the result of four years work by hundreds of scientists.  In the event, the Royal Society has not really added anything to our understanding of the role of agricultural science in addressing the global food crisis.

Perhaps the only distinctive part of today’s report is the call for a £2bn challenge fund to support British scientific research into global food crop security.  This is unsurprising, coming from a group of British researchers at a time of squeezed budgets.  But if global food security is the primary concern, and the vast majority of the 1 billion people who are malnourished live in developing countries, we could be forgiven for asking whether British science is best placed to come up with answers. 

The recommendation seems to ignore concerns, expressed recently by Michel Pimbert of IIED, that agricultural research is increasingly serving a powerful, private sector minority rather than bringing benefits to wider society and the environment, and his proposal for a new way of working in which policy makers, scientists and local people set strategic research priorities together.

Though the Royal Society report recommends that all technological options should be available and that research is necessary on all aspects of agricultural production, not just plant breeding, it is research on GM that has been spun and captured media attention.  Felicity Lawrence warned us in The Guardian on Saturday (17 October), and it seems that it is a political purpose rather than a scientific one that the Royal Society report serves.  And that purpose is more about British science than the global food crisis.

The GM debate is a diversion of attention from the real causes of hunger – poverty and inequality.  Agricultural science and technology have an important role to play, but it is existing technologies and the activities of small-scale farmers themselves which will have most impact – if they are allowed to do so.

World Food Day

Friday, October 16th, 2009 by

Every year World Food Day takes place October 16th. The aim of this day is to heighten awareness of food issues across the globe.

And with more than one billion people – a sixth of the world’s population – undernourished, it is not difficult to see the scale of the problem we currently.

Only a few days ago, the United Nations warned more international effort is needed to cut the number of hungry people across the world.

This year World Food Day is focusing on ‘food security at times of crisis’ and it is not difficult to see why. Devastating droughts are sweeping through Kenya, food prices are rocketing, world markets and climate change are all contributing to uncertainty about the future of food.

Our Food Security Policy Adviser, Patrick Mulvany, is gearing up to attend the World Summit on Food Security next month. This will look at how we can make sure there is enough food to feed a growing population – estimated to be 9 billion by 2050.

Yet while these important high level discussions are taking place, there are so many exciting projects on the ground, run by communities and providing real solutions to food production and hunger.

In Kenya, Practical Action is working with drought-stricken Maasai communities on adapting their livelihoods to ensure they survive the harsh conditions, currently sweeping through the country.

While pumpkin cultivation, floating gardens and ‘growing fish’ in Bangladesh are giving people not only food, but a livelihood and a more certain future.


We are also encouraging people in the UK to ‘do their bit’ with our new ‘Food for Good’ initiative. From formal dinner parties, informal coffee mornings, to barbeques and picnics, friends and family are asked to make a donation which can help us carry on our vital work.

Food security continues to hit the world’s poorest communities first – and more than 30 countries are already experiencing food emergencies. We will continue to work directly with people who are being hit the hardest, to come up with solutions which will offer long term and dignified solutions.

Can new technologies help reduce the impact of climate change?

Thursday, October 15th, 2009 by

A day after climate change talks ended in deadlock in Bangkok one of the richest men in the world, George Soros pledged US$1 billion as an investment in clean energy technology. Will this make a difference in terms of reducing carbon emissions?  Yes, probably … But a further question is: Will the clean energy technology be adopted in developing countries? Unlikely … on the evidence of previous new technology diffusion.

There are many and complex reasons why new technologies do not reach poor people. In the case of low-carbon energy technologies their adoption and diffusion into developing countries will depend on new intellectual property regimes, new business models, new approaches to the ownership and development of the technologies, and a new research agenda. So many “new” things are needed that arguably the technology is the least of the challenges.

We certainly need hope to overcome the gloom of climate change but we should perhaps reflect on the extent to which that hope is being bought at the price of diverting attention away from the really difficult issues.

Blog Action Day – Practical Action’s Climate Change Adaptation Work

Thursday, October 15th, 2009 by

It’s Blog Action Day today, and this year’s theme is climate change so I thought I’d talk a bit about what Practical Action is doing to adapt to climate change in developing countries.

Low-income countries are likely to suffer most from climate change impacts because of their location, low incomes, low institutional capacity, and greater reliance on climate-sensitive sectors like agriculture.

At Practical Action we have just completed a review of all current information on the economics of climate change for the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance to advise all its members on the economic predictions. This is being used as a briefing document so that the African nations can speak with one voice at the climate change negotiations in Copenhagen and demand sufficient support from the world in the face of the imminent crisis.

We are also running Climate Change training internally and externally. As a direct result, the director of one organization who attended has signed up his entire organization to the 10:10 commitment. Climate Change training runs again on 4 December 2009 – a day ahead of The Wave.

Sophie Peachey
Practical Action Consulting

Practical Action’s Copenhagen Coverage

Thursday, October 15th, 2009 by

In just over 50 days, Practical Action will be at the climate change talks in Copenhagen to push world leaders to agree a deal that will stop climate change impacting on the world’s poor – those that have contributed very little to global warming but already suffer drought, loss of fertile land, floods, and other extreme weather events linked to a changing climate.

We are starting at The Wave in London, December 5th, by joining tens of thousands of people encircling Westminster to demonstrate public support for the strongest climate change deal possible. If you would like to join Practical Action’s supporters at The Wave, sign up on the Copenhagen pages of our website

During the negotiations, keep an eye out on these pages for reports on all the key twists and turns in achieving the  climate treaty.  We will be cutting through the political rhetoric as the action happens to reveal how the deal is shaping up and what contributions actually mean for those already suffering from climate change.

By December 18th, you’ll be of the first to know whether the world has woken to a new climate era.

‘Why do the clouds no longer come? There must be politics in heaven’

Thursday, October 15th, 2009 by

We have all seen the news headlines from Kenya; animal carcasses strewn across the landscape and ten million facing extreme food shortages.

This is one of the worst droughts in recent years; as well as little rain; maize production is down by almost 30 percent, compounding the problem further.

Practical Action works with Maasai communities, both in the Rift Valley and Turkana.  We are working with communities, creating a nucleus herd of the healthiest animals, reconditioning and putting in more boreholes and working with people on alternative livelihoods.

Just three years ago the UNFCCC took place in Nairobi; Maasai communities – many travelling for three days – took to the streets of Nairobi asking for world leaders to take action.

One Maasai woman told world leaders: “Africa is sometimes called the forgotten continent. And it looks like you’ve forgotten us again…. I wonder if you are just like all the other tourists who come here to see some wild animals and some poor Africans; take some pictures and then go home and forget about us.”

I was lucky enough to talk to Maasai elder Julius Lekurra, both in Nairobi and also at his home, deep in the Rift Valley. In the three hours it took to get to Magadi from Nairobi, the landscape quickly changed. No longer was it a vibrant green, but sparse, dusty backdrop, while temperatures. He told me ‘how the clouds were changing and no longer came’.

Julius lost 80 per cent of his herd in 2005, and while he told me how Maasai people were used to hardship. “Thirty years ago we used to have enough grass but now the atmosphere has changed. We are no longer sure that the rains will come. There must be politics in heaven.”

This current drought is no less devastating. Catherine Senja, now relies on selling the famous Maasai red shukas to feed her family: “My husband and I had 500 goats and 490 cattle. The drying up of water points and wilting of the once green grass means I now only have 49 goats and 5 cows.”

Maasai communities are proud, independent people; eloquent and vibrant. The people I met did not want money or handouts, or to point the finger of blame. Yet they are being pushed to the edge and many will struggle to survive.

Without urgent action in Copenhagen fear for the future of the Maasai elder and his community I was lucky enough to spend time with. Many may not have known what the phrase climate change meant, but they knew changing weather patterns were having major impacts on their lives.

People from all over the world are taking part in Blog Action Day to talk about climate change – it’s not too late to have your say.