Archive for November, 2009

Floods!

Sunday, November 22nd, 2009 by

So I’m back in the UK. News here is dominated by the torrential rain and flooding in Cumbria. One police officer has lost his life and hundreds are having to live in emergency accommodation. When something like this happens close to home you can’t help feeling sorry for the people involved. Your heart and mind is with the people who are having such a terrible time.

On the TV last night were pictures of Gordon Brown visiting the area. Giving £1million in assistance. Some people were arguing that more could have been done to prevent the flooding, Others argues that it was so exceptional that to take prevention measures would not be cost effective, which leads to the question what price do you put on lives and people’s security?

Reflecting on this with the Bangladesh visit behind me leads to a few thoughts. In the places I have visited tens of thousands of people are faced with moving every year as the floods come and their riverbank erodes. I have met only a handful, but in all more than a million people altogether are directly affected by river bank erosion. What price would we put on their lives and security, and why should it be less than people living in Cumbria?

For the people in Bangladesh there is no safety net. There are some food handouts when the floods come, but there is no certainty that they will reach everyone. There is no insurance – the people who we met could not possibly afford anything like this. And there is no security – people in Bangladesh simply do not know whether they, and their families will survive the next flood, whether they will have a home to go back to or any belongings. Of course this doesn’t in any way mean that the people of Cumbria have it easy, but it’s a very sobering reflection.

And one more though before signing off. Some people have been linking the flood in Cumbria to climate change. It is generally accepted that the floods in Bangladesh are getting worse and more frequent as a result of climate change. Next month world leaders gather in Copenhagen to try and reach a new climate change deal, I can only hope that for the sake of the people I have met on this visit an effective and ambitious deal is reached, so that maybe their problems will become slightly less each year, instead of slightly greater!

A Week in the Life

Sunday, November 22nd, 2009 by

I interview a lot of people who want to work for us including some this week.  Those with a corporate background sometimes give a sense of ‘it must be easy’ working for a charity, people even talk of reducing stress or wanting to step back from the strain of business life. I just think they haven’t got a clue. Everyone here is committed to our cause and that motivation makes you work harder, it means that you can’t easily distance yourself from the work and budgets for work in the UK are always very, very tight – you do more with less resources. Believe me, I have worked in both corporate and charity sectors and this is harder but so much more worthwhile.

Back from Zimbabwe for a week and thrown immediately in to the realities of charity life – writing reports, articles, interviews, organising presentations, budgets, meetings and trying desperately hard, working with the fundraising team to see if/how we can raise the money we need to do all of the great work we’ve planned.

We are told that we need to ‘increase brand awareness’ if we are to recruit more people to support Practical Action. So now we are thinking about how we can do it with out spending any or very little money. Haven’t cracked it yet! Any ideas welcome. If you are currently in corporate sector marketing and you would like to help promote Practical Action get in touch – you won’t be paid but the rewards are still great.

Like everyone who supports Practical Action it’s that fantastic work on the ground that motivates. It is brilliant to know you are making a real difference and that makes everything you do worthwhile.

Must go -I’m writing this at home so a house to clean and dinner to cook. Then hopefully a walk with our dog. Charities and families both have realities. They are fun.

Margaret

Home sweet home

Thursday, November 19th, 2009 by

Well not quite home yet – but back in Dhaka. It’s funny how a city which last week felt so strange, poverty stricken and otherworldly, now feels quite familiar and prosperous.

Of course all these things are relative, but somehow it feels like the people I have met in recent days in rural areas, with no secure income or home are so much more isolated than people in cities. Of course there is great poverty in Dhaka, I haven’t been to the slums on this visit, but I know they are still there. But somehow there is a sense that you are at least connected with the outside world, and so there might be opportunities and communities to protect you.

Maybe its the ever present billboards (promising among other things 100% freedom from dandruff) which contrast with all the handpainted sign boards in the rural areas. Maybe it’s the mobile phones that are everywhere. Or maybe it’s the increased number of motorised vehicles. People are dressed differently – and it might be my imagination, but it feels like a happier place.

But then you could argue that poverty is worse in cities, because poor people tend to me more exposed to those with money than they do in the rural areas. People in Rangpur could go for weeks without coming into contact with people outside their own community, but in Dhaka you have to go through rich areas to get to poor areas and vice versa.

So which is worse? I don’t know and development academics will argue about it for an eternity. To the people at the sharp end it doesn’t matter anyway. The important thing is that we do everything we can to tackle the problem wherever we find it …

Working again after 30 days

Wednesday, November 18th, 2009 by

One of the people I met yesterday – Shahana is hoping that the good days are coming again. After thirty days without work, her husband, a casual farm worker, had gone to work that morning. For his efforts he will be paid 80tka which they can spend on food, or paying off the tab they have run up with the local shop during the lean period.

But Shahana isn’t complaining. In fact she is very happy, because for the first time in her life she has a secure place to live. Shahana is one of the people living in a special “cluster village” built by Practical Action to help people survive the annual flood disaster. This village, known as Salabhora, is just ten houses made out of tin, built on a special embankment which means they will be protected from the rising waters. There are two wells that they use to get clean water and there is one toilet for every two houses.

Shahana moved to the village when it opened 8 months ago. She was chosen by her peers in the local community, because she had no where secure to live with her husband and young baby, and because her husband has some mental health problems. She said that the best thing about the new village is that it gives her security, this means that her husband can travel further for work without having to worry about her because the villagers all look after each other.

It was great to end my last trip into the field with such a positive story. Although I have to say the peace of the village was very much shattered as we were leaving by the arrival of the Bangladeshi equivalent of an ice cream van. This bicycle has a cool box strapped to the back, and a loud speaker on the front playing Bangla music as loud as possible to attract the children. The white ice lollies which appeared cost only half a taka (slightly less than half a penny) and so are accessible to nearly everyone. Shahana’s baby isn’t old enough to appreciate ice cream yet … but it won’t be long.

New technology spreading appropriate technology

Monday, November 16th, 2009 by

Technological advancement is not always a good thing. It often excludes the poorest people. But yesterday I found a really innovative use of new technology. As I have mentioned before, at Practical Action we like to share our knowledge with people who can gain benefit from it. One of the main ways that we do this is through our technical enquiries service – Practical Answers.

Practical Answers is based on a number of different ways of working. We put lots of materials on our English language website, and we have sister websites in Spanish, Tamil and Sinhala. Materials in Bangla are due to be added soon, but internet access is still very limited in rural Bangaldesh and there is still a great preference for the spoken word.

So yesterday I visited a Gyaner Hat (literally “knowledge bazaar”) which we run in a High School in Barakhata. The school give us a room for free, and we supply a set up grant and pay the staff for a year to measure demand. From this centre a network of extension workers (mobile agricultural advisors) work, giving out advice to farmers far and wide. The extension workers earn money by offering services like pruning. The farmers gain invaluable knowledge. In this way up to 150 enquiries are answered every month.  I was able to visit one particular garden that had been created largely with the support of our team and was certainly looking very productive!

The technology comes in because an internet connection helps the extension workers to research their topic and keep up to date. And a series of videos have been produced and shown to more than 1000 farmers, giving them advice on everything from urinary problems in cows to mango tree pruning. One particularly gory video showed how to safely remove a cyst from a cow – personally I thought it was a bit of video nasty but it seems to have been popular with its target audience!

In another place

Sunday, November 15th, 2009 by

In another part of the world, the place I have been today could be described as paradise. The sandy lanes are lined by bamboo and banana palms. There is no traffic and the birds sing in the trees. The water of the lagoon laps against the embankment just below you. Sunshine and high temperatures virtually guaranteed. But this small area of north west Bangladesh was a long way from my idea of paradise.

I have been meeting the people that Practical Action is hoping to help through the Shiree project. As explained previously, Shiree is deliberately targeting the very hard to reach “extreme poor”. We are working with people whose lives have been ruined by the annual indundation of the Tista river. The homes of the people I have met cling to the embankment above the river like limpets on rocks. Every year their houses are flooded, and most of the people have already lost six or seven homes through the erosion caused by the river. The land the houses are perched upon is owned by the state, so it is free, which is why they are there.

The people that I have met, whose lives are dominated by nature, mainly earn tiny amounts of money working on the same land for local farmers. But it’s not enough for any of them. We usually reserve the word “starvation” for long lasting famines, but one person I met today, Rahman (not his real name) is 80 years old and goes without food for ten days every month. Everyone I met goes without food for two or three days at a time during the wet season.

At Practical Action we usually talk about how strong poor women and men can be. But the people I met today were generally very defeated and demoralised. Rahman said he was just waiting to die. There is a little hope on the horizon, with the Shiree project providing some income-earning opportunities. I really hope it works for Rahman’s sake and the 50,000 others we are trying to reach.

Paradise lost?

Thursday, November 12th, 2009 by

My last night in Zimbabwe – what from the visit will stick in my mind?

  • My surprise at Harare and how different it was from my expectations – in many ways it is very beautiful
  • Kids jumping in front of my camera whenever I went to take a photo – laughing and joking about
  • People’s stories of how bad the situation was last year in the midst of economic turmoil and the cholera epidemic
  • The consistent message that we have to look forward not back

I will also remember names – Breakfast, Dulux, Tryhard, Happiness. I will remember people working ceaselessly to make their communities better, to access clean water, to bring electricity to their schools, to grow food, look after their animals and above all care for their families. I will remember the bravery of the nurses who tackled and won the battle against cholera last year and linked to that our work on water and decent loos.

I will take with me memories of inspirational people – staff, our partners and the communities we support.

I will take laughter – there have been lots of things that made me smile. I will take saddness at some of the poverty I have seen.

And I will remember Shepherd’s words that Practical Action has brought joy.

I have enjoyed writing my blog – I will miss that too. Thank you for reading!

Margaret

Reaching the extreme poor

Thursday, November 12th, 2009 by

Made it to Rangpur! It’s only about 250km north of Dhaka, but it’s a full day’s drive. The roads are pretty good, all tarmac, but the further north you come the more rickshaws, bicycles, carts, overladen buses and other slow vehicles you come across and so inevitably you make slow progress. I was here in time to meet the team who are responsible for our new “Shiree” project. Shiree stands for something long and academic in English, but no one can remember what! In Bangla it means “ladder” which is very appropriate.

Shiree is the initiative of the UK Department for International Development (DFID). It is a recognition that after several decades of pretty intensive anti poverty work in Bangladesh, there is still an “underclass” of people, who even the charities and the microcredit people have not yet reached. These are the most vulnerable people who, as in any society, tend to fall between the cracks and are difficult to find. DFID have asked six different charities, including Practical Action, to deliver a programme which really tries to target these most marginalised people or “extreme poor” as they are known. They hope these programmes will become models for replicating across Bangladesh and maybe elsewhere in the world.

Based on our previous experience in nearby Gaibanda, Practical Action is targeting people who live close to the river banks, and who have to move every year when the floods come as their land is flooded or eroded, then return to try and eke out a meagre existence on the sandbars that are left over. We are aiming to get 50,000 such people out of poverty for ever, within three years. At the moment every single household being targeted by the programme has an income of less than 2000 Bangladesh tka per month (that is a little under £20 for the whole household).

The training in pumpkin cultivation – which works well in the sand, and the short growing season – started yesterday. The team are very excited about the work and the challenges that it will bring – but confident that they can deliver. I’m looking forward to working with them over the next couple of days.

Small is not always beautiful

Tuesday, November 10th, 2009 by

I’ve spent the day training Practical Action Bangladesh’s senior staff in communications planning. Which begs the question why? These people have their noses against the grindstone, spending every day working with people in desperate need. Why do they need training in marketing and communications? Aren’t there enough spin doctors in the world?

The short answer is a phrase used often at Practical Action, “scaling up”. It’s a difficult issue for an organisation founded on the principle of Small is Beautiful. But in reality we are ambitious to make a bigger impact. Our current plan is to work directly with 3 million poor women and men around the world over the next five years, which is admirable. But put in the context of 3 billion people living in poverty, it will take us a thousand years to achieve our ambition.

And so we are keen to take the lessons of our work and share them with others. We offer a free information service about appropriate technologies to any development practitioner in the world (see www.practicalaction.org/practicalanswers) . We talk to partner development organisations, locally, nationally and internationally about our lessons and how they can replicate our work. And we take the lessons of our work to politicians and donors, in the hope that they will change policies to make all development more effective.

All this makes sense to everyone who works for Practical Action. The staff on the ground in the countries are the critical players because we need them to capture and communicate what they learn. But they are also the people who are busiest and face daily pressing needs from the people they work with, so you can forgive them for not prioritising “the bigger picture”. It’s a real challenge but hopefully today’s training will equip them with tools to make their communication more effective…only time will tell!

High heeled shoes – their role in development

Monday, November 9th, 2009 by


I’ve discovered a major problem with micro-hydro sites – they are nearly all on very steep hills. As I am a big woman with bad ankles this is not a good combination. It got even worse today when it rained and the site involved near vertical, slippy slopes of red mud. I thought of my old stiletto shoes with their built in crampons and sighed over my worn smooth trainers. Fortunately Farai was a gentleman and helped me down – it would have been just too embarrassing for all if I’d slid down on my bum by accident or on purpose (a gentle sitting slide has on occasion been my transit of choice when faced with steep hills in the UK – while walking in the countryside you understand, not shopping on a sloping high street). Thank You Farai!

Today we crossed into Mozambique to see Practical Action work just the other side of the border. At the moment Mozambique is noticeably poorer than the neighbouring area of Zimbabwe, although colleagues tell me that a year ago it was a prime shopping area for Zimbabweans when their shops had nothing.

The approach here has similarities and differences with Zimbabwe – there is still the emphasis on getting electricity to schools and clinics, but more of the sites will be in private hands, with the ‘owners’ and users each contributing to a revolving fund which will then pay for maintenance and finance the further expansion of the project.

Again I spoke with people who are looking forward to having better education and healthcare, much shorter walks to grinding mills, lighting and TVs. I am not sure until this visit that I had recognised the importance of TV, whether individually or community owned. One woman I spoke to today told me that she went to bed each evening between 7 and 8 pm as there was nothing to do and so she tried to sleep after her evening meal and listening briefly to the radio – I calculate that she is getting between 10 and 11 hours sleep each evening. Lovely occasionally but pretty dire if you sleep so long only out of boredom.

The men in southern Africa all want to be able to have a TV in their communities in time for the 2010 World Cup. The women talk of educating their children and maybe relaxing.