Archive for November, 2009

Clunk, click? Don’t bother!

Monday, November 9th, 2009 by

So I made it! I have been to Dhaka once before, a decade ago. One of my most vivid memories from then, was repeated today with the absolute sea of faces pressed up against the outer windows of the arrivals area at the airport. It is a stark reminder of the density of Bangladesh’s population. Bangladeshis have a different attitude to personal space!

Having made the stupid, habitual, mistake of trying to put a seat belt on, only to discover that it doesn’t work (of course), we set off down the road in from the airport. You are quickly left in no doubt that poverty still challenges Bangladesh. Maybe it’s the random direction of the rickshaws and put-puts (motorised rickshaws), or the beggars that approach the car every time you slow down. Maybe it’s the vendors who risk life and limb weaving in and out of the traffic, or the kids riding on the roofs of the train. Maybe it’s the towering garment factories which line the airport road – which look almost derelict, but which are undoubtedly home to a hive of workers. Probably it’s a combination of all these things, but by the time you reach the Practical Action office, you already have a sense of the scale of the problem

Then you have to remind your self that the vendors and the garment factory workers can be the relatively lucky ones as they, at least, have an income. Later in the week I know we will be seeing people in rural areas who have less and are isolated from all possible opportunities. Just time today for a brief visit to the office and sit in on their monthly reporting meetings – as ever I remain staggered by the quantity and variety of work that we are involved with. Just strengthens my resolve that we need to be better at communicating it!

Joy in Zimbabwe

Sunday, November 8th, 2009 by

Last night for the first time in my life I went to bed by candlelight. The electricity supply was down and the generator failed at the guest house where we were staying. I have been to bed by torchlight many times, but as a one-off experience candlelight was much more atmospheric. 

the micro-hydro channel cut by the communityCandlelight was an appropriate introduction to my work today.

Imagine a steep mountain. Imagine now that you have to dig a ditch half a metre wide all the way up the mountain in a completely straight line, when you have done that you have to lay a pipe in the trench, then build a house to protect machinery at the bottom, and for doing all of this you don’t get paid at all. In fact you have to supply many of your own materials, carrying them on your back or on your head for up to 15km until you reach the site – even if the material is a huge bag of sand.

You must want some thing very much to do that.

This is what the community I met today have been doing to get electricity to their school.

We don’t think of energy as a basic need, but in truth it is – 90% of the food we eat needs cooking, we need energy for light, heat, to keep medicines cool, we need it to stop the drudgery of the daily search for firewood and the millions of deaths caused by killer smoke.

Have you ever thought what it must be like not to have access to modern energy? Maybe Practical Action should encourage people to go without electricity for a day and be sponsored. I suspect most of us would be surprised at how difficult we would find it.

People without modern energy will go to extraordinary lengths to get it, as I witnessed today.

Mr Shepherd Mutihoto, the Deputy Head Master at the school, said to me, “We are a happy community that Practical Action has brought joy to by allocating to us a micro hydro system”. It was good to think that as well as tackling poverty we are bringing joy.

the deputy headmaster discussing plans with members of the community

Nervous anticipation

Sunday, November 8th, 2009 by

Costa Coffee, Birmingham Airport. I can’t believe that I’m finally on my way to Bangladesh. As Practical Action’s Head of Communications I am not a frequent traveller. We have communications staff in each of our offices who do a fantastic job, and as local people they are much better placed than I am. But we have a number of major new pieces of work in Bangladesh of global significance, so I’m going to spend a couple of weeks working with the local teams to develop plans for the next few years.

When I do travel, I do so with mixed emotions. I am really excited at the prospect of seeing our work in the field – we read so much about it, that it to see it in the flesh in always exciting. But I hate being a burden on our local team, so there’s always great pressure to ensure that every minute is used as effectively as possible. On a personal level I hate being away from my young family. And then there’s the journey itself … at time of writing we’ve not got off to a good start. The flight is an hour and a half late due to fog in Dubai (ironic given that it’s pouring down and freezing here!), which means I may have to sprint to make my connection … but let’s wait and see.

Hopefully more entries coming soon. I’ve promised to test the boundaries of new technology so look out for tweets, photos and videos if everything goes to plan!

Location, Location in Zimbabwe

Friday, November 6th, 2009 by

Today it was housing.

I live in a rather mixed area (code for having a cement works across the road). I have a house with two reception rooms, a large kitchen, two bathrooms and four bedrooms. No, this hasn’t morphed into Location, Location – if it had I wouldn’t have told you about the cement works. I think my house is nice but simple – I feel comfortable where I live, it’s not too posh to make me feel guilty. I live there with my husband and daughter.

Today I met families, some of more than 30 people, living in squashed conditions. Gogo, a woman the Practical Action project has helped, said to me: “I have 34 people in my family – they all live in my house. I have five rooms for 34 people – before the project I had only three. There is me, my children, my grandchildren and my grandchildren’s children. It is very hard to get houses. I have three daughters who have dead husbands, they had to come back when their husbands died. In our tradition when a man dies his family will throw his wife and children out and tell them to go back to their family. I have such a big family because of the deaths.”

34 people living in one house seemed impossible – so she invited me to go and have a look.

The old part of the house was tiny. “This is where my son lives with his family,” said Gogo pointing to a really small bedroom, “this is where my daughter lives with her kids,” pointing to a largish store cupboard, “and I sleep in here with the orphans,” this was the small living room cum kitchen. We then went to the new front of the house where Practical Action had built two new rooms and a veranda. The new part of the house was much bigger than the old and again we had the tour of rooms that were each home to one family.

“You really all sleep in here?” I said somewhat dismayed, and of course they did. They are quite proud of their new house, although of course they would like to extend more – and then I thought about how they used to live and how there was no way they would have all fitted in. It was impossible and it must have led to some terrible choices.

Gogo is a great lady – just like many other of the women I meet.

Now if anyone happens to know someone quite famous who writes about a boy living in a cupboard under the stairs, could you ask them to conjure up some magic and let the families of women like Gogo escape from their cupboards. At the moment they are grateful for somewhere safe and inside to sleep.


To Copenhagen!

Friday, November 6th, 2009 by

Well, it’s all over bar the plenary sessions where the Chairs of the process summarise progress. The first session, on the Kyoto Protocol track started late, and the other session on the Bali Action Plan track will start when the other one finishes. But I have had enough! It was quite exciting in the open session today on the Adaptation track. New text came out late yesterday afternoon, a group of us looked at it: it is rather vague and weak on definite action on implementation, and the G77 and China group came out in full force against the new text! This clearly took the chairs of the session aback. After a long session (3.5 hours instead of 1.5 hours) and several ‘huddles’ of developing country negotiators to discuss tactics, the way forward is to have both texts on the table in Copenhagen. So much for reducing text down to a manageable number of paragraphs!

Despite all the pessimism earlier in the week, about possible or likely outcomes in Copenhagen, the NGO view is that we can and must fight for a full legal outcome in Copnehagen – that it is possible. We have a meeting with DFID on Wednesday, and we will be pressing them on constructive action they can take, and questioning them on their position on some of the controversial issues. I am off to see daylight! It is sunny outside, but the conference centre is windowless, and it really drains my energy not to get fresh air and sunshine.

Today was Cholera day

Thursday, November 5th, 2009 by

Today was Cholera day or at least that’s how it felt to me. Last year there were thousands and thousands of people affected and many died. When told that the symptoms include rice water diarrhoea I had to just think for a moment to understand what that could mean – horrible!

a borehole we developed in a busy area of Harare, one of the areas affected by cholera
the sister in charge of one of the largest cholera camps in Harare

I heard so much about last year’s epidemic, its terrible impacts and the work we are doing together to make sure it can’t happen again.

I met an inspirational nursing sister (she headed up a clinic that had been turned into a cholera camp). She and her band of nurses had treated over 9,000 confirmed cases, yet had managed to record only 93 deaths. A testament to the hard work of her and her team.

I also talked with people in the city council who told me of their work to restore and improve Harare’s water supply and the challenges they face with pumping stations currently being repaired and pipes leaking up to 40% of their water. (I must say the leaky pipes reminded me of problems in the UK.)

At the moment everyone is on the alert for another cholera outbreak – it is pretty much a year ago to the day when cholera was at its height last year but this year rains are late.

As someone said today ‘cholera is eating stool and drinking stool’ – YUK! Never a nice thought, and even worse the terrible disease transmitted. It brings home both the importance of the work we are doing digging and repairing boreholes, also how vital is the work we do on health promotion and the community management so as to ensure work is sustainable. This was described to me today as ‘Practical Action being more practical as it empowers local communities to do the job!’


Worry fills the hole left by political ambition

Thursday, November 5th, 2009 by

Sorry for more than 24 hours silence – non-stop meetings for me! 

We are all very worried here about the statements being made about how Copenhagen won’t lead to a legal agreement.  Ed Miliband’s comments  this afternoon are the latest in this line of troubling assertions, and is particularly disappointing given that he is the UK’s representative in the climate negotiations . We are trying to assess what these negative comments could lead to, but it is critical to keep up the pressure on negotiators AND politicians in their capitals, to ensure that there IS a binding outcome in December. Public protest and action will be needed!

Three of us from UK NGOs had a discussion with one of DFID’s negotiators this morning – she is convinced the UK government is doing all it can to get EU to take a strong position. Worryingly, she really is convinced that up to 30% reduction of emissions in Europe will be enough to keep to a 2 degree temperature rise – despite what the latest science is saying!

Last night our side event on how to ensure funding for adaptation reaches the communities that need it went well;  really good presentations, though sadly the audience was small – a late evening slot at this bleak conference centre after a hard few days with little positive so far to show for it has sapped the energy of all of us. Luckily, I was asked to be on the panel of Oxfam’s side event this morning, on a similar theme – and there were around 40 people there – and I got the chance to talk about our proposals for participatory planning and monitoring of adaptation.

This afternoon we have got hold of the latest ‘text’ on adaptation in the negotiations. It had to be cut down from the previous 13 pages, and is now less than five. Of course, some points we really wanted in have been lost, and we are trying right now to weigh up whether it is a reaonable text for going forward to Copenhagen (though further amendments are likely) and how we (all those from NGOs concerned with adaptaiton) assess it on balance.

Breakfast at 37 degrees C

Wednesday, November 4th, 2009 by

Today I fell asleep on the bumpiest road so far – big pot holes, lots of dust, we even got stuck in a dry river bed – but jet lag hit (I didn’t sleep last night) and on our four-hour drive I managed to snooze. I think I impressed the people I was with by my ability to nod off, I seriously hope I didn’t snore.

podcasting workshopEventually we arrived in Ward 6 Guruve – close to the border with Mozambique to see a project working on water harvesting, agriculture and animal health. I met a lovely woman farmer with a great name, Breakfast Feresia. She told me that the Practical Action project had resulted in “people having enough food and our animals also having enough to eat as we now feed improved crop residue – so there is food for people and feed for our animals”. I thought that was a great way of summing up twhat the project has achieved.

Alongisde our normal tried and trusted work, one of the strange things we have been trying in this project is podcasting. People who know me would probably describe me as an odd mix – a sceptical enthusast – and it’s true! Scepticism was winning with pod casting – how could MP3 players be an appropriate technology? Well today I discovered pod casting is appropriate, in fact the community I met think its brilliant! As they said: “Human extension workers who try to give us lessons can forget, they say things differently each time and sometimes they just have bad days. This can’t have a bad day and it says the same thing every time, we can also listen to it time and time again until we learn.” So I am switching and becoming an enthusiast for pod casting. I am always willing to learn.

appropriate technology - but what is it?

If I can get this picture to attach I have a challenge for you – what is this piece of appropriate technology we used today? (Roll your mouse/cursor over the picture for the answer!)

Great work, a very long day and still jet lagged, must now go and try and get some sleep.


The African walk out

Wednesday, November 4th, 2009 by

Some real drama last night: African delegates, as a group, walked out of the closed session discussing the Kyoto Protocol, thus stopping the proceedings. They were protesting at the lack of moves from the developed countries to put meaningful emissions reductions targets for 2020 on the table. Their move was supported by the rest of the developing country group (G77 and China), though cautiously, as there are some disagreements about the timing of their action, and the issue selected.The good news is that there was a shift in the planned process of the discussions, which means that the Africa Group is now seen as a serious player. Up until now, the group has rarely spoken with one voice. Watch this space – if there is still no progress on the key emission numbers that are needed on the table before a Copenhagen agreement can be negotiated, will there be further action from the African Group and others?

Next week, on 9th and 10th November, Maldives is hosting a meeting of the Most Vulnerable Countries – and up to 100 heads of state were invited. It is actually going to be ministers that attend the meeting, which seeks to find common interest amongst a diverse group of countries who will be badly impacted by climate change, while contributing, in total, no more than 4% of global emissions.

I must get back to work – preparing for Practical Action’s side event tonight, on how to ensure adaptation support will reach the most vulnerable communities. I will be joined on the platform by Jon Ensor from our UK office, and Ranga Palawalla from our South Asia office in Sri Lanka. More of that later …

Zimbabwe day two

Tuesday, November 3rd, 2009 by

Okay, Zimbabwe day two … so what have I learnt …?

In the good old days, when authorities had a bit of money they would develop social housing. The high density housing laws required sewers, roads, water and electricity connected before anyone could develop and beyond this everything was connected to a central system. Sounded great and I am told the system worked well. For a while things continued, maintenance was ignored but services held up. Now with the troubles, with agriculture not being so productive and with the impact of climate change, people are moving in to the cities from rural areas. Combined with this there is little expansion of housing and no maintenance in most areas.

A triple whammy of not enough infrastructure, more people and no maintenance. The cholera outbreak last year was this problem manifest.

People would like services to go back to the ‘good old days’ but with enough provision for all. However in Harare alone it’s estimated that there are 500,000 people on the housing waiting list. We can’t just hope for change – we have to start to work from where people are now.

I’ve seen great examples today of Practical Action working with the real, current situation: for example, putting loos into schools and the difference it can make – beyond what you might think. Girls speaking of having decent facilities, not having to wait in line and the special problems they encounter monthly. One girl told me today that in the past she had lacked confidence to go to school because of the loos, but now she was happy. So far we have built toilet blocks in 87 schools, three blocks in each school – one for girls, one for boys and a mini one especially for teachers!

But more than this the headmaster talked about his primary school for 470 children plus 50 more in the nursery where they desperately didn’t have enough toilets. Because they didn’t have enough loos he couldn’t get a health certificate, and without this he couldn’t register the school. Administratively this meant that another school got to manage their budget and sometimes they felt they didn’t get a fair share. Also when children had to take their Year 7 exams they had to be taken to the other school some miles away by bus, and as this school didn’t have enough furniture, they had to take that as well. Now, with the new toilets and handwashing facilities built by Practical Action, they have just received their health certificate and he is confident of getting his school registration by the end of the year. A great result just from loos.

He said, “the children are more than just pleased, I need to emphasise, more than just pleased, in having toilets”. There was a pride too in his voice as he talked about achieving registration and moving on from being a second tier school.

Zimbabwe is a surprising place. The people we work with, as always, are great.

The old toilet block - the school had two toilet blocks like this for over 1,000 pupils. New toilet block under construction - they will have three toilet blocks: one for boys, one for girls and a mini block for teachers. There is also a separate hand washing tank outside.