Archive for January, 2010

‘Bog blog’ – one hundred year old toilet….

Wednesday, January 27th, 2010 by

Today we at Practical Action are talking about quite an unusual anniversary, as today marks the 100th anniversary of the death of Thomas Crapper – the man who revolutionised the flushing lavatory.

Yes, we at Practical Action enjoy talking toilets. So the man who invented the ballcock and promoted sanitary plumbing is very exciting to us… and while we all take ‘the toilet’ for granted not everyone around the world is quite so fortunate.

A few years ago I was in Kenya and visited Kibera, Africa’s largest slum. With more than a quarter of a million people living there, it was not unusual to find more than 200 people sharing a pit latrine, which was then often emptied into a river where children played.

The only other alterntive was the beautifully named ‘flying toilet’. Basically this is where people ‘go’ in a bag or on a piece of paper and then throw it out of the home.

When I visted Kibera I was offered their ‘best toilet’ by community leaders, honestly, it made festival toilets seem – and smell – very sophisticated.

The reality though is diseases such as typhoid and cholera thrive in these conditions – children are especially vulnerable with a child dying every 15 seconds from such diseases.

Practical Action has however been working on sanitation for a number of years, and one project which has proved really successful is our shower and toilet block. Basically the waste goes into a thick, concrete chamber, producing methane, which is connected to a water heating system for the showers.

After seeing the ‘toilets’ people were previously using, this was just amazing to see. And one fantastic side effect is because the area is surrounded by a concrete path, the area has become a hive of social activity as women and mothers meet, while giving children somewhere to play.

Ant and Dec visited these toilets when they were in Kenya, you can really see the difference projects such as this make.

Slumdog Secret Millionaire – raising awareness or missing the point?

Friday, January 22nd, 2010 by

Last night I saw on Channel 4, Slumdog Secret Millionaire with my 11-year-old son. Earlier, Channel 4 also showed similar programmes, such as slumming and there was also one on the waste work in slum areas.

While the programme is very well made and brings out some good details, I am not very convinced that it highlights the main causes of such situation in slum areas.

The fact, that millions of people are living in slums in Asia and their number is increasing, is to do mainly with the failure of national and international policies concerned with urban poverty. The main causes may also be to do with the corruption in some countries, poor representation, lack of welfare systems and unequal distribution of powers.

While it is important that Channel 4 viewers are aware of the situation on the ground and motivated to do something directly – such as donate to charity or work for them – it is also important that they understand the links between international development policies, trade policies and the delivery of development programmes. I was expecting that the programme would keep at least five minutes to touch on the larger issues, which may be the causes we need to address in the longer term.

Mansoor Ali
Urban Projects Manager, Practical Action

Emergency Market Mapping and Analysis in Haiti

Wednesday, January 20th, 2010 by

Emergency Market Mapping and Analysis toolkit (EMMA)Further to our earlier reports on the need to rebuild after the earthquake, you might like to know about some direct influence that Practical Action is having in Haiti.

Practical Action Publishing is just about to publish our Emergency Market Mapping and Analysis toolkit (EMMA) – which was commissioned by Oxfam, IRC and InterAction – and is a process adapted from Practical Action’s approach to markets and livelihoods. EMMA was piloted in Haiti in summer of 2008, so is familiar to several agencies there including Red Cross, Oxfam and ACDI/VOCA. One of our early collaborators, Emmet Murphy, is in Haiti (for ACDI/VOCA) and had a narrow escape himself on the road from Port au Prince to Jacmel.

Despite the urgency and desperation around meeting basic survival needs, some agencies are already thinking forward. IRC will be using EMMA to conduct a study around staple food markets and construction materials as soon as is practicable, possibly in collaboration with ACDI/VOCA. Both organisations see a lot of value in the toolkit, and will be putting resources into using it. Mike Albu from our Markets & Livelihoods programme will provide distance-support.

Practical Action technical resources and publications for emergency relief and rebuilding

Rebuilding after disasters

Tuesday, January 19th, 2010 by

Haiti is considered as one of the poorest countries in the World and I have been talking a lot about slums in Haiti with our friends in Oxfam.

Practical Action does not work immediately after emergencies. But we have played a significant role in re-building after disasters. Practical Action worked very actively in re-building Sri Lanka after the Tsunami, especially with our owners-driven approach to housing which was adopted by many other organisations. We have been involved in a number of evaluations of post-tsunami work and advised some agencies after the earthquake in Pakistan. Over time Practical Action also developed technical resources, such as earthquake-resistant housing and re-building key services such as water, sanitation and waste collection after disasters.

Recently, we have been working in Zimbabwe to protect people from spread of cholera after rains and floods. Practical Action learnt a lot through this – the approach of supporting and working with others. One of our key pieces of learning is the need to see more clearly the links between disasters and development. Rebuilding efforts, with a more longer term vision could pave the way for a more sustainable development – in this case for millions of poor people in Haiti.


Tuesday, January 19th, 2010 by

Listening with my family to the news last night we were each touched by the terrible devastation that has hit Haiti and people’s struggle to survive.

My daughter asked if we, Practical Action, were working there? I explained not directly, that our focus is on long term development – sometimes ‘saving lives’ – helping people who maybe haven’t been able to grow enough food or get clean water – but also ‘making lives’ – helping people have the opportunity to help themselves. Indirectly we probably would help in Haiti, providing advice and expertise to the agencies on the ground when they get to the rebuilding stage. Since my language was a bit technical, and even though it wasn’t politically correct, I’m not completely sure she got it! (I haven’t quite mastered teen-speak and in situations like this it is hard to explain.)

One of the realities of international development charities is that the problem is so huge there isn’t enough money to go around.

A second is that news coverage of aid is focused on disasters. Yet, for example smoke, indoor air pollution kills 1.6 million people each year – in tabloid speak, the equivalent of six 2004 tsunamis.

The third reality is that development agencies, surprising to many people, work really well together. We know there isn’t enough money and sometimes we compete to get it but actually, in reality, we value each other’s contribution. Aid is needed desperately for emergencies post-disaster and for longer term development. Practical Action is committed to sharing and we will make sure that our expertise and knowledge is available to those who need it in Haiti and beyond.

Earthquake in Haiti

Surreal and humbling in North Darfur

Tuesday, January 12th, 2010 by

Flying to El Fashir, in North Darfur, the World Food Programme planes are reckoned to be the safest, if slow.  Commercial flights are prone to occasional hijack, and judging by the abandoned tail fin at the end of the runway, occasional crashes too.

The flight took four hours.  The seasoned World Food Programme travellers, mainly UN suited executives with their badges of office dangling proudly around their necks, were well prepared with snacks and drinks – we weren’t.  Approaching El Fashir, fighting was too close to the airport – rebels were said to be firing at planes and we were turned back.  Another four hours.  Disappointed.

Next time I took a commercial flight.

Access to Darfur is very carefully controlled.  Access outside of El Fashir town is controlled yet more.  I sat for nearly two hours with an official, waiting for permission to travel – the official stamp was lost.  Once I had proven I wasn’t arrogantly ‘up myself’, a hot-head, or more to the point that I had patience, and would wait, the stamp was found in a desk draw and permission given. All was fine, the official was very nice.

We left the fortified and guarded town in a hired, old, beaten-up Land Rover flying a Practical Action flag.  Our own cars had been hijacked so many times and people held captive, that it was no longer thought safe to travel in them.  The flag was so, in theory, you were recognised as working for a charity and therefore not aligned to any side in the conflict.

North Darfur is huge, I am told it’s the size of France, yet there are less than 100 km of decent road.  Once through the military outpost, guarding entry and exit to the town we took off across the sand driving fast.  It was a very odd moment; I had a sense of unreality – what am I, a Brummie middle-aged mum, doing in a desert, in a semi war zone with a group of great local development workers?  It was surreal and yet humbling.  There was also a sense of thank God my mother doesn’t know that I’m here! (She hoped I was safe in Khartoum – and even more that I’d missed the flight all together and was still in the UK.)

We met community after community of people Practical Action are helping.  Women talked of the relief in only having to walk half an hour in each direction to fetch water, where previously they had to walk for seven.  Of how this meant they suffered less physically – one woman, Shadia said before her neck and back hurt from carrying heavy weights on her head and that she had regular pains in her chest but now she was able to rest sometimes.  I learnt that Practical Action is helping people grow enough food and access clean water.  That we’ve set up groups of women who form a development ‘resistance’ network getting vital seeds, building skills and helping the women who have remained in the villages cope, even during the worst of the conflict.  Brilliant!

I am infinitely curious, and love meeting people.  One group of women seemed keen to talk more and I asked what else they needed – help for our families in neighbouring villages to get water, better education for our children, more variety of seeds, new tools, midwives and health workers – it was a long list.  I carried on: ‘what would be their priority?’  The answer surprised me:  ‘changing men’s bad habits’.  I thought of my husband’s inability to see dust or to clean the loo, and realised I didn’t understand and so asked for explanation.  They seemed amazed it wasn’t obvious: ‘violence and female genital mutilation’.  I was shocked, surprised, horrified – they seemed such a strong group of women, yet they had to face and fight such cruelty.  I wanted to hug each one of them.

I also had my ‘Madonna’ moment when a beautiful, smiley, obviously happy baby boy was thrust into my arms by his very loving mother.  I cooed and ahh’d – I adore children, my own daughter is the light of my life.  You take him, she said, you will give him a better life. How sad.

I met men too – not lots, as the fighting has stripped the villages of many of their sons and husbands. Men who talked of a change in their attitude to women now walking by their side rather than behind. They talked of farming, of becoming self sufficient in food, and of the joy that brought them.

Heading back to town on the first evening, we realised that we were going to be late and would miss the 5pm curfew – would we make it past the army post or would we sleep overnight in the Darfur desert? It felt exciting, real and had a sense of jeopardy – I must be more of a thrill seeker than I thought (being stranded in Zanzibar led to one of the most brilliant evenings in my life – but that’s another story). Thankfully, we were allowed through the check point even though we were late.

I thought of people for whom this is everyday, people who work so hard to promote and deliver change. I loved meeting and talking with the people but their circumstances are terribly hard. It’s great that Practical Action is there to help for the long term.

Women in El Fashir, North Darfur

Future Foods

Friday, January 8th, 2010 by

Two days ago the Government’s Chief Scientist, Professor John Beddington, “Speaking at the Oxford Farming Conference (OFC),  said the world will have to produce 50 per cent more food by 2030 in order to feed the growing population.   He said the only way to do this is to grow more crops on less land by using the latest scientific innovation, including GM and nanotechnology.”  (Daily Telegraph, 6 Jan 2010)

Today the House of Lords published a report entitled: “Nanotechnologies and Food” which acknowledged that, “Our current understanding of how they behave in the human body is not yet advanced enough to predict with any certainty what kind of impact specific nanomaterials may have on human health”.   It also recognised that there is currently insufficient research into the toxicology of nanomaterials and called on the Research Councils to take a more active role in stimulating such research.

All new technologies have risks as well as opportunities inherent in them.   We need to ensure that new technologies, including nanotechnologies, are used responsibly.   Practical Action have been working with the Responsible Nano Forum to work out in a practical way how this can be done.   The response of the Forum to the House of Lords report can be read here.

Yet to an extent the debates about the safety of new technologies applied to food production is a “side line” to the main issue of how the earth and its people can support an increase in food production.   In the past those who have grappled with this issue have assumed continued economic growth, low energy costs, and a zero marginal cost for pollution.   But these conditions now need to be questioned in the light of climate change, increased energy prices and a decline in water supplies.

Most of the world enjoys cheap food but the unrecognised price is the high energy costs (transport and fertilisers) and high carbon emissions.   Local food production which supports biodiversity and food security is likely to offer increased food production.   But to realise this dream requires some fundemental re-framing of basic questions relating to the economics of food.   Harnessing appropriate technology to fulfil this dream requires us to be clearer in our articulation of the kind of world we want to live in.

Energetic development

Friday, January 8th, 2010 by

Today I am preparing for a meeting with our Patron, HRH, The Prince of Wales, we are going to be talking about energy and poverty reduction.

I’ve been wrestling with whether or not it’s reasonable to make a comparison between electricity and water. At a very basic level without water you will die, without electricity you probably won’t. However development is about so much more than just maintaining life, it’s about helping people have opportunity, hope and a chance to support their families. Without modern energy development is nearly impossible (there are lots of graphs showing the correlation between energy and development but I won’t bore you with those).

In Sudan I saw people dejected, made dispirited by long term emergency aid. They had just about enough water and food but they had no hope and they had no opportunity to contribute. Engagement , work, craft, whatever you call it is about so much more than just getting the basics somehow, for many, there is a relation to self worth.

Development needs electricity so in that way – for peoples well being – it is vital.

Without modern energy people, mainly mothers and their children die as a result of breathing in smoke from cooking fires – 1.6 million each year. Clinics can’t treat patients in the evenings because doctors can’t see people properly. Schools can’t help children get the education they need. Medicines and vaccines can’t be refrigerated. Business opportunities are stifled.

Practical Action’s work on renewable energy helps development flow.

Maybe I should be more gung-ho in what we say.



Monday, January 4th, 2010 by

I was going to write about new years resolutions but somehow whatever I said read like an extract from a bad sermon.

4th January – end of the holiday and the day New Years resolutions really begin.

Beyond that my ‘bullshit radar’ went into overdrive. Being English and talking about changing the world, trying to make a difference, feels somehow grandiose and egotistical.

Maybe that’s worrying, especially as at the moment with continuing massive poverty and the failure of the climate change talks, we as a world, need leadership. Imagine if that leadership wasn’t some great man rallying crowds but rather millions of people coming together to build practical change.

I had a poster in my office which seems to have disappeared – it had a picture of a mother and child and said something like ‘You don’t have to be a millionaire to make a difference …..Make a difference today’. I liked the simplicity.

If we could make resolutions both for ourselves but for the world what would they be?

Sorry you ended up with half a bad and rambling sermon Wishing you a great 2010.