Archive for June, 2010

A Life on the Ocean Wave…

Wednesday, June 30th, 2010 by

So, I have just returned from a week’s sailing in the Greek Islands which was, as you can imagine, delightful. Days spent cruising around on a boat in the sunshine and evenings spent in tavernas stuffed to the gills with souvlaki and taramasalata – life doesn’t get much better. However, my sunny disposition was thwarted when on day four the tanks on our boat ran out of water and upon mooring up for the evening we couldn’t get connected to shore power. I suddenly became very annoyed and frankly miserable that I couldn’t have a hot shower and charge my phone after a long day’s sailing – life seemed utterly unfair.

Then I suddenly remembered what I did for a living and the people that we work with on a daily basis, who don’t just have to live without electricity for one night, but their whole lives and some of whom have never experienced a hot shower – let alone a hot shower on a daily basis. 

In fact, four out of five families in Africa have no access to modern energy at all which has huge impacts on their day-to-day lives, education and even their health. 

Following this revelation I suddenly realised that going without a mobile phone for 24 hours and having a quick wash in the (actually lovely and warm) sea wasn’t that bad and I should stop moaning and being a grumpy, ungrateful brat. Which, funnily enough the four other people I was sharing an inordinately small space with for 8 days seemed to be pleased about too – can’t think why…

Emerging issues in Community Based Adaptation

Tuesday, June 29th, 2010 by

Many development organisations are now taking on-board the impact of climate change in their programmes, and community based adaptation is emerging as a successful approach for addressing the needs of the most vulnerable. On 12th July, Practical Action is holding a day workshop in London to discuss the current context and future possibilities for community based adaptation. Those with experience in CBA practice will have the chance to discuss their findings and those new to the approach will find it a thorough introduction to the main ideas. All are welcome to attend, and sign up details are below.

In order to stimulate discussion on the main issues, some of key questions of importance are outlined below. These, with others, will be the topics of workshops and breakout groups on the day. If you plan to attend the event or not, we hope that you can contribute to the debate, find answers to your questions, flag up new questions, or just whet your interest for further thought: 

Urban adaptation:

  1. Can the community approach be applied to the urban context?
  2. What are the best urban organisations for facilitating adaptation?

Climate resilient agriculture and food Sovereignty:

  1. It is now widely recognised that the current agricultural paradigm will not provide adequate food in a changing climate and with reduced use of fossil fuels, but are development NGOs adequately reflecting this in their work
  2. How to influence the policy framework on agriculture towards food sovereignty, given the huge vested interests?

Governance of adaptation:

What governance structures can channel adaptation support to where it is most needed?

  1. How can governments be encouraged to be more inclusive of the poor for adaptation provision?

International finance:

  1. What can be done to ensure funding will be available for CBA?

Ecosystems and adaptation

  1. The majority of people most vulnerable to climate change live in rural areas and derive most of their livelihoods from natural resources. Do CBA programmes adequately reflect the need to ensure ecosystems will continue to support livelihoods in a changing climate?
  2. How to balance the need to ensure ecosystems will be resilient, while putting people at the centre of adaptation? Is this an ethical dilemma or not?

To book a place at the CBA workshop, held at 356 The Resource Centre, Holloway Rd, London N7 6PA, please contact Christine Comerford. The event starts at 9.30 and runs until 17.15. The small charge of £20, to cover costs, is payable by cheque or cash on the day. If you would like to contribute a poster presentation on any of the topics above, please contact Rachel Berger

Community-Based Adaptation Workshop
More on Practical Action’s approach to adaptation

Sustainable well-being and inequality

Thursday, June 24th, 2010 by

Listen to this blog as an MP3 audio file

Hello. My name is Simon Trace and I’m the Chief Executive of Practical Action. I don’t want to talk to you about what we do; I want to talk to you about why what we do is so important.

Important not just for the 2¼ m people who have directly benefited from our projects over the past three years, or for the many more that may have benefitted indirectly from the changes in other people’s policies and practices that we have been able to bring about. But important for all of us on this planet.

I want to talk about why the ideas of justice, equality, well being and sustainability that dictate what we as Practical Action do and how we do it, are solutions not just to the problem of poverty in the developing world, but to how we are going to find a sustainable future for all of us on this crowded earth.

And I want you to feel not just that you are supporting an organisation that does good projects to help poor men and women in the developing world, but also that you are a part of a greater movement for change. A push for a different set of values to govern our lives. A set of values that is more likely to ensure an end to poverty in the developing world but also a set of values that is more likely to lead to happiness for us, for our grandchildren and for their grandchildren to come.

To do this I’d like to start by taking a couple of minutes to talk about two pieces of research published last year. Neither was specifically about poverty in the developing world. Neither was about Practical Action. But both serve to show that the principle ideas behind the basic recipe for a happy and sustainable society that our founder, Fritz Schumacher, laid out 38 years ago, remain as valid today as they were when Small is Beautiful was published.

An equitable society

The first piece of research is summarised in an excellent and very readable book published last year called The Spirit Level (or why more equal societies almost always do better). The authors were two British social scientists called Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett.

The study focused on Europe and the USA. It looked at indicators of health and social problems in society ranging from life expectancy, the incidence of mental health problems and killer diseases such as cancer and heart disease, through to factors such as the size of prison populations, the number of teenage pregnancies, literacy rates, and, even, how much people trust one another.

Wilkinson and Pickett looked at these factors separately and together in a combined index of health and social problems. But however they analysed them their 2 main conclusions remained the same:

  • Firstly, there is no relationship – I repeat no relationship – between how wealthy a country is and how bad these problems are in society. Richer countries do not automatically have fewer of these problems; poorer countries do not automatically have more.
  • Secondly that there is, however, a very strong relationship between how unequal a society is and how bad these problems are. In societies where the disparity in incomes between the poorest and the richest is very large, the incidence of all of the problems is very high; in societies where the disparity in income between the poorest and the richest is very small, the incidence of all of these problems is very low.

So, if we assume that a happier society is one where fewer of these problems exist then, according to this research, its not the size of a country’s income that determines its citizen’s happiness, but its how that national income is shared out and, perhaps, how it is used that matters.

And that’s a big problem for all of us, I think. Because at the moment it’s the former – the size and rate of growth of national income that economists and economic policy are generally obsessed with!

So if it’s not national income growth that we should focus on if we want to be happy, what is it?

Sustainable well-being

That’s where the second piece of research I want to talk about comes in – a study commissioned, interestingly, by the President of France, Nicolas Sarkozy to answer precisely that question. Apparently President Sarkozy has become very disillusioned with the use of national income (or GDP as it’s often known) as an indicator of economic performance and social progress. So he pulled together a group of very eminent economists including the Nobel prize winner Amartya Sen and charged them with the task of coming up with an alterative.

President Sarkozy’s Commission published its final 300 page report in September last year. In effect the key message of the report is: what you measure is what you get. So if our key measure of progress is national income, then all of our policies and all our efforts will be aimed at maximising national income – whether or not that makes us any happier as a society. But if what we are really interested in is whether we feel happy with our quality of life, and whether that quality of life can be sustained into the future, then that’s what we need to measure. If we focus on sustainable well-being as the goal against which we measure progress, then the policies and actions that are necessary to optimise this will flow as a result.

Why does this matter to us? To Practical Action and to its work?

Well, although Wilkinson and Pickett’s book concentrated on Europe and North America, inequality is self evidently not just a problem for the western world. Vast inequalities of income and quality of life exist within developing countries as well. I was in Nairobi in Kenya last week and the inequalities between rich and poor there are only too apparent, with the shopping malls, tourist hotels and the well kept streets and houses of the better off minority contrasting starkly with our working area – the insanitary, cramped, precarious and insecure conditions of the slums that house 60% of the city’s population.

And wellbeing is not a concept that is just the concern of the citizens of Europe and North America either.

The need for a different model of development, a model which seeks to maximise the well-being of all sections of society, not just today, but for future generations as well, is as relevant to the developing world as it is to the developed.

An alternative approach

So what would an alternative approach that focused on sustainable well-being look like? And how would Practical Action’s work measure up against such an approach?

Well most studies of how people themselves define well-being, whether they are carried out in rich or in poor countries, conclude that well-being has two components.

  • The first is a material component. People want their material needs satisfied – food, shelter, access to basic services such as water and energy, education and health, and an income to pay for all of this. Practical Action’s work – on food security in Sudan, on access to energy services around the world, on water, waste, housing and sanitation services in urban slums, on securing incomes for poor farmers through making markets work for the poor – shows that our core focus is on some of the most important aspects of material well-being.
  • The same research shows that the second component that contributes to a sense of well-being is a relational one. The sense of well-being comes from more than just having one’s basic material needs met. It requires also a sense that you have a degree of control and power over your own life, that you can be a part of decisions that have a major impact on the way you live, that you can live in dignity, that you have the respect of your fellow citizens, and that you can live in peace with your neighbours.

This is incredibly important because it means if we are to focus on well-being, it’s not just what we do that’s important, but how we do it as well. This is a critical part of the way Practical Action works. People participating in decisions and taking control of their own development is a golden thread which weaves its way through all of the work you have seen here today, whether its participating in market chains to influence how they work, participating in how technologies are actually developed and used, winning the right to control the natural resources they depend on for their livelihoods, or participating in planning processes to make sure town councils or water utilities live up to their responsibilities to deliver basic services to the poor.

The focus of our work is on the material aspects of well-being. The way we work addresses the relational aspects of well-being.

We do all of this in the knowledge that it is not just the well-being of people today, but the sustainability of that well-being into the future that matters. So I’d like to look quickly at how our take on technology plays a critical part in delivering the ‘sustainable’ bit of ‘sustainable well-being’.

Technology justice

We live on planet earth in an environment that is, in effect, a closed system and we are now reaching the limits of that system to sustain us.

As humans we only have two tools to manage our interaction with the environment we live in.

One is technology. It is technology that allows us to convert the natural resources available in the environment in to the goods and services that support our material well-being. And it’s technological innovation that allows us to do that in ever increasingly clever and different ways.

The other tool we have is the rules we choose to govern ourselves by – the systems of government, law, religion, politics and economics that, at the end of the day, determine who controls access to which natural resources, what technologies are developed to exploit them, and who benefits from their use.

Whether humanity can find a sustainable future for itself depends largely on us getting this relationship between our systems of governance and the technology we develop right. In Practical Action we describe this goal as ‘technology justice’ – the right of people to decide, choose and use technologies that assist them in leading the kind of life they value, without compromising the ability of others and future generations to do the same.

If that all sounds too academic a simple example should help:

The approach of big aid agencies like the World Bank to the problem of growing enough food to feed the developing world is to ignore small farmers on less fertile lands and instead focus on big commercial farmers on the most productive areas and on the use of large scale industrial technologies – fertilisers, pesticides, mechanisation, and, in some cases new crop breeding techniques such as GM. We believe this approach is wrong. In sub-Saharan Africa 60% of the population rely on small scale subsistence farming for a living. Focusing aid on the most productive lands and on commercial farmers denies 60% of the population the help they need to improve the efficiency of their farming methods. And focusing on industrial farming technologies, we believe, also damages soil fertility over time and reduces the ability of future generations to feed themselves.

Practical Action takes a different path. We support small farmers. We recognise that with often quite simple improvements they can increase their production many times over and create surpluses. And I’ve seen this for myself when visiting our projects with small farmers on rice in Sri Lanka, potatoes in Peru and maize in Zimbabwe, for example. Building on what they already do, we promote technologies which are described as agroecological – which build the fertility and moisture retention capabilities of soils and so preserve and improve their capacity to grow food not just now, but into the future. In other words, we help small farmers use technologies which allow them to continue to live the life they value without compromising the ability of others and future generations to do the same.

Practical Action’s way of working conforms to the idea that sustainable well-being should be the principle goal of development. We focus our efforts on the main material components of well being: food, basic services, an income and a means of livelihood. And the way we work is in tune with the relational aspects of well-being – people’s need to have control over their own destinies and a voice in their own societies. Our underlying principle of technology justice means that we also work not just to create well-being today, but to assure that it is sustained into the future.

The thing is, for us these are not new ideas. We have followed this approach for more than 40 years because it is our inheritance from Fritz Schumacher’s philosophy and Small is Beautiful. It’s in our organisational DNA.

So am I happy that the President of France and British academics have finally caught up with our current-day interpretation of Fritz Schumacher’s philosophy and theory of ‘economics as if people matter’?

Well yes and no.

Yes because it’s focusing attention on the alternative idea that sustainable well being should be the principle goal of development.

No because, nearly 40 years on from Small is Beautiful these ideas are still not making it across the barrier from academic discussion into mainstream practice. The rhetoric may be about sustainability and wellbeing, but the reality is that policy and practice in developing and developed countries alike is generally still very much driven by ideas we know do not work.

For that reason there is more need now than ever for organisations like Practical Action to trail blaze and to show how things could be different, to make that transition from theory to practice, to show how ideas of technology justice and wellbeing can lead to a different more equal global society with a real chance of a sustainable future.

This is an edited version of a speech delivered to supporters of Practical Action in June 2010.

Building back a better Haiti

Thursday, June 24th, 2010 by

The earthquake that struck Haiti in January this year caused massive damage and more than 200,000 casualties, many in the poor slum areas of the capital, Port-au-Prince.

About a month later, another earthquake hit Concepción in Chile; it was nearly a hundred times stronger than the one that hit Haiti, and did substantial damage too, yet the number of casualties was only about 1% of that in Haiti.Rebuilding homes in Ica, Peru, after an earthquake

What caused that huge difference in impact?

Chile had adequate building standards, including seismic-resistant design, that were properly implemented; above all, the Chileans could afford to build using those standards. In Haiti, that was clearly not the case.

The truth is that Haitians have been left extremely vulnerable to hazards like earthquakes and hurricanes by years of poor governance, environmental mismanagement and increasingly unequal distribution of incomes. So many people were unable to build to disaster-resistant standards – with the catastrophic results seen in January.

Jay Merrick’s article British architect to rebuild Haiti’s social housing in The Independent of June 21st, draws attention to the need to rebuild affordable, but safer houses in the aftermath of the disaster in Haiti.

There is certainly a case for that, and the availability of external aid offers an opportunity to do so. However, it is a fallacy to think that building safer houses alone is enough. Whilst these will certainly help to reduce risk for a while, they may do little to tackle underlying vulnerabilities, and therefore the same problem may re-occur when another hazard strikes in the future.

What is actually needed is not just to make houses more resilient, but also the people of Haiti themselves. Therefore, building back a better Haiti needs to consider rebuilding livelihoods and local markets as well as social networks, alongside housing.Rebuilding homes in Ica, Peru, after an earthquake

The article suggests that a design competition and exhibition, involving many foreign companies and consultants, alongside some from Haiti, is going to help define the types of housing that Haiti should rebuild. It is certainly useful to expose people to additional options and have a frank debate about those, as clearly many local housing solutions failed in the face of the earthquake.

However, the approach does raise a number of questions:

1. How are lessons going to be learned from the disaster, with respect to e.g. what particular failures in construction contributed to it, and which local solutions perhaps did better, because these have to be taken on board when designing for reconstruction. Do external agencies have adequate information of this type?

2. The process of producing housing, including taking design decisions, is even more important than its end product, as it builds people’s capacities and empowers them; empowerment is key to building resilience. This competition and exhibition does not involve Haiti’s people at all, until the prototypes are built; so how empowering can it be?

3. There is a real risk that, as a result of this process, we will end up with a number of standard housing types. Will they be able to accommodate the large variety in needs of Haitian families of different sizes and occupations? Will they allow for income generating activities in the house? How flexible can they be made, to adjust to individual needs?

4. Reconstruction and the influx of foreign capital does offer opportunities to boost livelihoods and local markets. The article does mention that housing will be low-tech and use mainly local building materials and builders, which is really positive. But how does prefabricated mass housing fit into that picture?

5. In terms of livelihoods, the location of any future housing is also crucial. The Haitian government seems to want to relocate many of the original slum dwellers to new settlements in less earthquake-prone locations, away from the capital. Has anyone thought of the livelihoods consequences? If not, people may be forced to quickly return to the city, or decide not to relocate at all, as the experience from elsewhere shows.

6. People’s social networks are an important asset to them, as they provide support to households in times of need. Following a disaster, such networks are often weakened, because members have died or have scattered. What is being done to rebuild those networks, e.g. in deciding on housing and location priorities?

What perhaps follows from this is that what is needed is not just British architects, but multi-sectoral teams, including Haitian professionals, working with the people of Haiti, to develop much more integrated rebuilding programmes.

A New Manifesto for Innovation, Sustainability and Development

Thursday, June 17th, 2010 by

Earlier this week the new Sussex Manifesto was launched at the Royal Society in London…and Practical Action made one of the key responses at the platform.   The original Manifesto was launched 40 years ago and earned a reputation for being rather radical in the way it approached science and technology for development.   The updated Manifesto has been revised after much work by the STEPS Centre and partners like Practical Action who hosted workshops in Nepal, Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe.

The new manifesto sets out a vision for “a world where science and technology work more directly for social justice, poverty alleviation and the environment”.   In many ways this is similar, but does not go as far as the vision of the new technologies programme at Practical Action: “a world where science-led new technologies deliver products which fulfil human needs rather than consumer wants.”   The main difference is that Practical Action is saying something about “how?”  and “why?”   Nontheless the vision is to be welcomed.

Further positive messages in the new manifesto are the recognition of direction, distribtuion and diversity as key to innovation.    This 3D agenda needs to be supplemented by 3V’s: vision, values, and vulnerabilities.   The vision is now in the manifesto but could be expanded to say something more about the “how?” and the “why?”    Values are an important way of being transparent about the basis for action.   Perhaps the best know example of how this can lead to positive action is the now well established fair trade movement which was established with very clear values.   Do we need a fair technology movement?   Schumacher, who founded Practical Action over 40 years ago also was clear about the values of what he called intermediate technology.   One example is that technology should use local materials and be capable of local adaptation.   Also challenged by Schumacher was the notion that economic growth should be the driver of development.   We now have ample evidence that growth does not lead to prosperity (Jackson 2010) yet it is often the driver of science and technology.

Vulnerabilities of resources, people and markets should be recognised.   With population growth and climate change pressures there is a need to recognise the finite nature of resources.   Many people live with high levels of vulnerabilities and science and technology should be harnessed to meet their needs.   Markets, as we have seen recently in the financial sector are vulnerable.   There is an opportunity to harness market mechanisms to help poor people.   Recent use of advanced market directives by the Gates Foundation, DFID and others provide examples of how innovative business models can be aligned with technological innovation to provide lasting benefits to those in need.

Finally, there is a question about what kind of organisations need to be developed to realise the vision of the new manifesto.   Some new organisations are well placed, for example, in the UK there is a group called MATTER that aspire to make new techologies work for all.   Using 21st century ICT’s we might envisage a network of affilitted organisations worldwide but locally based.

Funding for adaptation takes a significant step forward!

Wednesday, June 16th, 2010 by

The last couple of days I have been attending the tenth meeting of the Adaptation Fund Board, a new body in its 3rd year of operation. It was set up to disburse funds generated by a small levy on projects designed to generate emissions reductions (under the Clean Development Mechanism.) The Board is innovative in two ways: it allows governments from developing countries to apply directly for funds, rather than through another UN agency, and it has a majority of members from developing countries. At this meeting the Board was able to recommend that four outline proposals for adaptation programmes were developed into full proposals ready for funding. These will be in Senegal, Nicaragua, Pakistan and Solomon Islands. This is a milestone! Rather few government-proposed programmes for adaptation have so far been funded by the UN climate change convention, and this new Fund so far looks like being quicker at processing applications than any other fund.

This meeting has a much better feeling about it than the negotiations on climate change that I was attending for the past fortnight, where there were few positive outcomes in moving towards an international agreement. One of these was the indication that the US might now support a new fund for large scale new climate finance under the control of the climate change convention, rather than insisting that all funding goes through the World Bank, a position strongly opposed by most developing countries. There are also indications that developed countries are coming up with the ‘fast start finance’ pledged in Copenhagen and are getting the message that this must be new money, not aid money repackaged for climate change related projects.

One really low point in the talks came on Thursday, when the vulnerable small island states asked for a review of the climate change science, on the implications of keeping temperature rise below 1.5 degrees. Most countries came out in support; however Saudi Arabia was against it, saying there was no need for the review, that all the scientific information was available and those countries that needed it could get it from Google!

On a much lighter note, on Friday last Oxfam did a stunt outside the conference centre, with G8 leaders playing football (with the world), with no rules, just passing the ball (our planet) from one to another, and no attempt to score!

Practical Action Rings in International Day of the African Child

Wednesday, June 16th, 2010 by

My last blog post talked about the sheer number of ‘national days’ that seem to be popping up more and more regularly, the most recent of which was World Environment Day which Practical Action celebrated a couple of weeks ago. Well, you’ll be pleased to know I have another to share with you today.

More than 30 years ago thousands of black school children took to the streets of Soweto in South Africa in a march to protest the inferior quality of their education and demand the right to be taught in their own language. More than a hundred people were killed in the protests, and ever since the 16th June has been recognised as International Day of the African Child around the world to honour the memory of those killed and draw attention to the plight of many African children today that don’t have access to education.

Practical Action works in a number of African countries providing access to modern energy for families that live without electricity. Improving education through the provision of electric lighting for schools and homes so that children can continue to study after dark.

As part of this year’s celebrations, an awareness raising event is taking place at the West India Centre in Rugby where a Practical Action clay stove is being used to demonstrate how poor African families around the world cook their meals on a daily basis.

Given that this is my second blog post in as many weeks on national days, I wonder if there are enough to continue this for the rest of the year – I think it’s quite likely!

Great teamwork

Tuesday, June 15th, 2010 by

primary science conferencePractical Action’s schools fundraising department and education unit joined forces for the first time yesterday to take part in the Primary Science Conference exhibition in York with great success.

Delegates were mainly science co-ordinators from primary schools so they will be sharing information on any good resources they found with all teachers in their schools.

The teachers seemed delighted with the free resources and support we had to offer from both departments.

‘ I have responsibility for embedding the global element into the curriculum in my school so I’m going to find your resources really helpful‘ said Haroon Ashgar, a teacher form Lancashire.

Over 70 teachers gave us their details so we could  send them resources such as the school fundraising pack and our renewable energy posters, and most of them also signed up to receive ‘Small Talk’ Practical Action’s e-newsletter.

Teacher primary science conference‘It’s really fantastic to find someone providing climate change information for primary schools.  Our school is taking part in the climate change schools project and your resources will be a great help’

Eileen Gillen
Science co-ordinator
St Anne Line Catholic Junior School

Fundraising is now becoming an integrated part of the school curriculum. Where good practice takes place the students themselves research different charities and make an informed choice about who to support. Although our education resources are not produced with fundraising in mind, if teachers have used our resources with their classes pupils will be aware of Practical Action and the work we do and we hope this will encourage them to choose us when they make that decision.  The fact that school fundraising can support them with a range of great ideas on what to do will make that even more likely.

Questions about EMMA? Consult Mike Albu

Thursday, June 10th, 2010 by

Join Mike Albu for a question and answer session about the EMMA Toolkit on June 10th.  The session is organised for market and value-chain development practitioners, by the Groove and MaFI.  For more information contact Renee Gifford –

What can you do in a hour?

Thursday, June 10th, 2010 by

The Practical Action team set off under the portcullis of Warwick Castle for the 9am start of our local 10k Two Castles run on Sunday. My main objective was to get round without stopping, which I managed, partly thanks to the other friendly competitors, and support from local people along the course.

Two Castles Run

Ben, Lucy, Steven and Sarah after the race

It took me just over 1 hour. So I wondered what else takes about 1 hour of people’s time in the UK and in developing countries. A survey last year found that the average commuting time for professionals in the UK is 61 minutes per day. In rural Africa, one in five women spend more than one hour on each trip to fetch water. In some parts of the continent, they can spend up to 8 hours a day collecting water. That’s on top of collecting firewood and cooking food.

Reducing the amount of time and effort it takes to carry out basic tasks essential for survival can transform lives. You can find out more about what Practical Action is doing in areas such as water, transport and energy under the ‘What we do’ section of this website.

And finally, thanks so much to everyone who supported us (you still can on Just Giving ). We all enjoyed the run, and might even be persuaded to give it a go again next year!