Archive for November, 2010

Using Local Voice to Share Knowledge in Rural Zimbabwe: Digital Extension

Tuesday, November 30th, 2010 by

Stockholm Challenge Finalist 2010

Our work on podcasting in Zimbabwe has just received global recognition.   The Finalists in the prestigious Stockholm Challenge have been announced today, 1 December 2010.  Our project has been selected by a panel of independent international judges.   More details about our entry can be found on the Stockholm Challenge 2010 website or on the Practical Action site.   Many congratulations to the team in Zimbabwe led by Lawrence Gudza.

UN climate talks – superpower scuffles …

Tuesday, November 30th, 2010 by

The G2 dilemma is dominating much of the conversation in Cancun.

‘G2’ refers to China and the USA – locked (in fact, dead-locked) over crucial climate change issues.

The G2 relationship reminds me of my childhood. For years I was secure with my sibling ‘super-power’ status when, without me noticing, up crept my younger sister – suddenly stronger, leaner and more ambitious than before.

The same has happened with the USA and China – whose rivalry could end up holding the whole process hostage.

The USA criticise large developing countries, including China, India and Brazil for not submitting their carbon emissions for international monitoring and China, India and Brazil criticise the developed countries for exactly the same thing (despite the fact that for us these targets are legally binding).

This may sound like a childish game but its consequences are severe – the USA are refusing to support the creation of a new climate fund unless China et al agree to serious monitoring and mandatory targets.

The G2 need to realise that the process is bigger than them – there are over 190 countries involved and billions of lives at risk if they fail to make progress.



P.s Years later, my sister and I are now the best of friends – care to take a gamble on whether the real G2 relationship will develop the same way?!

UN climate talks – don’t write the obituary just yet …

Monday, November 29th, 2010 by

 So the world’s journalists have descended upon Cancun in search of stories. Right now, the most prevalent seems to be the death of the UN climate talks and its sibling the Kyoto Protocol.

 But it’s all a little premature …

It’s true that nobody is expecting to see the ‘fair and binding’ deal agreed in Cancun. The emphasis is more on pragmatism this year: identifying and focusing on the areas where we can see real change and commitment through the UN process.

For example, establishing a ‘climate fund’ through which the majority of all long-term funding will be channelled and an ‘adaptation framework’ which ensures that the most vulnerable communities are put first.

World leaders cannot afford to approach the process without ambition, they cannot afford to simply write-off Cancun before the negotiations begin – they need to prove that the UN process isn’t dead or dying by delivering.

You can help to make sure that they recognise the cost of inaction on climate change by joining our campaign: face up to four degrees.

We are showing the decision-makers, the press (and anyone else listening!) that we care about climate change because the lives of the world’s poorest people depend on action right now.

 What’s that noise? It’s certainly not the last rites of the UN Convention …



Day 1 of my trip to Practical Action’s programme in Bolivia

Monday, November 29th, 2010 by

 This is my first visit to Practical Action’s programme in Bolivia, which has only really been up and running at any scale for the last 2 years. With a population of just 9.9 million Bolivia has just one third of the population of its neighbour Peru, where we have been working for the past 25 years. It has consistently trailed behind Peru in terms of development over the past 30 years, being ranked 17th ‘poorest’ out of 21 Latin American countries in the UNDP HDI index (as opposed to Peru’s 10th position).

Day 1

I visited our work in the highland plateau about an hours drive out from (and above) the capital city and La Paz. Sited at around 4500m (nearly 15,000 ft), temperatures drop to zero degrees C or below at night time for 270 days of the year. It’s a bleak windswept treeless environment, backed by hills and then, in the distance, the snow covered Andes.

 We’ve been working here for around 2 years now and have 2 linked projects – one Spanish funded and in its 1st year and one (larger) EC funded in its 2nd year.

 The engagement of community is clearly very high – we had meetings with municipal council and attended an inauguration of a water point, both of which brought out large numbers of very enthusiastic people, accompanied by traditional music, dancing, lots of potatoes, and alcohol.

Breathing is difficult in the thin air up here at the best of times – its even harder when you are being very firmly swung around in the grass by a rather determined local farmer’s wife in a celebratory jig to mark the formal opening of their first hand pump!

Our projects consist of work on water supplies (shallow wells with hand pumps at household level mostly, but some mini gravity piped supplies as well), improved cropping practices (including new crop varieties), introduction of horticulture and soil conditioning, and improvements in livestock management (including introduction of new breeds of higher yielding dairy cows, cattle stalls to shelter animals from the cold, improved feed etc). Also some water conservation work (including construction of dams to retain water for irrigation). The projects draw very much on our experience in Cajamarca and Cusco in Peru.

The water supplies seemed popular and were well crafted and finished. The water table in many places is less than 5 m deep so a simple lined hand dug well with a cover and a simple and cheap suction pump suffices. Surprisingly few people have tried this technology before and I saw lots of people during the inauguration ceremony peer down the well and look surprised at the presence of water so close to the surface.  We’ve done over 200 of these household water supplies so far.

I saw one really excellent dam providing irrigation water to 6 ha of land. Construction work on this was probably of the highest standard I have ever seen on a project of this type at Practical Action, but cost only $15,000 ($200 per family served).

The work on introducing horticultural crops seemed popular and we saw plenty of evidence of it being taken up (combined with wells which allowed for irrigation as well as drinking water). Onions, carrots and lettuce seemed to be the first crops introduced although more were to follow. Improved breeds of dairy cattle also seemed to be making an impact.

We visited one farmer (Raymondo) who had been trying most of the interventions over the past year – he had a vegetable plot which had the soil conditioned with organic matter, on which he was growing carrots, onions and lettuce, a cold frame for propagating plants from seed, a handpump and a water trough for his animals, an outbuilding to protect his cattle from the cold, and 4 improved breed dairy cows. When asked, Raymondo said that his family had noticed big differences with the changes, with more food to eat and a more varied diet (important as the base line survey for this project had found evidence of malnutrition amongst the population) and a clean water supply within the compound of the house. His new cattle were producing three times the milk of his previous cows and he was now, for the first time, producing some surplus (milk and vegetables) that he could sell on the market.

It is early days for our work here, but it seems to have got off to a good start.

Tomorrow we are travelling down hill, three hours or so from La Paz, to look at the other area of work we have in Bolivia at the moment – coffee and agro forestry in the more tropical forested lowlands.

UN climate talks Cancun – matrimonial bliss?

Sunday, November 28th, 2010 by

For many, Cancun is the ultimate honeymoon destination.

Well, for the next two weeks, Cancun will be home to the UN climate change negotiations – 192 member states, the world’s journalists and the NGO community – but the prospect of a honeymoon period seems slim.

That’s because the ‘wedding day’, where binding and solemn vows are made, has never taken place. The world’s poorest women and men have been jilted and are still waiting at the aisle.

Copenhagen, the home of last year’s climate talks, promised to deliver the ‘fair and binding’ global deal on climate change. But we all know that it never materialised. The job in Cancan is in many ways harder – whilst expectations are lower (much lower), these negotiations have to rebuild faith that the multi-lateral process can deliver for the world’s poorest people.

Practical Action will be focusing specifically on ‘adaptation’ throughout the talks – more funding, more fairly delivered, more focused on the most vulnerable.

Why? Because our work on the ground, from the pastoralist lands of Kenya to the floodplains of Bangladesh, makes a compelling case for adaptation (providing people with the skills, tools and opportunity to adapt to their changing climate).

In fact, the future of whole communities depends on the exchange of meaningful and lasting commitments, right now. 



P.s Keep up-to-date with the progress of the negotiations by following my daily blog …

We’ve seen the light

Friday, November 26th, 2010 by

Ruth McNeil, Practical Action Trustee

Helena Molyneux and I visited Zimbabwe as trustees last month to see the work that Practical Action is doing there. We were particularly impressed by the micro hydro work that’s being carried out and the impact it’s having on rural communities that are isolated, poor and short of resources.

Bringing electricity, even in just small amounts, to villages that have never had it is life changing for them.

Suddenly a school can have an electric light so children can study longer; a clinic can offer mothers giving birth at night the chance to have their baby in the light, not just accompanied by a candle; a fridge can store vaccines; houses can have a radio or television that is attached to the electricity supply; people can charge up their mobile phones… a whole world of possibility and opportunity is opened up. Their lives are enriched in terms of medical support, educational opportunity and leisure possibility.

Families were proud to show us their televisions, the nurse to show us the electricity in their clinic, the primary school to show us the classrooms now lit up when light fades. The teacher was bursting with pride and excitement – all this for the sake of an electric light! We felt humbled.

The great thing about the projects is how Practical Action has worked with others to acquire the equipment to build the micro hydro systems that will power the generation of the electricity. They’ve ensured too that it is local people who help in the building of the dams and laying the pipes. We met many of these people who themselves had contributed their labour and their time to the micro hydro project – so they ‘own’ it and feel responsible for helping maintain it in the future.

Our trip was  such an inspiring one. Once again I am awed by the work of Practical Action and the ways they are working to improve people’s lives in such valuable yet practical ways.

Small Is…Challenge

Thursday, November 25th, 2010 by

Small Is…Challenge

Practical Action’s education unit launched its exciting Small Is…Challenge to celebrate Schumacher’s centenary at the Design and Technology Show in Birmingham last week.

Attendees were mainly trainee and qualified design and technology teachers, advisors and inspectors, and tutors from

Education Team

 teacher-training institutes.

The challenge was really well received with 400 professionals taking the technology timeline back to their schools to sign up to the Small Is… Challenge. With so much enthusiasm, we’re looking forward to next April, when schools submit their students’ inventive ideas of sustainable technologies for the future.

While we were at the show, we took some time to find out how teachers are using our teaching materials, including, The Sustainability Handbook and the Sustainability Matters CD. It was fabulous to get a real sense that our materials are making such a difference.

Practical Action is the only place teachers can go for really good resources on sustainability. The work you do is fantastic’  (Bernard Cooper, President of D and T advisors and inspectors)

‘The green book has saved our lives! It’s an excellent source of information for teachers and students‘ (Tina Ambrose, D&T teacher)

Drama to make a Difference: Raising agricultural awareness through theatre in Bangladesh

Thursday, November 25th, 2010 by

I like community theatre. Over the past couple of months I’ve seen amateur performances of Amadeus and Lady Windermere’s Fan. The former in particular was great. But what I saw last night was something else!

In the playing field of a rural upper school in the Sirajgunj district of Bangladesh, a troupe put on a drama about good practices in small scale agriculture to a packed out local crowd. By a conservative estimate at least 400 children and adults of all ages, women and men, came from nearby villages to laugh (a lot) and sigh (not cry, although the wedding scene I must admit was quite touching) while learning about how to improve their cattle rearing, vegetable farming, and pond fishing.

It was part of Practical Action Bangladesh’s Making Agriculture and Market Systems Work for Landless, Marginal and Smallholder Farmers project, which is funded by the European Commission. Through the project Practical Action is already helping 15,000 farmers and 300 micro enterprises directly, but in order to reach even greater scale, the team is raising awareness much more widely through the region with activities ranging from agriculture fairs to community-based drama shows like the one I was lucky enough to catch.

It was really something special! My Bangla isn’t up to scratch so I didn’t catch every word (Read: my Bangla doesn’t exist and I didn’t understand a word) but the slapstick comedy, hilarious characters, touching story, and important messages were easy to see. The show had everything: music and dance, advice about cattle vaccinations, stick-on beards, tips on how much and when to fertilise your vegetable crop, a crazy old match-maker, how many fry (baby fish) to put in your pond cage, over-sized sun-glasses…

I was particularly pleased to see lots of women standing together enjoying the show. Often kept away from public gatherings by cultural norms, women make up the majority of livestock carers in Bangladesh. So getting these messages to them is particularly important.

The evening went down a storm. And that’s a great sign that people will talk about it in weeks and months to come, remember and share its lessons with others.

Education White Paper – good news for global learning?

Wednesday, November 24th, 2010 by

 I fear not.  One of the elements of the The Schools White Paper out today focuses on the streamlining  of the national curriculum.  The paper states that ‘The curriculum should… outline a core of knowledge in the traditional subject disciplines’. On the face of it that sounds  like a good idea.  BUT when it comes to defining what those traditional subjects are citizenship and global learning are not in the Government’s list.  Personal, Social, Health and Economic education (PSHE) is, as is a foreign language up to the age of  16. It appears that incorporating global learning content and practice into the curriculum  however will be left up to individual teachers.

Along with a number of organisation who signed up to the Global Learning Charter Practical Action’s  Education Unit believes that given that we now live in a globally interdependent world  knowledge of global issues should be a a mandatory part of  the curriculum.

We want students to understand what life is like in developing countries and be able to learn from some of the great work that goes on there.   Work that Practical Action is involved  for example that demonstrates how simple technology can improve people’s live.  Projects such as introducing renewable energy to remote villages  in countries like Kenya and Zimbabwe and gravity ropeways that support farmers in Nepal.  We also want them to understand how climate change is already having a devastating  impact on the  people who contribute the least to it. Engaging students  in this way we feel will encourage them to feel part of the ‘Big Global Society’ , making them more likely to live more sustainable lives and both support and engage with organsiations such as ours.

The Cambridge Primary Review backs this up too.  It’s curriculum aims include  ‘promoting interdependence and sustainability, encouraging respect and reciprocity; empowering local, national and global citizenship’.

 A recent report  by the DEA showed that learning about global issues increases public support for overseas aid, so if the Government wishes to retain this kind of support surely it needs to ensure that global learning is part of the core curriculum for all students, starting at primary school and going right up to leaving school?  Leaving it up to individual teachers is in my opinion simply not good enough.

And as for the idea that having been in the army automatically makes someone so ideally suited to becoming a teacher that they will be  exempt from paying tuition fees, don’t get me started!

Has science failed (the poor)?

Wednesday, November 24th, 2010 by

This was a question I was asked after a talk given at Chatham House on Monday.   The talk was part of a two day conference on: Investing in Science – Securing future prosperity.   Although I had been critical of science for not directing effort towards the global grand challenges of energy poverty, water scarsity, and food security I do not believe that science has failed.   Rather, as a (dismal) scientist might say; science is a necessary but not sufficient condition for development.

My argument was that “how” we engage science and scientists with development challenges needs to change.   We need to include wider stakeholder groups such as local (developing country) scientists with global scientists; we need to engage local business with local business; and importantly we need innovation in business models.

Many people at the well attended event came to talk with me afterwards to say that they agreed with what I said.   Clearly that statement is not based on scientific evidence but it is encouraging nontheless.