Archive for January, 2011

The greatest loser

Friday, January 28th, 2011 by

Have you watched our ‘Fat of the Land’ video? I imagine pretty early on you guessed it was a spoof? Some people have been more confused and having watched the film they jump to the small print – I imagine to be sure whether it’s real or not.

Our 'Fat of the land' video spoof has got people thinking


But what’s it all about?

A fundamental principle of Practical Action’s work is that it should start from the people themselves. Development shouldn’t be imposed. Engaging people and working together to develop and/or implement solutions is the way poverty reduction becomes truly sustainable.

You still see and hear of examples where aid (often big projects) is imposed. I’ve recently seen examples of loos and water pumps installed but with no thought as to their maintenance. When they go wrong or need repair communities have no idea how to fix them and no one to call on. Not Practical Action projects of course.

The issue that ‘Fat’ tackles is broader than this too – it’s about how we think of aid and development. I recently heard an interview on Radio 4 about population, poverty and food – with the argument being that we need GM or on the other hand that we don’t need GM because their push is all about big company profits. At no stage in the conversation did anyone say we need to listen to what people want, what will work for them and what will be sustainable into the longer term. The conversation was framed as the choice of imposed solutions.

What we wanted to do was to create a debate; we also wanted to widen the audience out beyond Radio 4 listeners and those with an interest in poverty reduction. We wanted to engage others. In January much of the UK seems to be obsessed with diets and the body beautiful  – in trying to reach out to a new and bigger audience and get them to think we started with where they are – fat.

And finally I should say thank you to Quietstorm, the advertising agency who made and donated the video to us. Thank you. Together we have got people thinking.

Act now to have your say in the new national curriculum

Tuesday, January 25th, 2011 by

Teachers, parents, school governors and organisations such as ours now have the opportunity to be part of the review of the new national curriculum. If you fit into one of these categories then you could make a difference to the future education of the next generation. 

 The current Government thinking is that there should be a major shift to a more knowledge based curriculum.  Over the last few months you may have heard about how the Government feels it is really important that children learn the capitals of countries and know who Churchill was.  Most people who are involved in education (by that I mean teachers not Government ministers) would agree that knowledge is of course important but needs to be taught within the context of a skills based curriculum.  We want students to develop the skills that will enable them learn, to be able to problem solve and to think creatively in all subjects. 

 Another change if the proposals go ahead as they are is that the number of subjects in the curriculum will be thinned down.  One of the casualties is likely to be citizenship.  This is currently a mandatory subject and one in which students learn about how they fit into the bigger picture as a global citizen.  Students discuss the very issues that Practical Action care about such as how best to help people get out of poverty and what action they themselves can take to make a fairer world for all.  Removing this from the curriculum will severely reduce our ability to get our messages across and to have a positive impact on the next generation.

If you want to make a difference to the lives of the next generation of students now is your chance.  Please go to the Department of Education’s website and put your views forward.  Consultation ends April 14th.

Thank you

Blind faith – Biotech scientists’ report skews off target

Monday, January 24th, 2011 by

The UK’s Foresight report, Global Food and Farming Futures, delivered by the UK’s Chief Scientist John Beddington on 24 January 2011, provides few surprises and offers no new proposals.

It could have been different and saved the taxpayer a lot of money had government and the scientific establishment not been so ‘willfully deaf’ about recognising and taking forward the findings of the World Bank and UN sponsored global scientific assessment of the future of agriculture – the IAASTD reports (International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development) – approved by the UK government and 57 others in 2008.

IAASTD confirmed the proposals of the small-scale farmers’ movement La Via Campesina for securing future food and realising food sovereignty. It found that small-scale, more agroecological and organic production methods, based on local knowledge and especially women’s skills and protected from damaging globalised markets, were the way forward to avert hunger, improve equity and restore the environment now and in the next 40 years.

What the Foresight report does do, though, is make the almost desperate plea that for UK science to be involved in what it claims is globally relevant research for food and agriculture the UK must embrace GM foods – a somewhat odd conclusion given that most people in the world eat GM-free food produced locally by small-scale food providers – farmers, livestock keepers, artisanal fishers. Perhaps that is the motivation for investing so much time and money in the Foresight process – to force acceptance of GM foods in the UK? Once accepted, and it does not matter if the GMOs proposed by Beddington et al are ecologically attuned or patented or not, it will open the floodgates for the Monsantos and Syngentas to swamp British and European agriculture and our food system with their single gene and rather ineffective seeds and the GM food products that result. Watch the documentary “Food Inc” and its portrayal of the dysfunctional GM dominated US food system that forces farmers to brink of existence, if you want to know what could lie in store

The way forward, as we are informed by the small-scale food providers themselves, is to secure future food through biodiverse, climate-resilient, ecological practices of the majority of local food providers, protected within the framework of food sovereignty. These are the most productive methods using land and water efficiently, increasing agricultural biodiversity and maximising ecosystem functions in every locality. If UK science could get off its biotech pedestal and find ways of supporting social movements, that are working to strengthen their members’ local, diverse small-scale food systems, then it might become relevant.

Practical Action has first-hand experience over more than 40 years of working with small-scale food providers of their ability of to grow enough food for themselves, their communities and provide excess for the market. What they say is their priority is to have protection of their rights: to have access to, and to be able to grow, food, using their GM-free seeds and livestock breeds; to access and use their land and the water they need for their crops, livestock and fish ponds; to have exclusive access to their coastal fishing grounds, which should be protected from industrial fishing boats; and to have their markets protected from speculators and underpriced imports. They want these rights guaranteed in the framework of food sovereignty, and research to support their ecological food provision, so that they can continue to feed the world. Now, there’s a challenge for UK science and for the UK government in its advocacy in international negotiations.

Patrick Mulvany, Senior Policy Adviser, Practical Action
Brussels, 24 Jan 2011

Preserve and survive

Monday, January 24th, 2011 by

I spent some of last weekend making marmalade – an excellent activity for a cold winter day.  Listening to Sir John Beddington on the Today programme this morning talking about ways of reducing food waste set me thinking about my weekend’s labour.

Many of our favourite foods have come about because of mankind’s need to preserve a glut of ingredients in an edible format that will keep. Yogurt, bacon, cheese, pickled onions and of course jam have all been developed in response this need.

In rural Africa, the absence of refrigeration makes food preservation techniques all the more vital.  Practical Action has been disseminating information on simple food preservation and processing techniques for many years.  Fascinating and useful technical briefs are available on Practical Answers  on a wide range of items from ricotta cheese to pineapple jam.

The zeer pot is another simple technology, promoted by Practical Action, that helps to extend the life of fruit and vegetables, making the crucial difference to poor families in Sudan.

The answers to feeding the growing population of the planet do not always lie in the laboratories of the rich world, sometimes we need to be reminded of the simple techniques that have been used for centuries by farming communities to preserve the fruits of their labour.

Learning from the good AND the bad

Friday, January 21st, 2011 by

There was an interesting article published in the Guardian newspaper’s online Poverty Matters Blog earlier this week posing the question – should development NGOs be more open about their failures as well as their successes (NGO Hopes to Benefit from Failure)?

It’s an age old question for charities – how to balance the need to tell positive stories of change to recruit and enthuse supporters against the reality that we are working in very difficult environments and things don’t always go according to plan.

As the article points out, one of the very good reasons in favour of being more open is that we learn from failures as much as we do from successes.  Another very good reason is that a spirit of openness and transparency breeds trust.

 In an effort to learn a bit more about our own performance we have recently taken part in a survey of local partners managed by the organisation Keystone Accountability on behalf of 25 International NGOs (INGOs) from the UK and US.  

The survey was in the form of a questionnaire administered by e-mail asking for the partners’ view of our performance against a range of criteria including financial support, capacity building support, other non-financial support, administration, relationships, and understanding and learning. 

We submitted 101 partner names and 33 responded, anonymously, directly to Keystone (close to the average response rate for the partners of all 25 INGOs). A report prepared for Practical Action benched marked us against the 24 other INGOs, placing us 10th out of 25 on overall ratings of partner satisfaction. We are seen to have particular strengths in capacity building, the use of participatory approaches, technical issues and support on board and governance issues. We are rated relatively low on involving our partners in the development of our strategy and promoting our partners in the media and to other donors.

 As we are just starting the process of developing our next five year strategy we have been able to take quick action already to include partners more in the strategy development process as one response to the report. We will look carefully at what other lessons we can learn. In line with our commitment to transparency and openness we have also placed a copy of the report on our website. If you would like to read it please click on the link:  Keystone Accountability Report

Energy for all – part 2

Friday, January 21st, 2011 by

This concept of Total Energy came out of another successful initiative in 2010 – the Poor People’s Energy Outlook report. Amongst other things the report suggests minimum international standards for energy access and introduces a new energy index. It has been incredibly well received and we have had expressions of interest for further discussion from UNIDO, the UN Foundation, DFID and GTZ to name but a few. The report has been launched also in a number of our country programmes.

We were approached in the UK by German Company Bosch Siemens Household Appliances (manufacturers of cookers and fridges) to work on the design of smoke hoods, which has led to the development of a smoke hood design tool.

In Zimbabwe we’ve developed relationships with a manufacturer of prepay electricity meters. They’ve donated meters to a microhydro scheme in Zimbabwe to help communities manage the finances of their system more effectively.

Finally, in Europe we’re working on a project with other European NGOs to raise awareness of energy access amongst the European public and European Parliament MEPs. This project is in collaboration with NGOs from Sweden, Czechoslovakia and Spain and has got off to an extremely good start, with a group of MEPs from the European Parliament starting a review process. This will result in a resolution on energy access being put before the European Parliament later this year. On the back of this, we had a productive meeting with Andris Piebalgs, the EC Development Commissioner  – the man in charge of the EC’s entire aid budget.  Commissioner Piebalgs, formerly the EC’s Energy Commissioner, has a very good grasp of the sector, and is a real advocate for ending energy poverty in the developing world. We had a very productive exchange and hope to be able to collaborate with him further in the future.

However much I grumble about the price of petrol, electricity and gas going up this winter (and believe me I do grumble), I can’t help feeling the real energy crisis that we have to tackle is here, amongst the half of humanity still foraging for kindling for the cooking fire or straining to see at night from the light of a spluttering candle. It’s certainly a crisis that Practical Action is committed to continuing to fight and to draw to the world’s attention.

Happy New Year!

Take Action: Make the Call

Sri Lanka floods

Thursday, January 20th, 2011 by

The situation in Sri Lanka is very worrying. A few years ago, flooding affecting 300,000 people might have captured the headlines, but these days it feels like this is just business as usual. I had the impression that the reports on Sri Lanka tended to get coverage only because it was one of three countries (Australia, Brazil, and Sri Lanka) all badly affected by exceptional rains.

On the ground of course, whether you’re part of a group of 300 or 300,000 people affected, it can be a truly devastating experience. I have spent time in flooded areas of Bangladesh, and India before now, and the way people cope can be quite amazing.

Practical Action has been working in Kathiravely and Kalmadu where some 150 families are still living in relief camps set up and run by the Government, unable to return home yet. We’re not a relief agency, and are not set up with the kind of logistical capacities to buy and distribute the large amounts of food, blankets, soap and cleaning items that people need today. However, a number of our partners are engaged and we’re helping them where we can.

Soon we will be turning our heads to the task of rebuilding water tanks and flood bunds, and here I am hopeful we can ensure people are aware of the techniques we’ve developed, so structures will be able to withstand future flooding when it occurs. Unfortunately, it does seem that it’s a question of when, not if.

Fat of the Land – what did you think?

Wednesday, January 19th, 2011 by

We hope you enjoyed our spoof video. It was created to provoke debate and get people thinking about development in a different way. More »

See others’ reactions and why the video was made, or add your voice to the conversation below …

Energy for all – part 1

Tuesday, January 18th, 2011 by

As petrol prices head towards record highs at the pumps once more and we hear on the radio news that yet another electricity utility has announced a 10% increase in its charges this winter, there are reasons enough for one’s thoughts to turn to energy. But for more than half the world’s population it’s not price rises but lack of access to any modern form of energy at all that is the most pressing problem. 3 billion people are still cooking over open fires (the smoke from which kills more people each year than malaria) and more than 1.5 billion lack any form of connection to an electricity supply.

Practical Action has more than 30 years of experience helping poor communities in the developing world get connected up to electricity supplies, install clean and efficient cooking stoves and access the different forms of mechanical power so necessary for creating work places, jobs and livelihoods.

On the energy front, last year has been an interesting time for us with 5 promising new energy initiatives started up across the Group:

Following on from a reception hosted on our behalf at Clarence House in February by Prince Charles, our patron, we formed a group called POWERFUL, made up of energy companies  and finance institutions interested in energy access in the developing world. We are hoping, with the POWERFUL group, to develop a new and different approach to tackling energy poverty in the developing world. The energy sector is fractured and traditional projects are usually based on a specific technology such as solar power or a specific function (e.g. energy for cooking). In practice this can mean that a poor family can end up with electric light but still cooking over an open fire in a smoke filled kitchen (or cooking on a clean stove in the dark). We want to instead  find a way to ensure poor people’s total energy needs (e.g. for lighting, heating, cooking, cooling as well as mechanical power) are met.

See part 2 of my blog here…

Take Action: Make the Call

Practical Action at the Association Science Education Conference

Thursday, January 13th, 2011 by

Last week, Practical Action’s Education team was at the Association for Science Education’s (ASE) annual conference, hosted at Reading University.

 The four day event comprising of seminars and an exhibition gave us an opportunity to promote our education materials to trainee and qualified science teachers, as well as network with key players involved in Science curricular development and delivery.

 We’re hoping for lots of spin-offs from the event, including new partners to work with on Climate change and Food security projects.

 I’ll probably forgo the opportunity for a future career as a pet handler though!

Bren makes a new friend with a scorpion!