Archive for March, 2011

Paddy Ashdown – Disasters and DFID

Monday, March 28th, 2011 by

This morning I listened to Lord Ashdown talk about his review of DFIDs humanitarian work and the Uk’s links with the UN. His emphasis on preparing for disasters, building resilience so that when they strike (and they will with increasing frequency – as he says – because of climate change and population growth) people know what to do and are better able to survive and rebuild resonated with Practical Actions work.
It’s great to hear such common sense.
We work with communities to help them prepare for and survive disaster – from earthquake resistant housing in Peru, to bridges, boats and flood warning in Nepal. Poor people often live on the margins of society, on land where others don’t want to live, they have few assets with which to survive and no insurance.
Preparation makes sense. It lessens deaths, reduces misery and ultimately is incredibly cost effective.

Power to the People!

Monday, March 28th, 2011 by

Last week I talked about our work on water and sanitation facilities in schools in Zimbabwe. This week I thought I’d look briefly at another vital service – access to improved energy supplies. Clean water and safe sanitation are obvious basic needs. Access to energy, on the other hand, is often not given the same level of priority. It is difficult to underestimate its importance however. We need energy to light our homes, preserve and cook our food, keep vaccines and medicines safe in the local health centre. People also need motive power necessary for the small enterprises that provide basic livelihoods – a milk chiller so farmers can collect their milk and send it to market, a mill for grinding maize into flour, a small workshop or a saw mill.
I saw an interesting example of an attempt to improve energy access during a visit across the border from Zimbabwe into Mozambique a week ago. In Manica province we are working with a local NGO on a number of micro hydroelectricity projects to provide electricity for household lighting, small appliances such as radios, and for small enterprises. These projects utilise small streams to power turbines which in turn generate a few kilowatts of electricity distributed via a mini grid to households in a village.
This is still not energy access as you and I know it in Europe. There is enough electricity to have light in your house at night, charge a battery to run your radio during the day and maybe even charge the now almost ubiquitous mobile phone! But there’s not enough yet to be able to cook dinner and, during the day, the belt connecting the turbine to the generator is unhooked and reconnected to a mill so people can grind their maize into the flour used as the staple food.
But even this modest change is having a great impact on people’s lives – lights in the home extend the day both for social and productive purposes – there are studies for example that show children’s performance at school improves when they have light to study in the evenings. Lights and refrigeration in the health post can mean the difference between life and death in terms of managing a difficult night time birth or being able to immunise a child. And being able to grind your maize into flour quickly at a mill a few hundred metres away instead of having to carry it on your back into town can feel like a significant increase in your quality of life.
We have a long way to go to provide energy access for all in the developing world – there are still 1.5 billion people without access to any form of electricity. But projects like the one in Manica, with local people managing their own local energy supplies, so one way in which this goal can eventually be achieved.

Maize mill and generator run by micro hydro in Manica, Mozambique

For sustainability, involve the community.

Friday, March 25th, 2011 by

On the final part of my whistle-stop tour of Zimbabwe and all things Practical Action we headed up to Mutare, a beautifully scenic city on the Mozambique border.

We were here to visit Practical Action’s PEOPLE UP project which focuses on working with local communities to improve water and sanitation in urban areas. After another hot and bumpy three hour car journey we piled into the town clerk’s office to find out how the project was helping people in the area.

A number of benefits were evident and the project was a real testament to Practical Action’s ethos – people were really and truly driving their own development. The committees that Practical Action had helped to create were engaging with local organisations and the government, demanding the resources and services they were entitled to, to change their lives.

The success of the project is obvious when you look at the statistics. Firstly, Mutare is now the first city in the entire country to be successfully managing water and sanitation. Secondly, and most incredibly, in the most recent Cholera outbreak where 100,000 people in the country were infected and 4,500 people lost their lives to the disease, the city of Mutare only reported 2 cases. This clearly demonstrates how important the work of Practical Action is in this area and the huge impact it is having.

One thing that Manex Mauya, one of the ward councillors said really resonated with me, particularly in such a politically tumultuous country: “Practical Action has brought unity regardless of political affiliations. People have learnt to work together and have become masters of their own destiny”.

I couldn’t have put it better myself.

iPods save lives. Fact.

Thursday, March 24th, 2011 by

Today we visited Guruve in north-eastern Zimbabwe to see the work Practical Action is doing with podcasting in partnership with the Lower Guruve Development Association. After a quick introduction to the project we set off for a long hot drive down some seriously bumpy roads where we were welcomed by some of the beneficiaries of the project.

Having heard a lot about the project and after personally writing a number of articles on how it is benefiting people in Zimbabwe, it was fantastic to see the project in the flesh and see with my own eyes the tangible difference it is making to people’s lives.

First we listened to a podcasting ‘lesson’ on improving crop-growing techniques before visiting a chicken farmer who has used the podcasting lessons to grow his flock of chickens from 1 to 800 since the project started in 2009 – no mean feat I think you’ll agree!

Finally we visited an agro-processing plant where local committees had been formed to process sunflower seeds into oil and the groundnuts that had been grown into peanut butter – we even bought a few jars before we left!

It was a long, hot day and I left with a notepad bulging with stories and anecdotes from beneficiaries of the project which will be incredibly useful in my day-to-day work when I return to the UK. However, what left the most lasting impression was the pride that people had in what they were achieving. Seeing people so motivated and enthusiastic was not what I expected and made me feel very proud to be part of such a great organisation.

One thing’s for sure – I’ll never look at my iPod in the same way again…

A Really Motivating Education Show

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2011 by

Ok, so I got my picture taken with Mr Motivator, but actually that’s not what I am referring to. 

What motivated me at the show was all the teachers and educators I met who couldn’t wait to tell me how much they loved our teaching resources and could we please continue to produce more or the same.  Teachers like Sue Taylor, a science co-ordinator for Woodrush High School.  She told me that she had found about the squashed tomato challenge from an email we send her after she signed up at the show last year,  and that she was going to do it as an activity across the school with all the year 9s as part of a STEM day. 

Dharmesh Walji  a D & T teacher from couldn’t stop raving about the Sustainability Matters CD Pack  and how it has helped him teach the sustainability part of his course.  When I told him we were re-vamping the D & T are of the website to make it easier to use and adding more resources he practically jumped for joy!

Then there were two new teachers, who talked to me when they came to the show last year as students.  They told me they loved our stuff because it enabled them to help children understand that science can be used to help people in developing countries as well as here.

These are just a few examples of people who until they came to the show last year had not heard of Practical Action but are now actively integrating our material into their work in schools. With over 900 more teachers signing  up to our newsletter at the show this year we can be sure the message is spreading and our impact will continue to grow.

Now that’s motivating!!

A Woman’s Work

Tuesday, March 22nd, 2011 by

I’m in Zimbabwe for the very first time visiting some of Practical Action’s projects in the country, gathering interviews, pictures and videos as I go. Over the next week or so I’ll be sharing my experiences with you via this blog and the impacts that our projects are having on poor communities.

On our first field visit we travelled to Ntepe, Gwanda in southern Zimbabwe to visit Rhodes Moyo and his wife Gladys. Rhodes is a blacksmith who lives in a rural community who until recently was a farmer, that is until his livestock contracted blackleg, a fatal disease and sadly all died. Without an alternative income Rhodes couldn’t feed himself and his family and had to take his two eldest children out of school as he couldn’t afford the fees.

Practical Action arranged for Rhodes to receive training in Bulawayo a town around 200km away to become a blacksmith. With Practical Action’s help he now makes tools and donkey ploughs which he sells to local farmers in the community.

Although Rhodes has the skills, his wife Gladys is always busy in the background keeping the furnace alight, looking after the home and the children. My favourite part of this visit was right at the end when I asked whether I could see what their traditional rural Zimbabwean kitchen looked like. As I walked towards the door, Gladys ran ahead of me shouting and waving her arms in the air before promptly shutting the wooden door in my face. Panicked at the idea that I might have upset her I asked the giggling translator what was wrong. His response? “She hasn’t done the washing up and she said the kitchen’s a mess!” Brilliant. It just goes to show, it doesn’t matter where in the world you may be or how much money you have or haven’t got, if you ask a woman whether you can see her kitchen you will always get the same response!

A hand-up, not a hand-out

Monday, March 21st, 2011 by

I was in good company (approx. 12 million people in fact!) by spending my Friday night curled up at home watching BBC’s bi-annual charity telethon Comic Relief. For the most part, I was entertained by the host of comics and celebrities, moved by the footage of vulnerable families in the UK and Africa, and inspired by the efforts of Comic Relief-funded projects to transform lives for good.

However, I found one video extremely unsettling. This short film showed comedian Jack Dee handing out nutritional bars named “Plumpy’Nut” to malnourished children in Kenya. Now I realise that the children receiving this high-protein peanut paste bar were gravely underweight, and in need of urgent help ultimately to save their lives. And I do believe that R.U.T.F. (or ‘ready to use therapeutic foods’) have their place – in times of famine or disaster, for example. But as an example of how Comic Relief strives to “create a just world free from poverty”, I think it was flawed.

After a bit of research today I discovered that a French company named Nutriset manufactures “Plumpy’Nut” bars and protects its intellectual property fiercely. Apparently the inventor of the product envisaged people making it for themselves wherever they were in the world (developing nations grow the majority of the world’s peanuts) but Nutriset’s patent means that this is illegal – although obviously this doesn’t always stop local producers from making their own versions of “Plumpy’Nut”. Regardless of this, it seems that business is profiting from poverty. Maybe it’s naïve, but to me this seems profoundly unjust.

And furthermore, the eradication of malnutrition and weeding out its roots – poverty – is not as simple as distributing a one stop solution to hunger. The answer is far less flash and glamorous. We need to work together with poor people to ensure that they are not condemned to a life of reliance upon Western interventions. And we do that by empowering poor people around the world to challenge their own poverty. At Practical Action we believe that simple, practical solutions can help poor people escape their poverty forever, and we provide the tools and opportunity they need to drive their own development. Read about our work here.

This is the point that our recent spoof video ‘Fat of the Land’ was trying to make. In my opinion handing out “Plumpy’Nut” is no better than donating fat at the Klaxon Institute. Watch it here if you haven’t seen it yet and tell me, what do you think? I’d be interested to hear other thoughts on this. Because the only one echoing around my head is that to achieve fair, long-term and lasting development we should be giving people a hand-up, not a hand-out.

Tweeting celebs, marmalade and a motorbike?

Sunday, March 20th, 2011 by

Aunt Lucy’s Marvellous Marmalade Express is causing quite the stir on Twitter. With celebrity backers Stephen Fry, Matt Lucas and Richard Madeley already throwing their might behind the cause there’s no telling who might be next.

So what’s all the fuss about?

Imagine a motorbike. Then imagine a smaller one. Then cut it in half and stick a not terribly comfy sofa on the back. With three wheels, a throbbing heart of 125cc, steering that works faultlessly in straight lines, brakes that slow you in mph and enough room for your mum and her pet donkey.

This is the mighty steed that myself and Jonno Bourne will be using to travel from one end of Peru to the other in January 2012 as part of the Mototaxi Junket – risking life, limb and sanity across mountains, desert, jungle and all manner of mechanical and mental trials and tribulations. The distance is dependant very much on how lost we get but amounts to thousands of kilometres!

The team is named after Paddington Bear’s aunt, Lucy, who we are led to believe still resides somewhere in Peru, dangerously low on marmalade!

However, even more important than our preserve related motivations is the fact that we’re raising money for Practical Action to support all the amazing work they do in South America, as well as Africa and Asia.

For more information and to donate to the cause visit Aunt Lucy’s Hullabaloo through darkest Peru – team website

If you can spare some money for this great cause any amount would be hugely appreciated. If you’d also like to help spread the word by Tweeting about the adventure then please do and add to the over 2.5 million followers reached so far (@OllieLB if you’d like to find us there).

Japan earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown

Friday, March 18th, 2011 by

As I write – Japan earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown – it still feels unreal as if I am talking about a disaster movie rather than real life.
It’s scary. I suspect we each listen to the news with horror hoping it doesn’t get any worse, being thankful that our family and friends are safe and wishing there was something we could do.
This morning I was asked to comment on a blog criticising international development charities for launching appeals with headline messages that suggest they are to help the people of Japan. It was hard to know what to say, Japan is the third largest economy in the world, the Japanese government has requested that humanitarian agencies don’t seek to intervene in affected areas at this stage and yet still there is the personal response when we see such need, to do something.
We want to help.
At Practical Action we supported communities in Sri Lanka faced with the devastation of the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004, we publish books on disaster response, and we actively share our experience of helping communities prepare for and cope with disaster. Some of this may be relevant in Japan but most of it won’t – it’s for the people who know the communities, Japanese NGOs, local government and above all the people themselves to decide. Sometimes we just have to say that as much as we want to help we are not the right people.
Would that stop me donating to appeals for Japan – no. I believe in the value of showing solidarity and organisations such as the Japanese Red Cross are I am sure doing great work and already active making a difference.
At Practical Action we will continue doing what we are good at – helping millions of people in the developing world use technology as a tool to escape from poverty.

And hoping and personally, praying, that things will get better.

St Patricks Day in Nairobi!

Thursday, March 17th, 2011 by

Erin Go Bragh. Spending St Patrick’s day in Nairobi (my second favourite saint’s day of the year) was an experience. It was also a point of perspective on the visit to Kenya so far. There is a huge wealth gap between the rich (very rich) and the poor within Nairobi city and East Africa as a whole.

Over the course of the visit we have met with many donors, perspective partners and government bodies. What is very clear is that there needs to be a unified approach to tackling the issue of poverty across Kenya and East Africa. It is not just an issue for NGOs.

What does this really mean? I’m not really sure at this point that I know, or am intellectually capable of contextualising the enormity of the task. I have felt a warmth to the people of Kenya and feel that there are aspirations to develop the country rapidly in the coming years.

There are many things that I would wish for the people of Kenya and across Africa, but on the day of St Patrick. (within context, however due to the rain today and drop in temperature, the fires were lit today in Nairobi)

Wishing you always-
Walls for the wind
And a roof for the rain
And tea beside the fire-
Laughter to cheer you
And those you love near you-
And all that your heart might desire!

May you have warm words
on a cold evening,
A full moon on a dark night,
And the road downhill
all the way to your door.

Happy St Patricks Day!