Archive for June, 2011

The beating heart of technology justice

Thursday, June 30th, 2011 by

I have long been a Take That fan. As a child I loved the stickers of the band (my favourite was Robbie Williams) and would spend my precious pocket money on completing my collection. I was nine when the band separated, and I remember feeling that my whole world was falling apart.

 So on Tuesday night I – along with around 50,000 others in the West Midlands – was almost overcome with excitement as I made my way to Birmingham’s Aston Villa to watch Take That and their Progress tour.

It was an incredible concert. The atmosphere was electric and the energy of the performances was exhilarating. In the course of about two hours I experienced a myriad of human emotion: excitement, joy, euphoria. I was expecting to feel all this and my heart did not disappoint.

But the one feeling I did not anticipate was anger.

 The set for this concert was dominated by this immense sculpture of a human head and torso. In front of this sculpture there was a second slightly smaller sculpture, again of a human figure. As the concert progressed, this crouching figure slowly unfurled its limbs until at the climax of the concert this 100ft high mechanical man, complete with arms outstretched, Christ like, and a red beating heart, dominated the entire stadium and skyline.

the metal man at take that's progress tour

And it was at this point – despite previously feeling so much happiness – that I felt angry.

Although this sculpture was somehow strangely beautiful and moving, I couldn’t ignore the Practical Action voice in my head insisting that this mechanical man somehow represents one of the world’s greatest injustices: that the technological innovation used to create it was spent here, on such a spectacle, rather than on giving the 1.1 billion people in the world without clean water access to it. Or on finding a cure for the HIV epidemic in Africa.

 We live in a world which is technologically unjust. Technological development is focused on meeting the desires of rich consumers and little attention is paid to the vital needs of people in the developing world.  The most frustrating thing is that the technologies needed to feed the world, and ensure that everyone has access to basic services, largely already exist. But the distribution of these technologies, and the right to access them, must change.

Practical Action is dedicated to bringing about a revolution, with ‘technology justice’ as its rallying cry. We envisage a world where there is a balance between meeting the technological needs of poor people, and satiating the technological appetites of those with more. A world where all people, regardless of geography or wealth, can choose and use the technologies that will help them to live the life they value, without compromising the ability of others and future generations to do the same. A world which is technologically just – where the real beating hearts of real people across the world matter more than a red flashing light inside the chest of a metal man.

Hasta la vista, energy poverty!

Wednesday, June 29th, 2011 by

Now I’m not a regular blogger, but I bet Arnold Schwarzenegger hasn’t made it into many development blogs.  That may be about to change.  After Mr Universe, Terminator, and Governor, Arnie takes on his most exciting and demanding role to date…  Champion of Sustainable Energy.

Arnie welcomed Heads of state, Director-generals and CEOs representing countries and organisations from all over the world at the Vienna Energy Forum last week.  The VEF adopted the strapline ‘Energy for all – time for action’, and set about talks on how the world can increase the energy use for people in developing countries, and improve and reduce use for the industrialised world.

Energy is fundamental – the lives and livelihoods of people in developing countries are held back by poor energy use.  In the Poor People’s Energy Outlook you can read how development cannot happen whilst cooking on smoky fires and burning kerosene for light.  And at the same time, it is the poorest people, who contribute least to greenhouse emissions, that are most vulnerable to the changes we see in our climate.

The numbers of people without access to modern energy is staggering – but momentum for the energy access movement is building.   The UN are making 2012 the Year of Sustainable Energy, and VEF delegates discussed three new targets for the World to set its sights on.

  1. Universal Energy Access by 2030.
  2. Global electricity production from 30% renewable sources by 2030. 
  3. Global energy intensity reduced by 40% by 2030.

An agreed target of Universal Energy Access – all the people in the world using modern energy – would see a step change in efforts to reduce energy poverty.  But there is still no agreed definition about what ‘energy access’ actually means.  For some it is simply being connected to a grid and using a “modern” fuel.  But this definition is flawed – it ignores a wide range of energy uses people need to get out of the cycle of poverty.

Practical Action’s CEO Simon Trace and Policy Director Andrew Scott were panellists – championing a definition of energy access based on people’s energy needs in the home, for earning a living and using public services.  As the energy access movement continues to build steam, it’s more important than ever organisations like Practical Action continue to bring the poor people’s perspective to film-star events like the Vienna Energy Forum.

Whilst Arnie pleased the crowds saying “hasta la vista, baby to the oil companies”, the speech of the conference went to the driving force for energy access in the UN – Kandeh Yumkella.  Kandeh referred to his village in Sierra Leone when he said that access to energy is more than just meeting people’s basic needs for cooking, lighting or earning a living.  Access to energy is about gaining individual freedom.

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PISCES project – A red herring?

Wednesday, June 29th, 2011 by

A key project I am working on in my new role of Project Communications Assistant at Practical Action is the PISCES project, of which Practical Action Consulting UK, Sri Lanka and East Africa are all consortium members.

Naturally after my first few days at work, I had a chat with my Mum. It went something like this:

Mum: So, what are you doing at work?

Me: Well I am developing communications for the PISCES project

Mum: Oh, right. So is it to do with fish?

Me: No it isn’t actually; the acronym is a bit of a red herring (Sorry). It actually stands for ‘Policy Innovation Systems for Clean Energy Security’

Mum: Erm…OK. So what’s that then?

Me: The tagline is “New Knowledge for Sustainable Bioenergy.” Does that help?

Mum: Ah yes, that helps. Wait, no, on second thoughts, it doesn’t help me much.

And that reaction is understandable, because unless you work in Policy Innovation Systems for Clean Energy Security yourself, you might argue that this name isn’t exactly crystal clear.

So it’s become obvious to me that I need to do something very important: be able to describe PISCES to my Mum in a couple of sentences. This will obviously be a work in progress as I talk about the project more, but here’s a first stab at it- I’ll run it past my Mum and let you know what she thinks:

‘Through research in East Africa and South Asia, the PISCES project is developing new ideas on bioenergy (energy from biomass) that can influence national policies and ultimately improve energy access and livelihoods in poor communities. This is critical because bioenergy, in particular wood and charcoal, is relied upon by 2.5 billion of the world’s poorest women, children and men for their basic energy needs everyday.’

I would love to know what you think too, so please visit the website and let me know.

Getting girls motivated by STEM subjects…

Wednesday, June 29th, 2011 by

I’m just back from King Edwards VIth School in Birmingham, having given the certificates and prizes for Practical Action’s Small Is…Challenge. Heidi’s design for a water filtration backpack was selected to be the overall secondary Science winner for a new invention that would help us to lead a more sustainable life in the future.

The head of Chemistry Ms Oldfield was delighted that the school did so well in the challenge

“We chose to get involved with the challenge to encourage the girls with Science, Technology,Engineering and Maths (STEM) subjects. They have enjoyed researching the technologies from the past 100 years and enjoyed thinking creatively about technologies that could help us to lead a more sustainable future.”.

Well done to all involved!  To view the winning entries and others to go to

Award entrants for Small Is...Challenge

Small Is... Challenge award winning Heidi

The Good, The Bad and The Outrageous – the UN climate negotiations in Bonn

Monday, June 27th, 2011 by

Every time I talk about a session of the UN climate change negotiations to someone who wasn’t there, it occurs to me that I sound like I’m describing the plot of a film that’s part of an ongoing saga. The scene is set in stuffy, often windowless rooms packed with people (mostly middle-aged men) in suits, gabbling in different languages. Holed in there for two weeks, they will be taken on a rollercoaster journey with twists and turns in the plot that make everyone think the whole UN climate process will break down until, right at the end – the denouement – someone breaks the deadlock and everything goes through at the 11th hour. Everyone lives happily ever after. Well that’s the theory anyway.

So here it is, my analysis of the latest UN climate change talks in Bonn at the beginning of this month in a film plot analogy…

The Goodie

Despite last week’s disappointing vote in Parliament on increasing emissions reductions to 30% by 2020 (from 1990 levels) thanks to a veto by Poland, the good guy in this film has to go to the EU.

The group, which the UK negotiates as part of, founds it’s voice in the negotiations for the first time in a few years, breaking its usual line of “what they said” – they usually being the USA.

Not only did the EU stand up to some unrelentingly ridiculous positions from Saudi Arabia (see the next two points), they also made some good noises on efforts to secure money for the funds agreed in Cancun. A standing ovation please.

The EU accepts an award from members of the civil society group the ‘Climate Action Network’ for their positive work in the negotiations.

The Baddie

But for every good guy, there’s always a ‘baddie’, a nemesis who in this case, does their upmost to stall and block the negotiations. This film has Saudi Arabia.

Our friends from the oil rich state did everything they could to hold up the talks, including blocking agreement on the agenda (which ended up taking four of the precious 11 days of the meeting) and thus preventing the negotiations from even getting out of the starting blocks.

To make matters worse, Antigua and Barbuda joined Saudi Arabia in an unexpected alliance pushing hard for civil society groups like Practical Action to be banned from the negotiations. Unbelievably, Antigua and Barbuda said that this was because they once went to a meeting and it was really busy so they couldn’t get a seat…! A troubling turn of events we agree, but not a reason to call for the voices of experts, the vulnerable and those with most at stake in the negotiations to be prevented from being heard.

I know who my nominations for best baddie and their supporting act are!

The Outrageous

Saudi Arabia also gets the award for being the most stubborn and outrageous Party in Bonn. On one occasion Saudi Arabia argued late into the night that a mechanism called ‘response measures’ (compensation for the loss of oil revenues incurred if we move to a renewables-powered world) be discussed in the ‘loss and damage’ negotiations (where compensation for countries suffering from climate-change induced natural disasters takes place).

I don’t know about anyone else, but compensation for not buying oil is emphatically not the same thing as compensating those countries who suffer massive loss through floods, droughts etc. Holding proceedings up until 2am doesn’t get the discussions anywhere, and tired negotiators are less likely to compromise. As my mother always says “if you’ve got nothing nice [/useful] to say, don’t say anything”. Saudi Arabia would do well to listen to my mum.

The Action

No film is complete without some action scenes, and the UN has it’s own brand of action adventures kindly provided by civil society.

Groups often band together to do actions at negotiations – they are a great way to convey a message to the negotiators and let of a bit of steam with some fun too. Bonn saw a visit by Robin Hood and his merry men (and women) to call for a tax on financial transfers that would help fund adaptation projects. There was also a group of young people calling on the EU to increase emissions targets to 30%, thus creating 6million new jobs, and a last-minute call was made by Lady Justice to make sure the voices of local communities are given equal weighting in discussions around the clean development mechanism. What can I say – this film has it all!

Top: Young people queue with their CVs to ask for a green job as part of the Push Europe campaign.

Middle Left: Lady Justice tells negotiators to safeguard local communities

Right: Robin Hood pays a visit to the UNFCCC

Bottom Left: Ellie Hopkins of Practical Action joins the Robin Hood Tax Campaign action.


Keeping the plot moving in the right direction.

But don’t worry, this plot doesn’t all head in the wrong direction. After all, the plot has to keep heading in the direction of a positive ending.

Talks around efforts to enable countries and communities adapt to climate change took a significant step forward with a proposal being tabled for an adaptation committee which would lead the charge on this topic.

There’s still a long way to go on adaptation, not least finding the funding to pay for it all, but the formation of a strong committee would make the chances of significant, effective adaptation a great deal more likely.

The Next Meeting

The final ingredient in any saga; the cliff hanger.

There was some serious debates had about where the next meeting should be and, possibly more importantly, who was going to pay for it (each intercessional meeting costs between $6-10 million). The EU pays for at least two meetings a year which are held in Bonn, but there is usually a fourth meeting held somewhere else just before the COP to finalise agendas and share notes in the run-up to the year’s main event. Last year the meeting was in Tianjin, China, and there were rumours of the this year’s fourth meeting being all over the place, from Bangkok to Panama.

Where the negotiations will take us next – no-one knows!


Energising MPs

Thursday, June 23rd, 2011 by

Practical Action is all about getting things done, so chatting with politicians is not something you might expect us to be doing. However, to enable us to get more done in the future, it is worth making sure there is political support for the type of work we do.

To this end, I recently accompanied Ernest Mupunga, Director of our Southern Africa Office in Zimbabwe, to Portcullis House in London where he met with four UK MPs to talk to them about energy access in sub Saharan Africa. He spoke to Joan Walley, Ian Davidson, Pauline Latham and Jeremy Lefroy – MPs with a particular interest in sustainability, poverty and Africa.

Ernest explained that energy access is essential to improving health, education and economic opportunities.  He described how Practical Action involves communities in the implementation and maintenance of technology that provides them with sustainable local power supplies. He told stories of the transformational effect that energy can have on a poor community.  He also described the severity of energy poverty in Africa, where more than 70% of people live without electricity.

Joan Walley MP

Ernest Mupunga with Joan Walley MP

It was clear from our conversations that, even amongst these international-development-savvy MPs, energy access is not a well understood issue. However, after hearing what Ernest had to say the MPs were very supportive. This is a good sign and the more politicians that understand the importance of energy access, the more support we will get.

Pauline Latham MP

Ernest Mupunga with Pauline Latham MP

These meetings were just a first step in raising awareness of the problem and the solutions in the UK parliament. Elsewhere, we have made more progress. The goal of energy for all by 2030 is one we share with the UN and, with your help, we are encouraging the EU to commit to it.

Practical Action has been working with hundreds of poor communities to improve their access to energy for decades. We have the technology. If we can get political will on our side, it is possible to end energy poverty.

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From energy generating shoes…

Thursday, June 23rd, 2011 by

to water saving showers, we’ve had lots of fabulous designs submitted from students who’ve entered our Small Is…Challenge. The final winning designs, along with others that were shortlisted from primary and secondary schools throughout the UK  can be seen on our site.

Winning secondary design

Sensor shower - saving water and energy

The design challenge was launched to celebrate the centenary year of Practical Action’s founder Fritz Schumacher.

Guest Blog: “Not complicated. Just brilliant.”

Wednesday, June 22nd, 2011 by

Last week the UN climate change negotiations in Bonn took another step towards building a strong and effective mechanism to enable people to adapt to climate change.

Today marks a day of global action by the Robin Hood Tax Campaign, an alliance which describes itself with the phrase “Not complicated. Just brilliant.“, and which Practical Action is a proud member of.

Luckily one of Robin’s band took the time out to explain how the campaign can finance these adaptation developments.


There are new and innovative sources of climate finance which remain untapped, one of which is a Robin Hood Tax, or Financial Transaction Tax (FTT).

A Financial Transaction Tax is a tiny tax of about 0.05% on transactions like the sale of stocks, bonds, foreign currency and derivatives which could generate a whopping $400bn globally each year.

The taxes are well-tested, cheap to implement and hard to avoid, and because they are targeted at casino banking operations, they can easily be designed in a way that protects the investments of ordinary people and businesses. They could also help reduce the volume of risky transactions which helped to trigger the financial crisis.

Most importantly, the money raised from a Robin Hood Tax could help those most vulnerable to economic and environmental shocks (hence the ‘Robin Hood’; the tax takes from the ‘rich’ and gives to the ‘poor’). We suggest that half of the money raised ($200bn) be used to fight domestic poverty, with 25% going towards fighting poverty in developing countries ($100bn) and the other 25% ($100bn) towards tackling climate change at home and abroad.

Photo: Ellie Hopkins takes part in a Robin Hood Tax Campaign action on behalf of Practical Action at the UN climate change negotiations last week in Bonn, Germany. Credit: Kyle Gracey

It has been recognised at the UN that at least $100bn will be needed annually by 2020 to help developing countries adapt to a changing climate, and to develop in a low carbon way. When governments come together in November this year at the next UN Climate Summit in Durban, they will be discussing how to set up a Green Climate Fund to provide the money needed to help tackle the effects of climate change.

However, at the moment the fund risks being just an empty shell.

To fill the fund – without simply raiding the overseas aid budget – a Robin Hood Tax is vital. A Robin Hood Tax won’t be able to provide everything – but it can provide a serious chunk of what is missing. This is our generation’s battle. The Robin Hood Tax could raise billions every year to fight climate change, help people adapt to the changing climate and develop green economies.

A few years ago even the suggestion of such a tax on the financial sector would have been unimaginable. The world is now a very different place and significant progress has been made with governments across the world getting behind this good idea.

As a priority of their G20 presidency, the French government has called for a coalition of willing nations to implement a Financial Transaction Tax.  The German government also supports a Robin Hood Tax, as do the Spanish and a number of other European nations which are pressing ahead to implement it at the Eurozone level. It is likely that the EU could move ahead with a tax on the financial sector with other willing countries joining in at the G20 summit in November.

But big risks remain: there might be no agreement or else a tax that directs nothing to development or climate change.

Successfully securing a Robin Hood Tax will need even more active campaigning across the world in the next six months to keep the pressure up. You can help by joining Robin’s band of merry men (and women!) spreading the word among family and friends, sharing our videos, joining our Facebook group to find out about the latest campaigns and actions, and by sending an email to your MP telling them why you think a Robin Hood Tax is important.

One of Robin's Merry Women helping decision makers to fill the Green Climate Fund with FTT revenues. Credit: Ellie Hopkins

The political door is ajar; this is a campaign waiting to be won.

Should climate change remain in the school curriculum?

Thursday, June 16th, 2011 by

Absolutely. Like many other educators I was quite shocked to read that Tim Oates, a government advisor reviewing the  national curriculum,  is suggesting climate change is dropped  in the new curriculum.

Climate change will affect all of us, including those in the developing world.   Students should be made aware that people in developing countries are currently hardest hit by climate change and of it impacts on global poverty, by making floods in Bangladesh even worse for example. In addition they also need to be aware of how it could affect them directly if we do not act soon.  Practical Action recently produced a tube map to show which areas would be underwater by 2100.  Images like this help students understand the effect climate change could have on their future lives, and the lives of their children as well as those in their global community.

It is vital that our future scientists and engineers have an understanding of how climate change will affect all of our lives. Chris Hume, the energy secretary recently stated the need for green skills in our future economy, and understanding the link between sustainability and climate change is vital for this. Teaching children about climate change shows them how science relates to the real world and about connections between subjects. Linking scientific concepts to topical, global issues also makes science more interesting for students. In our response to the national curriculum we stated how important it was that students learn about the nature of science, how scientific knowledge is constantly evolving and the importance of discourse. The ‘story’ of climate change is a really interesting demonstration of that, which helps get students engaged and interested in science. 

In addition to nuturing new scientists and engineers is is also important that  our science education develops a scientifically literate population.  An understanding of climate change is going to be vital to this.  The next generation need to understand what climate change is and what we can do to meet the challenges it poses.

If you feel as strongly as I do that climate change should stay in the curriculum please go to   and sign the email petition.

Adaptation – an admission of defeat?

Saturday, June 11th, 2011 by

For many people I know adaptation in a climate change context is a much-avoided issue. This may sound a strange concept, but to some, the acceptance that anyone should be working on adaptation projects or pushing for adaptation to be included in climate negotiations is an admission of defeat. It signals to the outside world (and worse, to ourselves) that climate change is affecting people, and therefore our efforts to mitigate those effects have fallen short.

Up until I joined Practical Action recently, I was one of these ‘adaptation avoiders’.

It wasn’t that I was against adaptation – not at all. It was that I succumbed to a contradiction that much of the NGO world perpetuates on a daily basis. We continually push the idea that climate change is happening now, that it is no longer something that will be faced by conceptual ‘future generations’ but something that people around the world today must face head-on. At the same time, however, many refuse to talk about adaptation as part of their campaigns or work because it means facing up to this fact for ourselves and that is a scary thing to do.

Adapation, from what I can see, means to many an urgent scrabble to help people cope with extreme events that happen to them.

But over the past few weeks, I’ve come to see that adaptation doesn’t have to mean sticking a plaster over new wounds caused by climate change. Actually, adaptation can mean several things – often all combined – including

–       Being an opportunity to create and implement projects that allow people to overcome the climatic changes that have already occurred,

–       Enabling people to continue on a path of development in a way that is sustainable in the long term,

–       Making people more resilient to the continuing, and worsening, effect of climate change.

Take, for example, Practical Action’s work with floating gardens. In countries like Bangladesh, regular flooding leaves land either inaccessible or of poor quality, making agriculture very difficult. Floating gardens allow people to continue to grow food even when the floods are at their highest, helping to keep a family fed as well as providing a source of income through the sale of surplus produce.

Similarly in Sri Lanka, Practical Action has been working with farmers to raise the profile and use of indigenous varieties of rice which require less fertiliser, are highly nutritious and are resistant to even severe droughts. By being able to grow this rice, farmers are able to provide food for their families, as well as selling extra to boost the local economy and provide them with extra income which can further expand agricultural production, pay for education or be used for other measures that increase the family’s resilience against climate change.

These are solutions that won’t just overcome the short-term challenges people face, they are solutions that begin the journey along the lengthy road out of poverty.

This revelation may not be new to some, but as I return to the UN I’m struck once again by the focus most people place on capping emissions in order to prevent (or mitigate in the local jargon) climate change from happening. I can see, as I talk at length about the work that Practical Action does, the same realisation that I experienced a few weeks ago dawning across the faces of those I am talking to. They too can see that adaptation doesn’t always mean fire-fighting in a losing battle. It brings into play a new means of development that is truly ‘sustainable’, taking into account not only the challenges that climate change poses now but also that it will pose in the future.