Archive for November, 2011

Technology justice ?

Wednesday, November 30th, 2011 by

Yesterday I spoke with a guy for whom technology and poverty reduction just didn’t compute ‘what’s the link” he asked me ‘poor people need food, clean water, education and jobs”. To me the relationship between technology and each of these needs is clear. For example you need access to decent agricultural tools to farm your land well. The difference if you focus on technology is sustainability.

You can give emergency food aid, you can even provide food aid for 20 or more years, the problem is that it doesnt end poverty rather it builds dependancy. It doesn’t set people free.

Technology gives people the tools they need to make a real difference in their own lives- from ploughs that increase agricultural production to water pumps that free up kids so they can now go to school rather than spending hours collecting water, etc. A long time ago Practical Action, or ITDG as we were then called, used to have a saying ‘ a hand up not a hand out”. in many ways that sums up what we are about.

Agro-ecology, a climate solace

Wednesday, November 30th, 2011 by

EF Schumacher said that one can “call a thing immoral or ugly, soul-destroying or a degradation of man, a peril to the peace of the world or to the well-being of future generations; as long as you have not shown it to be uneconomic you have not really questioned its right to exist, grow, and prosper”. Certain powerful countries at the climate change conference have clearly read this straight and not sensed the irony, taking it as carte blanche to let the ugly face of climate change continue because its immediate costs will be hidden amongst the most vulnerable groups in Africa and Southern Asia.

This is all very depressing. What is not, however, is hearing about the solutions already being put into practice on the ground in many countries. Ecological food provision is featuring quite high in discussions around and outside the convention centre, primarily because farmers, fishers, and herders have found it to be a successful approach for dealing with climate change and meeting food needs. Unlike the industrial food system that contributes up to thirty percent of global emissions through chemical inputs, international transport, and use of heavy machinery, and deforestation for cash cropping, agro-ecology has very low emissions and can store GHGs in plant and soil matter. At the same time, it is also more resilient to the impacts of climate change, protecting biodiversity, replenishing the natural environment, and promoting local seeds, rather than creating dependence on one or two costly varieties.

In a side event yesterday, people from South Africa, Ethiopia, Kenya and Nepal spoke of the specific techniques. Many were building on the traditional knowledge and varieties nearly lost in the race to commercialised farming. As Mphathe Makaulule, a farmer from the South Africa’s Limpopo region said “the coming generation will realise that money cannot be breathed or chewed”. Her community pooled its knowledge of the surrounding resources in calendars and maps that express the changes they’ve experienced over the past decades. Today was Practical Action’s turn, and our work with farmers in Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe was introduced alongside some of our renewable energy projects by Ranga Pallawala and Lasten Mika respectively.

These initiatives may sound a long way from the staid international climate negotiations, and that’s precisely why La Via Campesina is calling on all farmers’ movements and organizations, rural workers, landless people to join them for an international day of mass action this Saturday. In Nepal, they’ve already managed to connect existing community actions with the international discussions as the national plan for adaptation was produced in connection with local plans. As Nepal receives global support to help it adapt to climate change, it goes to fund actions such as the conservation of Lake Rupa by farmer associations and fisher groups (see video).

So, it seems that “to exist, grow, and prosper” you don’t have to degrade or threaten future of generations, you just have to step out of the conference impasse and follow the fields.

Earning from Nature to Pay for its Upkeep from Mahesh Shrestha on Vimeo.

A man’s world: ending violence against women in Bangladesh

Tuesday, November 29th, 2011 by

I’m a 24 year old woman. I was born in Switzerland, but have spent the rest of my life here in the UK. I don’t have children. I’m not married. And I feel no social or cultural pressure to undertake these things. The geography of my birth means that the choices I make with my life are my own. Not those of my family, or community, or anyone else. I feel safe.

Aroti lives in Bangladesh and is also 24. At the age of 17 she embarked on a marriage which is already over because of the horrendous physical abuse she suffered at the hands of her husband. Now Aroti makes her home with her parents again. And as a single, pregnant woman, she was ostracized by her community.

Practical Action works closely with some of the world’s poorest people, helping them to use simple technology to fight poverty and injustice, building a better, more beautiful world. We have been in Bangladesh’s Magura district since 2007, helping the most marginalised of people – like Aroti – to learn new skills and use new tools to enable them to earn proper livings.

Aroti was already a talented dressmaker when we met her so we helped her to buy a sewing machine. This tool meant Aroti was able to sew her way to a better life. She developed relationships with local shops and established a strong foothold in the local market. We trained Aroti on business skills such as accountancy and marketing. Now her business is more successful than ever, with her monthly income as much as £32. She is happier and safer now than she has ever been. Her economic empowerment means that for the first time she has control over her own body and her own life.

Of course Aroti is just one person. According to the UN, 47% of Bangladesh’s women endure domestic violence, rape and even murder due to the dominance of the patriarchal systems. There are so many more women who need the skills and tools to make independent livings so they are not compelled to remain in dangerous relationships. But it doesn’t just stop there. We need to advocate at the very highest levels – until the world is a place where violence from women is socially unacceptable. Where rape of a woman by her husband is illegal everywhere. A world where it’s as safe to be a woman as it is to be a man.

“It always seems impossible until it’s done”

Tuesday, November 29th, 2011 by

This climate change COP in Durban really offers almost the last chance for saving the planet from dangerous climate change. Yet no-one expects a strong agreement to be made here. However, if not even the mandate for working towards a strong legally binding agreement to cut emissions is agreed, as well as the continuation of the Kyoto Protocol – the only international agreement to cut emissions – then there will be unfolding disaster in the coming decades for millions, possibly billions, of people, expecially among the poorest people.

Night of the opening day at COP17, Durban

After a long morning of opening statements, many with good intentions, many full of platitudes, the UNFCCC Executive Secretary Chritiana Figueres quoted Mandela – ‘It always seems impossible until it’s done,’ seeking to bring energy and determination to this flagging negotiation process. (This statement was already the winner in Climate Action International’s slogan competition. We now have key members of the Secretariat wearing lanyards with the slogan!)

I felt pretty miserable to be here yesterday – knowing the odds are against moving forward in the way that science and justice demands, but decided I would go to the opening Reception in Durban City Hall, if only to meet again some of my climate change friends from around the world. I was glad I did – the music and dancing cheered me up, and towards the end, the compere demanded the presence on stage of both the Executive Secretary and the COP president! They really enjoyed being forced to join the dancing – as you can see.

Maybe the optimism of the music really can engender a positive attitude in the negotiations?

Pesticides in the dock

Friday, November 25th, 2011 by

Continuing on the theme of my previous two blogs about the interlinkages between water, food and energy security, one of the recurring themes at the Bonn conference last week was the impact of modern farming practices on the environment, most notably the seepage of nitrogen from fertiliser and residues from pesticides into ground water and rivers around the world. As many have argued, industrial systems of food production, relying on heavy applications of agro chemicals and an increasingly narrow range of seed varieties are unsustainable, polluting, and slowly reducing the  genetic diversity of the crops we desperately need if we are going to develop a form of agriculture resilient to climate change. More support for an alternative agro ecological approach to food production is not just good for small farmers in sub Saharan Africa, as I have argued before in this blog, but also for production and the environment in the rest of the world too.

The overuse or misuse of agro chemicals is not just of danger to the environment of course. It’s also a hazard to health. This week I was sent a link to an interesting experiment about to take place in India. The Pesticide Action Network (PAN International), a global network of more than 600 organisations in 90 countries has been working on the hazards of chemical pesticides since 1982. In December it is planning to bring together witnesses and experts from around the world in Bangalore, India to convene a ‘global tribunal’ seeking justice for victims of the pesticide industry. From December 3rd – 6th 2011, a ‘People’s Tribunal’ will convene to hear 25 cases bought by “farmworkers, mothers, young people, scientists and consumers..” against six transnational pesticide producing companies, the IMF, the World Bank, the WTO and the US, Swiss and German Governments (where the 6 companies are domiciled). If you want to find out more about this please follow the link: “people’s trial” against the Big 6 pesticide corporations .

The 3 securities we need to worry about (part 2)

Wednesday, November 23rd, 2011 by

The Bonn conference on the ‘nexus’ between food, energy and water security closed last Friday. Following on from my last blog post on this, some thoughts on the relevance to Practical Action’s work.

The relevance of Practical Action’s work to future international development policy

Listening to the various sessions of this conference brought home to me the relevance of Practical Action’s work to these debates and to the trends being set out in the new EC development policy. Our work on energy access, agriculture and food, and urban water, sanitation and waste map directly onto the three securities being discussed here and two (energy and agriculture and food) map directly onto the main priorities of the EC’s ‘agenda for change’. With the UN Secretary General’s backing, energy is likely to be a key topic at the Rio+ 20 summit and so a major component of development debates and policies in the coming years. Climate change and the growing realisation about the inter-linkages between energy, water and food mean these two subjects are also likely to be increasingly at the centre of international development policies and priorities.

I like to think perhaps the world is in fact catching up with us. We should all be proud of the part we have played, however small, in the growing realisation globally that a sustainable future for all cannot be achieved without (a) addressing natural resource use by everyone on the planet and (b) doing this at the same time as addressing global poverty.

 Speaking with a stronger voice

 But just because there is more interest amongst governments and the main development agencies in our areas of expertise doesn’t mean that our job is done. Although many of the right noises are being made about the need to address poverty, to support small holder farmers and to provide access to energy services for all, there is still plenty of room for disagreement over ‘how’.

The message underlying the new EC agenda for change and many of the presentations at this Bonn conference was that these problems will be addressed through growth and a trickle down of benefits to the poor, an approach we and many others believe simply does not work . There were still at least three models of agriculture being discussed at the conference, only one of which really looks at the role of food production as a livelihood for millions of poor people and as an expression of culture. And the conference was full of technical fixes to technical problems but notably quiet on the human aspects of development and the need for poor people’s voices to be heard and their interests to be better represented in some of these debates.

There is still plenty of room for a voice that talks about technology justice and wellbeing in these discussions. And there is plenty of room for Practical Action to work with other like-minded organisations, to use the momentum and potential that is coming from increased international attention on the links between food, water, energy and poverty, to push for real and substantial change that actually benefits the poor.

And, of course, there is still plenty of real work for us to do on the ground in developing countries to turn policy rhetoric into something real.


Design and Technology Show 2011

Tuesday, November 22nd, 2011 by


Participatory planning is more than a planning tool!

Monday, November 21st, 2011 by

Please take a look at our new Technical Brief on participatory planning with slum dwellers.

Our recent experience in Kenya suggests that participatory planing has a potential to overcome social and econmic injustice if it creates a local ownership. It plans a development which is people-centered.

What is special about 19th November?

Saturday, November 19th, 2011 by

This was at the back of my mind, as I came out of the toilet.

This may be another ‘World Toilet Day’ for more than 2.5 billion waiting to receive access to improved sanitation.

Sanitation is a challenge in urban slums

2008 was declared as the International Year of Sanitation as more than 2.5 billion people lack safe sanitation and each year millions of children die from diarrhoeal diseases and cholera.

Sanitation was declared a major challenge in international development. Sanitation is not just about physical infrastructure or technologies, as attitudes and behaviours play a major role in sanitation choice and use.

Initially, toilet were considered a simple human need which does not need rocket science as far as technology is concerned.

Later, many NGOs and international agencies found that sanitation is not about constructing toilets and its impact on health is not about its use only. It needs a change in behaviour and habits and requires hygiene education.

Children and women are worst affected by poor sanitation. Young girls stop going to school because of the lack of toilet facilities needed during their menstrual cycle and children are scared of using toilets designed for adults. Even in technology, the cost of construction, affordability and standards are some of the major challenges which require social research. To achieve positive health impacts, the entire community needs to have toilets and people must use them regularly. This means working at the village and neighbourhood levels, not just with the households.

For our colleagues in Kenya, this day is more exciting than many of us, as they are preparing to start a new programme on urban sanitation in Nakuru, based on the principles of Community-Led Total Sanitation.

In the early 1990s, some NGOs in Bangladesh and India worked on an approach called the Community-Led Total Sanitation approach (CLTS, 2008). The CLTS methods were developed to talk openly about ‘shit’ and create a feeling of disgust and shame among groups, such as villagers. The roots of CLTS are found in participatory approaches (Chambers, 2008) already tested and successful.

The CLTS acted as a trigger and the whole village took the responsibility of constructing toilets and declaring the village as Open Defecation Free (ODF). This was a major social breakthrough to solve a problem which had previously been considered as a health and engineering problem. The outcome of total sanitation was achieved through the understanding and facilitation of social processes only. The next challenge is to enable social scientists and engineers to work together, to integrate the software and hardware of the CLTS approach to move up to the next rung in the ladder. Kamal Kar, is one of the main drivers in spreading the CLTS movement and a recent book by Lyla Mehta, ‘Shit Matters’ published by Practical Action Publishing, captures deeper research questions.

I feel CLTS has a potential to change the game in sanitation and to reach a stage when we do not remember 19th November, as another day of hopelessness.

Local voices heard in Zimbabwe

Friday, November 18th, 2011 by


At a second community near Gwanda the loudspeakers, carefully placed on a wheelbarrow delivered messages about the local governance of the recently installed water pump.  The language was Sotho, so my Shona speaking colleague was unable to translate for me.
However, it was clear that the borehole and pump were transforming the livelihoods of the community.  There was a very genuine desire to learn. The knowledge sharing in local voices was clearly owned by the community extensionist, an elected member of the community.
Going beyond technology the digital extension service is building a community driven process of change.