Archive for March, 2012

Getting back on the bike

Saturday, March 24th, 2012 by

It started innocently enough, with an email from my friend Ned

You know we once mentioned getting out on the bikes. How abut this…. I’ve signed up and then stopped to think that company might be a good ideal…

I had a look at the website, checked the date on the calendar and saw that it was free.

Now, I’ve been a keen cyclist for many years. I used to commute to work on my bike regularly, as well as longer excursions out into the countryside. I live in Yorkshire after all, so there’s plenty of countryside to see! Except, what with one thing and another, it’s been quite a while since I got on a bike for anything more than a quick spin around the park with the kids.

However, it wasn’t the distance which was putting me off. 100km is a long way, true enough. But nothing which I hadn’t done before (albeit many years ago). The thing which scared me the most was the fundraising.

Different charities wanted different minimum amounts. Practical Action, Ned’s charity of choice, were looking for £250. I’ve done various events for charity before, and it’s always been the old “please will you sponsor me? Here’s my sponsor form” approach. Family & friends would hand over a couple of quid, and I’d end up raising between £50 and £100.

So, £250 was a lot of money.

I dropped Practical Action an email expressing interest, but also my concern at the amount I’d need to raise. They were lovely, and provided the reassurance I was looking for, along with a number of great fundraising ideas.

I took a deep breath, and signed up.

Fundraising started by setting up a page on Virgin Money Giving. Easy enough, took ten minutes to do. I fired off an email to my immediate work colleagues, asking if they’d sponsor me. Luckily the first couple of people were very generous, setting a healthy level for sponsors.

I also asked my employer if they’d be willing to sponsor me, which they were more than happy to do. What’s more, they said they’d match whatever funds I managed to raise! Brilliant. Now all I needed was £125 and I’d hit my target.

I started posting up messages on my Facebook wall, aimed at friends & family. Followed up with posts on Twitter (I’m a keen Twitter user!) and the donations kept coming in.

I’ve been amazed at the response. Partly I think it’s down to it being a really unusual event – not just the usual ‘doing a run for charity’, but a quite long bike ride around London, at night. People are curious about the event and want to find out more. Coupled with the brilliant Practical Action as my charity, who are doing excellent things around the world, and I’ve had no problem hitting my target. In fact it’s gone so well, I’ve had to raise my target twice!

So. In short, if you’re interested, check out the Nightrider event and especially Practical Action.

There are still some places available…!

And if you would like to sponsor me, here’s my fundraising page. Let’s see if we can raise that target again!

Joy in People

Friday, March 23rd, 2012 by

One of the greatest joys of working in fundraising is meeting lots of amazing people who want to do  something to change the world – whether that’s donating loose change, or running 10km and asking for sponsorship, or organising a cake sale, or setting up a charitable trust to give away larger sums of money, or climbing mountains , as some of our student supporters are doing.

Last night I was very honoured to be a guest speaker at a women only fundraising dinner in Yorkshire which was both celebrating women, and raising money for Practical Action’s work in Sudan. The room was full of over 200 women, all intelligent, funny, charming, wonderful people. Last night alone raised in excess of £7,000! And it’s all going towards a food project in rural Kassala which is helping nearly 100,000 people – some of the poorest on the planet – to make a better living from farming by giving them the tools, knowledge and skills they need to move to a life beyond poverty .  The generosity in that room was tangible. And it’s amazing to experience it. All too often it seems we’re living in the worst of times – great economic austerity, a seemingly endless war against terrorism, a government that cuts benefits from the most vulnerable while simultaneously allowing the rich to prosper. It can easy to be cynical, unmotivated, to think the worst and do absolutely nothing about it.

But the dinner last night was a perfect reminder that people are, for the most part, pretty wonderful. Tell a room of women that there are 4.2 million people in Sudan starving, and they will dig deep and donate, in the hope of making tomorrow brighter than today.

Today is also Sport Relief – and I know that millions of people up and down the country will be compelled to do something about the injustice of global poverty – whether that’s texting a donation while watching tonight’s TV show, or running the Sport Relief mile on Sunday.

Gandhi once said “be the change you wish to see in the world.” Thank God there are so many wonderful people who live their lives true to that mantra. Today my heart is full of joy because of them – thank you.  Happy Friday everyone!

Challenges of urban sanitation

Friday, March 23rd, 2012 by

Practical Action has launched a project to improve sanitation situation in the slum areas of Ronda and Kiptembwo in Nakuru, Kenya, which will benefit 190,000 women and men.

Both the slums have very poor status of sanitation, with no toilets available and where they are available, they are used by at least 50 people.

Both the slums have areas where open defecation is common. This creates serious health risks. The project will be pioneering the approach of Community-Led Total Sanitation (CLTS), in an urban context.

Practical Action will be working with Umande Trust on this project and supported by the Municipal Council of Nakuru. The project will use participatory approaches through community health workers to enable tenants and landlords to improve their sanitation system.

This process of demand creation will then be supported by introducing affordable technologies and financial systems. A commercial bank has already shown interest to support the project through soft loans. Currently the project is carrying out baseline surveys and developing monitoring indicators. The project is well supported by the local water company, the Ministry of Health and other NGOs working in Nakuru.

Walking for water made its mark

Thursday, March 22nd, 2012 by

I’ve never entertained the idea of getting a tattoo…until last year, at the age of 33, when I went to Mandera in north east Kenya during the height of the drought.

What I saw there shocked me.

People walking an average of 20 miles a day in 40°C just to go and fetch water. And this journey is one fraught with danger. Water is in such short supply that violence regularly breaks out at the few remaining wells – with many innocent women and children wounded or killed.

Most of the time, the water they get isn’t even clean. It’s water like this from a polluted, dirty, hand-dug well that’s infested with all kinds of visible things…worms, tadpoles, bugs:

Unsafe water like this kills 4,000 children every day…and it will continue. With climate change, the incidence of drought is increasing. People will continue to take desperate measures to get water – any water.

Practical Action is reducing the trek that people have to make to fetch water by rehabilitating shallow wells dug into seasonal river beds and building sand filters to purify the water further.


I spoke to Nadifa at one of the rehabilitated shallow wells who said she now only has to walk two kilometres to fetch water and feels much safer.

“The well helps my family so much. The water is good because it is fresh. I can drink it and use it for my cooking”.


This month, the UN announced that the international target to halve the number of people who do not have access to safe drinking water has been met, five years before the 2015 deadline.

Yet 783 million people still live without safe water.

Today, Thursday 22 March, is World Water Day – a day of the year when we spotlight the global safe water and sanitation issue and the collective efforts underway to get solutions to those struggling and in need.

The issue has made a permanent impression on me. So, here it is:

It’s my own way of honouring a cause that is close to my heart. Any nervousness or reasons to not get it done are easily overcome by the reminder that at the end of the day, I have clean water to drink.

What has made a permanent impression on you?

Blue Nile, Sudan and Practical Action

Wednesday, March 21st, 2012 by

The Famine Early Warning Systems Network estimates that 4.2 million people mainly in the Blue Nile and South Kordofan regions of Sudan are ‘likely to be in the stressed, crisis or emergency phase of food insecurity during the first quarter of 2012’.

I visited the Blue Nile in 2009. At that stage people were hopeful that peace would come. The war between what is now Sudan and South Sudan was seemingly coming to a close and people were hopeful about the future. Don’t get me wrong there were still huge problems but people were looking forward. Some people I spoke with had been displaced by the war but had now returned to their villages.

Tagura Amir told me ‘this is my home, we have settled in this village for 22 years. We were displaced by war but now we have come back, I have been working with Practical Action and learning how to cultivate. I have passed my learning on to 50 other women so they now too know how to grow more and better crops. They like my help’.

It’s hard to contrast this optimism with the conflict and food insecurity that threatens people now.

Colleagues in Sudan tell me that large numbers of people are once again displaced into the newly created Southern Sudan, to Ethiopia and into the more urban areas of Sudan. Our office in Damazien (capital of the Blue Nile) continues to operate with staff travelling to project sites and working in those areas where they can get access – in other parts no NGOs are allowed. We are continuing as much of our work as possible – these are communities we know and support.

Many donors are reducing their funding for Sudan moving instead monies into funding the newly formed South Sudan. Inflation is high reported officially at 20% but some unofficial reports giving rates of up to 50%. There is a shortage of imported goods like medicine.

The situation is bad. But I won’t give up hope. I remember people I met battling to have hope and although now the situation looks dire – now is the time for us to work harder to help those people we can help to build and make resilient their ways of making a living, and to work together for a long term solution.

I understand that the situation is complex. If hard it takes people to work yet harder. The people I met and the others who live there should not be abandoned, there must be a way to build peace – in the meantime we will continue doing what we do best taking practical actions.

George Clooney, Harrison Ford, Lenny Henry and me

Wednesday, March 21st, 2012 by

On Monday I was at a session looking at how we build awareness in the UK of the importance of international development. The background to this was a YouGov poll reported in The Sunday Times which showed that 66% of people questioned thought that Britain spent too much on foreign aid.
Obviously as development NGOs we have a different view – knowing for example that as a result on vaccines paid for by the UK government 1.4 million children who would have died haven’t, that’s over a million mothers who haven’t suffered the pain of the loss of a child, families who haven’t had to go without food to trying desperately to get medical help ….
I would sometimes critique how aid is applied but not that it’s necessary.
Which brings me back to George Clooney. As an add on to the session Comic Relief had turned up to talk about working with celebrities and how they can be effective if they truly have affinity with your cause (and how just occasionally they can be a nightmare). It was really informative and timely given the arrest of George Clooney for protesting against the conflict in Sudan.
George believes in what he says. Obviously the situation is more nuanced and the reports we have from our office in the area spell out both the problems and the opposing views. But I believe that interesting people in our world, getting people to talk about the big issues, seeing justice as something that is global and a care for all of us is great. And is celebs can help spark the debate and get people interested well good for them – they have the right to speak up, it’s good to see them expressing their views and maybe they/we can encourage others to be interested to.
So good for George – taking a step for something he believes so passionately in.
Harrison Ford and Lenny Henry were given as examples of people campaigning for issues they deeply believe in – so good on them too!

International womens day plus 1

Friday, March 9th, 2012 by

Let’s continue celebrating women today! My friend and colleague Doris Mejia in provided this update on the struggles facing women in Peru.

Women in Peru have to face a lot of challenges, not only take care of their children, animals and farms in a context of extreme poverty and weather, but deal with machismo, violence and very few opportunities of education and personal realization. In Practical Action Latin America we´ve worked through the process of our women kamayoq (expert farmers who train other farmers)starting to find their voice, their security, their abilities and being respected for that in their communities. We hope to continue strengthening those voices so they feel happy to be who they are. We will be working, as well, to create opportunities of technical education that can be taken at their farms and that’s appropriate, works and considers their life styles and family. We are in that path right now, and we are also working closely with the government to get recognition to this kind of education – so we can reach out to even more poor communities!

The need to focus on women and technology

Thursday, March 8th, 2012 by

This International Women’s Day is all about empowering women to end hunger and poverty. Women play a vital role in food production in developing countries.  In fact, 43% of the agricultural workforce are women. Yet they have very limited access to resources such as land, credit and agricultural training and information compared to men.

I was therefore happy to attend an event in parliament on the 7th March on ‘Effective Solutions for Agricultural Development through Empowered African Women Scientists’. The event concentrated on getting women into leadership positions within science and technology and building their skills and confidence within the agricultural sector. It also places the spotlight on the need for research into aspects of agriculture that are important and helpful to women farmers.

Woman using her technical skills to make pots in Sudan

I listened to the stories of two African women scientists, Dr Sheila Ommeh from the International Livestock Research Institute in Kenya and Christine Mukantwali a senior scientist from Rwanada. Both women are AWARD (African Women in Agricultural Research and Development) fellows. Both women have invested considerable time in researching sustainable agricultural solutions to help their communities and have acted as role models for girls in local schools, encouraging them to get interested in science.

It was great to hear about the importance of getting more women into science. However, this got me thinking about the wider topic of women and technology.

Technology is a vital element for any community. It plays a significant role in food security, agriculture and small scale production. Women use technical skills and knowledge in their daily activities; they continually innovate and adapt technologies in response to things they face in their everyday lives. However, their role and technical skills are often overlooked and undervalued.

There are four main reasons why women are less visible in the application of technology than men:

  • Firstly, much of women’s work is unpaid. Women have responsibilities for child care and subsistence tasks and this means it is less visible in national statistics.
  • Secondly, is the cultural perception of what constitutes ‘technology’. Women carry out a considerable number of technical activities every day. For example, they farm, process crops, weave, sew, collect wood and water, tend to small livestock, fish and look after children. These activities are mostly domestic , small scale and considered un-technical.
  • Thirdly, the perception of what comprises technology is mostly in the realm of ‘hard’ technology- that of equipment, like computers or machinery, but ‘soft’ technology is usually overlooked. Soft technology comprises the skills, concepts and knowledge needed to use the ‘hard’ technology. Women often have a lot of skill but use less complex equipment (e.g. in food processing).
  • Fourthly, the fact that few women are involved in agricultural extension work, research and development or technical development planning has meant there has been little challenging of assumptions made about the nature of productive roles and responsibilities and assumptions that  have undermined women’s roles and technical capacities.

The spotlight on women in science should open up and include the empowerment of those women that use technology day in and day out.  Practical Action’s ‘Discovering Technologists’ training guidelines is aimed at  increasing the skills of those involved in technology development, working in the agricultural development sector.  The training is an empowering process whereby women can realize that their knowledge is not only technical but also valuable, and this realisation leads to women themselves consciously exploring, strengthening and sharing the expertise that they have.

How Practical Action is building resilience

Thursday, March 8th, 2012 by

Resilience is a hot topic in the development sector. Practical Action sees resilience as the ability of a system, community or society to resist, absorb, cope with and recover from shocks and stresses. A resilient community is one in which people can manage risk and recover from shocks such as floods, droughts and conflict. It also means people have the ability to adapt to long term trends such as climate change in a timely manner without undermining their wellbeing.

A key element of resilience thinking is the way it integrates multiple risks, shocks and uncertainties and their impacts on vulnerable people as well as ecosystems. Therefore resilience emphasises system, community or individual capacities to learn, adapt and innovate to cope with and recover from disruptive changes. However, learning, adapting and experimenting are not always a priority for development programmers. They are also hard to measure and quantify.

How to turn resilience into practical actions is therefore a challenge for many organisations.

So how is Practical Action building resilience into its programmes?

Practical Action has produced a briefing paper called ‘Resilience in Practice’, which explains just how resilience is being built into projects. The paper is made up of six case studies of projects in Peru, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sudan and Kenya that illustrate Practical Action’s work in building resilience into its programmes. They provide an evidence base for how Practical Action is turning resilience into practice and for including processes and resources that are essential for supporting learning, adaptation and experimentation.

The case studies reinforce the need for organisations to be proactive in reaching out to build partnerships and alliances with people and organisations operating outside of their specialist intervention areas.  This means they also require an investment and challenge our traditional way of working.

These projects have already seen increases in people’s livelihood security through the strengthening of food security, more diversified livelihood options and disaster management plans at the district level reflecting local level risks.

So what’s next?

The briefing paper highlights that there are still a range of challenges that need to be overcome and that there are areas that need further research. The challenges include a lack of relevant climate data, appropriate tools and incentives in organisations to support integration of sectors, a lack of scenario planning methods and clear indicators of resilience on which to base planning, monitoring and evaluations. For the full briefing paper please see ‘Resilience in Practice’.

A very happy International Women’s Day!

Thursday, March 8th, 2012 by

I asked my colleague Grace Mukasa in Kenya what she would celebrate today, she said

‘In East Africa I would celebrate the work of younger women, those still of reproductive age, who are often too overloaded with pregnancy, childcare and family welfare to have even a little time to rest or look after themselves. The younger women who lose out on so much opportunity because they are so busy looking after others. The period in life where husbands and relatives combine to control your mobility because of fear of adultery. The young women who have no older daughters or daughters-in-law to delegate to! It’s a day to celebrate their resilience. It’s an opportunity to look forward to the day they will know they have the abilities; the family, community and government support; and the means to use opportunities to improve their wellbeing.’

I’m with Grace – let’s celebrate resilience and the day when young women in East Africa can take opportunity.