Archive for June, 2012

Sudan Visit: through the keyhole

Friday, June 29th, 2012 by
“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our journeying
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”

T.S. Eliot

Before I came to Sudan, I posed the question ‘what sort of country can this be?’ I was horrified by news reports that I had read about a court case which condemned a young Sudanese women to death by stoning, after unsubstantiated accusations of adultery.

I think back to that question, and I realise I am still not in a position to write a comprehensive or sophisticated answer. I was in Sudan for only 12 days. My insight is no more than that of a child on her tip toes, spying through a key hole to discover the mysteries that lie beyond a heavy door. Through that key hole, I have peered as hard as I can, trying to observe and learn as much as possible, and store it up, so that when I return – I feel in my heart that one day I will – I can unlock the door.

But I do know a little more than I did 12 days ago.

I know that Sudan is a place where the government is hugely oppressive. Whether one is pro or anti-government, its omnipresence and omnipotence are irrefutable.

But I also know now that Sudan’s citizens are the most enthusiastic, kind-hearted, warm, sincere people I have ever had the privilege and honour of meeting. From Practical Action staff in Khartoum, Darfur, Kassala, to community members themselves, just ordinary people living – all have a generosity of spirit with which I have fallen in love.

And as I sit here in England’s green green heart I actually feel bereft, bereft of the friends I have made during my time in Sudan. I realise I am lucky to have had the opportunity to make those bonds at all.

For my 25th birthday on 23rd June, the Practical Action team in Darfur organised a surprise celebration – we spent the evening drinking tea, eating birthday cake iced with ‘Happy Birthday Ella Jolly’, and dancing, Sudanese style. At the end of the evening, there were speeches – ensuring everyone has the chance to give thanks is typically Sudanese. I was then presented with the most beautiful birthday present; a leather handbag, handmade in El Fasher, with my name etched into it. It is here with me now, and I am so happy to have returned with a little piece of Darfur. The leather is a rich terracotta colour; it is exotic and beautiful amid the whiteness of my bedroom.

It is hard to separate my impressions about Practical Action’s work in Sudan from my feelings about the people and the culture. But our work in Darfur is truly outstanding. When the conflict started in 2003, NGOs and their money poured into the area. Other agencies worked with people living in temporary camps, offering food aid and emergencies supplies. But because we believe in developing communities for the future, we focused our attentions on tribes in the remote rural villages who make their lives and livelihoods from farming the land. Our ‘Greening Darfur’ programme has transformed the fortunes of over 70,000 women, men and children, and revived thousands of hectares of land. We have worked in partnership with communities to developing farming techniques (setting up women’s farms, for example) and reforesting hectares of the Darfur earth, recreating a landscape that communities thought was lost forever, improving access to and quality of water (through rainwater harvesting and building dams) and providing modern energy (using low smoke stoves for cooking).

In over 600 villages, we have established Village Development Committees (VDCs) and Women’s Development Associations (WDAs). These are small community organisations comprised of community members, and which bring people together to take control over the development of their own villages and environments. We have established three networks (or ‘nets’ as the local people say – I love this): the Rural El Fasher Development Network, the Voluntary Network for Rural Helping and Development, and the Women’s Development Association Network. These networks, made up of members of the VDCs and WDAs, have enabled us to expand and continue our work safely, throughout the conflict, in the most inaccessible parts of Darfur. They are independent organisations, and one day, when Practical Action is no longer around, they will still be operating, because they are committed to driving the long-term development of their own country. I feel so deeply proud that it is Practical Action which gave birth to these organisations. As one community member said: “Practical Action is like the mother.” And when we die (for one day, we should – I do not believe that development organisations should live forever), our children will reign on.

The model that we have established in Darfur has been so successful that we are now seeking to emulate it in other locations across the country. For example, the Blue Nile state is now the focus of the fighting between Sudan and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, and thousands of innocent women, men and children have been forced to flee their homes. There seems to be no end to the violence. So we will be doing all we can to work through partners and local organisations to achieve community-driven, long-term change, during immense challenges – war, drought, famine. We will help millions through the very worst of times, so they have the right to enjoy the very best, too.
During my first blog about my visit to Sudan, I wrote of my curiosity about the country’s ‘specialness’. I still cannot write exactly why it is so magical. My words seem too mere, just not enough. It’s a feeling, that’s all. And I found it, and I felt it. Five hours back in the UK, and I miss it already.
Slightly out of focus, but my favourite photo from Sudan - sheer unadulterated joy

Slightly out of focus, but my favourite photo from Sudan - sheer unadulterated joy



From muck to energy

Thursday, June 28th, 2012 by

Use manure to generate electricity? Is this possible? Does it work? What are you smoking?

These were some of the responses we obtained when we talked about a project that began some time ago in the jungles of San Martin.

Well, yes, it is possible, through aerobic decomposition, which is a natural process in which organic matter decomposes without the presence of oxygen and methane gas is produced.

If you think of the bubbles that appear in the swamps when you see a horror movie, these gas bubbles are the product of anaerobic decomposition of organic matter into the swamp.

This process can be imitated, by putting organic matter mixed with water in a suitable environment to produce a gas, called biogas. This biogas is composed of various gases including methane, which can be used for cooking or as fuel in an internal combustion engine which must first be adapted to use it.

In conjunction with the Dutch Development Cooperation (SNV), the community of Santa Rosillo is developing a rural electrification project using cow manure. This community is approximately 18 hours of Tarapoto, in the province of Huimbayoc in the Cordillera Escalera. It is unlikely that this community will be connected to the network, considering its degree of isolation and the number of inhabitants, 42 families.

Some of the project team surveyed all the families, house by house, to find out their needs and produced a map of the community. I had the happy task of visiting the cattle every morning to weigh the manure they had left in the yard at night to see if it really they had enough raw material for this activity. After four days weighing manure we concluded that if it was possible to implement the project and give power to this community.

This is the first rural electrification project that I know of using biogas in South America, although there are some people using but the energy generated from chicken manure for personal use. By the middle of this year, the community will be able access the energy and enjoy some of their profits. If all goes well, the project will be expanded to neighbouring communities in due course.

Saving the world for Winnie – my dog

Wednesday, June 27th, 2012 by

I’ve just read an article that says two thirds of Britons want to be good to the environment for the sake of their pets! And a third would like to do yet more to protect the environment for the sake of their pets.

Now while I love my dog, Winnie and wish her a long and happy life I’ve never ‘done my environmental bit’ for her – because I want to look after the future of my kids, yes, because I believe in stewardship and that’s its right to protect our planet – more than anything because I’ve seen the impact of a further degraded environment on poor people in the developing world.

But whatever works as a motivation for you – I say great – let’s get together to be great for our world for poor people, because it’s right to do, for our kids and grandkids and for our pets.

If you look hard enough Fritz Schumacher had quotes for everything – so to paraphrase – is the land merely a means of production or something more, something that is an end in itself, something valuable.  And when I say land I include all of the creatures on it.

I think Fritz would have been amused at saving the world for our pets – but I think he would also have agreed!

A not great story on why energy is vital for poverty reduction – Can you do better?

Wednesday, June 27th, 2012 by

This April and May we wrote to Practical Action supporters to tell them about exciting work we are doing in Bondo, Malawi installing small scale hydro systems that bring electricity to remote villages. Lots of people have been very generous – thank you!

But actually we haven’t managed to raise as much money as we did when we wrote to supporters last year. This is not a complaint! Our supporters are incredibly generous and we are all aware that economic times are hard.

But (again – and yes I know you should never start a sentence let alone a paragraph with a BUT – some of my team will be after me!) The question that’s exercising us is whether or not we have told the story of why energy is important sufficiently strongly.

Malawi is a very poor country and one story that sticks in my mind – told to me by a friend who runs a hospital there – was that when their president died in April this year they had to get his body out of the country quick because they didn’t have enough electricity to power the fridges in the morgue.

Not that a fridge for dead bodies is a very basic need but it does give a real sense – at least to me – of the energy poverty in the country.

We used to at Practical Action use the phrase ‘a hand up not a hand out’ and that is what access to decent energy is all about. Without electricity women have to spend hours searching for firewood, children and their mums are made really ill or die (sadly lots of them – more than die from malaria) from the effects of dangerous kitchen smoke, hospitals cant power incubators or fridges, more basically operations or treatment can’t take place at night, etc.

With decent energy people have time to do things that make money to pay school fees, they can run different small businesses – I once met a mum in Zim whose husband had died she was putting her kids through school by making a business from her freezer – selling Freeze its (ice pops) – I’ve met welders, tea stall venders, carpenters whose lives have been transformed by energy access.

When you hear news reports from Syria or previously from Libya or from a place where a disaster has struck you listen to how often people say they have no electricity or water – often in that order. Decent energy is vital for poverty reduction.

We’re maybe not very good at telling the story – we need to get better. So I’d like to challenge you – if you think from reading about our work or from what you know from your own experience you could tell a great story of why energy is vital for poverty reduction then write it down and email it to me – and we will publish the best ones as a blog. If I get lots I may even find a small prize. So please show us how it should be done – how we should tell the story of energy access.

Sudan Visit: daughter of Darfur

Wednesday, June 27th, 2012 by
It is not only nature which rules life here in Darfur, but politics. The Practical Action team here is required daily to draw upon great reserves of patience and humility and tolerance to get our vital work done. It is essential that my colleagues in Darfur preserve good relationships with both government bodies and rebel forces in order for us to remain safely in the area. On my final day in Darfur the rebels are fighting in many areas outside El Fasher. I am forbidden to travel to the field.

As someone who has grown up with so much freedom, the limitations and restrictions are difficult to accept without getting very angry indeed. And I did get angry at times. I cannot express my awe and admiration for my colleagues who are able to cope with and succeed in such difficult circumstances every single day.

I did encounter another kind of freedom in Darfur though. Away from the pressures of a commercial, capitalist, consumerist society, I felt liberated. In the UK, I am a slave to it. In Darfur I felt free. And happy. I was not expecting that.

As I get ready to leave El Fasher, my colleague Amel – an amazing force of a woman who is not scared of anything – tells me “my dear, you are my daughter of Darfur and I am your mother”. I am now back in Khartoum and in 48 hours I will be in London. But I hope some part of me will remain always the daughter of Darfur.

With Amel Ibrahim, Project Manager in Practical Action Darfur

With Amel Ibrahim, Project Manager in Practical Action Darfur

Sudan Visit: the sand rises

Wednesday, June 27th, 2012 by

We are due to travel home from Tartora to El Fasher on Monday. Yet after only ten minutes we turn back. I am confused, and think perhaps we are picking up more passengers. But I am not Sudanese, and cannot sense the bigger problem. My colleagues know better and point to the sky: “look  – the ‘haboob’ is coming.”

The ‘haboob’ is a sand storm. The dust wind, the ‘ghubar’, is responsible. In five minutes, the skyscape is transformed from a pale white vista to a colossal mountain range of sand, swirling towers which move  as one – and faster than you can imagine. We run for shelter, fleeing from the unstoppable wind and sand.

I am naïve and stop to take photos. The sensible ones run fast.

The beginning of the 'haboob'

The beginning of the 'haboob'

Then everything goes dark. An inky night time blackness surrounds us in the mid afternoon. It is a strange, surreal experience. The wind is raging and the rain begins to fall. I feel like Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz. Later the darkness lifts, and all is bathed in an eerie tangerine light. Silence. It seems like the end of the world, and I am one of the few survivors.

Every year the sand storm comes. The insubstantial hay and mud homes in which most people live are ripped apart, and everyone is forced to rebuild their homes and their lives.

The storm is a symbol of the elemental quality of life here.

In spite of our advances in technology and our tendency to dominate the land, to colonize the green with concrete, we do not rule the earth and we cannot control it. It is good to be reminded of that fact, to remember one’s own insignificance.

I think Schumacher (founder of Practical Action) writes it better than I ever can: “Modern man talks of a battle with nature, forgetting that if he won the battle he would find himself on the losing side.”

Nowhere is the rule of nature more evident than in here in Darfur. The people depend on the land to grow crops to eat and sell, and they depend on the rains to come so that those crops will grow. If the rains do not come, there is nothing. So there is profound gratitude among people I meet in Darfur for the ‘haboob’, because it brings one day of rain. They are praying for more. Last year there was none, which means this year people are struggling to find enough food to eat. 60% of the villagers in one small community Kulkul (I do not visit but I meet people from this place) are malnourished, and so desperate that they are forced to forage for food, sometimes subsisting only on hard berries. For these people I hope with all my heart that the ‘haboob’ I witnessed is the start of the rainy season. The alternative – that this year too will be a year of not enough rain – is too worrying to even contemplate.

‘Everyone is wearing them!!’

Wednesday, June 27th, 2012 by

Practical Action’s glasses were a real hit with the children at the Eco-schools conference yesterday.  While the children were busy putting on their glasses and laughing at each other my colleague Bren and I had a chance to talk to their teachers. Teachers already engaged with the eco-schools project were really enthusiastic about how our resources would help them deliver the eco-schools agenda, particularly in three of the nine topics…, water and global citizenship.  Our STEM resources were particularly popular, and over 70 teachers signed up to receive our termly  newsletter so they can keep in touch with new resources we produce.

In addition to students and teacher we also met education advisors from local authorities and other educationalists who as a result of meeting us will now be spreading the word amongst the network of teachers they work with.

….and finally, having stood for an hour waiting to catch just glimpse of   Debjani Chatterjee  carrying the Olympic torch through Sheffield the night before I actually met her at the conference and got to touch the torch!!!

To view our resources and order our free posters  please go to our schools homepage

Sudan Visit: Joy in Darfur

Wednesday, June 27th, 2012 by

I think Darfur will change my life.

I step off the plane and all I see is colour. After the grey white sandiness of Khartoum, the colour is a joy. The cornflower blue of the huge huge sky. Swathes of sand, burnt yellow. Rows of slightly crumbling pastel painted houses in El Fasher. The flash of a dreamy pink flowering plant gracing the walls of the guesthouse in which I am staying.

I feel I can breathe here.

On Saturday I am 25 in Darfur. I wake early and expect to ache for home. Instead, I shower in the sunlight and sit serenely in the peace of the morning, enjoying one of those moments of complete perfect happiness.

Later, we drive for hours across the desert of Darfur, passing misty mountains which burst up through the earth. We visit Wad Koti, a small rural community just outside El Fasher. Here, Practical Action is helping the community to separate the water for animals and the water for people. At the moment, everyone – person and animal alike – drinks from the same trough. And invariably, the people – especially the little children – fall ill. I speak with one beautiful, but very timid, 9 year old boy who is responsible for caring for his family’s herd of animals three days a week, preventing him from attending school. He is not holding a gun. He is one of the few children here who is not. As I look around at all the cows and goats that have gathered to drink water, all I can see are the innocents holding guns. Guns which are too big, too adult for them. It is a horrifying reminder of the reality of living here in North Darfur. Although the conflict is officially over, there are many rebel groups who still struggle against the government. Peace in Darfur is something of a fragile veil. And as one mother tells me later: “We always have the fear that something will happen, but in order to survive we have no choice but to overcome it. We pray to God for safety.”

The insecurity in Darfur means that many NGOs and UN agencies that operate here use convoys of armoured vehicles. On Sunday, I accompany one such convoy north to Tartora, a small village which was close to the heart of the conflict.While travelling I look to the earth of Darfur. At first glance, it is barren. But the more you look the more it moves, it lives. People moving across the sand, leading their animals to pasture. Making lives and livelihoods from what appears to be dead. It is amazing.

When we arrive in Tartora we are welcomed with a traditional Sudanese greeting. Crowds of smiling women in technicolour dresses and scarves  clap and click their fingers, gently sway and then produce the most astonishing half-song, half-whistle, the ‘zaghrouda’. It fills the air, my head, my heart. There is so much joy here. In spite of all that Tartora has witnessed, and the little it has in terms of services – still there is so much joy. The women here are joyful because Practical Action is going to help them to build a huge earth embankment along their ‘wadi ‘ – the fertile, clay soil. This means that when the rains fall, the water will not run off on to the sandy soil and be wasted, but stay and nourish the embryonic seedlings in the ‘wadi’ on which the community so depends. The work has not even started, yet already there is joy. It is hardwired into the hearts of Darfur. I remember the ‘gratitude diaries’ that we in the West are encouraged to write by advocates of positive thinking, and think how strange they would seem to the people of North Darfur. No-one here writes their gratitude – instead it is felt keenly, sharply, viscerally, every single day. And there is so much gratitude for life itself – however hard that life might be.

Joyful women in Tartora, North Darfur

Joyful women in Tartora, North Darfur

Low-cost Neo Natal Incubators

Wednesday, June 27th, 2012 by

Practical Action was recently asked about the design of a neo natal incubator for a hospital in Kenya. What was needed was a DIY design that could be put together at a very low cost.

Dr. Simon Daniell from IcFEM, an indigenous Kenyan organisation based in Kimilili, Western Kenya was developing the hospital and wanted a simple design for a neo natal incubator. He had seen one some years before that had been made from plywood with a Perspex top, a lamp to heat it and a thermostat and wanted to find something like that for the hospital.

Simon told us that “I went to Lugulu Mission Hospital – they have 3 ‘western’ incubators and only one working. Webuye District Hospital have 10 ‘western’ incubators and only 3 working. Everyone agrees that a simple local design would save babies lives. Although there are some organisations working on low cost neo natal incubators it seems that they are still proving difficult to get hold of.

One organisation working on this issue is Design that Matters, they have developed a product called NeoNurture that uses standard car parts to construct a hospital incubator at a fraction of the cost of a conventional product. The idea is to use the internal heating and cooling control system of the car including its head lights as a heat source, blower fans, etc. could be constructed into a thermoregulation system.

However, they have not yet progressed past the concept stage and this product may well be too expensive for some hospitals in developing countries.

The incubator may be some way off production but Design that Matters is further down the line with another product Project Firefly; a cost-effective phototherapy device to treat infant jaundice worldwide. For this project, they are working with Vietnamese manufacturer Medical Technology Transfer and Services who currently offer a suite of other low-cost infant health care devices designed for rugged environments.

Another interesting product is the Embrace, a low cost infant warmer for vulnerable babies in developing countries but the product is not available in Kenya.

Simon comments that “In the meantime it looks like I need to continue to look for a ‘local’ rural African solution to stop the babies dying. It is so tragic.”

“I can’t start to explain how many funerals affect life here – infants, malaria, AIDS, accidents, violence, etc., etc.; such a lack of basic medical care, education, food, clean water & housing.”

We are still looking for a design that can be made locally and is cheap. If anybody knows of anything that would help this hospital and others like it then please let me know.

RIO + 20 – the end of the road for the grand international conference?

Tuesday, June 26th, 2012 by

I’m sitting in the airport waiting for a plane back to London having spent the past week with a small team from Practical Action at the Rio + 20 negotiations. We’ve been particularly focussed on the discussions around energy access for the poor that were a theme through side meetings and discussions throughout the week.

This is the first time I have attended an event like this. And my impressions? Largely disappointing. Speaking with a fellow conference attender a minute ago we both came to the conclusion that if you were going to design a process to ensure agreement was reached on steps to ensure a sustainable future for all of us on the planet, this would not be it. In the formal part: endless and inconclusive negotiations on the minutiae of text, with national governments treating the process as if they were bartering for terms of trade as opposed to trying to prevent global disaster. And in the informal part: hundreds of side events – some really fascinating, others really dull, but none having any impact on or relationship to the sterile and hopeless process going on in the main negotiations.

That said, there were some positives to take away from the week. The issue of energy access got a lot of attention in the side events and was one of the few areas where hard financial commitments were discussed during the week, albeit outside of the formal proceedings. I attended the signing ceremony for 3 agreements between the Norway and Ethiopia, Kenya and Liberia for energy access programmes under the Energy Plus initiative. And although the UN Secretary General’s Sustainable Energy for All initiative attracted some criticism for its lack of engagement with civil society (the UN could learn from the Norwegians who seem to have made a better job of civil society consultation under Energy Plus), they too announced a whole series of commitments from governments, donors, private sector and NGOs (including Practical Action). I was also heartened to attend an event discussing alternatives to GDP as a measure of social and economic progress, which included presentations about work going on in the EC and in the OECD to develop national systems of accounting that would incorporate ideas of wellbeing and natural capital.

So all in all my take would be: an abysmal meeting in terms of the formal proceedings, with a complete lack of leadership from heads of government and a final document generous only in its use of platitudes and worryingly short on concrete proposals, but some interesting side events showing that civil society and sometimes even the EC and the OECD are occasionally still doing interesting stuff!

For me, Rio+ 20, coming after the failed Copenhagen Climate Change talks and some eminently forgettable global meetings in between, marks the terminal decline of the big set piece international conference. The global leadership and vision that delivered the international conventions on biodiversity and climate change 20 years ago at the original Rio conference have disappeared. We need a different format if we are to make progress in the future. Maybe we should subcontract Avaaz to run the next one virtually and crowd source some common sense instead?