Archive for September, 2012

Sara’s story

Friday, September 7th, 2012 by

Over the last 48 hours I have listened in horror to the tragic news of the shootings of the British family in the French Alps. The detail that makes me shudder most, that fills me with the deepest distress, is the fact that the youngest child, a four year old girl, was so scared that she sheltered under the legs of her murdered mother for eight hours. I cannot imagine the fear and utter trauma that must now envelop her, and her critically ill seven year old sister.

That sense of terror, of shell shock, reminded me of a story I heard in Sudan. I interviewed a woman called Sara, who aged 21, is only a few years younger than me. She told me how when she was only five, government soldiers stormed into her village and shot everyone they could see. She was so frightened she could not move.

Sara’s story is one of dignity and of hope and of survival against all odds. But above all, it is a story of one woman’s strength. I think you will find it an inspirational and a moving one. I hope so anyway.

Sara’s story

“I was born in Al Llafa, near Fato, in Kassala, in the east of Sudan.

I remember the first day the war came to Al Llafa. It was in 1996. It was early morning, the first day of Eid and my best friend and I were holding hands and walking through our village, going to the celebrations. At that moment, we heard gun shots. We couldn’t make it back to our families in time, because of the fighting. I was separated from my mother and was so scared. Most of the villagers fled, they ran into the desert and hid. But I could not move. My friend and I stayed together, cowering under a bush, and then under the cover of the night we found our families. I still have nightmares about the sound of the guns. A school friend was hit by a shell. We had to travel to a safe place in the same truck as her dead body. I still remember the smell of the blood. For months afterwards I couldn’t eat or drink anything, I felt so sick all the time. The smell of the blood.

Organisations like the Red Crescent came to provide shelter and build a camp for the people who were fleeing the war. We stayed in this camp, in little tents. My whole family in one tent – my parents and my three brothers and my four sisters. We lived in that tent for two years, until I was seven.

Then another NGO came and helped us to build some new houses in Fato. Slowly, very slowly, we have rebuilt our lives.

I didn’t go to school for two years. I was just in a constant state of shock and also my parents had no way of earning money for the school fees. They had been farmers in Al Llafa but when we fled, we left the land. It was an impossible time. We used to get food from some of the kind people in the village, and from the World Food Programme. My parents used to sell the food from WFP so they could earn enough money for my school fees. We were hungry but at least I was getting an education.

Sometimes I can’t believe my childhood was like that. I can’t believe I got through it.

I left school when I was 15. I didn’t pass my Maths and English exams. Since then I have stayed at home helping the family.

Every day I get up at 6am, pray, and I clean the house. I cook our breakfast. It’s my job because I have siblings younger than me. The duties are divided between me and my sisters. The boys don’t do very much.

We buy water from the water tank in the village and my father goes to get the firewood. We cook on an open fire which means that there is lots of smoke inside the house. It can be difficult for our chest and our eyes.

We get electricity in our home by using our neighbour’s generator. This means we have can have light. The main reason for getting electricity though is so my siblings can read in the evenings. We’ve had it for one year and it has changed our lives, although we can’t afford it all the time, and we can’t afford our own generator.

During the afternoon I’ll make coffee for the family and then I cook dinner. In the evenings I help my brothers with their homework. Then we pray. Then we sleep. My days are very busy.

I am a member of the Village Development Committee which Practical Action helped us to set up. I was nominated by my village to be in the VDC because I am strong-minded and have my own opinions. The men worry about women like me. The fact that I completed my school education was also a good thing. No-one had a bad word to say about me.

One of the things our VDC has done, with Practical Action’s guidance, is set up a social fund. Everyone pays in a small fee to a central pot each month and then if someone gets sick there is money to help the ill person and their family. All the villagers will also come together and help that sick person with the farming work – planting seeds or harvesting, or whatever needs doing.

Practical Action has also trained me on food processing. I was one of 30 women who participated in the training. We learned how to make jams, spaghetti, cakes, biscuits, juices, and chutneys – all of this from the produce we grow on the land. Food processing is a wonderful thing for us because it helps us to make our food last longer and also get more value from what we sell at market. Instead of selling a pumpkin, we can sell the pumpkin chutney we make, which enables us to earn more money.

I’m proud of myself because food processing helps me to make a living and also take care of my family. For example, I am paying for my brother to go to school so he can have a chance at life.

I am so happy that now I have skills because I can earn money to have control over my own life. My Dad cannot tell me what to do. I have freedom. Thank God for this.

As a child I had no hope. I never thought I would be strong enough to live again. I am happy Practical Action has changed my life in a way that brings our community together. Before everyone was isolated, as if we were all existing in our own separate shells. But now we are connected. And the men in my village respect my contribution to the development of our community. I never ever thought I’d have the chance to come to Khartoum. I didn’t even have to ask my Dad’s permission. I could just come, because I wanted to. Because now I am free.”


Bangkok talks keep climate hopes afloat – just

Thursday, September 6th, 2012 by

Have you heard the joke about the drowning man? You know the one in which a man is stuck on his rooftop during a flood and prays to God who first sends a rowing boat, then a motor boat and finally a helicopter to save him… *

In terms of the climate talks in Bangkok which have just finished on 5 September they will probably go down in history as being the motor boat. However, the next set of climate talks in Doha beginning on 26 November will definitely be the helicopter.

So what have the talks in Bangkok achieved? Commentators are divided from the United Nations who have, predictably, praised the talks as making “concrete progress” to the Bangkok Post who have said they have made no progress at all and ended in “stalemate”. The NGOs here represented by Climate Action Network International believe they have made technical progress, which could pave the way for an extension of the Kyoto protocol up to 2020 at Doha but that there are still a large number of unresolved issues on the table. These include the level of cuts different countries are willing to adopt, who is going to pay for climate change and whether the world can agree a new legally binding agreement post 2020. In other words the Bangkok talks have kept hope on climate change afloat – just.

I’ve been attending the talks on behalf of Practical Action and promoting our event at the next climate talks in Doha on 28 November called “Learning the lessons from flooding in climate adaptation”. It reflects the fact that for many vulnerable people around the world in flood prone countries like Thailand, the Philippines and Bangladesh, it is not a case of trying to stop climate change but living with it now.

Adaptation is an issue that has been little on the agenda in Bangkok but needs to urgently be in Doha. Many of the delegates I’ve spoken to here over the last week agree that climate adaptation must go up the UN’s agenda and there needs to be a much better balance when it comes to funding (currently only about 10% of climate finance is spent on adaptation). To do this, they have formed an Adaptation Committee which is due to meet for the first time immediately after the talks in Bangkok. A big part of their work will be to mandate countries to draw up National Adaptation Plans, both for developed and developing nations.

Nationally, the UK should be in a good position to do this, having formed an adaptation sub-committeee of its own following the passing of the Climate Change Act in 2008. Their latest report, published in July, on the affects of flooding and water scarcity, makes fastinating reading. Other developing countries will need more help in drawing up plans but the critical issue, like so many issues to do with climate change, will be who will pay for implementation of the plans.

At the moment for developing countries that funding is due to come from the Green Climate Fund. However, at present the GCF doesnt even have a bank account, let alone a means of distributing money. One of the key success criteria for the Doha talks will therefore be that developed countries including the UK make rapid progress in committing the $100 billion a year they have promised the fund by 2020 and ensuring that at least half goes on climate adaptation.

* A man was stuck on his rooftop during a flood. Despairing of any help he started praying to God. Soon a man in a rowing boat came by and shouted “Jump in, I can save you. The stranded man shouted back, “No, thanks, I’m praying to God and he is going to save me.” So the rowing boat went by. Then a motor boat came by and the driver shouted “Jump in, I can save you.” “No thanks” shouted back the man ” I’m praying to God and he is going to save me.” So the motor boat went by.

Finally a helicopter came and the pilot shouted down, “Grab this rope and I will lift you to safety.” The stranded man again declined, convinced God would save him. So the helicopter reluctantly flew away. Soon the water rose above the rooftop and the man drowned. In the next life he finally met God and angrily exclaimed “I had faith in you but you didn’t save me, you let me drown. Why?” God replied, “I sent you a rowing boat, a motorboat and a helicopter, what more did you expect?”

Back to School

Thursday, September 6th, 2012 by

Today my daughter starts 6th Form. A fully fledged, almost grown up, teenager with great ambitions for the future, a pragmatic approach to school work and a huge capacity for friendship. I am a very proud mum.

I’ve just been looking for an image for a report cover and, given today I am thinking slightly anxiously about my daughter and school, one of them touched my heart. It showed a group of school boys, their work spread out all around them, parents standing rejoicing in the background all because the school had electricity for the first time. It was a very happy image.

Energy is a facilitator of change.

Talking a while ago with Helen Clark former Prime Minister of New Zealand who now runs UNDP she expressed hesitancy about energy either as a Millennium Development Goal (which it’s not – but is recognised as an enabler) or as part of the new Sustainable Development Goals to be agreed from 2015 onwards. Her argument was that access to energy helps people do things rather than being an end in itself.
While I have great respect for her as an international leader and can understand the logic of her argument the reality of MDGs and hopefully the SDGs is that they focus attention. We need to focus attention of energy access for poverty reduction. So energy access needs to be a sustainable Development Goal. Or at least that’s my logic!

I was going to write a long list of why access to decent energy is important – but thinking about it I’ll ask you to do two things instead

• Think about your life and what it would be like if you didn’t have electricity, if you had to walk 5 miles a day to collect firewood, if every time you cooked your kitchen filled with potentially lethal smoke – yet you and your kids had to stay there while you cooked – if you knew the value of education as a route out of poverty but you couldn’t find a way for your kids to study in the evening, and if sometimes your children had to miss school as they took grain on the day long trip to the mill (you couldn’t leave the younger children or the farm), if you had no car, no hair dryer, no gas cooker, no hot water for tea!

• Think about the picture I described earlier – the boys rejoicing in electricity coming to their classrooms

David Cameron is a co-chair of the High Level Panel that will advise on the global development agenda post 2015 – we need to find ways to remind him that energy is vital for poverty reduction. Anyone got any great ideas – I’d love to hear!

I am a City Changer…

Monday, September 3rd, 2012 by

At the World Urban Forum, participants are being asked to go online for one minute and talk about what needs to happen to create the urban future we want, and to commit themselves as ‘City Changers’.

Practical Action has committed itself. In the next five years we’re aiming to double the proportion of our work that is in urban areas, and we’ve identified our work on urban services (water, sanitation, hygiene, waste management) as the main focus for that work.

And the needs remain enormous. Well over half the world’s population now live in urban areas, and slums are growing every day. The lack of water, sanitation and waste management deny these populations a decent, healthy and productive life.

But it isn’t us that need to be City Changer. What we must do is help to harness the energy and efforts of the urban poor themselves. As I was reminded this afternoon by the wonderfully inspiring Thai woman Somsook Boonyabancha, it is their energy and dynamism that will force the pace of urban planners, policy makers and NGOs. We need to be there to support them, by bringing them together, introducing them to technical options for water and sanitation, allowing them to make their own choices, and making sure local governments are listening to them and allocating the money which is already allocated to their needs.

It is poor communities who can be empowered to change their cities, benefitting not only their own areas, but the city as a whole.


Inspire a Generation

Monday, September 3rd, 2012 by

I love the Olympics. I found myself watching anything and everything,  completely engrossed by sports I wouldn’t normally watch. I love the atmosphere of the Olympics and the way 99% of the athletes enter into the spirit of the games.

One of the tag lines of London 2012 was “Inspire a generation”. I didn’t feel particularly sporty whilst the games were on, there was no time to be active as I was far too busy sitting on the sofa watching the games.  When I hear “Inspire a generation” I think of children and young people being inspired by the athletes competing in the games, being introduced to sports that they may never have come across and maybe finding opportunities they didn’t know were there. It will take sometime to see the true legacy of London 2012, I hope that the young people for Britain have been inspired and we’ll see the results of this in the future (in the mean time I’m sure British cycling’s success will boosted the sales of junior road bikes across the country).

LOCOG isn’t the only organisation that is inspiring a generation. Last week I was visiting Practical Action’s projects all around Kenya and visited Nakuru. In Nakuru we are changing a community by inspiring a generation.

One of the  biggest challenges in Nakuru is basic sanitation and ensuring people link poor sanitation with poor health. Practical Action are working with the schools in the area to ensure they are able to offer their students basic sanitation – enough toilets. The recognised ratio of toilets to ensure basic sanitary needs are met are one toilet for every 30 boys or 25 girls, before Practical Action were working with the schools some had only one toilet for 100 students. This would mean that pupils could spend their entire break queueing for a toilet, just to be called back in to class before they’d had a chance to use it. Practical Action is also educating the students of the need for basic sanitation. Through better education the children learnt improved sanitation, raising their personal hygiene standards. Once the children knew the importance of proper sanitation they would raise the standards in their homes and so inadvertently teach their families. Every student suddenly becomes a sanitation ambassador in their family. So by teaching the younger generation the entire community will learn. That’s inspiring a generation.

Can technology contribute to happiness?

Monday, September 3rd, 2012 by

This short video was taken during a visit to the Ochola family, a poor family living on the outskirts of Kisumu in Kenya. The head of this family of 8 is Betty, a widow for the past two years.  The family make their living from farming a small plot of land they own and providing occasional services or domestic work in Kisumu. Do you think Betty has a good reason to be happy?

Betty’s life is hard; a normal day for her starts at 5am and ends about 9pm.  She wakes up, prepares breakfast and immediately after cooks lunch and dinner for the family.  In the afternoon she works as a household help with an Asian family.

The purpose of my visit, along with Practical Action East Africa’s energy specialist, Vincent Okello, was to start the use of a new stove. The stove was built the week before and was completely dry and ready to start.  We came into the kitchen, gave a few instructions to Betty about how to start it, operate it and maintain it safely and  immediately she started to cook. She found that this stove was quick, efficient and smokeless. She prepared a meal of ugali, meat and vegetables for her family and for us, her visitors, in about 30 minutes. She also found that the stove is strong and simple to use. Cooking ugali, a local meal made of maize flour, requires constant, vigorous stirring from start to finish. Betty found that with a strong stove like this she can use both hands for stirring, while with other stoves she has to hold the pot with one hand and stir with the other, which is uncomfortable.

Betty found that she can cook in about half the time she needed using a three stone stove and that it uses about a third of the amount of wood.  She also found that it is simple, smokeless and strong,  Betty is aware of the adverse health effects of smoke from cooking fires and is also very conscious of the amount of money she spends on fuel. I have to say that I not only enjoyed the food Betty prepared but enjoyed a lot watching her face filled with happiness.

This new stove has been the result of collaborative work between City University, London and Practical Action and was part of a larger ongoing SCORE project to develop a stove which generates electricity while cooking.   City University did the engineering design; Practical Action introduced the technology in Kisumu, tested and adapted appropriate manufacturing using local materials and local skills.  This stove has been introduced now because tests showed that it provides dramatic improvements in both energy efficiency and cleanliness in comparison with stoves generally in use.  While research continues into the energy generating capacity of these stoves, women like Betty are able to benefit from easier, cheaper, healthier cooking.

Bangkok climate change talks enter deep water

Monday, September 3rd, 2012 by

Last year large areas of Bangkok, the capital of Thailand, were underwater and on the verge of being evacuated. Fast forward nine months and from 30 August to 5 September the capital is host to the latest United Nations conference on climate change, talks which are also entering deep water. The outcome could determine whether or not the Kyoto protocol sinks or swims and with it many flood prone countries around the world.

The 2011 floods in Thailand were the worst in 50 years.  Afterwards Thailands Prime Minister, Yingluck Shinawtra, said “We need to learn a lesson from the big flood last year”. That lesson is that once rare and extreme weather events associated with climate change are increasingly becoming a part of everyday life for many vulnerable people around the world.

Thailand’s floods claimed over 800 lives, directly affected over 2.5 million people and cost the insurance industry an estimated $20 billion. It is a salutary lesson that the 164 delegates from around the world attending the Bangkok conference would do well to remember as they negotiate the agenda for the next round of climate talks in Qatar in November  in their working groups and round table discussions.

In the plenary session Nauru representing the Alliance of Small Island States – the 44 countries whose very survival depends on getting an outcome said: “We have three months left to deliver a Kyoto plus outcome. It cannot be window dressing or full of accounting tricks and conditionality. Kyoto runs out on the 1st of January 2013. But there are still so many unresolved issues from ambition to the length of commitment period”.

Although the conference is not decision making, over the next week they will discuss a range of important issues from extending the existing Kyoto protocol which runs out at the end of the year to a detailed work plan for a legally binding climate change agreement post 2020. Also at stake are whether developed countries who did not sign the Kyoto agreement will adopt stringent targets, the role that developing countries should play in climate mitigation and funding new forms of climate finance including the Green Climate Fund.

I’m covering the talks on behalf of Practical Action and am lobbying the delegates to attend an event we have organised at the climate talks in Qatar on 28 November. Entitled “learning the lessons from flooding in climate adaptation” it will highlight the work that Practical Action is doing around the world with flooding victims in countries from Bangladesh to Peru. For many of them climate change is already a reality and whatever the outcome at Qatar, putting serious money into climate adaptation measures over the next few years will be critical.

The meeting at Bangkok will be critical to ironing out those details. A failure to do so will result in the Kyoto protocol being buried in the sand in Qatar.