Archive for November, 2012

Access to energy, climate change, weird weather, renewables and technology justice

Thursday, November 29th, 2012 by

Access to energy, climate change, weird weather, renewables and technology justice

Listening to the news last night 4 out of 5 of my list were covered –fierce floods, devastating droughts in the USA, melting sea ice, how can people afford to pay their energy bills, the need for renewables (or not) to power the UK and drive down the rampant rise in CO2 levels.

Missing was technology justice.

What struck me was how the UK discussion mirror global issues and those that are vital for poverty reduction.
Climate change is impacting on poor communities – years ago now I spoke with poor farmers in a remote Andean region whose crops had been destroyed by unseasonal frost, I’ve heard from women in East Africa devastated by drought and recently returned from Bangladesh where floods are an annual event made worse by the fear of sea rise.

Access to energy is vital for poverty reduction – to power hospitals so operations can happen at night and women don’t have to give birth by candlelight, to open up economic opportunities for small business people, to pump clean water, mill grain, lets kids study in the evening, prevent the more than a million deaths each year from diseases causes by deadly kitchen smoke…

We can tackle all of these problems separately – Practical Action takes a very practical approach to poverty reduction – helping people get the tools they need to grow crops, access clean water through solar pumps, reduce the smoke in their homes through clever locally built cook stoves etc.

However we also need a more systemic change in our thinking – the technologies that are needed to feed the world, to tackle climate change and ensure everyone has access to the basic services required for a reasonable quality of life already exist. We are just not using them in the right way – we need to move from a state of technological injustice to one of technology justice where we care for people, our planet and our future. The debate is about poverty reduction but it’s also about how we shape the future for us all.

Wouldn’t it be great if Radio 4 and others could start to talk about technology justice?

Schumacher said to talk about the future is only useful if it leads to action now. We seem to love to talk about the future. Isn’t it time to deliver technology justice?

Fifty Shades of Green……

Wednesday, November 28th, 2012 by

If you were hoping for an environmental twist on ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’, I would move on now. But if you’re interested in how communities living in the cloud forests of Peru and Bolivia are beginning to experience the fifty shades of green forest that their ancestors once enjoyed, then read on.

For many years, settlers have lived in areas of the forests also inhabited by the Awajun, the indigenous communities. Renting land from the Awajun, the settlers’ preferred method of farming was to clear away the forest and plant seasonal crops to feed their families until the quality of the soil was so depleted that it was no longer productive. The families then had to move on.  This was clearly not sustainable and led to conflict with the Awajun, whose land no longer had any value.

Working with the Awajun and settlers, Practical Action researched how the forests used to look, using local knowledge to identify the diversity of plants and trees (hence the fifty shades of green) that once grew naturally in the area. Using this knowledge, we worked with the communities to find ways of recreating the cloud forests while still providing them with a realistic living. An agro-forestry system was devised, which ensures that areas of indigenous forest are conserved for future generations, while at the same time communities are able diversify their crops, for eating and selling.  I love the diagram below, illustrating simply how by working together, the Awajun and the settlers really can bring ‘fifty shades of green’ back into their lives now, and for future generations. It’s also a partnership beyond the cloud forest communities – we have been able to achieve this because of the partnership with three great Foundations: Innocent foundation, Waterloo Foundation and Z Zurich Foundation.




Bridging the climate gap, Part 2

Tuesday, November 27th, 2012 by

A group of committed Practical Action staff demonstrated the future effects of flooding in UK and Bangladesh, to raise awareness in the UK and among the Bangladeshi community living in London.  At Whitechapel, Embankment and at Westminster tube stations, we distributed leaflets and talked to people about the issue, accompanied by Mr. Murad Qureshi, a member of the London Assembly. It was a fascinating experience for me – something very different!

At the end of the day we met with a group of journalists from Bangla media, both print and electronic. Along with Murad and Nick Milton, Practical Action’s climate change campaigner, I shared the reality of climate change based on the experiences of current Practical Action Bangladesh project Pathways From Poverty.  We covered the issues of climate change adaptation and opportunities for the involvement of  Bangladeshi communities living in London to help their countrymen to face the effects of flooding and other disasters.

Meeting at City Hall

The most high profile event of my visit was ‘Bridging the Climate Gap between Britain and Bangladesh‘, which took place at City Hall London and was hosted by London Assembly member, Murad Qureshi.  Attendees included the Acting High Commissioner and  Simon Trace, Practical Action Chief Executive, and members of the Bangladeshi community.  Following the speeches there was a lively discussion and plenty of tweeting about the issues.



Meeting With Martin Horwood MP and Lord Chidgey

This was one of a series of meetings with policy makers in London.  Both of them were particularly keen to learn more about sandbar cropping.





Birmingham’s Bangladeshi community.

It was pleasure to meet with such an inspired Bangladesh community living in the UK. They were eager to hear about the progress of our work and there was an animated discussion about future funding to help affected communites in Bangladesh.

Reinforced by the support of so many people in the UK, I now go to the UN climate change talks in Doha to work hard to ensure that adaptation to the severe effects of climate change is high on the agenda.

Giving Tuesday – bringing back the meaning of the season

Monday, November 26th, 2012 by

While my fellow Americans woke up early and fought long lines for big sales on what has aptly been named Black Friday, I was happily working away in the Communications office here at Practical Action.

Back in America, the holiday season officially started on Thursday with Thanksgiving. Immediately after Thanksgiving, chaos ensued at retail stores across America, as people pushed their way through crowds in pursuit of big savings on Black Friday. This is a day when most major retailers open extremely early and offer promotional sales to kick off the holiday shopping season.

Following the big in-store sales is Cyber Monday, taking place today. It’s a day for huge online shopping sales.

While I’m upset to have missed Thanksgiving, I can’t say that I miss the chaotic aftermath. It seems the true meaning of the holiday season has been lost.

Enter #GivingTuesday – a national campaign to brand the Tuesday after the holiday as an annual day of giving. It celebrates and encourages charitable activities that support nonprofits.

Over 1,000 businesses and NGO’s including big businesses like Mashable and Sony have signed up to the campaign. It’s sweeping the nation in America as a popular social media phenomenon, but it doesn’t mean that it can’t go international. I’m happy to be working for a charity who wants to bring the UK in on it.

At Practical Action, our Practical Presents are the creative gift ideas that people can buy for people in the developing world. They range from fluffy ducks that help people in Bangladesh earn an income to clean water taps that give a lifeline to people in Zimbabwe. You can donate the money to have one of these gifts sent to developing countries as a gift to someone in your life.

This #GivingTuesday I hope you will join in with us online and give a gift to someone in your life that will help the lives of people all over the world. Let’s remember what the holiday season is meant to be about!

A little small is beautiful, lots of inspiration – and many wonderful people

Friday, November 23rd, 2012 by

Although I have been very, very lucky to have had the opportunity to travel to Kenya and Sudan to visit our projects, I have not visited all of Practical Action’s countries of operation. I have hundreds of colleagues who, sadly, I have not been able to meet in my three and a half years working for Practical Action. We communicate through email and Skype, and although these technologies promote good working relationships, nothing beats having a real conversation in person.

So last week it was a real joy to meet one of Practical Action’s most dedicated project workers, Nazmul Islam Chowdury, from Bangladesh. Nazmul is currently visiting the UK as part of our work campaigning for more political action, leadership and funding for the fight against climate change.

Nazmul is truly inspirational. We speak at length about the Pathways from Poverty project which he manages in Bangladesh. This ambitious project, one of the largest in our history, endeavours to help 119,000 of the poorest women, men and children in rural areas of the country to take the first step to a life beyond poverty.

Many families here are achingly poor, and have been impoverished for generations. Their poverty is not just a shortage of money with which to buy things. It means starvation, dirty water, ill-health, inadequate shelter, limited access to education. It is the lack of sufficient resources with which to keep body and soul together.

At the beginning of the Pathways from Poverty project, people had lost hope of things ever being different or better. Nazmul’s assurance that, within 12 months, communities would have enough food to overcome their hunger was met with huge suspicion. That suspicion only intensified when Nazmul shared his idea of a beautifully simple farming technique, sandbar cropping, which could secure food for life. “People thought I was mad!” he says.

Floods in Bangladesh don’t just destroy homes and lives when they arrive; they also leave a crippling legacy when the waters subside. The ‘char’ – the silted sand plains that the floods leave behind – are too infertile for even the most skilled farmers to tend. Nazmul’s idea was to simply dig holes in the sandy plains and fill them with manure, compost and then plant pumpkin seeds. Within seven days the pumpkin seeds start to germinate fresh green shoots. And hope springs once more.

“I remember one woman in particular who was so delighted with her pumpkin harvest. She told me ‘I’ve fallen in in love with this. Before I hated spending time in the field because it seemed so futile. Nothing grew. But now I want to spend all my time tending to my crop of pumpkins. I’ve never seen so much food. This technology is helping us to grow food in the sand. It’s a dream.’ Listening to stories like this makes me feel immensely proud of the sandbar cropping technology. I think it is the best example of ‘small is beautiful’.”  

The Pathways from Poverty project is already having a huge, transformational impact on the lives of some of Bangladesh’s most desperate people.

The pumpkin harvest

The incredible pumpkin harvest,                              thanks to sandbar cropping









I ask Nazmul what drives him, and am so inspired by his response:

“I feel a great sense of responsibility to the Bangladeshi people. Everyone pays their taxes. And those taxes have paid for my education. I feel it is my duty to pay people back. I use this philosophy to inspire my team. I want to see people in my country enjoying their lives, not spending every moment worrying about their survival, about their children’s survival. We may never be rich like the Americans. But I want to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to earn what is sufficient for life. Everybody in the world has the right to food, shelter, and education, healthcare. These are the basic rights and choices.”

As I listen to Nazmul’s words, I feel so immensely lucky to work with such visionary people who are so committed to challenging the numerous injustices in our world. Practical Action is an organisation, but our good work is only possible because of people – our committed team of project workers, the people with whom we’re working who revolutionise their own lives, and of course, you – the lovely, wonderful people who support us.

My challenge for serenity

Friday, November 23rd, 2012 by

There is a man I meet by the road on my way to work who makes me envious. He sits by the trench surrounded by a heap of waste polythene bags he collects every morning. This heavily dreadlocked man does not show even a trait of fear on his face. The lines on his face instead represent a proud ‘general.’ He reminds me of the feeling one gets when a beautiful woman walks by a boys’ dance party; either smiling at the angels in the sky or just speaking to the invisible souls that seem to be seated around him. On chilly mornings I see him lighting a fire whose smoke engulfs the air above his head as he shifts his knees beside it. In most times, I have found him puffing his cigarette away, the ensuing smoke forming either burbles or singular lines that seem to draw the faces of fond ‘brethren’ who passed on in one of the past world wars. As he reclines on the heap behind his head, I can hear him speak like one contented warrior, “It is well, it is well.” I have not had or felt in the distant past such a moment of contentment as this man. They call him Jahman Shepherd.

The pain of change

Friday, November 23rd, 2012 by

“The snake which cannot cast its skin has to die. As well the minds which are prevented from changing their opinions; they cease to be mind.”
― Friedrich Nietzsche

 So after 13 years Practical Action is moving from the AAYMCA Building on State House Crescent off State House Road to a new office block in the leafy suburbs of the city. I hear that the new building will also allow us to enjoy the sights and sounds of the informal – or should I say untamed villages west of the city. I will have to get there and find out.

Just the thought of moving office I am in tormental angst, although it is not immediately evident. I only know because recently I am dreaming in black and white, horror visions causing me to wake up in tears. And you know what they say about a man in tears. My cat Brian has refused his usual breakfast – a mixture of yesterday, today and an alternative proposal of tomorrow’s stew, a menu he has faithfully taken since he moved in with me a number of years ago. Even Thande our old Rottweiler has begun being extremely attaching. I think I am expressing my emotions too openly when I am supposed to be a man – take a hold of yourself mister!

I joined Practical Action about nine years ago. And I liked it. During those days there were about 100 living experts on the available work stations. Everybody seemed busy. I remember that we needed both the second and the third floor of the building to fit everyone. Our office hosted three other organizations; Community Livestock Initiatives Programme (CLIP), International Labour Organization’s Advisory Support Information Services and Training for Employment-Intensive Infrastructure (ILO ASIST) Department; and Arid Lands Information Network (ALIN).

There was so much activity at the office that it was like a small town, it even required policing – I guess one of the greatest reasons why “the General” our good watchman at the gate had such a well-defined role. He was always proactively involved in even keeping order not only in the compound but also in our office. Our Director walked about encouraging and motivating staff and residents with a phrase “the struggle continues.” What was evident then and there are traits of it even now, was the passion and drive that kept the organization vibrant. I guess we also made a lot of money then because everyone looked happy – but I digress again.

Fast forward, we have moved to the Methodist Ministries Centre.  And I am sad. In fact, I am slowly seeing my ‘waist tires’ grow, my belly hanging and my neck blowing up. We had the hill on State House Avenue to cure this. Now it is good bye England’s rose. I miss the roof top even though it was associated with credulities of the grapevine. I miss the inspiration I always got when I looked at the view of the central business district. I miss how easy it was to simply stroll to the city on the break and back. I simply cannot come to terms with the fact that there is no short-cut to town anymore. Indeed I miss the sense of insecurity we had at the office block that anyone would walk in and out and only stop peremptorily to find directions and not seek permission.

Although we have moved to this uptown neighborhood, I really want to cry. Will we ever get a prettier car park? The trees at the old car park would lavishly and gently paint our cars with flowers; except when one weekend when the most beautiful Acacia Nilotica in the yard faced the detriments of a storm and just gave up the ghost. Much metal and steel was lost in the incident.

Then there is the economics. My accountant – who happens to be the Vice President of my household, tells me that if we are not careful we might be facing a down turn that will see our GDP fall to levels equivalent to those of the great depression. When I married my profit and loss account presented to me an image of progression and profit. My Vision 2015 indicated positive variables with no effect on the principle. It now seems that my advisors were wrong. I now have acquired a new status – “Mrs. Food-Fare Poverty.”

The other day I told myself that just because I am hungry I could sample the eating places in the neighborhood. Afterwards, I spent the whole afternoon in the restroom. The following day I told myself, “It is just a reaction to a new dish.” So I asked a friend to accompany me to the eating joints in the leafy suburb. You can believe it when I say I spent the weekend on my corridor – between my living room and my place of worship. I guess we got so used to the germs in our old neighborhood that we became immune to the ailments. It is all in the process of natural selection and our own evolution.

My new genetic make-up will have to live without the monotonous Mama-party dishes, Migingo Island assortment menu and the watery stew and greens of the church bunker. As a new species I will have to adapt to climate change in the form of the comfort of the loo (did I just say loo?), move from the watery boily and fatty to the hotty, spicy, hygienic lifestyle.

Although I miss the AAYMCA building and we all have to embrace the new culture and living, the new office package does not come with the freedoms I had. I will have to spend more on my second life. Otherwise as Jay Asher says in Thirteen Reasons why, “You can’t stop the future; you can’t rewind the past; the only way to learn the secret…is to press play.” I rest my case.

Not that Jamie…

Friday, November 23rd, 2012 by

First of all I must confess that I got over excited a few months ago. I had promised myself that I would request to host the next celebrity visitor we got to our office. And I had been granted my wish even though this was not ‘the’ celebrity I was expecting.

When I was informed that I was going to accompany Jamie Oliver to visit our projects in Kenya, I immediately read “The Naked Chef,” a show on BBC. I even started to think about all the recipes I would learn from him, all the ‘Return to School Diners’ I would be experimenting on during the visit and probably be a graduate of ‘Jamie’s 15-Minute Meals.’ In any case this was a dream come true.

I remember my anxiety, the sweat on my face; the dark smudge under my armpits; and my dry mouth. I thought, would I just say ‘hi,’ or just ‘Welcome to Kenya Jamie.’ Would I bow with my left or right knee? Would I smile when they take the pictures or would I just be official? Would I plough in to his chest with my already musty abdomen or would I just stretch out my hand?

And shamefacedly I had announced to everyone during an official update session at the office that I would be travelling the country with a celebrity, who was, in fact a cook! I could see the grin on most of my colleagues’ faces burning with envy. I was going to have an experience of a lifetime and of course learn from the best.

When I ‘Googled’ him, I found a face – a handsome dude in his late thirties. In fact in his pink background website (pink?), I found out that he was more than just a cook; which in essence meant that I would be chatting up a man with diversity in his experience. (This, I like). You can now see how baited-breath-eyes-out I was as I waited for him at the Lodwar airstrip. I was experiencing bouts of movie-like dreams and visions during the day and night in expectation.

I was expecting to see a guy carrying a full suitcase, a horde of camera crew and a thin-looking tall female escort. Of course I did not expect him to have hauled his pans and ladles with him from the UK to Turkana – a remote hot and dusty region in beautiful Kenya. I never knew how thoroughly embarrassed I would be.

My jaw dropped when I met the handsome young man – a little thinner than the guy in my fantasy. And yes, I got the experience of a lifetime. My mouth went dry for days afterwards and I could not tell why. My speech was affected. The Jamie I hosted was not the Jamie who cooks and writes. This Jamie is quiet and it is contagious. This was my celebrity. I have never recovered.

Bridging the gap between Bangladesh and Britain

Thursday, November 22nd, 2012 by

I’ve been kept pretty busy during my visit to Belgium and the UK attending a series of events on climate change adaptation.   I’ve been to many different places and met a wide range of people.  The journey started in Brussels.

1.  The European Commission

I met with  Dr. Costa Papastavros, Senior Environment Officer for Cyprus, current holders of the presidency of the Council of the European Union.  This meeting was facilitated by CAN Europe in Belgium and focused on future funding  for climate change adaptation work. Like Bangladesh Cyprus is keen to see adaptation go up the UNs agenda as it is increasingly suffering from drought and water shortages due to climate change.  Dr Papastavros was  keen to hear about the reality of the situation on the ground and about technologies for adaptation tried and tested by Practical Action in Bangladesh.  He promised to help us to push this up the agenda at Doha.

 2.  The European Parliament

Floating gardens help people grow food during periods of flooding

I spoke at an event in the European Parliament entitled ‘What can we realistically expect out of the climate change talks in Doha’? It was hosted by theUK MEP Linda MacAvan, the spokesperson on climate change for the Socialist and Democrat Group. Also in attendance was EU Director of Climate Strategy, Artur Runge-Metzger. Arthur initiated a discussion about the climate talks  and I followed up with a presentation on how extreme poor communities in NW Bangladesh are adapting to climate change through Practical Action’s Pathways From Poverty Project.



Way outside my comfort zone

Monday, November 19th, 2012 by

Why on earth did I agree to do this?  Surely I must be old enough to know better!  These were the thoughts running through my mind on Thursday, as I stood outside a London tube station clad in wetsuit, mask and snorkel engaging with bemused members of the public. Why, you may well ask?

Many areas of London near the Thames are likely to be underwater by 2100.  A small group from Practical Action were handing out  tube maps showing what London might look like then – hence the scuba gear.

Londoners fortunately have time to prepare for this but for the people of Bangladesh the crisis is already unfolding.  Bangladesh is one of the poorest countries in the world and already half of the country can be inundated during the floods.

At an event in County Hall tonight Nazmul Chowdhury will be talking about his work with some of the poorest people in Bangladesh.  Nazmul supervised Practical Action projects with communities who face frequent flooding.  We are building flood proof housing, embankments and refuges as well as providing training for alternative livelihoods for flooded areas such as fish and duck rearing.  Floating gardens and pumpkin growing are two of our proven technologies which help people to adapt to the changing climate.

But much, much more needs to be done. Millions of people facing the effects of climate change in Bangladesh should have a chance of adapting to a future of more severe flooding.   Currently, less than 10% of climate finance is spent on adaptation – we want this to increase to 50% – join our campaign on Twitter to apply pressure.