Archive for March, 2013

Feeling proud to be British

Tuesday, March 26th, 2013 by

It’s not very often that I can say I feel ‘proud to be British’, perhaps it’s because I work for an international organisation and ‘Britishness’ is generally avoided, by me at least!

But last week I was at the Department for International Development’s Whitehall offices the day after the budget.  It really struck me how extraordinary it is for this government to hold fast to its decision to commit 0.7% of the budget to aid.  This is a huge achievement…  and it means even more in this current “climate”, literally, the media are telling us this week that the current cold weather could send us into a ‘triple-dip recession’.

22104So although international NGOs like Practical Action are always banging on about what the development priorities should be and how the money is spent, this does seem like a moment to step back and say “Congratulations Britain! You have a government that deserves a big pat on the back”.

It’s not just the government of course. The whole country can take some credit for this momentous decision. Apparently when we have the aid budget explained to us, six out of ten people in the UK say it is about right or not big enough.

99.3% of our national income is spent on our own priorities like healthcare, education or the economy.  Perhaps this makes the 0.7% spent to end extreme poverty seem pretty reasonable.  Nevertheless we will be the very first G8 country to achieve the aid target, a target that was set 43 years ago.

The UK are showing real leadership during their presidency of the G8. Our Prime Minister has a great opportunity this June so let’s get behind him and bring some of the national pride and excitement we had with the Jubilee and the Olympics into the events of 2013 and to our country’s role in most important challenge ever.

Informal Waste Workers: Deserving Respect for their Contribution

Monday, March 25th, 2013 by
Nepalese waste workers demanding respect

Nepalese waste workers demanding respect

PRISM (Poverty Reduction of Informal Workers in Solid Waste Management) project organised a Behaviour Change Campaign (BCC) on 25th March 2013 with an objective of gathering respect and recognising Waste Worker’s Contribution in the Solid Waste Management Sector in Nepal. It was the first of its kind BCC campaign targeting waste workers in Nepal and was a grand success as roughly 450 people participated.

The event was able to meet the objective by grabbing the attention of a huge number of people and media personnel. The programme was fully supported by the Government of Nepal, the Delegation of European Union to Nepal, Solid Waste Management and Technical Support Centre (SWMTSC), Municipalities of Kathmandu Valley, distinguished guests from different sectors, non-state actors involved in Solid Waste Management and hundreds of informal waste workers.

Mobile notice boards

Mobile notice boards

The informal waste workers participating in the event were excited, enthusiastic and expressed that they were happy to be part of such a programme for the first time in their lives. PRISM project has identified more than five thousand Informal waste workers in the Kathmandu valley and about 46 informal self-help groups. The BCC campaign included a Walkathon, Signature campaign and consultative workshop to respect and recognise informal waste workers in Solid Waste Management.

Follow the link for more information on the PRISM project.

Water is life, only if it’s safe!

Friday, March 22nd, 2013 by

The recent (2011) census in Nepal revealed that 82.78% of people have access to improved drinking water supply. The figure is satisfying as it indicates crossing the MDG target and approaching the national target of universal coverage. However, there is a big question mark in the quality aspects. Water is a good solvent; it’s often called a universal solvent as many substances are easily dissolved in. Therefore, there is always risk of water contamination. It’s thought that most people are not aware about impurities in water and just judge water with their senses like sight or smell.

Water chocking around the tube-well

Water chocking around the tube-well

A survey conducted by Practical Action in six urban poor communities of mid-western Nepal (Bardiya) in 2009 showed that drinking water is contaminated  chemically (ammonia, phosphate, iron and arsenic) and biologically (presence of e-coli). Nevertheless, 89% of respondents in the survey were happy with the quality of drinking water. It was also found that 98% of people didn’t practice any water purifying methods before consumption.

Many people in the developing world – 35% of people in Nepal (census 2011) – rely on tube wells or hand pumps for drinking water. Mostly tube wells extract water from the first aquifer or ground water up to 20 feet. It’s seen that ground water sources in such cases are easily contaminated because of the lack of appropriate management. In many cases in Bardiya, a small pond of stagnant water forms near tube wells. In such cases how can quality water be expected? Further, it is found that water handling and storage is also an issue.

No doubt, water is life, but we need to consider both quantity and quality. Some simple steps like education on water quality, low cost household water treatment options, platform improvement for tube wells, grey water management and proper water handling can make a big difference in water quality that ultimately leads to a healthier life.

Have your say in DfE plans for the D&T curriculum…

Tuesday, March 19th, 2013 by



At Practical Action, we’re concerned about the DfE’s proposed content for the key stage 1-3 programme of study for Design and Technology, and are urging you all to take part in the consultation over the future of the subject.

We’ve seen at first hand pupils engaged with contextualised designing and developing products, debating the impacts of their choice of technologies on people and the environment – all in pursuit of meeting real human needs.

At a time, when as we face huge global challenges of climate change and economic crisis…it seems ironic that the proposed Design and Technology curriculum seems more fitting to life in the 1950s, covering home maintenance and horticulture.

I’ve recently commented on design proposals from a student developing her ideas for emergency shelters for post disaster contexts in earthquake prone regions. Her specifications were fantastic reflecting consideration about the cultural and environmental appropriateness of her choice of materials.

I can’t help but feeling that we’ll deny future generations a chance to feel they can make a real difference to the world if we adopt Gove’s proposals.

If you’re as passionate about the future of the subject – please read the proposed D&T programme of study in the National Curriculum Framework pages 156-160 and make your response by the 16th April 2013.

You can download a consultation response form or respond on line here.

Thank you.


Dreaming of flying toilets!

Thursday, March 14th, 2013 by

Don’t read this if you are easily embarrassed by biology. BUT we’ve been talking about what more we can do to combat the problem with flying toilets in the slums of Kenya – building more loos, helping people understand why decent hygiene is vital, making toilets a less scary place, etc. Imagine being a teenage girl in the late evening desperate for the loo but having to walk through a slum on a dark, slippy, rancid path to get to a communal toilet. (Very sadly a year or so ago a young girl was raped in the ladies loo of my local Sainsbury’s – which must be considerable safer than a Kenyan slum – I hope she’s alright – and I hope the same for all the girls in Kenya).

Imagine on the other hand being an old lady, a young boy, a child……

Going to the toilet is a serious business and flying toilets – plastic bags you poo in are certainly not the answer.

I’ve obviously taken the work on toilets to heart and as I went to bed last night the work in Kenya was buzzing around in my head.
Anyway now for the embarrassing bit – It’s never a good idea to share your dreams. I woke up this morning at 5 am (I’m still on Nepali time) dreaming about living in a Nairobi slum and getting very anxious. I was thinking about flying toilets and trying to work out which carrier bag would be most appropriate – Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda and so on. I was genuinely trying to work out the pros and cons of each! The whole idea just horrified me – and I woke anxious, with a deep shiver. Yuk!

I then –as it was 5am, I was half awake and it was too early to get up – I started to think about it seriously (in that half awake state when such things seem reasonable) and the whole logistics of going to the loo in a plastic bag is truly horrible. You just think about it for a moment and imagine it was the only option you had.

I ultimately decided that a B&Q wallpaper bag (do they still have them?) would be the best option – big opening, solid construction – but even with one of those I have no intention of giving it a go!

Let’s put an end to flying toilets and scary loos for everyone! I certainly am not up to the challenge of having to use one and I don’t think it’s fair that anyone else has to (plus it’s hugely dangerous – diarrhoea, cholera etc)

Please – if you have to dream of toilets – dream of clean loos, lovely bathrooms and basic sanitation for all!

Ambita’s Story – For International Womens Day

Thursday, March 7th, 2013 by

I am in Nepal and yesterday went to visit a dairy support centre. I talked with the farmers leading the cooperative which runs it. They were great! They were also all men (although at previous cooperatives I had met women leaders so I think it was just accidental).

After the visit they suggested a cup of tea but there was a problem with the small kitchen and so we went across the road to a café. Think garage like room – no windows with an open metal roll up door on the front – this type of shop is everywhere in Nepal.

We sat on plastic chairs outside talking and watching the traffic – there are many mad drivers! The tea was good and as we drank and talked it emerged that the lady who made our tea and owned the shop had been trained by our Practical Action dairy project.

Amrit and I disappeared into the back of the shop to talk with her as she worked. Her name was Ambita and she told us how she had been trained on curd, ghee, paneer, sweet milk products making. She had also been helped to buy a small freezer so that she could sell ice creams.

Ambita talked about how she has had the shop for a long time and how the training had transformed her business, she now makes her own products rather than having to buy from others. The margin on the bought products was very small and previously she had difficulties paying the rent. But now she makes 10-15,000 rupees per month after expenses (currently you get 135 rupees to the £). She supports 6 family members including her husband, who helps out in the shop. and her son who goes to a good school – she also supports her in laws.

All of this was great and so we went on to ask about the difference it had made in her life.

Not sure what I expected – Ambita feels the big change is the different treatment she gets from her husband and in laws. Before she said my husband used to think ‘my wife cannot do anything – now he cannot make any comments’.

She also talked about how years ago when she wanted to set up the shop she tried to borrow 10,000 rupees but no one would believe in her and so she sold all of her jewellery to start the shop. Now she has saved more than 100,000 rupees with the cooperative saving scheme. Her life is transformed.

Talking about her past life Ambita told us how hard things had been. Her son is very obviously the light of her life. But when he was 16 months he still wasn’t talking. People made fun of him and she hated that. She asked what she could do and everyone said take him to the Manakamana Temple it would help. Her in laws also wanted Ambita to take him to the temple and she felt even more pressure from them. She didn’t have the bus fare. She cried thinking she couldn’t help her son.

After some time she felt so desperate that one night when her husband and in laws slept she crept out of their house and went to her friend. She borrowed 1,000 rupees so she could take her son to the temple. They went. She did what was right. They then came back via her parents so she could borrow the money from them to pay back her friend. It was a big risk.

At 16 months her son started to talk and now he is doing really well at school. Ambita doesn’t know if it was the temple but she knows that she did all she could to help her son.

Now when other women have similar problems she likes to help.

She is an amazing, strong  woman who has flourished! I bumped into her almost by accident but her story I thought was inspirational. On International Womens Day for me she embodies the story of so many ordinary women who are making a huge difference in the world.

Feminists used to talk about history being the grand story of men. Whereas herstory was about home and family, relationships and life – the second being truely the most important but completely ignored. I am not sure I see things quite as black and white but I would like to hear more herstories.

I later described it as silly

Thursday, March 7th, 2013 by

But what I really meant was unassuming, simple yet effective.

In Gularia, Nepal we’ve been working with the community to transform all of their homes together into a healthy village – clean water, toilets, decent cooking facilities, promoting hand washing and good hygiene etc.

One innovation, which I’ve seen many times before, is the use of a concrete slab with a small raised wall to protect a water point from contamination. It works, its effective and therefore we’ve done it time and time again. In this case the protection was yet more vital as nearly all of the houses had a small cow shed attached and protecting drinking water from contamination by cow dung is vital.

The silly but great – so simple but I haven’t seen it used in this way before – was a wooden drying rack for pots, utensils, etc. placed immediately next to the water point. It meant that when women washed cooking utensils there instead of putting them on the potentially contaminated floor they stacked them on the clean rack. And so kept everyone safer.

Women talked about how learning about simple ‘kitchen management’ was part of making a healthy home. Not silly but true.

Small effective solutions that together are life changing.

I bet some of you reading this would have thought ‘silly’ too but then thought ‘silly but strangely wow – simple but effective’

In Nepal

Monday, March 4th, 2013 by

Pee, periods, manure, water, cooking and inspiration – plus cows!

Back from 4 days of visits to our projects in Nepal. They are brilliant!

Some so simple – like building a small incinerator (and I mean small – think 1/3 of the size of a UK post box) attached to the girls loos so that school girls who are menstruating can safely dispose of their used pads. The headmaster told me that previously girls would make excuses and disappear during their period – ‘I’ve got a really bad headache or stomach infection’. This impacted on their studies. Now the girls in his secondary school are neck and neck with the boys and he thinks they may even overtake!

Crap! More people in Nepal according to the latest census have access to mobile phones than a toilet! We’re working to change this. Together with communities we are installing toilets – we work together up to the level of the toilet pan and then the household builds the structure. The community have developed a saying – the 7 Bs – bamboo, bricks, bags (plastic feed bags), blocks…and so on – I admit I’ve forgotten a few of the B’s! But what you get a sense of is their enthusiasm for the project and what the toilet cubicles are made of.

Clean water, clean cooking and milk! We’re doing fantastic work developing the dairy sector in Nepal. I’ve heard hugely moving stories of lives changed.

This is a teaser really! I’ve got masses of half written blogs from my visit but there was no internet so I haven’t been able to post.

And of course here I haven’t even mentioned our work on disaster risk reduction, tuins, gravity ropeways or Practical Answers. Nor Ricky who I have to admit was a huge success – many thanks to Amrit!

More to come – Im here for the next few days if you want to ask questions too.

Meeting the energy needs of the poor

Monday, March 4th, 2013 by

How many PhD students does it take to change a lightbulb?  I don’t know but I heard plenty of suggestions last week!

Attending the Micro perspectives for decentralized energy supply conference, I engaged in discussions and listened to  presentations, many by postgraduate students, about ways to address the energy access in the developing world.  

I experienced frustration and inspiration in equal parts.  On the one hand,  hearing so many bright young minds focused on this important issue was wonderful.  But I was baffled to hear each one repeating the same  apparently surprising outcome from their research – namely that technology interventions were more successful when they had been developed in consultation with the community and with the energy needs of the users taken into account at the design stage.

Energy enables students to study for longer

Energy enables students to study for longer

Why was this a research finding?  Working at Practical Action this is the approach we start from every time.  Doesn’t everyone?  Apparently not!   Maybe it’s something people have to discover for themselves?   But it does seems a waste of effort when we should be concentrating on the best ways of improving energy access for the 1.3 billion people who don’ t have any.   

While there is no one single  solution for the world’s energy problems , it’s encouraging to know that there are plenty of people and organisations out there finding their own solutions – community by community.