Archive for May, 2013

The Post 2015 Development Agenda – a glass half full!

Friday, May 31st, 2013 by

The report we at Practical Action have been waiting for, along with the rest of the development community, people interested in poverty reduction, politicians, some business people etc. is here.

The high level panel has spoken. And what they say is good.

Their vision is to

‘End poverty in all its forms and in the context of sustainable development and to have in place the building blocks of sustained prosperity for all’

They start by stressing the need to build on what has been achieved through the Millennium Development Goals, they acknowledge the massive impact of climate change, have consulted with poor people, civil society, business leaders etc., see the important role technology can play yet understand that it’s not a ‘silver bullet’ and they stress the need for a move from vision to action.

I was reminded of Fritz Schumacher’s credo – to talk about the future is useful only if it leads to action now.

Moreover the call ‘for no one to be left behind’ is excellent, building on a critique of the Millennium Development Goals – where there was seen to be an emphasis on lifting those easiest to reach out of poverty and leaving those most chronically impacted untouched. It also speaks to issues of gender and disability.

There are concerns, many of which they themselves acknowledge.

Moving from vision to action – the goals will be monitored but not binding. The risk is that we will do what is easy but avoid those actions which are difficult and/or call for a change in the lifestyles of the rich ‘Despite all the rhetoric about alternative energy sources, fossil fuels still make up 81% of global energy production – unchanged since 1990’ And yet we have levels of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere probably at the highest level for more than 800,000 years. Does that suggest a world willing to take tough action?

Tackling inequality – ‘of all the goods and services consumed in the world each year the 1.2 billion people living in extreme poverty only account for 1% of it, while the richest billion consume 72%’ Inequality is growing .

And fundamentally what does ‘sustained prosperity for all mean’? A US type consumer lifestyle for possibly 9 billion people? Id like to think we want something more for our world.

The report could never deliver everything. An acceptable blue print for the future of our world that delivered the High Level Panel’s vision was never possible. What we have are foundations we can build on. And it’s now time to build – the next phase is consulting, debating, refining etc.

Let’s not be glass half empty, let’s be glass half full and with genuine effort and goodwill let’s work – each and every one of us – to build a better future and to achieve a vision.

It’s a report, unlikely to save the world, but it’s a good step forward.

As always I have to emphasise that these are my personal views. Sitting here at my desk on a gorgeous Friday evening I feel in a good frame of mind for a beautiful English weekend. These are my views – so share yours.


I will finish the report on my visit to Nepal – distracted again by great people and needing to write a blog!

Friday, May 24th, 2013 by

I am still writing up my notes of all the people I interviewed when I was in Nepal.  Every scribbled interview I read – listening, talking, writing and balancing a pad all at the same time didn’t help my scrawl – reminds me of the great work Practical Action’s doing and how we are helping thousands of people help themselves.

From the waste picking group where we have worked on everything from safety equipment, through to getting children into school, to dairy farming and peoples whose lives have been transformed by happy cows (well fed, clean cow sheds, high quality milk).

There was the village where years ago we had worked to bring water to the community, helped improve agriculture, improved bee keeping etc. and where I turned up unannounced (it being too late and me too slow to walk miles to the village where we had helped install electricity) but even so the community were pleased to see me, happy to talk about our work – And where everything was still in perfect working order maintained by the community because they had such a strong sense of ownership and recognised how valuable Practical Action’s help was to them.

However even with all the good things, still what remains with me most was the interview I did with a child picking waste – and my crass question – ‘what’s your favourite toy?’ – I meant to ask about playing games not toys. His response ‘I don’t have any toys, I’ve never had a toy’ touched me deeply.  It cut through my shell all the years of working in development had built up. 

I was so pleased to learn that his family was part of our project with the waste picking community – and that through it he was able to go to school. So sad that even though the project is doing fantastic work – his father had made the difficult decision that the boy’s younger sister had to continue working and couldn’t also attend school.

There is so much that can be done and so much need to do more.

The boys sister was nick named ‘smiley’!

Let’s celebrate the great things that together we are doing and remember the real people and how their stories urge us – urge me – to do more.

Serious issues, investigative journalism and changing the world

Friday, May 24th, 2013 by

Recently we had a meeting with a highly respected, investigative journalism programme at the BBC. The idea was to find out what they were interested in and ways we could work together. The feedback was interest in any scandals, particularly if involved corruption, sex and/or children and in the wake of the factory disaster in Bangladesh anything on seriously abusive trade linked to UK companies. To be honest we weren’t that impressed – any channel will do sex and scandal – we hoped the BBC with its clear public sector remit would want to look at vital issues not covered by others. (Of course they often do which is why we were hoping for more)

But if you want stories of child abuse and trade – there are plenty around.

Years ago when I worked in fair trade I was taken to a remote village in The Philippines where small kids who looked as young as 7, worked on powered circular saws to cut out the tiny components for costume jewellery. I was told that young children were used as their fingers were nimble – but they had no protective equipment and the risk of accidents was very high. Personally I would have lost fingers in minutes!

I talked to buyers in the shops whose labels were attached to the jewellery when I got back to the UK – big brand names – and had the normal response ‘we will do something about it but the supply chain is difficult, our subcontractor contracted out, who then contracted out – but we will sort it’

Sound familiar?

In the UK we don’t hear as much push for fair trade now – at one level that’s because it’s become more integrated (in my view at often a pretty basic level) into mainstream business. Also because there are less organisations shouting about it! Personally I’m all for insider engagement (working together with people) backed up by public pressure (the shouty bit – or the news bit – or the lovely grannies buying and selling fair trade products and telling others why it’s so important)

In the last week I also read a Guardian piece basically saying that while the sweat shops in Bangladesh are appalling, for many women they are the best option available by far! This was so sad; however it ties in with my experience. When I visited at the end of last year the procession of young women heading for the clothing factories looked despondent, depressed, girls with no life in their eyes – the idea of the day being so crushing – yet when you talked to people there was little else available – and for many women these jobs were prized as a way to feed their families.

We need fair trade!
We also need technology Justice!
We need a fairer world!

But I don’t think my exclaiming will make it happen.

So on reflection I’d like the BBC to talk more about fair trade and why changing the way we do business is vital, I’d also like them to talk about technology and the way our technology choices impact on society, I’d like them to talk about positive solutions to poverty (the good news stories we so rarely hear) but above all I’d like them to be brave – use the public sector remit as its meant – to tell different stories, stories that need to be heard – of course do it in an engaging way. The BBC is great – they can do it!

As with all blogs – a personal view! And I do love the BBC!

Improved stoves in Sudan help combat climate change

Friday, May 17th, 2013 by

In North Darfur, we are running a project of low smoke stoves, funded by Carbon Clear. It is benefiting thousands of families in that arid region who now have a clean kitchens, clean lungs and more money to spend on essentials. The project is also helping the environment because the stoves produce less carbon emissions.


Carbon credits delivering sustainable development

It is the first ever carbon credit programme to be registered in Sudan, registered by Gold Standard Foundation, so it is generating carbon credits to deliver more sustainable development in that region.

Climate change – people in Sudan are paying the price

Sudan is a country severely affected by the climate change. People there are paying the price for the actions of other people that contribute to climate change. As a result, most of these people are obliged to adapt their lives accordingly. But this project goes beyond adaptation.

How? Because these people are mitigating carbon emissions in a similar way to the way blue chip companies  ought to be ; but here they are acting voluntarily; reducing emissions from their daily cooking activities, and playing another role of offsetting by greening the deserts through what we call community forests.

Such good work and hearted wills and spirits are getting paid instantly in the form of:

  • better health;
  • cleaner kitchens;
  • saved income;
  • less time collecting fuel and more spare time to take part in social activities.

Of course, there are also positive impacts on the environment!

Solar powered water pump installed in Kenya

Friday, May 17th, 2013 by

Over the weekend Practical Action installed a solar powered water pump in Northern Kenya (Click here for more pictures). The benefits for the community will be huge, especially for Meshack.

Meshack can now access clean water

Meshack can now access clean water

Meshack is 12 and he wants to be a teacher. However, his chances of doing so had been severely disrupted because he couldn’t get hold of clean water. Listen to a heartfelt account of a boy who has suffered greatly because of a lack of clean water:

Find out how solar water pumps can help people like Meshack.

Dying for a drink in Turkana, Kenya

Friday, May 17th, 2013 by

I’m writing from Practical Action’s office in Lodwar, Turkana having returned from an intense three days in the field visiting our water and sanitation projects here. I’m particularly interested in how our solar powered pumps are improving the lives of the Karamoja people who we’re working with.

First of all, I have huge respect for these proud people. Turkana is Hot! Every day the temperatures soared above 35 degrees, and at night things cool down to a balmy 25 … The environment is harsh – dry sandy soil, a few scrubby bushes and acacia trees, very little water. The fact that they make any living at all here is testament to their toughness, determination and ingenuity. I also have to thank them for their hospitality. I slept under the stars in the chief of the Lobei Karamoja’s compound disturbed only by gunfire (once) and cockerels (lots).

I’m dirty and dehydrated but what I’ve seen really makes think about what ‘dying for a drink’ really means.

In Turkana there are 3 ways to die for a drink …

1 … From the dirty contaminated water that most people are forced to drink – hand scooped holes in dry riverbeds many miles from home are the most common water source and they are shared with animals. Cholera is common here.

2 … In the act of collecting water from 5-metre-deep pits, hand-dug in the sandy bed of a dried up river – these collapse regularly, and last week in Lorengippi 3 people died collecting water in one of these.

3 … Or by violence – water, even dirty, contaminated water, is so precious here that people guard their access rights forcefully. I watched two women and a girl lifting water from the bottom of the pit for their goats and donkeys – all the while watched over by two warriors with loaded guns.  Come to collect water at the wrong time here and you will be risking your life.

But things are changing in Lobei and now in Lorengipi. In October last year Practical Action, working in partnership with the people of Lobei, installed a solar pump, pipes, storage tanks and tap-stands so that now the women and girls have to walk no further than 500 metres to collect the water they need. Specially constructed troughs have been built to water the animals, meaning now that they don’t share a water source with people. Girls are now able to go to school, and in Lobei, the number of girls enrolled at the primary school exceeds that of boys for the first time. The head-teacher there is a trailblazer in many ways – one example was his kitchen garden and we saw the first ripe maize picked as we visited. So much change in so short a time.

In Lorengippi I watched as a new solar pump was installed, storage tanks raised and tap-stand built. For this community, water is a life and death matter. Conflict over water here is common. The boarding school has existed here since the late 60s. Children board as it is too dangerous to walk back and forth. In all those 40+ years the school has never been connected to water and never had latrines. Pupils walked 3km to collect water for breakfast and again for dinner, each time risking their lives to get it, and their health by drinking it. Open defecation in the fields surrounding the school was common, and the whirlwinds and seasonal rains brought all the faecal dust back into the school. Illness was common, learning didn’t happen and exam results suffered. Now the school is connected to the solar system, water is on tap at the school and new latrines have been built for boys and girls. Small, but important changes for these children, yet dramatically impacting their future.

I need to stop writing now, the sun is overheating my laptop and I need to get a drink before sunstroke sets in … I’m going to be thinking more carefully about where that drink comes from now.

A MEGA initiative in Malawi

Thursday, May 16th, 2013 by

Practical Action are working with our partners in Malawi to establish MEGA – a sustainable and ambitious social enterprise delivering green mini-grids to poor rural communities.

It is estimated that 587 million people in Africa alone are without electricity.  And as population growth outpaces the number of people getting access to electricity on the continent, this number continues to rise.  Furthermore, it’s estimated that 55% of people without electricity will be best served by decentralized technologies such as mini-grids and standalone systems.  A step-change is needed to meet this challenge; with greater focus on off-grid technologies, innovative business models and smarter investment.

Malawi and Mozambique 022The MEGA initiative is in Malawi, where 85% of the 15 million population lives in rural areas, of which only around 1% has electricity – there are 12.6 million people, countless businesses and numerous health centres and schools without electricity.

The government has an active rural electrification programme, although the focus on national grid extension and the all too limited resources leave many areas in Malawi with little hope of having electricity in the near future.

Decentralized energy programmes and business models that can achieve scale and sustainability are few and far between in sub-Saharan Africa – and Malawi is no exception.

Many installed mini-grid schemes in developing countries are plagued by failures and struggle to sustain operations.  Sound financial plans and real diligence are required to ensure that funds are available for the day that essential component breaks and needs replacing.  Skilled technical expertise to diagnose problems and obtain and install replacement parts is another critical element that is particularly challenging in remote rural areas.

MEGA – Mulanje Electricity Generating Authority – is tasked with stepping into this gap.  MEGA will bring together professional, financial and technical expertise that can ensure project sustainability and attract public and private investment.

MEGA’s business plan and financial model has been formulated with the support of DFID’s Business Innovation Facility.  Practical Action is leading on the micro-hydro mini-grid technology, and the local partner MuREA is facilitating community engagement.

MEGA will operate micro-hydro mini-grids, initially with one existing 75 kW scheme and plans to develop many more.  The initiative has received support from OFID that will allow it to install schemes in two more communities by 2014.  Mount Mulanje is the highest mountain in Malawi and the wettest in Southern Africa – an ideal place for micro-hydro technology.

The MEGA ambition is to bring electricity and development to poor communities in Mulanje.  We want to demonstrate that mini-grids are a viable option that offer a real opportunity to tackle energy poverty in Africa.

MEGA social enterprise is on the cusp of being registered as the first independent power producer in Malawi – watch this space!

A lively debate to change D&T…

Thursday, May 16th, 2013 by

A big thank you to all of you who followed up on my last email encouraging you to have your say on the proposed DfE’s draft D&T programmes of study for key stages 1-3.

We’ve had lots of response from you thanking us for bringing the process to your attention. Many of you have shared your response with us, expressing your concerns over the proposed content.

Since the end of the consultation period, it’s been a lively debate to follow  including, discussions in a House of Commons debate on Design and Technology with the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education (Elizabeth Truss).

A flavour of the discussions…

 ‘Following the national curriculum consultation period, which closed on 16 April, we are considering the responses received. We have been engaging with leading figures in industry, such as Dick Olver and Sir James Dyson, schools and academia to ensure that we have world-class design and technology education. We are also committed to providing a curriculum that ensures children receive high-quality cookery teaching and understand the importance of a healthy lifestyle.’ (Elizabeth Truss)

 ‘I congratulate my hon. Friend on the thoughtful and intelligent way she has engaged with the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Design and Technology Association, and with Dick Olver, Sir James Dyson and others, in considering the new design and technology curriculum. May I encourage her to bring forward a curriculum for the 21st century that inspires young people, particularly girls, to understand the role of science, technology and engineering in solving the real problems of the modern world, environmental, social and economic? (Peter Luff)

 Click here for the full debate – Design and Technology is under point 10.

Our understanding from the Design and Technology Association (DATA) who have been active in campaigning for the future of the subject, is that there’s an increased air of optimism around the future content.

 ‘with the help of our members and supporters we have convinced the Government of the fundamental problems with their original draft Design and Technology programme of study and the need for a world-class alternative.’ DATA May ’13

 So watch this space..we’ll keep you updated with any progress that we hear of.

 Follow me on twitter for quicker updates @BrenHellier.


Plugging the Energy Gap

Wednesday, May 15th, 2013 by

Friday 10 May 2013 brought with it a period of time without power for the residents of Bourton on Dunsmore village where Practical Action resides. Fortunately, staff had the option of making alternative arrangements and I duly opted to work from home where I was assured of power. I had access to my computer, central heating if needed, lighting if required and far more importantly, I could boil the kettle for that all important cup of tea!

However, the problems of Bourton village transgressed down the airways after power was restored creating all sorts of electronic complications and I have to confess to ending the day grumpy and frustrated at the difficulties encountered.

It made me think of our own communities overseas who experience far worse on a daily basis and puts me with my huffy fit and grumpy mood to shame. Living without energy is living without support; it’s not living, these communities merely exist and that is a technology injustice.

Thankfully Practical Action is supporting these communities, working with them and training them to access electricity via solar, wind and micro-hydro power. This in turn leads to better basic services, allows them to access education and more importantly, work their way out of poverty for good.

Energy and the right to it should not be a contentious issue and thankfully Practical Action is out there, plugging the gaps. Hopefully, through our work, the needs of many more people will be addressed, and if I was a beneficiary of our work, I can guarantee there would be one less grumpy person in the world!


Pick up ideas at an ASE Teachmeet

Monday, May 13th, 2013 by

I recently attended an ASE Teachmeet at the Think Tank .  It got me thinking, where else would you find out how to:

  • teachersfind an interactive periodic table from the  Royal Society of Chemistry
  • Paint a huge diagram of a heart on a big sheet to use as a teaching aid
  • make a small revision book out of a piece of paper
  • join a network that review research in education methodologies, @bio_joe
  • run a floating garden challenge to teach science in a global context
  • use ipads to provide interesting learning experiences @syded06
  • connect with STEM ambassadors
  • Get support on teaching microbiology using UV light

…all in a couple of hours?

Teachmeets are great, informal occasion where you can meet like-minded enthusiastic teachers and pick up great ideas to integrate into your teaching .   You also get a nice up of tea and chocolate biscuits  :-). They occur in 12 different regions around the country. To find the one closest to you go the ASE website or contact your local ASE field officer.  For the West Midlands Teachmeet contact Gaynor Sharp .

Follow #tmase to keep in touch  🙂

Heart painted on large sheet to be used as a teaching aid

Heart painted on large sheet to be used as a teaching aid