Archive for December, 2013

Technology Justice

Monday, December 23rd, 2013 by

The word “technology” means many things to each of us. Who does not want to use mobiles or the internet to smooth her/his life and get the information required quickly?

As we enjoy this life changing technology in towns, there are poor people in rural areas lacking all of these technological benefits. Those people do not even know about such technologies.

ICT4D (Information Communication Technology for Development) is nowadays established in most western universities because of the important role that ICTs can play in the field of development and humanitarian aid.

Picture1Within Practical Action many ICT projects have taken place to benefit of poor communities, such as the energy portal website in Practical Action Peru that allows access to Practical Action offices globally and the transfers knowledge to rural communities. Also the mobile real-time application introduced by Practical Action Kenya that uses smart phones to monitor what is actually happening in the field day by day.

In Practical Action Sudan we contributed to information management software (IWG project) which assists in decision making on programmatic and geographical interventions across the Sudan. The project maps areas in Sudan covered by UN agencies, national and international NGOS, to identify interventions, gaps and facilitate sectoral programming.

In addition Practical Action Sudan with the cooperation of experts and telecommunication companies planned the distribution of agriculture and pastoralism techniques to beneficiaries through mobile phones.

We now have to decide – is it part of the government’s responsibility to handle technology justice and convince the commercial sector to contribute more to enhancing the lives of poor communities?  Or is it the responsibility of INGOs to convince governments at a strategic level to play a serious role in benefiting poor communities?

I believe it is the responsibility of every one of us trying to push for technology justice throughout Sudan, especially in the rural areas that deserve better chances and choices of technology.

This will offer the chance of giving a new generation a better way of life.

After the dust has settled – it’s time for hard work

Thursday, December 19th, 2013 by

One month ago Warsaw was abuzz with thousands of people. Senior politicians, government representatives, development agencies, academics, civil society and the media were all engrossed in addressing what is one of the most pressing issues of our time – climate change.

Now everyone is back home and most are probably thinking more about Christmas than how the world is going to cope with an inevitable increase in temperature that will permanently change the lives of us all.

A floating garden to grow crops when land is flooded

A floating garden to grow crops when land is flooded

Looking back, I went to COP 19  with an agriculture perspective, keen to identify hooks and partnerships that would strengthen the recent decision by our global group of agriculturalists to focus on adaptation by smallholder farmers. Practical Action’s specific aim is to improve agricultural policy and planning so that it builds the capacity of smallholder farmers to use their unique knowledge and resources to adapt to climate change through ‘Climate Resilient Agriculture’.

It was disappointing that there was little discussion on agriculture during the days I was in Warsaw. A few things did become clear, however, from the people I met and the events I attended. Notably, that much still needs to be done on ‘adaptation’ in agriculture to understand what is really needed, and meant, by ‘Climate Smart Agriculture’. Practical Action can contribute to this issue and provide grounded examples relevant to policy makers based on lessons learnt by smallholder farmers and the rural poor in developing countries. In our Country and Regional offices this will mean engaging with Government and stakeholders in the National Adaptation Planning (NAPs). In the UK we should work with partner organisations to make sure our learning influences the global debates and donor policies.

Regular drills enable communities to respond effectively when disaster strikes

Regular drills enable communities to respond effectively when disaster strikes

Unexpected by me, and probably many others, was that Warsaw would be able to achieve something good on ‘Loss and Damage’. This is an important issue for us because the people we are working with are being increasingly impacted by climate change. Impacts which are becoming irreversible – ‘beyond the reach of adaptation’ – and affecting people who are least to blame for the situation: e.g. extreme droughts, ever worsening floods, sea level rise and loss of fresh water. At the beginning of week 2, I signed an NGO Global Call for Action for the establishment of an ‘International Mechanism on Loss and Damage in Warsaw’.  To cut a long story short the agreement to have a mechanism for ‘Loss and Damage’ was probably the most significant achievement of COP19.

Life may have returned to normal for those who were in Warsaw but, I for one, am committed to keeping the buzz going and starting the New Year with a renewed commitment to our work on Climate Resilient Agriculture.

Let’s stop disasters happening – a great example!

Friday, December 13th, 2013 by

Yesterday I posted a blog on disaster risk reduction. Today I read this great example from our work in Peru.

Protecting Zurite from dangerous landslides

A couple of years ago, the main square of the town of Zurite and many buildings in the town were covered by a deep layer of mud and rocks as a result of a landslide. Part of a hill slipped into a river, blocking it. The river then rose up behind the landslide until it burst through, carrying the mud and rock down into the town in a hugely destructive wave. More than 500 houses were badly damaged but thankfully as the landslide happened in daylight it was noticed and everyone was evacuated.

The hill where the landslide started is still unstable and could slip again, repeating the disaster. And if it happened at night, people could be at risk.

zurite-ews-diagramPractical Action, working together with a local university, has developed a remote monitoring system that allows the Town Council to get an automated warning via mobile phone of any further movement in the landslide area.

We made our own electronic instruments from locally available components – an accelerometer (that measures horizontal movement), a vernier caliper (that measures the width of the cracks in the soil at the top of the landslide) and a gyroscope (that measures any rotational movement that might happen as the land begins to slip). All of these have been placed on the landslide area and transmit signals back to the Town Hall triggering automatic alarms if any movement is detected.

As well as this we have a video camera permanently pointed at a target placed on the landslide, with a live transmission of the picture to the Town Hall offices. We have developed our own image processing software that can use the video picture to detect any movement of the target and, again, send an automatic alarm by mobile phone to Council officials.

Simple technology protecting people from landslides!



Read yesterday’s blog,  “Let’s stop disasters happening” …

Let’s stop disasters happening!

Thursday, December 12th, 2013 by

So far today I’ve read an article on Tsunamis and how many there have been over the last few thousand years, received an appeal for people still impacted by the typhoon in the Philippines, and seen a news report saying that the number of people impacted by climate related disasters is growing at a huge rate. Two of these were in a 10 minute skim of the BBC while eating my sandwich at lunch time. The third popped into my inbox.

I wasn’t looking for news on disasters but …

There are more and worse disasters – it’s a fact!

The scale, frequency and severity of natural disasters has risen progressively over the last 20 years. It’s happening because of climate change, resource scarcity, people living on marginalised lands and migration to cities (more densely packed people can mean more casualties).

In Nepal earlier this year, I heard how UK Minister, Alan Duncan, described Kathmandu as another Haiti waiting to happen – major earthquakes happen in this part of Nepal on average once every 100 years, it’s been 90 years plus since the last one. In the densely packed streets, with narrow roads between high rise houses it was easy to see how vulnerable people would be if an earthquake hit and to feel scared.

Yet as a world our response to disasters remains the same – when they happen we are desperate to help. Of course we are – we see poor little children suffering, people desperately searching for loved ones, scavenging rubble for what remains of their possessions. The devastation in The Philippines caused by Typhoon Haiyan was terrible.

BUT in some ways this approach, providing help after disasters strike, can be best described as sticking plaster. Wouldn’t it be so much better that instead of rushing to help; we did everything we could in advance to stop disasters hurting so many people? I think it would!

Planning flood early warning systems in Nepal

Planning flood early warning systems in Nepal

This very practical approach – planning and taking action in advance – is called disaster risk reduction. It’s an approach we at Practical Action use, advocate and are seen as leaders in. It’s very sensible and required very sensible, practical action. For example in Bangladesh we are helping communities prepare for flooding through building water pumps on raised platforms, in Nepal working on early warning systems, in Peru earthquake-resistant buildings etc.

The issue however is money. Earlier this week I heard that for every £100 we, as a world,  spend on disaster response we only spend 40 pence helping people prepare for disaster. £100 versus 40 pence!

Isn’t that wrong? What if we were able to reverse the numbers? Now that could be exciting!

We cant stop earthquakes, floods, typhoons happening – we can – if we prepare sufficiently in advance – stop some of them turning into disasters.

An example …

Influencing agencies to adopt best practices

Thursday, December 12th, 2013 by

Practical Action is implementing a food security and livelihoods project in the Blue Nile area of Sudan,  funded by the Common Humanitarian Fund (CHF).

Last September the CHF team visted our programme in the Blue Nile state to monitor the performance of the partners and strengthen relationships among the Food Security & Livelihoods actors in the region.  The CHF team held meetings with partners, followed by a field visit to Amaragrash, one of our targeted villages. Discussions were held with communities on the interventions and the way they are managing it.

PICT0071The CHF mission’s report identified Practical Action as the best organization at delivering sustainable interventions and highlighted goat restocking as best practice.  Some practitioners such as Mercy Corps-Scotland (MCS) and FPOD (a local NGO)  approached us to learn about Practical Action’s approach to restocking.

The CHF team advised Mercy Corps to conduct a workshop to explore Practical Action’s experience and their sustainable approach to livelihoods.   This workshop was attended by representatives of Mercy Corps, FPOD, CHF, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO),  Labena (our national partner) and Practical Action staff from Khartoum and Blue Nile. A good presentation about Practical Action’s work in Sudan focused on restocking activities under this food security CHF funded project.

Discussions were held about goats restocking practice and the audience engaged with and understood the approach. Recommendations were made to adopt the approach in their work.  In addition FAO/FSL adopted the contract made by Practical Action with the  beneficiaries of the goat programme. This contract will become standard for all FAO partners working in food security.

Practical Action Blue Nile communicated our best practice which will lead to changes in the practices of other development actors.  FAO’s adoption of our approach to restocking will be used by all partners and we expect to be nominated by FAO as a leading agency in Food Security and Livelihoods, demonstrating significant impact at scale.

Mandela and the foundations of change

Wednesday, December 11th, 2013 by

This morning as over 90000 people gathered for Nelson Mandela’s memorial service we had our usual all-staff briefing about the week’s events… And we spent a moment to connect with this momentous event and to ‘make a noise’ in appreciation of a remarkable and inspirational man. We marked his passing with noise rather than silence, in honour of all the noise he had made over his life on behalf of the oppressed and the marginalised. We counted ourselves fortunate to have been in the world at the same time and to be working for Practical Action, an organisation that shares his passion for changing the world.

mandela13Like most of us I have spent the last few days thinking about the great man and reflecting on those incredible events around his release, journey to president and then global statesman. I was in Cape Town in 1995 working on a trade project shortly after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission began their work…  the local radio was broadcasting people sharing their painful experiences, confronting what they had done and/or had done to them. It was incredibly moving and powerful, and part of the foundation Mandela was laying as he led the country through the long process of confronting and changing what had been.

Recently I saw that one of his charities  is focused on dialogue and I made a connection with my own work here at Practical Action. One of our core values is ‘people first’ and so we invest in processes that will enable the marginalised to have better access to the opportunities they need and want for a better life. In our approaches, like the Participatory Market Systems Development approach, we put a strong emphasis on creating spaces for dialogue and building the trust and relationships between people. This can take time and often donor deadlines are not conducive to this type of investment, but we believe it’s a necessary foundation for change. I like to imagine that Mandela would have agreed with us.

So we have paused today and stood with South Africa and millions across the globe to give thanks for the inspiration that is Madiba.

Human rights for the voiceless in urban slums

Tuesday, December 10th, 2013 by
Today is Human Rights Day – the 65th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In Britain it seems we take our human rights for granted – that they will be protected, respected and we’ll be treated with dignity.

But in our line of work, we come across so many people whose rights are not protected at all.

I’ve spent the past couple of months working on a campaign that will improve the lives of people living in urban slums in Nepal and Bangladesh.

This is a photo of a slum in Nepal that my colleague took:

urban slum in nepal

Most people living here are from the Harijan, or Dalit caste who experience a staggering number of human rights violations.

Crammed into makeshift shacks, they live without adequate access to water, healthcare, schools and other essential public services. They are not only deprived of their basic resources, but also face insecurity, exclusion from services and processes, and are ignored by those in power.

Unable to get jobs, they are forced to live off rubbish dumps – searching amongst mountains of filth to find anything they can sell.

They are seen by society as the lowest of the low. They are known as ‘untouchables’ and face rape, abuse and discrimination with no opportunities for escaping their situation. Their children are subjected bullying and struggle to get an education.[1]

As we celebrate Human Rights Day, it is important to reflect on these and other abuses, and remember why charities like ours care about our human rights laws.

Practical Action is working with Dalit and Harijan women’s organisations so that they can have a voice in society, and bring basic services into the slums such as clean water, toilets and modern energy. The work will also give the poorest women and children in Nepal and Bangladesh education, skills and training to enable them to form small businesses, access jobs and run self-help and safety groups.

You can find out more information about this campaign called Safer Cities here. It is being backed by the UK government who will match fund donations pound for pound, helping us to do more vital work to improve the lives of poor and vulnerable people living in slum communities.  This means that if you can give us £20 the Government will also give us £20, making your donation go even further!

[1] Information and statistics about the Dalit caste from the International Dalit Solidarity Network

Nelson Mandela “From Prison to History Pages”

Tuesday, December 10th, 2013 by

Generally, many challenges face the world (Sustainable Development and Climate Change – Clean Water – Rich poor Gap – Health Issues – Peace and Conflict – Energy – Status of Women …etc.). Specifically, most African nations suffer from military dictatorships, corruption, civil unrest and war, underdevelopment and deep poverty.

The picture looks very dark and depressing but if the nations are capable of producing a Mandela we will get to make the change that we want.

Nelson Mandela’s influence extends around the world, the last noble man, a figure of heroic achievements and an inspiration to generations around the world.

Mandela will be remembered as a remarkable man for all activists across the world.

nelson-mandela-quotes-to-be-greatFamous Sayings:
“Millions of people . . . are trapped in the prison of poverty. It is time to set them free, like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome . . . Sometimes it falls on a generation to be great. You can be that great generation.” he said in 2005.

“Let there be justice for all. Let there be peace for all. Let there be work, bread, water and salt for all. Let each know that for each the body, the mind and the soul have been freed to fulfill themselves.”

We  can learn  from influential personalities like Nelson Mandela how to change the world; all it takes is a little time, effort and dedication. We don’t have to change the world for everyone; we can change the world for a couple of people and still leave a positive impact  .

Rest in Peace father of Africa, you’ve earned your place in history.



Power of adaptation

Monday, December 9th, 2013 by

In the last 60,000 years humans have expanded across the globe and now occupy a wider range than any other terrestrial species. Our ability to successfully adapt to such a diverse range of habitats is often explained in terms of our cognitive ability. Humans have relatively bigger brains and more computing power than other animals and this allows us to figure out how to live in a wide range of environments.

Here we argue that humans may be smarter than other creatures, but none of us is nearly smart enough to acquire all of the information necessary to survive in any single habitat. In even the simplest foraging societies, people depend on a vast array of tools, detailed bodies of local knowledge, and complex social arrangements and often do not understand why these tools, beliefs, and behaviors are adaptive. We owe our success to our uniquely developed ability to learn from others. This capacity enables humans to gradually accumulate information across generations and develop well-adapted tools, beliefs, and practices that are too complex for any single individual to invent during their lifetime.

Practical Action followed the methodology of extracting the potential power of familiarization in communities in rural areas by targeting effective members in villages to provide them with knowledge about local possible technologies to challenge poverty. In other words, to adapt with the existing limited resources to reach sustainable development by providing means of improving adaptive capacity and adaptive needs to identify and develop adaptive measures or practices tailored to the needs of the community.

IMG_6784Back to Darfur- the source of my inspiration. If you visit Darfur and especially Shagra (G) village,  remember to look up Nadia Ibrahim Mohammed, who is 33 years old and married with two sons. Practical Action has practical initiatives that tangibly address and improve her adaptive capacity and adaptive needs.

She was recommended by Mr. Mohammad Siddig (North Darfur’s Area Coordinator) in 2006 to be trained as a midwife then was registered as the legal midwife in the village. Later, she has become president of Women Development Association in her village and a member of Community Development Association in Shagra (A –B – G).

In 2009 she worked with Practical Action on the project Greening Darfur. More than 14,000 women were trained by her in making  low smoke stoves and community forest management. She has been nominated to be part of the Active Citizens Programme run by British Council with aim of increasing the contribution of community leaders towards achieving sustainable development, both locally and globally.

For a woman from poor community in a challenging environment with a minimum level of education this is impressive. Her ability to store and deliver knowledge to others is really noteworthy. Now in Shagra- G village, she is always there dealing with her communities’ problems. She is gathering real time local information to adapt the best decisions and actions with the methods of her own experience.

My personal point of view, as we are working in a very challenging development field, is that adaptation is a word that we should dig deep inside, because all the possible solutions are hidden behind it:

  • Adaptation to poverty means we can adjust the resilience of communities to change and find solutions to poverty
  • Adaptation to limited resources means, we can direct targeted community to use them effectively to satisfy their needs
  • Adaptation to Climate Change means, we can reduce projected effects for the environment and for human life.
  • Adaptation to changing economic environment means we can set adaptation plans as better prepared for new opportunities.

Adapting with our problems would be a more effective means of dealing with them in order to reduce adverse impacts and take advantage of new opportunities.

Mourning Nelson Mandela

Friday, December 6th, 2013 by

Contemplating the achievements of great men like Nelson Mandela is awe inspiring.  He was a man able to make positive use of even the hardest of times, such as his 27 years in prison, to study and to construct a blueprint for the future of his nation.  His speeches and writings were challenging and inspirational, but he also lived his life according the values he promoted:  “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”


The spirit of reconciliation he fostered in South Africa saved many lives and rebuilt the country in a way no one would have thought possible in the dark days of apartheid.

As South Africans now struggle to come to terms with the loss of the father of the nation, we hope that their memories of his leadership will enable them to continue to follow his vision of equality and reconciliation

The world mourns the loss of one of its greatest men, but he leaves us a wonderful legacy to inspire generations to come to fight for social justice.