Archive for February, 2014

Why the Daily Mail’s petition is wrong and we are all in this together

Wednesday, February 12th, 2014 by

Wherever you live in the world, having your home or land flooded can be utterly devastating. The victims of the floods in the UK deserve our help but the Daily Mail is wrong to target the UK’s international aid budget to provide it.

Their petition calling on the Prime Minister to divert some of the aid budget to help victims here is in danger of robbing poor Peter to pay Paul. Climate change makes no distinction between extreme weather here and other countries around the world. We are all in this together.

Floods currently threaten thousands of people in Zimbabwe, Burundi and Bolivia. When communities there are flooded they not only lose their possessions, homes and livelihoods but they are also at risk from cholera and other water borne diseases.

Given the Daily Mail’s rhetoric and petition it is easy to forget that international aid accounts for just 0.7% of our GDP.

I am proud that the UK’s three main political parties support the 0.7% target and want to help the poorest people in the world.  Their leadership is needed now more than ever.

Last year our supporters met the Prime Minister and praised him for meeting the 0.7% target, a process which took over 20 years to achieve. In a letter he sent to us the Prime Minister said “Thank you very much for your kind words on 0.7%. It is something I am proud of. We need groups like Practical Action – and you personally – to be out there making the case for it”.

David Cameron meeting Practical Action supporters 20 September (1)

That is why we have decided to speak out now.

Last year we received £2.83 million from the international aid budget and used it to help nearly one million poor and vulnerable people.

In the UK the cost of the clean-up and compensating people for the loss and damage will run into many millions of pounds. But as a relatively rich country, it is a bill we can afford to pay without the need to take money away from some of the poorest people in the world.

Countries like Nepal and Bangladesh were highlighted in the Daily Mail’s article. People there do not have insurance policies and unlike people here there is no government support available to help them. But they, like the victims in Somerset and along the Thames, know only too well what it is like to lose everything. I know because I’ve been to both countries and seen the floods there for myself.

In Nepal we have put in place early warning systems to alert people when the water level rises. There I met Parbati Gurung, 45, a widow who regularly checks our water gauge station 2 km north from Chisapani. If there is a danger of a flood she lets people along the river bank know by texting them and a siren is blown three times.

In Bangladesh I’ve seen how with funding from the international aid budget Practical Action has helped protect many local communities by working with them to build bunds around villages and through innovative technologies like floating gardens has helped people feed themselves during the floods. We have also worked with communities to build flood-proof homes and raise wells to protect vital drinking water.

In the short term our work in Nepal and Bangladesh has helped to save hundreds of lives. In the long term, it means thousands of people’s lives are not devastated every time there is a disaster.

It is something I believe the British taxpayer and many Daily Mail readers would be very proud of.



Shit Matters

Wednesday, February 12th, 2014 by

Listening to BBC Radio 4s Costing the Earth – A toilet for the 21st Century.

It reminded me that every day, several times (I hope) each one of us goes to the loo. We in the rich world take sewage systems that not only function but are pretty invisible and don’t smell for granted. But it hasn’t always been this way;

In London in the 1860s terrible smells from the Thames caused the government to develop new sewerage systems which in turn dramatically improved health – death rates per 1,000 dropping from 24 in 1870 to 19 in 1890.

And then there was Florence Nightingale fresh air, soap and water reduced the death rate of hospitalised soldiers in the Crimea from 42% to 2.2% in 4 months.

But why the history lesson? Well shit matters!

Sanitation remains one of the biggest development challenges – it’s just something we don’t like to think or talk about. Im told by collegues in fundraising that appeals for clean water get a good response whereas appeals to help people get access to sanitation often receive less interest – people prefer not to think about crap and pee! But thinking about it and taking action is vital.

As the programme states to WHO 37% of the developing world’s population – 2.5 billion people don’t have access to decent sanitation facilities. In urban slums lack of access to household sanitation is a particular issue for women. For some social norms about women not been seen to defecate in the open keep then confined until the hours of darkness, leading to medical problems and much greater risk of being attacked. For women and particularly young girls as they start to menstruate no access to loos can mean no school and embarrassment.

You will of course have heard of flying toilets – plastic bags people crap in and then fling as far as possible often pretending it wasn’t them and/or caring who the bag hits or where it lands.

Transmission of waterborne diseases such as cholera are exacerbated by environmental pollution and low levels of personal hygiene. In Zimbabwe an inspirational cholera nurse described the disease as eating or drinking a stool – not a good thought!

This is technology injustice. We’ve known about the advantages of sanitation for more than 100 years yet many millions of people don’t have access.

Practical Action are delivering big WASH (water supply, sanitation and hygiene) programmes and we are ambitious to do more. For example in Kenya we plan in our current strategy to directly improve the water and sanitation access of 850,000 people. We will work in the slums of 10 cities and towns on things like the construction of loos, hand washing facilities and showers, latrine emptying, etc.

Shit matters and is personal – I can’t imagine life without my loo, when I’ve had to for short periods on visits overseas without access to a toilet I’ve crossed my legs, felt embarrassed by bushes and thanked God for even the most basic latrine. We have to be prepared to talk about sanitation as it’s too easy to pretend shit really doesn’t happen. We can’t end shit we can make sure it’s well taken care of!

Africa and Europe talk Energy – but will the needs of the poor be recognised?

Tuesday, February 11th, 2014 by

This week in Addis Ababa, Ministers and leaders of business and civil society are meeting to address the challenges of energy in Africa as part of the Africa EU Energy Partnership.

The issues are urgent, with a lack of energy being recognised as one of the main difficulties holding back economic growth on the continent.

However, increasing electricity supply to the grid is not the same as getting energy to the rural poor. Their energy usage will never be in the kinds of quantities of those of industry or the urban rich and middle class. Keeping the lights on in the big cities and the wheels of industry turning can seem like a more important first task than the difficult one of improving the cooking experience for rural women, or giving them better options for grinding their maize.

cooking with firewood can cause dangerous smoke

690 million people in sub-Saharan Africa still cook with firewood and other solid fuels

However, as Katie Auth wrote in The Guardian in relation to Ethiopia, large-scale clean energy projects shouldn’t eclipse the urgent need to provide electricity to low-income and rural communities. And without sufficient focus, the year 2030 will arrive and we will find that in sub-Saharan Africa there are more people in energy poverty than there are today. The IEA estimates reported in the World Bank Global Tracking Framework are that between 2010 and 2030, the number of people without access to electricity in sub-Saharan Africa is predicted to increase from 579m to 655 million and those without clean cooking facilities from 690m to 883 million by 2030.

We need sufficient funding, ideas and commitment to expanding energy access for poor people: for their homes, their agriculture and small enterprises, and the services they rely on (as we’ve highlighted in our Poor People’s Energy Outlook). The majority of this needs to be based on decentralised solutions. For sub-Saharan Africa, the estimates are that between 41% and 55% of people without electricity will be best served by decentralised energy solutions. Policies, financing and capacity-building efforts are needed in equal measure. We need a combination of business working in collaboration with civil society / NGOs and the government, and new combinations of private and public financing.

Panel from Civil Society Side Event at AEEP conference organised by Kite, Hivos and Practical Action

Panel from Civil Society Side Event at AEEP conference organised by Kite, Hivos and Practical Action

On 11th Feb, Practical Action, together with KITE and Hivos hosted a side event at the AEEP conference to raise these issues. Let’s hope the conference itself has sufficient focus on what really matters for the poor.

Extract from Civil Society Statement to AEEP conference following side event on ‘Accelerating Inclusive Energy Access Solutions and Policy through Partnerships with Civil Society’:

We emphasize the potential and need for the AEEP and its members to quickly and dramatically increase efforts to bring energy to the energy poor of Africa, who primarily reside in rural areas that currently cannot be feasibly serviced by grid-based energy services, and whose needs for energy supplies goes beyond electricity to encompass cooking and mechanical power.

We call on the AEEP and ministers representing the AEEP Member States to prioritize capacity building, financing and political facilitation of a broad base of energy service entrepreneurs to rapidly expand energy infrastructure, with a focus on the decentralized energy infrastructure that has been recognized as being the only way to meet the universal energy access goal of the UN Secretary-General’s Sustainable Energy for All (SE4ALL) initiative by 2030. This must entail the rapid expansion of affordable financing for small businesses and consumers.

We call for a recognition of the importance of energy access in the three spheres of households, productive uses and community services in particular health clinics and schools. We also call for recognition of the gendered components of energy production and consumption, and for their inclusion in energy policy and project planning and financing.

We call for recognition that, to accelerate the pace of energy access improvement in Africa, partnerships incorporating the unique skills and capacities of all relevant actors be sought out. In line with this, the AEEP commit to incorporating civil society into the proposed AEEP business and policy dialogue, and its Member States commit to meaningfully incorporate civil society in energy policy and planning processes.

We call for recognition of the important role civil society plays in a variety of areas key to the accomplishment of the AEEP’s goals, including: delivery of energy services to the poor; market facilitation; building capacity of entrepreneurs; and raising public and political awareness of the benefits of improved access to modern energy services and the means to achieve it. Given this we urge the AEEP and its Member States to help ensure adequate financing for civil society to increase these efforts in support of the AEEP and SE4ALL goals.


What will make headlines in 2014?

Thursday, February 6th, 2014 by

Last month Thomson Reuters Foundation asked its correspondents what stories they thought would make headlines in 2014.

In response I asked directors at Practical Action to draw up 10 pressing issues they thought would make headlines in 2014. Here is their list. I’d welcome any feedback on the points or any issues that you think should have been included.


  1. Climate change and economic growth will collide

Our changing climate will bring yet more extreme weather events. The trend started by record cold temperatures in the USA and severe flooding in the UK will continue unabated with more countries affected by climate related disasters like Typhoon Haiyan. By contrast world leaders will continue to ignore the crisis and instead push for universal and sustained economic growth.  In 2014 this divergence will become more pronounced with increasing voices starting to question what price we are willing to pay to protect the climate.

  1. ‘Technology justice’ will come of age

‘Appropriate new technology’ will help lift many more people out of poverty. Until recently in rich countries technology has been something to consume, not to discuss. 2014 will see the role of technology highlighted in global meetings culminating in the United Nations climate change talks in Peru in December. This will help start an important debate about whether we can deliver ‘technology justice’ for the poor.

  1. 22397Projects not meeting the Millennium Development Goals will struggle to get funding

With the deadline for the MDGs now just over a year away we will see resources directed towards getting as close to the targets as possible. Large scale projects delivering large numbers of beneficiaries will be favoured. Small scale work – even vital work – which does not meet the targets will find it increasingly hard to attract funding.

  1. Political instability, insecurity and conflicts will continue in Bangladesh and other developing countries

Developing countries will make headlines around the world but again for the wrong reasons. In Bangladesh nearly 60%  of the days between October and December 2013 were marked by political strikes, closures, violence and insecurity. These trends will continue in 2014 with many developing countries suffering heavy economic losses and the poorest being the most hard hit.

  1. The poor in middle income countries will be forgottenclean water

As more nations become middle income countries, donors will understandably withdraw their financial support and instead focus on the poorest.  But there are many poor people who live in middle income countries.  In 2014 if more international development organisations withdraw, there will be generations of people who will not escape poverty.  Southern national governments will try to step in but how effectively?

  1. Deaths associated with uncollected urban waste in Africa will rise

In Southern Africa, over 22 million people have no access to a clean water supply and sanitation facilities, especially in urban areas. In urban slums between 30-60 per cent of all the solid waste goes uncollected, a figure which will increase in 2014. As a result many more people will die of associated diseases such as diarrhoea, cholera and dysentery.

  1. Mobile technology will help transform the lives of the poor

Mobile phone technology will continue to rapidly change the face of communication in poor countries. By the end of 2014 out of the seven billion people in the world, approximately six billion will have a mobile phone and most will be in developing countries. In response companies, governments  and NGOs will use phones to do everything from transferring money to letting people know of an impending disaster using a text alert.


  1. Renewable energy will struggle to attract the investment it needs

Progress in exploiting shale oil, shale gas and other unconventional fossil fuel sources will erode any incentives the big oil companies have to work on renewables as future alternative revenue streams. At the same time this will tempt governments to focus on short term energy security issues rather than long term environmental sustainability issues such as climate change. In this atmosphere further progress in climate talks or the management of carbon will be very difficult.

  1. The inter-dependency between food, water and energy will become more pronounced

The need to think about food, water and energy in a holistic manner will  become ever more apparent as trade-offs between food and energy crops, agricultural inputs and food prices and the scarcity of water in many parts of the world increase. In developing countries this will result in continuing conflict over resources and globally more environmental refugees seeking a better life.


  1. More poor people will get energy

The recent focus on energy access issues at an international level will reduce the numbers of people lacking electricity or still cooking over open fires. However, the current over reliance of markets and private sector finance to solve the problem will leave big holes in cover for the rural poor, where returns on investment for much of the needed infrastructure will not be high enough to attract private investment.

Help the BBC design a successor to Toughest Place to be a

Thursday, February 6th, 2014 by

ToughestAfter 5 series one of the best programmes on the BBC, Toughest Place to be a , will shortly come to an end. A one off return featuring the London cabbie Mason McQueen heading back to the chaotic streets of Mumbai is currently being filmed. However, after that the executive producer at the BBC in charge of Toughest, Sam Bagnall,  has confirmed that no more will be commissioned.

The programme which took a bus driver, binman, fireman, nurse and a fisherman among other professions to do their job in a developing country under some of the toughest conditions in the world was compulsive viewing. It was also one of the few programmes on the BBC showing what life is like for really poor people, many of whom exist on less than 2 dollars a day. You can see some memorable clips from the series here.

When I met Sam last month he confirmed that the BBC are now looking for a new programme which will be a worthy successor to Toughest.  To help in this process Sam, who also produces This World and the wonderful Simon Reeve travelogues, has asked Practical Action supporters to send him ideas for a new TV format.

Toughest 2Speaking at an International Broadcasting Trust event in London he told me “Working on Toughest Place to be a was a great experience. It also really helped to highlight the plight of poor people living under very difficult conditions. I was particularly proud of the programme we made about overfishing in Sierra Leone. As a result a patrol vessel was donated by the Isle of Man and the scourge of illegal fishing there has been almost eradicated, transforming the lives of local fishermen . I would welcome ideas on a new format which would work for us. Showing what life is really like for poor people around the world in a way which is both informative but also entertaining is challenging but I’m determined to do it ”.

To help people come up with a format which works I’ve put together a few criteria which I’ve run by Sam

  •  Like Toughest Place To Be has got to make good television (think Reithian principles to entertain, inform and educate in that order)
  • Needs to be documentary based with very strong human interest stories (some of the most innovative recent formats have been reality TV)
  • Can’t be too expensive: it’s the BBC after all!
  • Needs to be a format a mechanic or solicitor would enjoy, not just someone interested in development issues
  • Has got to deal with the big issues but from a surprising and different angle
  • Ideally it would show developing countries in transition or challenge a stereotype we have about them

If you have an idea for a new TV format which meets these criteria I would be delighted to send it directly to Sam.

Looking for Practical Answers in West Africa?

Wednesday, February 5th, 2014 by

Practical Answers is a collection of hundreds of free resources (technical briefs, manuals, video and audio files…) which has been built up over the years based on the knowledge and real life experiences of Practical Action project staff and others. It is also a free technical enquiry service. If you don’t find the answer you need you can send us your question.

Now that we have opened an office in Dakar we hope to capture and share more technical knowledge generated within West Africa. Here for example are some excellent technical manuals which draw on decades of practical experiences from across West Africa. Written by practitioners as part of the Global Water Initiative West Africa, they are essential reading for engineers, project managers or anyone looking for practical answers to that thorny question: How do you ensure rural water and sanitation infrastructure operates reliably throughout its design life?

We will also be launching a website in French to make Practical Answers accessible throughout West Africa. If you would be interested to contribute to writing or translating technical briefs or by joining our network of technical specialists, please write to us here:

Construction of a Gravity-fed Solar Powered Water Supply: A Training Guide

Community Monitoring During the Construction of a Gravity-fed Solar Powered Water Supply: A Training Guide


A Practical Guide for Building a Simple Pit Latrine.

Community Monitoring of Borehole Construction: A Training Guide

Community Monitoring of Borehole Construction: A Training Guide

Contracting for Water Point Construction: Provisional and Final Acceptance Forms

Contracting for Water Point Construction: Provisional and Final Acceptance Forms

Making the Right Choices:  Comparing Your Rural Water Options

Making the Right Choices: Comparing Your Rural Water Options

The Essential Steps Before Handing-over a Borehole (With Hand Pump) to the community

The Essential Steps Before Handing-over a Borehole (With Hand Pump) to the community

GWI-Assuring Quality-An Approach-to Building-Long -Lasting Infrastructure-in West-Africa

GWI-Assuring Quality-An Approach-to Building-Long -Lasting Infrastructure-in West-Africa

Contact our West Africa office via

Innocent until proven guilty

Monday, February 3rd, 2014 by

To a large extent, many of us rumble through life with little thought to the what if’s of any given situation, but every now and then a curve ball comes our way which makes us stop and think. This is certainly true in my case, when I recently had the opportunity to visit Practical Action’s work in Peru and Bolivia. I saw for myself the difference financial support can and does make to the communities living in the high Andes. Practical Action can only fulfill the commitments we have made to the communities who continue to live in extreme poverty, with the generosity of like-minded individuals, organisations, trusts and foundations.Digital Image

If I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes, I could never have imagined the enormity of the Peruvian landscape and the difficulties communities face on a daily basis. If it is not the distance, or the altitude or the state of the roads, it is the extreme heat of the day or the cold of the night. Nothing is easy for these communities – they are the innocent bystanders in a far from innocent world and I know I was guilty of being blinkered to their plight.

I suspect there are a lot of people like me, guilty through no fault of our own, just innocent actions and a touch of ignorance which is why the innocent foundation’s support of our work is so incredibly special; not only to all of us here at Practical Action, but to the communities who they have so generously supported for several years.

Digital ImageLiving in a one room hut is the reality for communities, but the implementation of basic services – simple amenities that we all take for granted can and does make a difference to them. The difference is plain to see, and I was lucky enough to meet and talk to the community involved in this project during my own visit and who feature in the innocent Chain of Good video being aired on television.

To have a chain of facilities such as power, water and appropriate sanitation is life changing and will break the chain of poverty for good. It means they can afford the essentials in life such as food, clothing and education. However, one thing that has stayed in my mind was the lady who when asked how the new facilities had made a difference to her, replied, ‘it allows me to take the truck down to the town to buy a few essentials.’  Not a bus with a comfy seat, air conditioning and a bag of sweets, but the back of a truck, and a five hour drive down the rough mountain track on a Saturday, to return on the Sunday with a few basics and a bad back!

We are all innocent until proven guilty – what we do here in our everyday lives is in complete innocence, but it makes us all guilty of being inflexible to the implications of our actions in the wider world. The Chain of Good video portrays a powerful message and I hope it will stop us in our tracks and make us all think – not for me or for any of us here at Practical Action, but for the communities that will benefit from the real and lasting difference individuals, organisations, trusts and foundations can and do make.

It is two months on since my return from Peru and Bolivia and not a day goes by I don’t think about the communities – the families that I met or the images I saw – the innocent foundation inspires; on behalf of those communities, thank you.