Archive for May, 2014

Loos, murder, rape – the status of women in our societies

Saturday, May 31st, 2014 by

Listening to the news this morning I realised that the two young girls in India, aged 14 and 16, who had been gang raped  and murdered  died as they had gone into the fields looking for a discreet place to go to the loo. Somehow it made it even sadder. Sanitation is a pretty easy fix given money and will to provide latrines, sludge management and hygiene education. It’s truly do-able.

Girls from Bengo school, Gwanda, Zimbabwe helping to construct new toilets

Girls from Bengo school, Gwanda, Zimbabwe help construct new toilets

The girls remain nameless as it’s illegal under Indian law for the media to identify the victims. The fact that we don’t know their names seems somehow wrong – but that may just reflect our news norms in the UK – we want to sympathise personally and share in grief and support.  It also makes them  representative of the millions of young girls who each day risk attack just by looking for somewhere to go to the toilet,  walking to fetch water or firewood for their families, or carry maize to a mill for grinding.

Women are frequently at risk – you only have to look at some of the other stories from India.

But the stories from India are not alone.  Also on the Today Programme this morning were reports of a woman in Sudan convicted of changing her religion from Muslim to Christian, who has been sentenced to death (commuted for 2 years – and hopefully for life!). She was forced to give birth in a prison cell (rumoured to have been shackled throughout). And a third which told the story of a pregnant woman in Pakistan stoned to death in public by her own family for marrying the wrong man. The man she married had already murdered his first wife by strangling but was let off prison as his son forgave him.

The school girls kidnapped in Nigeria are no longer in the news.

What draws these stories together is a view of women and girls that somehow says we are lesser  – viewed as unimportant, as processions or to be controlled. We have no voice.

At Practical Action we work on the practical things in life – like loos. We also work with people trying to help them – women and men – gain voice. We call this material and relational well-being – material well-being is about having the things you need for a decent life, relational well-being is about having a say in your society and how things are shaped. Both are needed for sustainable development.

I was horrified by each of these stories.

But strange attitudes to women, women somehow invisible are not just something that happens in countries far away from those of us who live in the UK.

Not on the same scale but a story closer to home had me shouting at my Twitter feed the evening before.  It was an image of the UK Prime Minister David Cameron meeting Jimmy Carter to talk about how we remember those people who died in the holocaust – the meeting consisted of  lots of men in suits. Not one woman. 2 million women died.

(I do know there are women on the Holocaust Commission – my question s why when there are 7 people visible around the table are all of them men?)

And finally – on my catch up weekend – I came across the just released list of the 100 most powerful women in the world.  Angela Merkel is ranked number 1 – probably politically not completely aligned with me but even so as a woman taking centre stage she made me smile! And it felt very good to read a news story about women, women with power and  influence, that could make me smile.

Let’s remember the girls in India. Let’s work to make women more visible, let’s work to make women around the world less afraid, let’s aim for an equitable view of women and men.

I want to hear great stories of women doing brilliant things as I listen to my radio in the morning – not stories of oppression that just make me so sad. And I want those great stories to be because we have a world in which women are free to flourish.

Markets for Disaster Risk Reduction

Friday, May 23rd, 2014 by

“A private sector committed to Disaster Risk Reduction can steer public demand towards materials, systems and technological solutions to build and run resilient communities”. 5th Global Assessment Report, UNISDR

The critical role of the markets and the private sector for Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) and resilience building has been widely recognized during implementation of the first Hyogo Framework for Action (HFA) 2005 – 2015. Despite the development community’s focus on the impact of overseas aid, the vast majority of investment in developing countries, 70-85% (UNISDR 2013) comes from the private sector. This investment is targeted around business plans which are shaped by markets at local and macro-economic levels. Today most communities are dependent on markets for the provision of their food, utilities, shelter, for the sale of their products, for agricultural inputs and for employment. Markets also define the delivery of key services, especially healthcare, extra curricula education and care services. Markets contribute significantly to the livelihoods of people, especially the most vulnerable, and their failure when a disaster strikes can have critical impacts on those people who are least able to cope. Although markets engage with people at the local level we must not forget that these markets are connected to national and global market systems which influence their behaviour. Therefore we need to look at the role of the private sector and of markets in particular to identify ways that they can contribute to building the resilience of the poorest and most vulnerable, with the objective of not leaving anyone behind.

CBA Nepal 02“Small and medium sized enterprises are particularly at risk; a single disaster may wipe out all or most of their business capital.”

Participatory Market System Development (PMSD)[2] is Practical Action’s approach to inclusive markets that reduce poverty and protect the environment. Markets, can act as a powerful platform to give marginalised people in developing countries, and those who provide services to them, access to valuable networks, technologies, experiences and assets that can help them work their way out of poverty. Using the PMSD approach, Practical Action is interested to explore the incentives and market mechanisms to create the conditions for investment decisions to be made that build resilience and reduce disaster and climate risk. We need to explore ways to help the private sector be more accountable for disaster risk reduction and resilience building, so that when disasters occur (which directly or indirectly affect their investments) the most vulnerable are not disproportionately affected, do not suffer unfairly and benefit from having a more resilient supply chain. With the private sector contributing some 70–85% of investment at the local level, markets and the decision made to support them have far reaching consequences on risk accumulation and on the underlying risk drivers, thus it is important to understand their potential to exacerbate and/or reduce risk. The ultimate goal of DRR is to reduce or ultimately avoid the shocks and losses due to disasters through increasing the resilience of society, this could only be achieved when all the actors, including the private sector and the markets in which they operate, are themselves resilient  (a win-win scenario).

Practical Action also has expertise and credibility around a PMSD tool, the Emergency Markets Mapping and Analysis (EMMA)[3] toolkit, which has helped numerous humanitarian agencies ensure that their relief and response efforts are considerate of markets. But EMMA is a post disaster response tool, what is needed is a pre disaster assessment mechanism to ensure that we are reducing and avoiding those risks to which we know the market is vulnerable.

As part of our DRR programme, Practical Action will be attempting to tackle the question. “What can we do to support markets actors to strengthen market systems to the natural hazards they face, so that when a disaster occurs the poorest and most vulnerable do not suffer?”  Some of the critical dimensions to this question are outlined in the diagram below.

Blog 17 slide

To explore this issue, Practical Action will use the Sustainable Livelihoods Framework[4] to examine the five capitals; Human, Social, Physical, Environmental and Economic to identify the key combination of factors that contribute to resilience.  For each factor we will measure the following key dimensions of resilience: Robustness, how resistant are assets to shock?, Rapidity, how fast are assets able to respond to shocks when they strike?, Redundancy, the degree of slack or excess capacity in the process?, and Resourcefulness, the capacity to innovate among/between assets available? By systematically exploring the DRR and Markets question and capturing the lessons learned Practical Action will contribute knowledge and key influencing to the negotiations for a successor agreement to the Hyogo Framework of Action.  By integrating the resilience building potential of markets and the private sector in the new Hyogo Framework of Action (HFA2 or HRA+) we have the potential to drive change at global scales.

A tale of tradition, technology & tobacco

Friday, May 23rd, 2014 by

Ethnic communities living in remote areas are not only geographically isolated, they are technologically isolated too – that’s what I thought while going to the hilly part of Bangladesh lately. And I was wrong!

IMG_1600I was visiting Bolipara – a remote place in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) of southern Bangladesh, a region famous for its hills, rivers and forests. With 13 ethnic groups, cultural diversity is also an attraction.

While talking with the Khumi, the Tripura and the Marma ethnic communities separately, I asked them to tell me three things that they were happy to have. Water points, treatment from local traditional healers, and schools were mentioned by more than one group. These were logical choices given the water, health and literacy related challenges they often face even at the end of the MDG-era. To my surprise, the other two things made them happy were mobile phone and solar home system.

I calculated that there was roughly one mobile phone for 12-16 people in Bolipara. Maintaining a mobile phone in Bolipara is, however, a big challenge. To top-up your credit, you may have to walk up to 9 km to the nearest market. Since there is no electricity supply from the national grid, you also need a solar system in your house or at least in your village to charge your phone. Although mobile phones are cheap (as low as $30), solar home systems are not (minimum price $350). So, solar panels on the thatched roofs of quite a few traditional houses made me happy.

In this age of ICT and renewable energy, I was very pleased to see ethnic people of the CHT were no longer technologically isolated and were improving their lives with advanced technologies. This is what Technology Justice is all about!

(A quick note: Technology Justice can be defined as the right of people to decide, choose and use technologies that assist them in leading the kind of life they value without compromising the ability of others and future generations to do the same.)

IMG_1601But, by living in one of the poorest areas of the country, how are the people of Bolipara  paying for solar home systems? In fact, unprecedented blanket cultivation of tobacco in this formerly forested area is allowing them to earn quick, good cash from large companies. Tobacco may be destroying the local environment and traditional agro-systems; it is also supporting good investment in technologies to make traditional life comfortable.

This recent technological transformation of Bolipara represents a complex interaction among culture, poverty, private sector, environment and technology. Development is about making balanced choices. When the gap between the haves and the have nots is vast, it is often hard to advise the poor what they should do and shouldn’t do to make their lives better. Fighting technology injustice is tough, but achieving technology justice is probably tougher.

Haseeb Md. Irfanullah leads the Disaster Risk Reduction and Climate Change Programme of Practical Action in Bangladesh. He is available at

Design and Make the Future conference

Thursday, May 22nd, 2014 by

I’m not sure if there’s a collective noun for D&T teachers…techies, geeks, designies? but just wanted to share with those of you who didn’t make this year, something of the buzz of the day when 120 D&T teachers get together.

Organised by TeachDesign and the National Science Learning Centre in York, the day kicked off with a keynote from Mark Shayler the founder of Ape. He challenged and inspired us as a community to think about our work our responsibility as teachers of the future generations of designers and makers.






USE YOUR CRAFT WELL’ Mark Shayler 2014

Strong words…but resonated well with our work at Practical Action encouraging D&T teachers to choose real and relevant contexts for pupils and encourage teachers to encourage pupils to consider the impact of designer decisions. Our top 3 D&T resources to explore the responsibility of designers and to encourage pupils to think about what they make are;

Roles and responsibilities of designers

Belief Circles

Technology: Needs and wants

Following the keynote, there were sixteen different workshops running throughout the day with time for viewing the exhibition.

We ran two workshops that offered teachers the chance to explore a range of real-life global contexts for designing and making based on our development projects.  Using images from our work in renewable energy, construction, transport, food and agricultural technologies, water and sanitation projects the teachers came up with an exciting range of project opportunities. The images are available here and are all supported with technical briefs that are great for GCSE and A level projects.

We explored in more detail the context of construction in flood-prone regions through our Beat the Flood challenge, where teachers showed their true making skills whilst challenged with developing a structure to withstand flooding and strong winds.

D&T conference York 3






I was sorry not to have made it to the last keynote…we were busy dismantling our exhibition.

Great day…lots of ideas for us to support you with more global contexts.

If you can make the conference next year…I’d 100% recommend it!


“Technology to deliver what it promises – that is, to make their lives better.”

Thursday, May 15th, 2014 by

I was driving through the Warwickshire countryside on my way to work this morning, listening to Chris Evans Radio Show. I always try to time my drive to make sure I hear one of the news reports that run every half hour, it’s nice to start the day hearing what is going on around the world.

Earlier this week they were reporting that people using mobile phones, tablets and laptops just before bed is having a terrible effect on our natural body clock, meaning that we have more restless nights. Yet, today one of the main news stories is the planned merger of Dixons and Carphone Warehouse and something that struck me was a quote from Sebastian James , Dixons CEO, about the £3.8bn deal.

“Together we can create a seamless experience for our customers that will enable technology to deliver what it promises – that is, to make their lives better.” S.James

What struck me was that Dixons and Carphone Warehouse are merging so that they can improve the lives of their customers, when actually a couple of days earlier we were hearing how these devices were having a huge negative effect on our lives and health.

Memory and Pat

Two weeks ago I saw a true example of technology delivering on what it promises, making lives better. I visited a Practical Action project in Mutare, Zimbabwe where we have worked with the local community to install a micro-hydro system. We visited the local clinic that is now powered by the micro-hydro system and got to see first hand the difference this technology is having. We arrived at the centre at about 5pm and spoke with the Sister, who was telling us what services the clinic could offer and how busy they were, seeing 600 people a month. How refrigeration of vaccines allows them to vaccinate more children, all year round and how they have light in the maternity ward. We were lucky enough to visit the maternity recovery ward and meet new mother Memory with her 6 hour old daughter, Precious. We heard how Memory was particularly keen to have her baby at the clinic as she knew that it had electric lighting, whereas in the past candles would have been used.

Now for me, powering a clinic that serves 600 people every month seems like technology delivering on it’s promise – that is, to make our lives better.

My afterthoughts on Living Below the Line

Thursday, May 15th, 2014 by

Is it possible even in the UK to manage on less than £1 a day for food and drink?  Yes with research, planning and determination. 

Helena1Is the diet very unpleasant?  No. But £5 shopping requires ingenuity with limited ingredients. After a couple of days, even when I tried to ring the changes, it started to feel a bit samey. And to my surprise, it took more time than usual to work out what to make.

Three things became my life-savers: a bottle of lemon juice (29p), porridge for breakfast (5p a portion) and root ginger (9p and not all used by the end of the five days).

Food for thought

What I did get a lot of, however, was food for thought. Firstly a much greater appreciation of the level of skill involved in managing a shopping budget of £1 a day.  Having access to a plot of land to grow vegetables and fruit and having some chickens would make a huge difference in managing a budget and a diet.

Vegetable growing techniques

Soil Desalination for Vegetable CultivationEven in adverse conditions, there are techniques which make vegetable growing possible. Practical Answers is a wonderful source of know-how on useful techniques.

People access this know-how via the web or via in-country enquiry and extension services.

Take a look at an example brief.  This one describes how to desalinate soil for vegetable growing

Secondly I was intrigued how living below the line gave rise to interesting conversations. People often started out telling me they wouldn’t be able to do it and then began to work out how they would. We would end up talking about how their shopping list differed from mine. In most cases people realised they could do it, though were glad they don’t have to.

There is still time to sponsor me and help Practical Action transform the lives of more people.

8 surprising things about Zimbabwe

Tuesday, May 13th, 2014 by

In late April my colleague Jamie Oliver and I visited Zimbabwe for the first time.  Like most people from the UK we had preconceptions about the country.  Many of these were utterly wrong and we were constantly being surprised by aspects of this little visited country.

Digging an irrigation trench in Himalaya, Mutare

Digging an irrigation trench in Himalaya, Mutare

  1.  There are millions of trees – I never imagined this.  In the main areas we visited – Gwanda, Masvingo and Mutare the countryside was covered with trees and even Harare had many tree-lined avenues.
  2. Zimbabweans are football mad. I lost count of the number of times I was asked which Premier League side I support.  Having no particular affiliation to football I had to masquerade as a Swans fan!  One evening we watched the Champions League match Chelsea v. Atlético Madrid in a packed bar in Mutare where we witnessed some exceptional enthusiasm for Chelsea!  Apparently even the president is a Chelsea fan.
  3. Great Zimbabwe – what a stunning place – and I never knew it was there!
  4. Crime (or rather the lack of it).  Arriving after a few days in paranoid Johannesburg, I expected Zimbabwe to be similar. How wrong I was.  There were no bars on the windows and no ‘car security’ volunteers on every street and everyone we encountered was exceptionally friendly and welcoming.
  5. It’s expensive. The US dollar is the currency and  only a very small amount of change is available (in South African Rand) which means means that the minimum price for goods is 1$. Dollar notes are all very well worn so the fresh new ones we brought with us were extremely popular!

  6. 13935821817_36378f9dc1_mHarare has regularly featured in lists of the top ten worst cities in the world.  Lonely Planet fortunately disagrees.  We didn’t spend long enough there to judge but saw nothing that would make it fit this list.
  7. ‘All right’ is a phrase that can be heard whatever local language is being spoken.
  8. While Chinese investment is focused on mineral resources, hotels and energy systems have also been funded.  Zimbabwe’s improving economy is partly due to this bilateral trade.

Sweat, determination and hard work

Thursday, May 8th, 2014 by

A dream doesn’t become reality through magic; it takes sweat, determination and hard work – Colin Powell

Visiting some of the communities that Practical Action work with has inspired me to reflect on Live Below the Line, so here are my musings. A reflection of Live Below the Line and Practical Action’s work in Mutare, Zimbabwe.


This week thousands of people across the UK have risen to the challenge and are taking on Live Below the Line, an anti-poverty campaign challenging participants to have a strict budget of just £5 for 5 days. I was apprehensive when I took on the challenge a few weeks ago, and it certainly lived up to the billing. It is a true challenge, but I didn’t find it difficult in the ways that I thought I would.

I thought I would struggle eating plain, boring food for 5 days and I knew that a lack of caffeine would have an effect. But the thing I found most difficult was how much time it took to prepare food throughout the week. Each evening, we would prepare dinner and then breakfast and lunch for the following day, spending a couple of hours in the kitchen, creating a meal from basic ingredients. This was made more difficult as our energy levels were running low at that time of day. The food we made was actually pretty good and I ate 39p pizzas for most of the week. For me, being so used to a convenient lifestyle is what makes Live Below the Line so challenging.

Yesterday, I had a fantastic day but learned that actually, during my Live Below the Line week, my life was still quite convenient.

I was walking in the hills around Mutare, Zimbabwe as we visited a micro-hydro scheme that is being installed to bring power to a community.

The beauty of the project is that it is community led and we saw the entire community getting involved, from a group women singing whilst they dug sand out of the river bed to a group of men who were building a business centre that will be powered by the micro-hydro system. This is hard work… really hard, but they are excited about how they are shaping their community and their future.

Later that day, I realised that not only are these people working so hard to transform their community, but they also have a very different definition of hard work. They are doing manual labour to develop their community, but this is on top of the fact that they grow their own food and process their crop. Walking in the hills above the village (viewing the source of the micro-hydro system) we met someone walking the other way. I was breathing hard after the climb and the lady walking in the other direction was carrying a large bag of maize on an 8km walk across difficult terrain to the mill to have it processed into flour.

When I did Live Below the Line, I found it hard work and lots of effort, yet the ingredients were bought from a supermarket less than a mile from my home, and if that was too much effort I could have had them delivered to my door.

What really struck me about my day in Mutare, is that this is not a community of people who are waiting for a fairy godmother to make their dreams come true. This is a community that are excited to put in the sweat, determination and hard work hard needed to transform their community and shape their future, to lift themselves out of poverty, for good.

Practical Answers – practical solutions for your questions

Thursday, May 8th, 2014 by

Imagine you are in a remote village and don’t have access to internet, in particular Google, to search answers for your questions. Practical Action has developed a perfect solution for such conditions.

Practical Answers, the knowledge sharing service of Practical Action, collects enquiries from communities, prioritises the needs and develops required knowledge materials like technical briefs, radio programmes, flex prints and videos that are disseminated to the communities in interaction programmes.

Committees for knowledge sharing
In Nepal, Practical Answers has been responding to hundreds of enquiries every month through its ground based strategy for knowledge sharing. The enquiries are usually responded through the knowledge materials and organising interactions with the experts.

However, when the collected enquiries cannot be answered through the available knowledge materials and experts, the practical answers focal person, whose primary job is to find answers to community people’s enquiries, faces difficulty in responding to them on time. Getting timely response to enquiries is the major factor that determines the effectiveness of Practical Answers but due to lack of experts the focal person sometimes struggles with this.

Considering this, Practical Answers in Nepal coordinated with district line agencies including the District Agriculture Development Office and District Livestock Service Office and formed a pool of experts in each knowledge node in 2013. The Knowledge Management Committees (KMC) comprise of 7-11 members representing the district line agencies, a representative from library management committee and a Practical Answers focal person. At present, there are 12 KMCs for 12 different community libraries termed as knowledge nodes.

The committee supports the focal person in providing timely response to community members’ enquiries through interactions, knowledge materials and telephonic conversation. One of the objectives of forming this committee is also to provide the collected enquiries to government officers so that they can study it and identify the needs of the community members which could also help them develop new programmes to address the community’s needs and/or implement already available programmes effectively. It also bridges the gap between service seekers and service providers.

In addition, this platform also creates prospect of resource extraction from government service providers for sustaining Practical Answers Service. By virtue of this committee, our service has been well recognised by the Government of Nepal.

The KMCs hold bi-monthly meetings and work in coordination with the knowledge nodes.

Happy beneficiaries

Practical Answers is not only providing answers to the queries from community, but also instilling the spirit of implementing innovative ways to better their lives among the community members. Ganga Kumari Bhujel of Nawalparasi district in western Nepal is an example.

During an interaction programme held at a knowledge node, Ganga learned about the technical process of potato farming, its potential diseases, preventive measures and the usage of pesticides.

Now, with Practical Answers’ knowledge services, she’s able to earn NRS. 50,000 (about 300 GBP) per season and support her family. She says, “I used to plant paddy, wheat, maize and mustard in my land but the income wasn’t good. After I planted potatoes, my income is really good.”

Neither Ganga has internet access nor the capacity to google her questions, but thanks to Practical Answers, she is a budding agri-entrepreneur.

Cherchez-vous des Réponses pratiques en Afrique de l’Ouest ?

Tuesday, May 6th, 2014 by

Réponses pratiques
 est une banque de documents techniques (fiches techniques, manuels, vidéos, fichiers audio … ) que vous pourrez télécharger et reproduire gratuitement.  Elle a été mise en place au fils des ans, sur la base des connaissances et expériences vécues par le personnel de Practical Action et d’autres organisations. Réponses pratiques comprend aussi un service gratuit de conseil technique. Si vous n’y trouvez pas ce que vous cherchez, s’il vous plaît,  contactez-nous  via la section Poser une question

Avec l’ouverture récente d’un bureau à Dakar nous espérons pouvoir capitaliser et partager davantage de connaissances techniques venant de l’Afrique de l’Ouest.  Vous trouverez ci-après par exemple quelques excellents manuels techniques qui s’appuient sur des décennies d’expériences pratiques dans la sous-région.  Ils ont été écrit dans la cadre de l’Initiative mondiale pour l’eau en Afrique de l’Ouest, et sont une lecture essentielle pour les ingénieurs, chefs de projet et tous ceux qui cherchent des réponses pratiques à l’épineuse question : Comment vous assurez-vous de l’eau en milieu rural et des infrastructures d’assainissement fonctionne de manière fiable tout au long de sa durée de vie?


Communautés au suivi des travaux de réalisation d’un mini réseau d’approvisionnement en eau  Guide Pratique pour la Construction de Latrine à Simple Fosse
 Guide de formation des communautés au suivi des travaux de réalisation de forage  Contractualisation de la réalisation des points d’eau
 Faire le bon choix: un comparatif des technologies d’approvisionnement en eau en milieu rural  bnbm
Démarche qualité pour la réalisation d’infrastructures durables en Afrique de l’Ouest  


A travers notre nouveau site Web en français nous avons l’am
bition de rendre le service de Réponses pratiques plus accessible en Afrique de l’Ouest. Si vous voulez contribuer à rédaction ou à la traduction de documents techniques ou à rejoindre notre réseau de spécialistes techniques, s’il vous plaît écrivez-nous à