Archive for August, 2014

The media mechanics behind a record-breaking fundraising campaign

Monday, August 18th, 2014 by

It is now seven months since we finished fundraising for our successful Department for International Development (DFID) backed ‘Safer Cities’ campaign for our urban work Southern Asia.


Some time ago I promised to give an overview of what we did, what went well and tips for a happy future appeal and (because I’m someone who always keeps his promises), below is an outline of last December’s somewhat breathless efforts.

The fundraising campaign was match funded by DFID and had a number of communications requirements which we were expected to fulfil:

  • We should identify a media partner who could enable us to reach a guaranteed minimum of 400,000 UK residents with the appeal messages, and (most importantly for DFID) the message that DFID were matching every pound we raised.
  • We ensure the voices of the people who would benefit from the projects would be heard directly by our supporters
  • There would be feedback to those who did donate about how much they raised and where the money would be spent.
  • All the campaign material should contain the DFID logo and messaging.In addition, we also made some pledges to DFID ourselves – promising the appeal would be complemented by a media stunt, to increase the reach of the appeal and also to promote in the local media in Warwickshire.

It was a stressful time, not just because we had a (much appreciated) Christmas appeal with the Guardian awarded to us at short notice, which ran alongside the DFID appeal, but because neither we, nor Premier Christian Radio, our media partner, had ever done anything like this before.

As it turned out, we needn’t have worried. DFID’s communications department were helpful and gave advice on what the Secretary of State would and wouldn’t say, and, where possible, what they were looking for.

IMG_9998The build-up to the appeal also coincided with a trip with a Guardian journalist to Nepal which allowed me and my colleague Hayley Lloyd to visit Nepal, promote a BBC Radio 4 appeal we were doing for the same project and collect lots of material and stories for the Safer Cities appeal. This gave us the opportunity to engage the local BBC radio stations and local press by suggesting they talk to me & Hayley about our experiences at the project.

Perhaps most importantly, it also allowed us to catch up with our colleagues in Kathmandu and explain to them fully what the appeal was about and the extent to which there would be demands placed upon them for pictures, interviews and case studies. From that point of view alone, the trip was worth every penny, because the communications and project team in Kathmandu rose to the challenge brilliantly, producing a succession of fantastic pictures and case studies, often at horribly short notice for use on social media around Christmas and New Year. The fact the appeal was a success was largely down to the hard work and flexibility of my colleagues Prabin and Swarnima.


Finally, we worked with a creative agency to develop some images of slums laid out on top of well-known British landmarks – Brighton Pier, Buckingham Palace, Edinburgh Castle and the Bullring in Birmingham to try and localise the idea of how slums would affect the UK.


The results were beyond our expectations, with coverage in British and Scottish national newspapers, leading regional papers and a range of websites, which brought our opportunities to view to well over the 40 million mark.

Of course, most importantly, the fundraising was an overwhelming success. The appeal brought in more than £900,000, of which more than £800,000 was matched by DFID, meaning we smashed all previous Practical Action fundraising appeal records and have now been able to start work in slums in Bangladesh and Nepal to help tens of thousands of people living in slums get themselves out of poverty, for good.

3 tips for a positive DFID match funding appeal experience:

  1. Get your local teams on board in a big way and set their expectations. Offer them plenty of support and make sure everyone is aware of just how much of a transformational impact the appeal can have on the organisation.
  2. Talk to DFID regularly. Like most of us in the communications game, they need to report successes to their bosses so keep them up-to-date with all your successes. Our relationship with DFID was so positive that after the appeal ended, Minister Lynne Featherstone visited our headquarters to celebrate the success.
  3. Make sure both you and the communications partner are on the same page (some sort of written agreement may be a good idea in which both parties state what they are committed to). They need to be aware of the minimum expectations that DFID has in terms of both reach and their messaging and that not living up to them could have a seriously negative impact on the organisation. Equally, it is important to identify interesting stories and editorial opportunities to ensure that the media partner fully benefits from the relationship as well.

They train dogs – we need to train our drivers

Thursday, August 14th, 2014 by

The Hindu (Indian English Daily) and The Prothom Alo (Bangladeshi Bengali Daily) published a report on 11 August, 2014, saying that Delhi City authority is going to take an initiative to train Delhi dogs, stray dogs basically, as security strength.

SAM_9106Stray dogs in Delhi create many problems for city dwellers; sometimes they even go mad and hurt people. So, with good intention,the authorities decided to turn the burden into asset. These dogs, they think will provide security to city dwellers when they are trained. A good initiative indeed.

In South Asian countries – there may be other countries as well – one can see stray dogs everywhere. They are seen from the village market to in front of a flashy shopping mall, from a rural road to a highway, from the beach to hill, where not?

I can remember how the Rajshahi City Corporation (north-western district of Bangladesh) used to manage stray dogs. Killing was the only means then. They used to beat dogs to death, especially the mad dogs. The action was carried out during the breeding time (August-September-October) of dogs. It was so frightening for me and my siblings. We used to run away when we see the dog-killer-group on the street. This was the accepted method of  keeping the stray dog number in control, then. Things may have changed now, I don’t know.

With this bitter memory, when I read the news of dog-training in Delhi, I felt good. In fact, a thinking crossed my mind to send a “thank you letter” to Delhi authority. Though I haven’t sent a letter yet, I wish this initiative every success.

Dogs? No. We need to train drivers …

overturned lorry“Training dogs to provide security for city dwellers” is even beyond our dream, I believe in Bangladesh. This must be taken as an insane idea. There are so many issues coming every day to deal with, for our government.

Recently, along with many regular problems, our nation has been facing a challenge on how to control road and river accidents, although road accidents are a kind of regular incident of our life. Every day there is news of accidents in newspapers.

But accidents invariably increase during two Eids (Eid-Ul-Ftr & Eid-Ul-Ajha). Eid (Muslim Festival) is the time when movement of mass people increases – almost all working people, student, expatriates,  go to their ancestral home to enjoy the Eid holidays; everywhere, there is rush. This year was no exception. Last month, we observed Eid-Ul-Fitre, on 29 July; enjoyed 3-days government declared holiday – 28, 29 and 30 of July.  Keeping the holidays in the middle, if I take some days of before-after Eid, I can see the number of road accident and death tolls are alarmingly high. According to the newspaper reports, during  25 to 28 July and 1 to 5 August, a total of 202 people died and 717 people injured by road accident only; the number will be more if I add the river accidents (boat capsize). This is my personal calculation from 3 national newspapers: Daily Prothom Alo (Bengali), Daily Kaler Kntha (Bengali) and Daily New Age (English).

Road accidents not take only the lives of people and leave some people disabled. There are multiple negative effects on family, society and nation. If we look at this from family level, we can understand the trauma. When road accident takes poor people’s lives or leave poor people disable, disaster comes down to the victim-family; mentally and financially.

In most of the cases, accident happens because of the driver’s fault, though the entire system of our road management is faulty. But how to overcome this problem? Who should take responsibility? Who should monitor? I believe, there are plenty of answers jumped into your mind already. There must be many thought of action prevails in the government system, even some actions must have taken already. But the very first initiative, I think, should be to provide training to the drivers of Bangladesh. I am not saying to provide training on “how to drive” only; it should be more than that. To make our drivers calm, responsible, empathetic, traffic-rule-followers, we need to provide training for them. Being a Practical Action’s staff-member, I also wonder if there are any technology-based solutions to overcome this problem? Otherwise the number of deaths by road accident will be more and more in the coming days.

If Delhi authority can start thinking about training up their dogs for the betterment of their people, why not we take creative initiatives to save our people’s lives. Do you have any solutions to this problem, technologically?

NOTE:  More than 4,000 people die on Bangladesh’s roads every year. The country has one of the highest rates in the world, with more than 85 deaths for every 10,000 registered motor vehicles. That’s around 50 times higher than the rate in most western countries.


Can a seed pot really do that…….

Tuesday, August 12th, 2014 by

Appropriate, simple, technological solutions to help people out of poverty. That’s what our work is about. cressA bit of kit or an improved way of doing something. This is the practical side of our work, what we passionately believe can provide a sustainable difference, but our work always starts and ends with people.  We work hand in hand with poor communities so the project is theirs.

They dig trenches for irrigation channels that enable them to grow more food, they are trained to repair micro hydro systems that provide vital electricity or they are shown how to run their own businesses so they can earn a better living.

I am constantly amazed by the difference our work makes to very poor communities and as a fundraiser it is my job to keep donors ‘amazed’ too so they continue supporting our work. They are doing an incredible thing and I want them to know that.



Every new donor is sent a booklet showcasing some of our ‘technologies’ and the differences these have made to people’s lives. Examples of how their support will help families across the world. Included with the booklet is a ‘make your own practical seed pot’.  A practical and fun way for supporters to be reminded of the type of work we do. If they make it, grow some seeds in it and keep it on the kitchen window ledge at home they can be reminded of how important their support is.  A short ‘how to’ video (below) has also been produced to help them make the pot.



I’m hopeful that small seed pot can do wonders, can reaffirm why they support Practical Action, encourage them to continue giving and to make them think ‘that’s the type of charity I want to support’



A step too many?

Monday, August 11th, 2014 by

As someone who hasn’t been near lycra or a gym for many years the idea of paying good money to pound away on a cross trainer is totally alien. And yet for many thousands, their Saturday morning would not be complete without an hour in the gym treading sweatily away, shedding, hopefully, the pounds.

woman on treadle pump For thousands of farmers across Asia and Africa, they have their own cross trainers – the treadle pump.   For them it’s not about losing the pounds but gaining the taka, the rupee or shilling. The treadle pump, developed in the 1980s, has been a life saver for many poor farmers, enabling them to pump water from underground, providing irrigation in areas far from a river, or in drought prone regions. The only power needed is a pair of strong legs.

This is a fantastic invention which Practical Action has been including for many years in its work with poor farmers, helping them to improve their produce and increase their production and incomes. But it’s not for everyone (like me and the gym!). In some areas, the water has to be drawn up from significant depths – because the treadle pump provides vacuum suction to raise the water, the deeper the depth, the less the flow of water, the longer the time spent on the treadle pump, or it’s not possible to use the treadle pump at all. So what is normally a benefit, can become a burden, often to women and children who are the ones who generally operate the treadle pumps.

solar powered pumpWith funding from the European Commission, our energy team in Zimbabwe is introducing solar powered irrigation to farming areas which are remote from the national electricity grid and unlikely to ever be connected. Even if they were, the cost of the electricity would be prohibitive and possibly unreliable. However, using the abundant, free resource of the sun for solar voltaic panels to power pumps, water can be drawn from significantly deeper depths than a treadle pump. Instead of spending up to 6-7 hours continuous pumping to irrigate 0.5 hectares of land per day, women can be using this valuable time to set up small enterprises, and children can attend school, and the farmers can be sure of a sustainable and reliable supply of water for their crops. A definite step in the right direction.

Time and distance will not matter now….

Monday, August 11th, 2014 by

In a diverse and vast nation like India, 68.7%of the population inhabits rural areas (Source World Bank 2011). There is still a high dependence on agriculture. Between 1980 and 2011 agriculture dependent population in India grew by 50%, which was the highest for any country in world (Source ToI). There is an increased demand for better technology, infrastructure and relevant accessible information to support agriculture and livelihood sector owing to high dependence.

Soil Desalination for Vegetable CultivationHowever, despite the heavy requirement there exists systemic weaknesses,  complicated by low awareness about services, diversity (Soil, water availability and irrigation, climate) and climate change.

Responding to this urgent requirement for practical answers to the complicated issues, an initiative has been taken in which time and distance will not be barriers any more for farmers at village level.

This is a pilot initiative in of Practical Answers in 2 states of Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan in partnership with READ India. Under the pilot project, the queries of farmers are collected by field based coordinators through individual and group interaction and the farmers can also post their queries through mobile phone on a toll free number. The queries are responded to by an agricultural expert based in Delhi. The answers are posted back through mobile technology within 72 hours which can then be  accessed by farmers.

A very early reaction to the pilot initiative by Practical Answers has been welcomed by farmers in Geejgarh village in Rajasthan by saying “ time and distance will not matter for us now for obtaining practical advice on agriculture ……..”

Even if they don’t have phones, small farmers still need energy to power ICT4D

Friday, August 8th, 2014 by
Wiring Malawi

Wiring Malawi just released the results of a survey on the top hardware challenges for organizations deploying ICT4D solutions that use mobile or internet applications for global development purposes. Read the full report here 

Perhaps not surprisingly, the top concern was access to Electricity/Power/Energy. Their report explains this constraint as:

Extremely low power and long battery life; robust handling of electrical spikes, swings, dips, blackouts, and brownouts; and—ideally—at 12-volts DC to be solar-power ready

Even though these are common issues, energy is not often included in the ICT4D discussion. You might ask why this matters to Practical Action— ICT4D is, after all, sometimes not accessible for the average poor farmer in rural Kenya or Bangladesh. But even if you overlook mobile penetration rates cited by the GMSA indicating there are as many mobile phones in Africa as there are people, ICT4D often has applications for service providers supporting the needs of the extreme poor. Everything from food voucher distribution and early warning systems to rural extension services are often improved by the introduction of an ICT4D technology.

But what happens if you can’t get access to the energy you need to power these systems? Like so many other areas that we focus on, energy access is integrally linked to the success of ICT4D programs. This is why our flagship publication, the Poor People’s Energy Outlook, has focused for the past five years on the need to think beyond how we get light into houses—to think about what poor people really need energy for, namely household, productive and community uses- all of which can be relevant for ICT4D.

In Bangladesh, Practical Answers Information Bazaar program uses multiple channels to provide extension services to farmers. Extension agents meet smallholders in their fields, and are connected to IT centers in nearby towns where more in depth farming information can be pulled up online to support the extension agents. If they have a more complex issue, they can also call into a call center, where experienced agents can provide more in depth advice. This is a great system for leveraging traditional and higher tech knowledge using multiple channels for communications with a farmer. But what happens if the power goes out? No call center. No local information kiosk. And that isn’t even considering the impacts of a power spike on a computer. And that farmer in the field, who may not have energy in her own home, also doesn’t have access to the larger knowledge network.

These are examples of productive and community uses, though perhaps not in a traditional sense. You aren’t just using the energy in the home—you are doing something productive with it for a broad swath of people. This is a great example of where energy’s impact moves beyond the lightbulb. The energy discussion isn’t just about wattage, it is about what you can do with that energy to improve the lives of the extreme poor.

Energy is a nexus issue. ICT4D is a nexus issue. Frankly, most siloed areas of development work are nexus issues—they depend on the success of other sectors to ultimately be successful themselves. Practical Action tries to address this complexity through a focus on systems. By engaging the extreme poor and also working with those who impact their lives, we can often identify the pressure points and blockages of these nexus issues, and how to get them to work better, together. In the ICT4D space, this is often called “design with the user experience in mind”. When this is employed, energy and ICT4D measures work together to provide real results.

So why don’t we talk together? ICT4D practitioners build great tools for on-the-ground applications. They need power to support it. Energy advocates know that grid extension isn’t going to be enough to bring access for all. Sounds like we have some common issues work though….

Ofcom report – is the UK addicted to gadgets?

Thursday, August 7th, 2014 by

UK adults spend an average of eight hours and 41 minutes a day on media devices, compared with the average night’s sleep of eight hours and 21 minutes (source Ofcom).  20 minutes more very day on gadgets than sleeping!

Good, bad or just neutral? Essentially does it matter?

We are shaped by the world we live in, the things we do and the technologies we use.

Information and communication technologies (ICTs) have brought huge benefits. On a personal level I remember in the 1980s my car breaking down, late at night, on a rural road in Lincolnshire and not being able to get in touch with anyone (I hitched a lift and all was fine but it felt scary). Now I’d call for help on my mobile.

Beyond the personal ICTs have delivered educational benefits, increased political engagement, greater awareness of news, medical uses, etc. The use of mobile phones to locate people trapped by the earthquake in Haiti made me cheer the ingenuity of the people who set up the system. Practical Action’s work which provides vital information to farmers and entrepreneurs often via mobiles, the web or podcasts is amazing – delivering huge benefits for poor people at very little cost.

But in the UK has our love of ICTs gone too far? Are we now at a stage where our society, the way we live our lives is being shaped too much by communication technologies? And is it harming us?

We should at least be talking about it.

Digital engagement is growing quickly and what we see now will be the start of a more fundamental shift. The same Ofcom report found that the peak of digital understanding is in children aged between 14 and 15, and that children aged 6 show the same level of digital understanding as an adult of 45. My 1 year old granddaughter can’t say very much yet but is a whizz on the IPad!

I am not setting myself up as a paradigm of ICT virtue – the report made me think about my own habits too.

Are we building a society

  • Where the norm is quick access to simple bite sized information – with little available or interest in depth
  • Relationships are formed and maintained through the web rather than by face to face contact,
  • Where our interactions with the world are focused via a limited subset of our sensory abilities,
  • Digital, distanced engagement is prioritized and somehow we are less and less present in the real world?
  • A junk food version of life – immediately satisfying but somehow not very fulfilling.
Gershon Dublon presented homunculus a framework for thinking about how we sense our world and how, at the same time, our world constantly (re)shapes us - the mobile phone homunculus at TEDEX Warwick

Gershon Dublon presented homunculus a framework for thinking about how we sense our world and how, at the same time, our world constantly (re)shapes us – the mobile phone homunculus at TEDEX Warwick

This is not to be Luddite. I don’t want to suggest you take a hammer to your IPad or throw out your TV! It’s to argue for a debate over the role of technology and an insistence that it enhances rather than controls our lives. Starting with people is the essence of Technology Justice. And Technology Justice is for the rich as well as the poor.

The need to start with people is even more vital in the countries where Practical Action works . When you haven’t got a lot of money technology needs to be right for you in the long term as well as the short. Too often technological ‘solutions’ are developed and dropped in without thought to the context or even the reality of people’s lives. I’ve seen big donor, great intentioned, computer donation programmes in Asia – where the computers look lovely having pride of place in a room but where the school has no electricity.

Ultimately at Practical Action we continue to echo (or in this case paraphrase) the words of our founder Fritz Schumacher – ‘It’s about people stupid!’ Lets talk about people and technology; and the direction  we want to take.

A stitch in time saves nine

Wednesday, August 6th, 2014 by

What happens when a fast flowing river, gushing downstream, is blocked mid-way during monsoon season?

The aftermath is disastrous.

A massive landslide on early Saturday morning at around 2.30 AM Nepal Standard Time at Jure village of Sindhupalchok district, 80 kilometres from capital city Kathmandu, wiped out the entire village. The landmass falling from a height of 500 metres formed a temporary dam, 45 metres high.

The water flowing at a speed of 160 cubic metres per second (cumec) created a lake. Within 13 hours the newly formed lake extended about 3 km upstream holding a volume of an estimated seven million cubic metres of water.

The photos from the landslide site are horrific.

Significant damage

Around 100 houses were swept away by the landslide. Thirty three dead bodies have been recovered from the site while 120 are still missing. A kilometre of the Araniko Highway, the only road from Kathmandu to China and a major Nepal-China trade route, has been damaged by the landslide. The route responsible for nearly 38 million Nepali rupees (about USD 400,000) worth of trade per day, seems, will not be in operation for a long time.

The Bhotekoshi Hydropower Project generating 46 MW of electricity has been cut off from the central grid as its transmission lines have been snapped off. Likewise, the 2.6 MW Sanima hydropower station has completely submerged.

Social media comes to the rescue

While some people are still reluctant about using social media in developing countries like Nepal, Twitter came to the rescue. It was the social media that broke the news. The torrent of tweets from the landslide site from engineer Kapil Dhital (@bewitchkapil) made it possible to analyse the extent of disaster. His tweets, and retweets and modified tweets from his followers fed media the real story from the ground. The downstream communities were warned on time through local FM radios and cellphones as well.

Preparedness downstream

Nepalese security forces have worked day and night to handle the situation. They have been able to release some stored water through controlled explosions.

Video of controlled blast by Nepal Army

However, the risk of landslide dam outburst flood (LDOF) is still a major concern for the communities living in the vicinity and downstream. The landslide site is 260 km from the Koshi barrage and it will take the waters 17 hours to reach there.

Fearing the flood in the Koshi River if the dam breaches, the district authorities in Sunsari, Saptari and Udayapur districts are on high alert, as per the national news agency RSS (Rashtriya Samachar Samiti). People, both in Nepal and bordering India, have fled their homes and camped at safer grounds.

In 2008, Koshi, the largest river in Nepal, breached the embankment inundating villages in Nepal and India. Scores of people were killed in Nepal and India. Around 60,000 people from 10,530 families had to be evacuated in Nepal’s Sunsari district alone. Whereas in Bihar of India, the figures touched one million. Properties worth billions of rupees were washed away by the floods. Because of this, the Koshi has earned the sobriquet “Sorrow of Bihar”. The Indian authorities have already moved more than 49,000 to safer shelters this time.

Practical Action in Koshi Basin

As members of Global Flood Resilience Alliance facilitated by Zurich (Zurich Insurance Group), Practical Action and Nepal Red Cross have supported Nepalese government’s Department of Hydrology and Meteorology (DHM) and concerned District Disaster Management Committees to install electronic display boards in District Emergency Operation Centres (DEOC) in Rajbiraj, Gaighat and Inaruwa municipalities of Saptari, Udayapur and Sunsari districts to help officials keep track of the water level in Koshi River.

Display board showing water level in Koshi River at Chatara

Display board showing water level in Koshi River at Chatara

Along with the real time flood level display boards, sirens have been annexed to each display that sound off automatically as the water level crosses the warning level at Chatara, 45 km north of Koshi barrage. The DEOC offices will share the water level record with concerned offices and Village Development Committees (VDC) located near the Koshi River. It will keep the villagers informed about any incoming danger.

Timely information about the water level in the rivers and impending floods can save hundreds of lives and billions of rupees. The early warning system installed at Karnali, Babai, Rapti and Narayani rivers in the western region of Nepal with Practical Action’s support have proved to be a boon to the locals.

The communities are able to monitor the level of rising water from the river gauges. As the level reaches the alarming point, the community mobilisation team warns the community of the danger ahead. They have also been trained to evacuate the families with the help of life jackets, torches and boats.

Nature is the greatest leveler and we have no control over the natural disasters. However, a single tweet breaking the news and a single siren sounding off on time can save millions.