Archive for September, 2015

Building peace through local markets in Kebkabiya, Darfur

Wednesday, September 30th, 2015 by

In Kebkabiya in North Darfur, Practical Action was able to influence and lobby the government into supporting the rehabilitation of a local market in the village of Um Loata.

Since the outbreak of conflict in Darfur in 2003, all local markets in Kebkabiya locality, with the exception of the main market within Kebkabiya town, have either been destroyed or ceased to function. This has negatively affected all sections of the population in the district, including farmers, IDPs and pastoralists, all of which require local markets to support their livelihoods. As the opening, running and security of markets is the responsibility of government, Practical Action had to influence and persuade government to support the efforts to rehabilitate this local market.

collecting water from a borehole in DarfurPractical Action primarily did this, as with all its activities, through local community based organisations. Practical Action mobilised the nine CBOs in Kebkabiya that it helped to establish and train and that comprise a cross-section of the local population and livelihood groups to form a committee to oversee the market. This committee, accompanied by other important local persons of influence (e.g. leaders of native administration), organised a series of meetings with a variety of government bodies including relevant ministries and security organs to lobby for their support.

Practical Action then worked with the government to assess the needs of the market, to design its layout and to provide basic water and sanitation facilities. The government formed a police force to protect the market, established a tax mechanism for it and officially opened the market at a public ceremony attended by hundreds of people from across the locality. The rehabilitation of this market is significant not only because it strengthens livelihoods, but market places also act as important social meeting points where social ties and relations, especially between ethnic and livelihood groups, can be built and reinforced.

This market is also significant as it demonstrates that, despite the conflict, it is possible to build the required trust between diverse communities to re-establish such markets. It is expected that the opening of this market, primarily through coordinated influencing directed at the local government by local communities, may pave the way for other markets to be opened by similar efforts

Knowledge systems, chains and grids

Monday, September 28th, 2015 by

Last week I was pleased to attend the launch of the Climate Knowledge Brokers (CKB) manifesto at DFID. It’s a really handy guide to the role of knowledge brokers, how they should go about their tasks and why they are so important. Whilst the launch of the manifesto has conveniently arrived ahead of COP21 (the 2015 Paris Climate Conference), I think the models and lessons from this document have wider importance for knowledge brokers across all sectors.

In particular, the necessity to understand the needs of the audience is one of the main items highlighted by the CKB. This seems a straightforward observation, but it’s easily forgotten because the links between knowledge ‘supply’ and ‘demand’ are rarely as simple as they appear on paper. I found this recognition particularly relevant to our work: the ‘chain’ between the creators of knowledge and those that will find it useful is complex. It’s also full of gaps, with actors often possessing neither the will nor the way to pass knowledge on.

courtesy of Jerry Manas

courtesy of Jerry Manas

For knowledge brokers like Practical Answers, we must act effectively in both directions: communicating the needs of our consumers to our suppliers whilst formatting, contextualising and organising information to make knowledge accessible and appropriate for our users. A great point raised during the meeting, and an approach that we strive for in Practical Answers, was that constantly asking questions is the key to success in knowledge brokering!

The CKB have also previously talked about a ‘Climate Grid’: a network of brokers, working in a co-ordinated way (digitally and offline) to make sure marginalised communities get access to the knowledge they need.  But I wonder if it’s better to see the whole process as a knowledge system, albeit a complex and ever-changing one. It was clear at the meeting, for example, that people who are running large programmes for DFID are both knowledge creators and knowledge users. A chain, focussed on brokers, tends to underestimate the other influencing factors in the whole knowledge system. When it comes to climate change, everyone is exposed to messages from a whole host of actors beyond formal knowledge brokers, including the media, the private sector, scientific organisations, governments and their community: not to mention special interest groups and lobbyists. In such a complex system, it’s vital to understand these gaps, dynamics and needs to provide knowledge that those on the front line of a changing climate can use.

New SDG on WASH is great, but 3 things to watch for

Monday, September 28th, 2015 by

Since the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were agreed in 2000, the profile and importance of access to an ‘improved’ source of drinking water and sanitation has risen. A landmark was achieved in 2010 with the passing of the Human Right to Water and Sanitation. Ending open defecation has become a key topic for UN Deputy Secretary General Jan Eliasson. Many governments have set themselves challenging commitments and targets. And as part of the set of Sustainable Development Goals to be adopted this week (good summary from The Guardian here), universal access to a higher standard of water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) has been included as a full goal (not a sub-target as previously in the MDGs).

The SDGs aim to be ambitious. Aspirational. And in they certainly are for WASH. Goal 6 is to ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all. Not only are we now aiming for universal access, but we have raised the bar higher in terms of quality too (Target 6.1 is for ‘safe and affordable drinking water’ and Target 6.2 is for ‘adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all’ measured as the population using ‘safely managed’ services).

Collecting water from a protected spring, in Kisumu, Kenya. This counts as an 'improved water source', but could still be contaminated.

Collecting water from a protected spring, in Kisumu, Kenya. This counts as an ‘improved water source’, but could still be contaminated.

Are we likely to be able to rise to the challenge? The MDG has certainly helped increase pressure for action (as Simon Trace reflects), and the world met the MDG target for water in 2010 (88% of people with access to an improved source of drinking water) – we are now at 91% coverage according to the WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme. And yet it is estimated that globally at least 1.8 billion people use a drinking-water source contaminated with faeces, and in urban areas of sub-Saharan Africa, the situation has deteriorated. On sanitation, the world has missed its MDG target of 77% coverage by almost 700 million. There are still a billion open-defecators and 2.4 billion without access to an improved (never mind a ‘safely managed’) toilet. Hygiene was not part of the MDGs and its inclusion now is welcome, and yet countries are spending less than 1% of their WASH budget on hygiene promotion.

Practical Action works in particular on the WASH needs of poor urban communities. Once the SDGs have been signed, what are the three big things we will be keeping a close eye on as the international community and national governments start to think about how the goals can be implemented:

  1. Who is prioritised? There is concern being voiced about whether the push for a higher quality of WASH access will draw resources away from the needs of the poorest who are without even a basic level of access. The JMP is committed to continuing to monitor both ‘improved’ and ‘safely managed’ access – but will this provide enough incentive? Will governments choose ‘safely managed’ for the few over ‘improved’ access for all? Will the poorest, including slum dwellers, continue to be left behind?
  2. The right technologies and approaches? Will the push for ‘safely managed’ sanitation encourage governments towards high-cost sewerage and treatment plants that are beyond the means of poor communities and fail to deal with the reality of existing on-site sanitation systems (as highlighted by the 2014 GLAAS report)? These kinds of investments divert funds from where it is most needed, and do not reach poor communities.
  3. Holding governments to account. Duncan Green is concerned that the SDG debate has been too technocratic, and not enough about getting traction with national governments. We know that if something is not measured, it will continue to be ignored, so we are part of the call for a dedicated hygiene indicator under the WASH goal. We also know it remains challenging to properly represent the situation for slum dwellers compared to the rest of the city. We will keep asking for this data, and comparing our own findings with official figures. As part of coalitions at national and global levels we will be part of holding governments to account for the commitments they have made, through for example Sanitation and Water for All.

Overall, the SDGs offer an ambitious vision for the future. If they are going to be worth something, we will all need to rise to the challenge, making sure that no-one is left behind.

UN places technology at the centre of development

Saturday, September 26th, 2015 by

The Technology Facilitation Mechanism and the Technology Bank, two new initiatives launched on Saturday 26th September, demonstrate the UN’s vision to place technology at the centre of implementation apparatus for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). (more…)

Farmer Field Schools offer access to agricultural knowledge in Sudan

Friday, September 25th, 2015 by

One of the greatest challenges facing rural farming communities in Sudan is their limited or non-existent access to agricultural technological innovation or knowledge services.

Clearly, if smallholder farmers are to have a future in a region already under threat from a changing climate, something will have to be done to open up the communities to new ideas and technology.

cucumbers in Kassala, SudanPractical Action’s Farmer Field School (FFS) approach is designed to address this issue; a show-and-tell method of introducing knowledge through demonstration. The Farmer Field Schools explore novel agricultural and natural resource management (NRM) practice.

In collaboration with the Kassala State Extension and Technology Department, Practical Action designed a training syllabus specifically for rain fed agriculture. Made up of ten sessions, it was designed to be simple, comprehensive and highly specific to local needs, with the end goal of changing farmers’ behaviour to increase and diversify production, improving their food security.

The most positive impact we see of the farmers’ field schools is the empowerment of farmers (especially women farmers) explained the Extension Officer, before farmers were asking for cash, now they are asking for training and support to develop new activities, and of course they are also more food secure now.

Farmer field schools are held on demonstration sites. Groups of 20-25 farmers meet between once a week and once a month to discuss how the demonstration plots are progressing and to receive lessons from a locally trained extension worker. This combination of information exchange and demonstration ensures that the knowledge is accurate, innovative and suited to local needs.

 Um Alhassan, a woman from Kassala, is a member in one of the women’s farm groups.“I grow cucumber, okra, jute leaves and some fruit. The price of fresh okra in the market is 5 SDG and dry okra is 2 SDG. I use it for cooking twice a day, that means I save from 4 to 10 SDG each time during the harvesting period, from okra alone, as well as from other vegetables grown in the farm. Another thing I didn’t expect at the beginning of this farm is the parasitic weeds we use for feeding our animals, which truly helped us in this part generously. I have a big desire to try cultivating potatoes and onions in the coming period of cultivation. We tried seedlings of tomatoes and Aswad(eggplants); we weren’t satisfied with the results, but we’ll try again.”She added; “Not only does cultivating this farms benefits us, but our work together as team shows the true meaning of participation and collaboration.”

To facilitate impact at scale, the farmer field school approach has been introduced to North Darfur in collaboration with the El Fashir branch of Sudan’s Agricultural Research Corporation.

But the upscaling hasn’t stopped there. Following the FFS organised by Practical Action and community based organisations in Kassala, a number of our partners including the UN’s Food and Agriculture and Industrial Organisations and the Butana Integrated Rural Development Project, have supported FFS in Kassala State and German Agro Action has included it in their staff training sessions.

This is a perfect example of an agricultural knowledge initiative that taken a local success and replicated it to have a positive impact across a nation, creating farming practices that are innovative and future proof.

Necessity is the mother of invention

Thursday, September 24th, 2015 by

Development does not start with goods; it starts with people and their education, organization, and discipline. ~EF SCHUMACHER

About 668 million or around 70% of Indians live in rural areas (in 640,000 villages) and continue to use animal dung, agricultural waste and wood as fuel for cooking. The thermal (energy) efficiency of these traditional sources is very low (15%). Particulate matter in the Indian households burning biomass is 2000 μg/cubic m which is much higher than the permissible 150 μg/cubic m.

Use of traditional fuels is estimated to cause around 400,000 premature deaths in India each year due to respiratory problems. 75% of rural households depend on firewood for cooking, with 9% each using dung-cake and LPG, as against 22% of urban households using firewood for cooking, another 10% on kerosene and about 57% on LPG. For domestic lighting, 55% of rural households depend on electricity and another 44% on kerosene, while in urban areas dependency is 89% on electricity and 10% on kerosene.


Access to clean cook stoves for social well-being and economic sustainability (ACCESS), supported by Johnson Matthey, is helping Practical Action achieve another milestone in developing new, appropriate technology in the clean cook stove market.

The project is being implemented in Koraput, in Odisha. 90% of the population in the district depend on firewood as their prime cooking source. Deforestation and erosion are often the end result of harvesting wood for fuel. People, especially women, spend the whole day on firewood collection for 2/3 days cooking needs. Hence, the main goal of most improved cooking stoves is to reduce the pressure placed on local forests by reducing the amount of wood the stoves consume. Additionally, the money a family spends on wood or charcoal translates into less money being available to be spent on food, education, and medical care; so an improved cooking stove is also a way of boosting a family’s income.

stage -1

Prototype 1

However idea of this project was to pick the best available cook stove in the market and involve women entrepreneur groups in the cook stove business through establishing production centres. Our local partner for the project “EKTA” started looking at the available cook stoves in the local market and their feasibility, we continuously got a negative result. We started negotiating with bigger and established manufacturers but “transferring technology to the community” was refused because of issues with security and quality control.

Prototype 2

Prototype 2

Time pressure encourage us to develop our own cook stove through a series of experiments and demonstrations and consulting our colleagues in Nepal. We enlisted the help of an engineer to design the stove according to our specifications as well as a local expert to make it using the design. This has been updated four times based on community feedback. Finally the community friendly cook stove has been developed by the project and is getting attention at stakeholder level. It is cost effective, movable, light and above all looks attractive..

Prototype 3

Prototype 3

The cook stove has been demonstrated and passed water boiling and cooking tests at the community level and has been sent for lab testing at Odisha University for Agriculture and Technology (OUAT), where it was received enthusiastically.

We hope this cook stove will add a milestone to Practical Action’s achievements in India and that it will help rural women to secure a stake in improved cook stove manufacturing and business. Considerable challenges still exist in promoting improved stoves,  but the key to moving forward will be to effectively engage women in ways that accommodate or help overcome existing constraints.

The SDGs – flawed yes, but still a powerful vision of a possible future

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2015 by

SDGsThis week heads of state, the Pope, the UN Secretary General and a range of dignitaries meet at the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit in New York. They are meeting to launch the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that set a vision for 2030 for human development and environmental sustainability. The SDGs range from commitments to end poverty in all its forms and reduce inequalities, through to more sustainable industrialisation and peace and justice. The 17 SDGs replace the 8 Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that were agreed at the turn of the century as a vision for progress to 2015. The Guardian does a good summary of the SDGs as well as how they relate to the old MDGs.

There are reasons to be cynical about what goal setting of this nature can achieve. Firstly there is the track record of progress against the MDGs themselves, which is patchy. You can see a good summary by the UN of achievements as of 2104  here. In short, some good progress was made across Asia, Latin America and North Africa, but most of the MDGs were not met in Sub Saharan Africa.

More fundamentally there is the question raised by Duncan Green in his From Poverty to Power blog about how much goals of this nature actually influence behaviour of governments at a national level. As Duncan puts it do we really think that “Chinese decision makers leap out of bed every morning asking themselves ‘how can I achieve the MDGs’?”

And finally you have to wonder whether some of the metrics used to measure progress against the goals really say anything meaningful (or indeed whether the data can always be trusted – a criticism of some reporting against the MDGs).

Despite these reservations, I am a supporter of the SDGs for 3 reasons:

Firstly, standing out against the miasma of bad news and dire predictions for the future that forms our daily media diet, they provide an alternative and positive vision of a possible future. A view that was built at least in part on a very large global conversation around “the future we want”.

Secondly it’s a view around which action can be galvanised. Duncan may well be correct in saying national policy makers don’t jump out of bed thinking about the MDG’s, but that doesn’t mean they have had no influence. Access to clean water supplies was included as a specific outcome for MDG 7 for example and my sense over the past 15 years has been that that increased focus on what progress was being made, which in turn influenced allocations made for rural water supply infrastructure by donors and national governments. Progress on addressing access to water over the past 15 years has been relatively good, albeit there is still some way to go. In contrast, access to energy was not included in the MDGs and consequently much less scrutiny of progress was visible (until the recent UN sustainable energy for all initiative). As a result of the lack of interest in the sector there was a relative dearth of funding for the comparable decentralised community managed infrastructure needed to provide rural communities with electricity.

Thirdly, however imperfect they are, the MDGs and now the SDGs can provide a handle for civil society to hold both national governments and the international community to account. They are a statement of intent that can be held up as a mirror to reflect back how actions have measured up to rhetoric. They are a tool for us to use should we choose to.

There remain reasons aplenty to be cynical about the SDGs. But I still welcome them. In a cynical world they are a statement not just of hope but of intent. And as such they have the potential to reflect back to us all on the effectiveness of our efforts to find a just and sustainable future for everyone on the planet.

Can Practical Answers help alleviate the global burden of illiteracy?     

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2015 by

September 8 was ‘World Literacy Day’.  At this moment there are 775 million people in the world who are illiterate and two- thirds of these are women. 98% of literate people live in developed countries while for the least developed countries literacy rates average around 65%.  Around 40% of adults (15 years and above) in Bangladesh are non literate, roughly 64 million of the employment market.

The burden of illiteracy

Bangladesh’s position is in the list of lower middle income countries and per capita income of Bangladeshi people rose from $1190 to 1314$ from last year.  Studies revealed that lower literacy is a cause of multiple under development.  “Illiteracy increases higher rate of unemployment, crime, long term illness and prejudice against women” (World Literacy Foundation).

A study on child labour shows that earlier generations who had some literacy and numeracy were successful in finding better employment and came out of extreme poverty even in the poverty stricken areas of Bangladesh. This study also shows that among the children who could not continue their schooling due to their parent’s poverty, but had three or four years schooling, were able to find skilled employment in trades such as auto mechanics, driving, welding, tailoring, or carpentry, which have a better daily wage than those who could not read and write. Earlier generations (who were also once child labourers) who did not have literacy and numeracy could not find better employment and continued to work in physical labour intensive employment, with high health risks and lower duration of productivity and lower wages.

How we can escape from these dire consequences? What are the alternative solutions for those marginalized people? We are paying the cost of illiteracy  in many ways in our daily life . Road traffic injuries cost 1-2% of national GDP each year in Bangladesh while most of the drivers and pedestrians most vulnerable to accidents are poor and illiterate.

According to World Literacy Foundation research, Bangladesh loses 0.5% of its total GDP to illiteracy. Bangladesh observed World Literacy Day as a high priority and the country’s Prime Minister  attended a national event organized by the Ministry of Education. Therefore it can be said that literacy and education are high priority issues of the state and the policy makers. The country aims to attain 100% literacy rate by the year 2014. The relevant ministry has chalked out an initiative to provide fundamental literacy among 4.5 million non literate people throughout the country.  However what would be the fortune of the 60 million others in Bangladesh?

Krishi call centre

Krishi call centrePractical Answers Bangladesh has been implementing decentralized and diversified knowledge services for the marginalised such as the illiterate.  We have the Krishi Call Centre, a mobile phone based technology and knowledge service, where both the literate and non literate can get answers to their livelihood related problems. We introduced voice messages for those who cannot read and write, so they can learn and access information that they require in their daily lives. Besides we have numerous audio and visual knowledge contents and these are followed Open Data Sources Policy so people who are hearing impaired they can also have also learning access.

A study relating to youth and marginalized employment in Bangladesh shows that there are some departments who offer different training and skills programs but adolescents who dropped out of school could not access those low cost programs as enrolment on those programs requires at least eight years education. Data shows that in earlier generations many people learnt their skills through traditional systems such as carpentry, goldsmithing and weaving. 

To attain sustainability in our development we should introduce alternative learning systems where non-literate people and those with visual and aural disabilities can also have equal opportunity. By employing different digital means we can continue learning access to these non literate as lifelong continuous education.

Vocational and technical skills and livelihood related training institutions can introduce voice content, audio content, pictorial materials and apprenticeships with special focus on the needs and limitations of the non-literate and if there is required to change any such policy which is caused to limit the learning scopes of our unfortunate non literates where they are victims of different structural injustice needs to take urgent action.

Influencing policy and practice in Darfur with dams

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2015 by

The opening ceremony of the Sail Gedaim dam on 13th of August was attended by over 1,000 people from the 20 villages that will benefit from the dam in addition to representatives from local CBOs, women’s development associations, village development committees and the private sector.

Said Gedaim dam opening ceremonyMore than a dozen senior representatives from various government ministries and departments also attended the ceremony, including the Deputy Governor of North Darfur State members of the technical committee of the Wadi Alku project. The engineers responsible for designing, and supervising construction of, the dam were also present as were staff from project partners UNEP.

The ceremony was responsible for a number of other achievements including:

  • Linkages established between village communities and higher level authorities in North Darfur, including the Darfur Regional Authority.
  • The voice of poor communities was heard by government authorities through speeches by representatives from the local communities who spoke about many livelihoods, social and environmental issues that affect them.
  • The government endorsed the dam and agreed to provide legal protection for the dam as a shared community-owned asset.
  • Important advocacy and awareness raising issues were raised by the government in relation to stopping the construction of haphazard terraces and earth embankments, which could divert or change the flow of water upstream with disastrous consequences for the dam and threaten to increase soil erosion and degradation wherever constructed. The government promised to form a committee to assess these terraces and remove them if need, replacing them where feasible with more technically appropriate and planned terraces.
  • The Chairman of the Darfur Regional Authority (DRA) used the opportunity to promise to build a new primary school and health clinic in the area.

My expectation is that by the end of the project there will be a great change in the policies and practices which will benefit and improve the livelihoods of Darfur’s rural communities including farmers , pastoralists, and IDPs.

If we aim to leave no-one behind, we must reduce inequality within countries too

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2015 by

The concept of ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ countries is integral to the language of international development (the clue is in the name). Even when we talk about ‘the global North’ and ‘the global South’, the meaning is clear: the rich and the poor, the haves and the have-nots. This inequality is deeply unjust, with roots in an exploitative colonial system, and pernicious effects on human development and wellbeing. However, it is not the only inequality we must be concerned with.

Inequality in the UK is on the rise: the Gini coefficient has risen from 0.24 to 0.34 in just 30 years, and the richest five families in the UK are now wealthier than the poorest 20% of the population. One in five people in the UK live in poverty, and research by Oxfam suggests that another 800,000 children and 1.9 million adults could be pushed into poverty in the UK by 2020.

Internal inequality is not just a problem for the ‘developed’ countries: six out of ten of the world’s most unequal countries are in sub-Saharan Africa. The picture in Asia is not much better: China has made rapid gains in development, but the top 20% still earn around 10 times as much as the bottom 20%. The Gini coefficient for Latin America as a whole has dropped from 0.53 to 0.50 in less than 10 years, indicating that inequality is reducing; however, five countries still have coefficients above 0.50, and ten of more than 0.40.


Young children standing in a typical poorly ventilated kitchen, Thimura, Nepal.

Young children in a typical poor home in Nepal.


Why does inequality matter?

Furthermore, inequality will play a large part in how different sectors of society experience climate change. Take flooding in the UK, for example. Around one in six households in the UK is at risk of flooding, but of these households, there will be varying levels of social vulnerability, from those with savings and insurance, to those who have neither. This is the difference between temporary loss and damage, and the loss of all assets with no way to recover. Flood disadvantage is a combination of both high flood risk and high social vulnerability; reducing inequality and social vulnerability would therefore reduce flood disadvantage. UK government spending does not currently take social vulnerability into account however; around half of the investment to be made in reducing flood risk will go to local authorities with no significant flood disadvantage.

In Bangladesh, as in many developing countries, the majority of women are employed in agriculture but do not own any land, and have very limited access to financial services such as loans and insurance. As their agriculutral systems are affected by changing rainfall patterns or rising sea levels and increasing salinity, women are less able to respond and recover form losses than men. This reinforces and worsens inequality, further marginalising women and pusing them further into poverty.

Reducing inequality within countries, both ‘developed’ and ‘developing’, is therefore not only a moral right, but an essential part of building resilience to climate change and securing sustainable development for all.

[1] A Gini coefficient of 0 would indicate perfect equality, where everyone has the same income, and 1 would indicate that all wealth is held by one person.