Archive for January, 2016

Our 50th anniversary quilt

Friday, January 29th, 2016 by

Our collection of beautiful quilt squares for the 50th Anniversary quilt, is growing steadily with the latest one arriving today from Maddy Broome – thank you so much Maddy!quilt square

If I understand correctly from the bundle of letters that came with the square, Maddy not only went to her book group, neighbours and colleagues for button donations but also sent requests to friends all over the place. They sent back their buttons with a few lines about why they had chosen them and it was those letters that she has sent on to me. One I found particularly touching was from someone called Wanda who had donated a button of Joe’s who I presume was her partner/husband.

She wrote: “We miss him so, so it’s wonderful to think this tiny ‘symbol’ of him will live on.”

Last weekend I had a text from an old friend of mine who had held a party with neighbours to make a quilt square which I am very much looking forward to seeing!

She said, “We had a wonderful evening… I had 16 over and it was a lovely cross-section of the ladies of our village. They drank me dry and finally left at 1 am! We all agreed that we should get together more often. The buttoning was a wonderful catalyst, creative without being demanding. Our square is being finished by a neighbour who couldn’t come along. It’s quite eccentric – you’ll see what I mean!”

Marion sent through 3 squares, one with a special Three legs of Man button, following a Buttons & Biscuits event at her home in the Isle of Man.

The wonderful thing that is emerging from this quilt process is how making squares brings people together – perhaps, gives us an excuse to make contact, get together and share with friends the things that are special to us – including Practical Action! And that is essentially what Practical Action is doing all the time in its projects – bringing people with knowledge together with the people who need it and developing creative and simple solutions to the problems that they face.  And that is wonderful!

I had a lot of tea and cake with my neighbours at the start of the year and they were very intrigued as to why they were asked to ‘bring a button and a pound’. That square is almost finished and I have now got one started at school. This Sunday I will be talking at my local Methodist Church about it and from early February there will be a square in progress in a coffee shop in Shrewsbury along with an article in the local paper (fingers crossed) so anyone can come along and take part.

I hope you are still inspired to contribute. The deadline is 31st March so you still have lots of time to collect and send buttons or make quilt squares.   It’s very simple!

So please keep those squares coming and keep having fun telling people about Practical Action!

Who controls innovation?

Monday, January 25th, 2016 by

Innovation is often heralded as the measure of progress of businesses, technologies and even societies. It is through innovation that we create not only new tools or apps, but also how we shift entire systems to new sets of standards, regulations and performance. But the focus and direction of innovation efforts are most often to create new private value – through more business profit – rather than greater social value – through meeting the basic needs of global populations. (more…)

Join a movement for Technology Justice!

Thursday, January 21st, 2016 by

Today Practical Action released Technology Justice: A Call to Action. Technology Justice Call to Action

In it we introduce the idea of Technology Justice – how so many existing technologies are not available to people who need them;  how many technologies we use today are destroying the planet; and how technology innovation is not focussed on addressing real needs.

This call to action is designed to reach out to and engage with like-minded individuals and organisations and inspire them to collaborate with Practical Action to take action towards Technology Justice. We want to engage with anyone who might help us to build the case for change, and raise our voices to challenge technology injustice.

Come and join the conversation!

When Manjari met Badamanjari

Wednesday, January 20th, 2016 by

Eagles come in all shapes and sizes, but you will recognize them chiefly by their attitudes ~ EF Schumacher

This is about a story of two entities carrying the same name and few similarities; however the differences make this quite a story.  It began when we took a journey from Bhubaneswar to Koraput to see a few micro hydro projects. I was assigned to document the good practices and was figuring out ways to start.

By the time we left Bhubaneswar, both the characters were already developed and discussed by my colleagues. One was part of geography and the other one was human existence. One was the means to progress the other one was progressive. One was hopeful about the hopes of the other one. One was a place to visit and other one was the visitor. One was Manjari and the other one was Badamanjari.

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Badamanjari Village, Koraput, Odisha

It sounds funny, but what made me write this blog was something which we in Practical Action believe -giving the human touch to my work. Though it started with pulling Manjari’s leg, (she’s the Senior Energy officer from the Nepal office) we all were heading to Badamanjari where we have demonstrated a micro hydro project linking it with sustainable livelihood under project SMRE (Sustainable Micro-hydro through Energizing Rural Enterprises & Livelihood) with a support from WISIONS.

Crossing the hilly terrains of the Eastern Ghats, we were heading towards Badamanjari on the second day, we were constantly teasing Manjari making her more inquisitive about the place. We crossed the beautiful valleys of Koraput on our way, taking photos of beautiful landscapes. We passed several small villages and hamlets but Badamanjari was still far away. I was ready with my camera to capture the moment when Manjari meets Badamanjari!!

I could hear the beat of drums and local instruments. I guessed a wedding was happening seeing the crowd of people. But as soon as we came closer, a few familiar faces came towards us, which made me sure that we are in Badamanjari and the music was to welcome us. We were overwhelmed but things that happened after that made our day. When Manjari got down from the car, the women put garlands around her neck and also on ours – this was a grand welcome, beyond our expectations.

To our surprise, the women took Manjari to dance with them with the beats of local songs and the instruments. I could see a perfect sync between Manjari and Badamanjari. It was a beautiful village in the foothills of tall mountains with colourful walls and magical music of water flowing from the surrounding fountains.

After nearly two hours in the village, when we were returning, I asked Manjari, about her experience and I was expecting her to be happy and positive about the warm welcome and the time we spent there. She had showed the villagers how to operate the powerhouse smoothly.  After a few seconds of silence and a deep sigh, Manjari replied.

Her reply initiated a discussion about something which we must bring into our practices in the village.  We had community meeting where there was a proportionate number of both male and female  villagers attending. But when it came to participation in the discussion the women said very little, despite being asked several times. One of the villagers was translating the discussion in local Kui language but it made no difference. The women remained silent and we were unsure whether they got anything from the discussion or not. I could see the worry in the words of Manjari while she shared this. She was unhappy to see few women participating in the development process. She also raised a valid point that no women from the village have a clear idea of the micro hydro project and things that are benefitting their village.  No women accompanied us at the powerhouse.

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Women from Badamanjari Village, Koraput

There is a need, for these women to come out of their cocoon.”  she said. With these words of Manjari, I could connect to a lot of situations and suddenly Manjari made me realise that, I have also taken the video interviews of a male villager whereas it could have been a women sharing her bit of story.

We had already left the village and it gave me enough space to rethink and realise the real essence of development.

As a development professional when all our efforts are heading towards making life better of marginalised communities, our ethics should compel us to take a stand on bringing equality in all spheres. Gender equality must feature in our actions in the field and rather than just being a term in the development dictionary. All our projects and people managing projects and supporting services must be sensitised to work on this. Because real essence of development lies in practice rather than theory – this what Manjari made me realise.

As they say, we learn from our mistakes. I am hopeful to give justice to my work at a personal level by abiding by such ethical values. Beyond all good memories, hardship and fun we had during the journey I will take away this learning which will make me a better individual and a professional as well. Yes, it was a story, a real one. Of two entities with the much similarity of name, but beyond the names I could feel the invisible bond unnoticed.

I looked out of the window and saw the setting sun and a silver lining there at the horizon.

Mobilization is vital to sustainable governance

Wednesday, January 20th, 2016 by

Mobilization plays a critical role in every development project. This is the strategy used to ensure that beneficiaries actively participate in development planning, implementing and monitoring. One may say that mobilization brings beneficiaries from a state of non participation or passive participation to a stage of active participation. However, this is an immensely challenging process.

Sherry R. Arnstein, the author of “A Ladder of Citizen Participation,” (1969), explains eight rungs of participation. Understanding the eight rungs is of vital importance in building sustainable governance. The highest rung in the ladder of participation is ideally “Citizen Control” in which good governance comes into action. In practice, there are a whole range of tools used to mobilize people. The argument is “too much of mobilization activities lead to passive or no participation of fisher communities”. In other words, too many mobilization activities lead the participation process to move downward in the ladder of participation. Because issues and constraints related to governance of fisheries resources are the key incentives for the participation of the communities, unless they are addressed within reasonable time duration, communities tend to lose their faith in the process.

The Sustainable Lagoons and Livelihoods (SLL) project experience is that levels of participation of fisher communities vary and that needs to be understood before devising mobilization activities. Failure to do so, only leads to either passive participation or no participation. It has been found that with some fisher communities a whole lot of mobilization activities need to be carried out for them to be motivated, whereas others need only one or two activities. Blog post 5

“Urgency” is a prominent characteristic among fisher communities. Their sense of urgency is clearly manifested in the activity of fishing. However, this characteristic can be found in most of their routine actions daily. Fishers are quick in every aspect of life when compared to most other communities.  The argument is if the mobilization activities do not match the essential nature of fishers, less participation or even insubordination will result. The baseline studies or initial mobilization actions help to understand the level of participation of fisher communities that fits in the ladder of participation. Therefore, mobilization strategies need to be chosen and implemented accordingly.

The project plans or proposal contain time-frames with a flow of mobilization strategies. However, the implementers need to understand the community first and adapt and adopt strategies to match the communities and motivate them to do better.  Experience indicates, with one community, a transect walk will trigger stewardship in the fishers whereas in other fisher communities, this will happen at the end of the project.

Disaster Risk Reduction and political economy

Tuesday, January 19th, 2016 by

At Practical Action, we know that investment in disaster risk reduction (DRR) is far more effective and efficient at saving lives and livelihoods than post-disaster relief – although both are necessary, to a greater or lesser degree. When more is invested in appropriate DRR, less relief is needed – as per the oft quoted fact that every $1 spent on DRR saves at least $7 in post-disaster relief (UNDP, 2016).

Unfortunately, it is not always possible to carry out those DRR activities that are the most obvious or the most urgent, because DRR is inextricably linked to the political economy.

For example: Practical Action works with one community just outside Piura, in northern Peru. Piura is the capital of a province with the same name and is economically the second most important region in the country outside of Lima.

The community of Polvorines is built on a seasonal wetland, so that during heavy rains, the water naturally drains there. The last time there was severe El Niño flooding in the area many houses were washed away and great damage done to life and livelihoods. One might think this would deter people from living in the area, but that was over 10 years ago now, and recent migrants to the area find it hard to worry about such a sporadic event. Furthermore, they have put much time, effort and resources into building their homes in a place from which they can reach their livelihoods in Piura, and the surrounding agricultural zone. Persuading them to move would not be easy, even if it were as simple as moving them into ready-made housing in another location – which it is not. The local municipality will not encourage them to leave either, as it was they who encouraged them to live here in the first place.


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Los Polvorines, Peru


So what can we do in such a difficult situation? Practical Action is using the Markets for DRR approach (M4DRR) to analyse some of the post-disaster risks associated with reconstruction, and see if they may be reduced. For example, should a large reconstruction effort be needed, will there be sufficient labour and construction materials available locally? Where are the bottlenecks in the market chain that moves construction materials to the area, for example, are there any vulnerable bridges that might be washed out? How much will it cost to reinstate basic services, such as water and electricity, and who will be able to access credit to pay for these? On what terms?

The people of Los Polvorines are endangering themselves by living on unsuitable land because they cannot afford to live elsewhere. In the long-run, choices will have to be made. A flood event may provide the stimulus to move households to a more secure and appropriate location, if such a place can be found which still enables people to access their livelihoods. If not, ways will have to be found to make the area more suitable for habitation, for example by improving drainage, or raising houses onto stilts. In the meantime, we will continue to work with the community of Los Polvorines to mediate risk wherever possible.


Role of women waste pickers in Dhaka

Friday, January 8th, 2016 by

Beneath the glaring afternoon sun, I watch as a woman crouches roadside at the base of a city garbage container, referred to as a “dustbin”. Using her unprotected hands, she dutifully sorts through the waste, separating out non-perishable items of value such as plastic, paper, and glass. These items are placed in a woven basket to be sold to a local scrap shop and then recycled. She is considered a “tokai”- a waste recyclable wastepicker. She is one of the estimated 120,000 in Dhaka.

For the “Technology and the Future of Work” project, the Dhaka office has chosen to focus the waste sector interviews on the informal workers who collect waste from households. From there, it is transported by rickshaw van to the local dustbin. Although it varies in every neighbourhood, there is generally a system of microenterprises organising the collection. Although still in many ways an unfavourable and marginalised profession, being a waste collector requires some capital, allows for a fixed monthly salary, and has a certain level of visibility within the city. This role is predominantly undertaken by men. As explained by my friend and research partner Lamia, it is “a social norm” that women are not the waste collectors; rather, they are usually the tokai earning a precarious daily wage.

waste picker on siteThe strategy for fieldwork designated one research pair to focus on South Dhaka and the other to focus on North Dhaka. From 11 to 30 May, Lamia and I visited 12 areas in South Dhaka. On the first day in the field, we spoke a woman tokai. She shared that she would like to purchase a collection van, but did not have the money and also thought that no one would be interested in selling her a van due to her gender. She worked formerly as a household maid, but after the death of her husband began waste picking as a means to earn more money. She has a son who assists her. She chose to call her story “I am helpless”.

female waste picker with collection vanOn our fifth day of interviews, I was surprised and curious to meet a woman waste picker who collects from households. She explained that her husband needed assistance to pull the van and was unable to finance an employee, so they began to share the work. They receive only one salary from their supervisor. Although she expressed no discrimination from other male workers, she said she does not wish this work for other women, as it is “dirty” and “not nice”. Her work helping her husband seemed to me an exception, a visible overstep of a gender boundary.

As the fieldwork progressed, Lamia and I traveled across South Dhaka. Interestingly, changing areas brought changing gender dynamics. In Moghbazar and Malibagh, we met several women waste workers who collected waste from every flat and transported it to the dustbin. One respondent explained she faced no social problems doing this work. “People don’t give me any trouble”, she said, “And this work doesn’t change the way that people view me. This is because at the end of the day, I can go home and I can wash my hands and then I am clean. Then I am the same as anyone else”.

Factors such as gender, class, and race compound to influence both what women earn, and what work is available to them. As Dhaka city has no formal recycling system, waste pickers are the primary processors in a system of both economic and environmental benefit. Women may be emerging as the new face of the informal recycling chain in Dhaka in terms of participation, but it is often a face veiled from public or political recognition; a face kept looking down at a basket behind a dustbin. However, gender and class have demonstrated an interesting and unexpected relationship for women’s work opportunities in the waste sector.

Far greater numbers of women waste collectors, who also separate and sell the recyclables, were visible in lower socioeconomic areas in the city. I asked Lamia about these variations. She explained that our earlier interviews had been in posher areas, and now we had transitioned. It seemed that in the less wealthy areas, there was less stigma around women’s involvement in waste work. These observations negated my previous ideas that increased income, and assumed increased education, necessarily leads to increased gender positioning- at least in the informal waste sector. Lamia nodded to draw my attention to the happenings around us and explained, “you see this man, and he is here fixing his rickshaw. And next to him, this woman is depositing the waste in the dustbin. And there are also men working with the waste. They are all working for their survival. In that way, it doesn’t matter that he is man and she is woman. In that way, they are the same”.

Additional Reading

Chen, M. (2001). Women and Informality: A Global Picture, the Global Movement. SAIS Review, 21(1), pp.71-82.

Chen, M., Vanek, J. and Carr, M. (2004). Mainstreaming informal employment and gender in poverty reduction. London: Commonwealth Secretariat and International Development Research Centre.

Waste Concern, (2004). Country Paper Bangladesh. Dhaka, pp.1-20.

Happy Floating Gardening!

Tuesday, January 5th, 2016 by

The year 2015 ended well for floating-garden-enthusiasts!

On 15 December, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) declared floating gardening of Bangladesh as a Globally Important Agricultural Heritage System (GIAHS). This agricultural system has now become one of the 36 systems around the globe, and the first from Bangladesh. A GIAHS is essentially an outstanding land use system or a landscape that has been evolving with a community meeting their needs and desire for sustainable development.

Floating gardening is a traditional agricultural practice in the southern part of Bangladesh. In this farming system, rafts are made on stagnant waters with aquatic plants, mainly water hyacinth. On these platforms, crop seedlings are raised, and vegetables, spices and other crops are cultivated during monsoon. In winter, when water recedes from the wetlands, these rafts are dismantled and mixed with soil as compost to grow winter crops.

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In addition to supporting food and nutrition to rural Bangladeshis, this indigenous technology is a good tool for disaster management and climate change adaptation in the wetlands. Floating farming has also been an useful income generation option for wetland dwellers, thus their poverty alleviation, by managing aquatic resources.

Over the past few years, floating gardening has received much global attention, specifically as a means of adaptation to climate change. It has now found its place in the latest authoritative Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Practical Action’s work on floating gardening in Bangladesh is showcased by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) as a farmer-led sustainable agricultural adaptation technology.

FAO’s latest recognition is a step forward to appreciate the contribution and opportunity of this indigenous technology to mitigating some basic global challenges, like food insecurity, extreme poverty and climate change. Such global appreciation is indeed a result of long-term efforts by many organizations, like, Practical Action, IUCN, CARE and Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies (BCAS), to name a few.

It is interesting to note that Bangladesh’s centuries-old floating gardening technology had never left its ‘centre of origin’ − a small area of about 25 sq km − until NGOs started promoting it in the late 1990s. This is particularly fascinating since about 50% of Bangladesh’s 147,570 sq km is basically wetlands.

The recent robust promotion of floating gardening is an excellent example of how an indigenous technology can transform  poor people’s lives as an innovation − in new areas, to meet new challenges. There, however, has not been any assessment per se to check if floating gardening is really a sustainable option under changing climate. Such testing is very logical as the growth and survival of water hyacinth is very much dependent on amount of rainfall, length of flooding period, and salinity of water − all to be affected by climate change.

The need for research on floating gardening has repeatedly been raised in recent years. But very limited studies on floating agriculture, however, do not match the overwhelming interest in and increasing recognition of this technology.

It may be argued that floating agricultural practice has reached its pinnacle in Bangladesh by being in practice over centuries. But ever-changing climate and hydrology, people’s economic conditions and aspirations, and our development approaches have been continuously changing the face of floating gardening in newly introduced areas. To cope with these changes and uncertainties, promotion of floating gardening should be backed by organized innovation, planned research, and effective knowledge management.

As we start 2016, floating gardening gives us a fantastic opportunity to go about nature-based solutions to basic development challenges − extreme poverty, food insecurity, climate change − duly supported by evidence, not only by emotion.

Dr. Haseeb Md. Irfanullah is the programme coordinator of IUCN in Bangladesh. He is the former disaster risk reduction and climate change programme lead of Practical Action in Bangladesh. Haseeb can be reached at

Waste and recycling: health concerns herald technology change

Monday, January 4th, 2016 by

Waste recyclers in Lima, the capital of Peru, have overcome tremendous adversities to function as a recognised and legitimate sector.

When they had started to pick waste around the city, they were branded ‘nut cases’ or drug addicts and were sometimes chased away by the police when foraging for recyclables. This presented a social challenge since they became a marginalized group.

After unionizing and pursuing their labour rights, the Peruvian government passed the ‘Law of the Recycler’ in 2009- the first of its kind in the world.

Their labour unions, known as associations, provide them with representation and the ability to negotiate better prices as a group. The recycling sector has boomed ever since.

Although their jobs help make the earth greener, the same cannot be said for their own health, as the waste picking process presents many health risks.

Technology change

recycling tricycleMany of the recyclers started to collect waste with sacks, wheelbarrows, or industrial trolleys, mostly without protective uniforms, hygiene masks, or rubber gloves. The handling of unclean waste left them exposed to germs and the stress of transporting the collected waste across long distances caused constant backache. One of our interview respondents, Roberto, recounts how he broke his spine and switched from a wheelbarrow to a tricycle, and then to a moto-taxi. Like Roberto, many recyclers have switched to more automated, locally produced, transport technologies to curb these potential health risks. Other technologies that are changing or disappearing from use include transport scooters, pedal bicycles and pedal tricycles.

mototaxi These health issues have created a market for newer technologies, enabling changes to technology they use. New and emerging technologies include auto-tricycles, known as ‘tricimotos’ and motor taxis. This is accompanied by an increase in the use of protective wear such as gloves, uniforms, rubber boots and hygiene masks.

The fundamental shift from manual to automated technologies enables them to be more productive, collecting more waste in lesser amount time and ultimately, higher incomes, or increased leisure time.

Collection centres

Although many recyclers have been able to reduce excess physical effort by switching to more automated means of waste transportation, they still face a major challenge- the lack of a central waste collection centre.

Currently, most of the waste they collect are sorted in their homes before being sold. This presents huge health risks, since they are constantly surrounded by waste acquired from different parts of the city. Good hygiene is difficult to maintain in such circumstances.

waste for recyclingThis also causes problems with some of the recyclers’ relations with neighbours in their local communities. In an interview with Luzuela, a recycler in the Lima district of Los Olivos, she laments on how she has constant problems with her neighbours because she constantly brings home large amounts of waste to their shared communal space.

Evidently, many of Lima’s informal recyclers stress the need for a central collection centre; so they can all sort their waste there, rather than in residential areas.

The recyclers spend a substantial part of their income on basic expenses such as food, rent, childcare, education and other living expenses. The balance left is put in savings for upgrading their technologies. Since these informal recyclers earn so little, they barely have enough left to contribute towards a central collection centre.

However, there are prospects for the development for the sector as the Peruvian government, in 2013, committed to the promotion and increase recycling practices within the city. The leaders of their associations intend to form an enterprise to capitalize on this opportunity, which could potentially become a lucrative business.

The once looked-down upon sector of recycling in Lima is now recognised as a pivotal part of environmental efforts the city is increasingly making.