Archive for February, 2019

Building resilience from the weakest links

Thursday, February 28th, 2019 by

The weakest link is the limit of strength of the chain. No matter how strong the other links are, individually, the chain can be no stronger.

When we engage in international development, we are often challenged to work at the system level.  We are expected as outsiders to be able to understand the complex and complicated series of interconnections of interrelated causes and effects.  But in these systems, doesn’t it follow that the poorest and most hazard prone are the weakest links in this overall system? Doesn’t it therefore not make sense that to build resilience or reduce risk that we need to focus on these weakest links? Isn’t it these weakest links in the community around which the resilience of that community must be built?

But as development professionals are we any good at unpacking this complexity and being able to identify these weakest links?  Isn’t the development dice loaded in the favour of the slightly better of, the more eloquent and those members that have the time, energy and wherewithal to reach out to the project, to meet with the project staff and articulate their concerns?

Lesson one, we mustn’t confuse the complexity and the muddied reality of the field with a simple chain in which the weakest links can easily be identified.

We need to be aware of how ‘we’ as development practitioners frame the development challenge and how this framing of the questions we ask can influence. What we ask influences what the community ‘hear’ and their ‘understanding’.  Poverty, hunger, vulnerability to natural hazards or climate change are not ‘characteristics’ of different groups of people. But in development speak this is all too often how they are portrayed.  When we talk about ‘lifting people out of poverty’, or ‘building their resilience’ are we avoiding ‘the underlying cause’ of the problem and instead working on the ‘symptom’?

People are poor or vulnerable not as a result of the natural hazard or due to climate change , but due to inequality or poor sanitation, living in the wrong location, not having a voice or not having access to services available in the wider community. So its paramount that before we do anything that we understand the local context, while recognising that this context will be complicated, it will be messy and it will be complex.

Lesson two this complexity isn’t insurmountable, there are some nifty tools to help out…

To help us unpack and start to understand these underlying causes its vital that we take time to engage, listen and learn. We need to borrow from the skills sets of anthropologists or sociologists to understand the multidimensional human interactions that are the modus operandi of how the project will influence. There are a wide variety of tools to help us do this, but sadly in the modern development sector with tight deadlines and the need to be seen to be delivering these are often forgotten. Are we too eager to start fixing the problem? Are we forgetting to establish a strong foundation upon which to build the development process?

And how are we measuring success? Are we guilty of translating the smiling faces and nods of agreement as confirmation that we are on the right track, rather than critically assessing our actions and the implications of these actions on the community or group that we are working with?

Final lesson:  Don’t despair, there is light at the end of the tunnel.

We must remain vigilant. Even if you do not speak the local language, as development practitioners we can all observe and see the manifestations of local power dynamics playing out in front of us. We must remain aware of the processes within power systems that could underlie the causes of many of the problems identified. Its often difficult, especially for local project staff, to find the motivation to assess the power relationships, instead relying on ‘systems mappings’ undertaken through ‘stakeholder engagements’ that reinforce existing assumptions?

Nobody today would question the challenge of gender equity and the importance of bringing women into the development process.  But as we have observed this shift from gender neutral to gender sensitive to gender transformative is difficult, is occasionally seen as unnecessary and consumes time and resources.  But we must at all costs avoid being coerced and motivated to engage in projects and research that comes with ready-made framing that discourages or make it difficult to identify underlying causes and effects, that only reaches certain actors and leaves many excluded from the process?

To avoid this we can ask simple questions like ‘Who is in the room?’ Who is speaking and why are they always speaking?’  ‘Why am I seeing the same faces every time I visit this community?’ ‘Why do people fall silent when someone new walks in the room?’  Its easy, all we need to do is take a moment, look out the window, are there people going about their daily business in the fields or in the nearby market, and if so why are they not in the room and engaging?

When we engage in problem framing its vital to get to the bottom of the problem.  As I said at the beginning; to build resilience we need to be clear on whose resilience we are building and make sure that we are focused on the weakest link in the system. This is not only to ensure that no one is left behind, but to ensure that we are being honest to the community that we are purporting to support.  We need to be cautious in development, but appreciate that there are plenty of tools out there to help us do engagement better the most important of which are possibly our own eyes, ears and our own questions!

Striding Ahead – The Story of How the Livestock Business Centre is Changing Lives

Tuesday, February 26th, 2019 by

Livestock as an important segment of the agricultural sector of Bangladesh has seen an exponentially growing demand. Its prospects as a driver of substantial and sustainable socio-economic change are very promising, however, there remains a lot of room for improvement. There has been a dearth of knowledge with regard to the livestock sector, leading to unaddressed gaps. There is a lack of service and quality inputs for the rural farmers, affordable distribution network and absence of private companies’ business hubs in the community level. That is where the Livestock Business Centre (LBC) comes in. The LBC performs a facilitative role, with the underlying objective of working towards benefitting the rural poor farmers. It has been designed to address all the unmet knowledge needs of the farmers, with a goal of commercialization of rural livestock products and relevant services and inputs. It also ensures affordable output supply for the rural poor farmers, which is contributing to market access and income increase of the rural producers, value chain actors and other market players.

Practical Action Consulting (PAC), in collaboration with a microfinance institute (MFI) established the Livestock Business Centre in Faridpur Sadr, which is an independent rural enterprise providing one-stop solution to farmers, with the vision of establishing a viable business model for products and services surrounding and including rural livestock products. This business aims towards a multi-pronged benefit approach for the producer community, for the traders as well as for the consumers. The objective of this project is to improve the supply chain by establishing rural business centre and distributions network and farmer groups and market-led production systems. 

Many have made remarkable strides ahead benefiting from LBC. Stories of some have been brought to light.

Sharifa Syed was a member of the Asha Committee when she heard about the Livestock Business Centre. She heard about the benefits of LBC and realized it was here to help. Inherently, she would face difficulty availing medical services for her cows. Quality feed was not readily available. Since LBC seemed like a welcome solution, she expressed her interest in availing the services of LBC. She first took a loan and bought one cow. Then she bought another a few months later. She then sold both the cows for a significant profit. After that, she never had to look back. She then repaid her loan to LBC and bought land with the rest of the money. She cultivated all sorts of vegetables, starting from cucumber, eggplant, gourd to onion, chili etc and made a huge profit from there as well. She invested some of her profit on renovating her house and the rest on her children’s education and household expenses. Riding on her initial success, she continued taking loans from LBC. She started from scratch and achieved resilience leveraging on the benefits of LBC. She now keeps busy all day tending her cows or working in the field. She boasted that her husband consults her for every major decision and her standing in her family and the society at large, has been cemented.

Surjo Banu and Billal Sheikh have always been each other’s support throughout. They have been in the cattle rearing business for very long. When they first heard about the services LBC provided, they realized it tapped into a lot of their problem areas. They inherently faced some issues, particularly availing medical services for their cows. The local veterinary professional would not always be within reach. Additionally, availing medical services was a costly affair. It costed them BDT. 1000 to BDT. 1200, often as high as BDT. 2000. With LBC, medical services were now within their grasp, with just a phone call, and at zero costs. Things have become a lot easier for them since LBC happened. They collectively made the highest profit margin they ever made. In a very calculative move, they invested the profit in buying land and a trailer for cultivation, which led to greater profits for them. They can now support their children and cater to their needs with this safety net in place. The couple also hosts the LBC collection meeting in their courtyard, where all the cow rearers socialize, apart from talking about business. Surjo Banu and Billal Sheikh have set a wonderful example of how two partners have crafted a better life for themselves systematically, taking assistance from LBC.

Afzal Hossain reaped the benefits of the LBC to the fullest with this timely planning. He sold the cow that he bought for a very lucrative profit for Eid, just a few months ago. He then systematically invested his profit to achieve a greater level of financial stability. He bought land with this profit and is looking to cultivate onions, which is particularly profitable in this time of the year. He estimates to earn an aggregate return of BDT. 4 lac through his clever investments, multiplying his initial investment by manifolds. He believes this was only possible because he had LBC’s support. LBC has made things a lot simpler for him. With living expenses increasing every day, he was having a hard time making ends meet with the profits he was making earlier. An underlying issue he had been facing was availing medical services for his cows. Not only would it be difficult to manage veterinary services, but it was also costly. The fee would range from BDT. 1500 to BDT. 2000. For cow rearers like Afzal, this kind of cash was not always readily available. If the fee of the vets was not ensured, they simply would not come, leading to catastrophic ramifications for the cow rearers. But Afzal feels the vets of LBC are one of their own. The vets are at his service any time the need arises, which has lifted a huge burden off his chest. With the convenience that LBC has brought, Afzal could diversify his income sources and become a more resilient individual.

Abdul Kalam was sceptical about LBC at first but after hearing how his neighbours were benefitted through the service, he decided to try his luck. He previously had a bitter experience availing financial aid from the government microfinance scheme. The loan given then was a very meagre amount, not enough to meet his needs. Because of poor governance prevalent within the system, he also had to give away a huge portion of that loan as a bribe, ultimately not leaving enough for himself. He first took a loan from LBC and bought a cow. He then bought a second. He sold both his cows for a handsome profit, but he did not stop right there. With the huge profit he made, he cleared his loans and invested on land. He has been working relentlessly in the field to reap more profits. He was fortunate to have his wife Anowara by his side throughout. While he worked in the field, she would stay at home and tend the cows. Kalam wholeheartedly acknowledged his wife’s contribution. Leveraging on her enterprising spirit, he diversified his investment on goat, chicken, and turkey rearing. As a token of his appreciation, he made her a pair of gold earrings from the profits. Abdul Kalam and Anowara Kalam have a happy and prosperous life now. Because they are now more resilient, they hope to continue their youngest daughter’s education without restrictions. Abdul Kalam not only acknowledged his wife’s contribution, but he was equally thankful to LBC which gave him the footing to take up more ventures.

It was evident from Naznin Akhter’s smile that things have been going in her favour. Naznin’s husband has a booming onion cultivation business, but she wanted to do something on her own and create an identity apart from her husband. Having heard about the benefits of LBC, she decided to avail the services. She bought a cow with her loan. When inspecting the feed provided by LBC, she found that it was of a much higher quality than local feed. She was also particularly impressed by the promptness of the medical services. Her effort in tending her cow yielded positive results for her, and she sold it for BDT. 3 lac 60 thousand, making a huge profit. With the additional income in hand, she was now able to contribute financially to her family as well. Some of the profit was invested in onion cultivation and the rest on her familial expenses. But Naznin made sure most of the investment went towards ensuring a better life for her daughters. Both of her daughters were students in the Faridpur Polytechnic Institute. Her oldest was receiving a degree in Civil Services and the youngest in Computer Studies. It would cost them around BDT. 6000 for their commute every month, which was now mostly covered from the profits made. Naznin wanted to set an example for her daughters, and she is proud to have done so. She believes because of the advises she received from LBC she now knows a lot more than what she had previously known. She can now transfer her knowledge and skill to her friends and acquaintances and help empower them. She is now very confident about her capabilities and is looking to buy two more cows in the coming months with support from LBC.

 

Jute – the natural alternative to plastic

Monday, February 18th, 2019 by

Most families in north-west Bangladesh rely on farming small plots of land to make a living. But it’s hard to make enough and men often have to leave their families to work in cities, leaving women and children without support. Work traditionally done by women earns very low wages.

Jute rettingJute is the second most important crop in Bangladesh after rice. The climate is ideally suited and it was once a major source of foreign exchange but lost out to artificial fabrics. As we become more aware of the environmental dangers of plastics, jute is popular once more.  In 2017 Bangladesh produced 9.2 million bales compared to only 5 million in 2016.

Practical Action, with European Union funding, is working to address issues for farmers, processors and entrepreneurs to unlock the potential for thousands of poor jute producers to boost their incomes from the crop. Our approach combines a set of solutions that together bring about lasting change. Here are some that are reaping rewards in Bangladesh.

jute processingImproved varieties of jute

Nurul Haque grows rice, jute and maize on his 2.5 acres. Practical Action introduced him to a new, highly productive variety of jute called Kanaf. It grows tall, up to 16 feet, and the fibre is white, making it more valuable.

Usually after harvesting, jute is soaked in water for a couple of weeks to make it possible to remove the fibre.  This processing is hard work and very time consuming.  We have sourced a simple machine which can strip out the jute fibre very quickly without requiring this soaking.

For Nurul Haque using the new machine saved time and cost less.  He also has an extra 280 kg of jute to sell this year because the machine extracts the fibres more efficiently leaving less on the sticks.

Leasing the processing machine

The jute sector currently lacks entrepreneurs and growers are trapped at the bottom of the supply chain.  We have designed a leasing system to help people obtain the processing machines and set up businesses processing jute and other crops. Unemployed young people are being trained in metalwork skills that enable them to manufacture these locally.

Sheuli Begum, from Bozra in Kurigram lives with her husband and two children. Her husband is a farmer. Their income from farming and selling jute fibre is inadequate and she has to borrow to support her children’s education or pay for medicines. Sheuli  struggles to repay these debts.

It came as a pleasant surprise to her that women were getting equal access to this jute machine business opportunity. She expressed her keen interest to  join the initiative.

After training, she leased a machine. Now she is earning 1500 taka (£14) per day with her jute extraction machine after meeting all her business expenses. She also hopes to get a better price for her jute fibre.  Full of ideas, Sheuli is looking for ways use the waste from the jute sticks. She plans to compost those to make organic fertiliser to use on their field.

“I am a housewife and people did not encourage me to be an entrepreneur. They laughed at me. But I know, the machine has changed my way of living.” said Sheuli.

Skills training

Ruzina Begum, Jute projectRuzina Begum is 34 with four daughters.  Her husband is disabled so she is the family breadwinner. She used to work as a housemaid but was poorly paid and struggled to feed her family and afford her children’s educational expenses. With little education herself, Ruzina was unable to find better employment.

When she found out about a local business employing women to make products made of jute, she was delighted.  She took the basic training and began an apprenticeship with the company Karupannya.  She was keen to prove herself and to do something for herself and her family.  Now Ruzina is able to pay her daughters’ educational expenses as well as providing proper meals. She no longer needs financial support from her neighbours. And through practise her skills are improving daily which should lead to more work.

More than 400 women have undertaken similar training and are now working for small and medium sized enterprises creating jute products.

The project is also supporting the production and marketing of jute products with some small and medium sized cottage industries. This has resulted in the development of new products such as sandals and yoga mats for the export market and sales are increasing.

Limited mechanisation and a lack of skills and market knowledge inhibit development.  With the help of market development, skills training and loan systems these vulnerable communities can become more economically productive. And there are environmental benefits. Jute is environmentally friendly being both biodegradable and recyclable as well as strong and versatile. Plastic bags are banned in Bangladesh so there’s already a growing local market.

 

 

 

 

Does access to electricity change poor people’s lives?

Friday, February 15th, 2019 by

Globally, just under one billion people have no access to electricity. This means no effective lighting to study at night, no refrigeration to keep medicines, and limited opportunities to run businesses. The United Nations have set a goal to provide affordable, reliable and modern energy for all by 2030. This is a very challenging goal which at Practical Action we try and support through our energy access work.

However, a recent article in the Economist claimed that providing access to electricity is not as transformational as previously thought. Does this mean we are wasting our time? Definitely not!

In our Poor People’s Energy Outlook (PPEO) series of publications, we have highlighted the complex and multi-dimensional nature  of energy access. Providing electricity for household uses is of course no panacea for poverty reduction. We need to think about community needs (e.g. health centres, schools, street lighting) and productive uses to boost demand (e.g. agriculture). And while there is a lot of focus on electricity, other energy needs are as, if not more, important. This applies especially to clean cooking, with more than 3 billion people still dependent on dirty fuels for cooking, resulting in huge negative health impacts, especially on women and children.

In our latest PPEO, we provide case studies demonstrating how inclusive energy access has been delivered at scale in a number of countries. We recognise that there remain serious challenges but we disagree with the Economist’s suggestion that cash-strapped countries should now effectively de-prioritise energy access. This is totally at odds with a recent call for a huge injection of extra cash for energy access from SE4All which found an annual investment short-fall of USD30 billion for electricity and USD4 billion for cooking.

Energy access is and remains an enabler of development, especially when combined with other targeted policies and measures. That’s why we will continue to work with communities to achieve access to energy for all through a range of sustainable energy solutions.

N.B.
GOGLA, Crossboundary and John Keane of SolarAid have also provided responses to the Economist article, showing the positive effects of energy access.

Supporting the informal sector to deliver effective FSM services

Thursday, February 14th, 2019 by

Next week sees an important gathering of practitioners, government representatives, funders and others focusing Faecal Sludge Management. From lowly beginnings in Durban in 2011, the growing numbers of people gathered at this two-yearly conference demonstrate an increasing recognition of the importance of this issue – supported by the SDG commitment to achieve ‘safely managed’ sanitation for all.

Of course, ensuring people have access even to a basic toilet is still the crucial starting point in some places – including in the slum communities in Africa and Asia which are the focus of our work. The number of urban dwellers without even basic sanitation in sub-Saharan Africa rose between 2010 and 2015 from 177m to 215m (according to JMP figures).

However, once levels of sanitation coverage begin to rise, particularly in urban areas, properly tackling the issues of how the contents of pit latrines and septic tanks can be safely cleared, transported and treated (the faecal sludge management – FSM chain) becomes ever more important.

While tackling FSM has been recognized as important, there is still huge debate about how best it should be delivered. Many see enterprise opportunities for companies, small and large. Some take the route of helping companies to enter this business, especially if they have been involved in similar business lines perhaps in refuse collection (SWEEP in Bangladesh). Others see opportunities for youth employment in new business models for example with container-based services (Ghana’s Clean Team).

A new study Practical Action has carried out in 3 secondary towns and one city corporation in Bangladesh reminds us again of the extent to which it is the informal sector which is already delivering these services. It also shines a spotlight on the extremely difficult working conditions they face.

The study carried out in Gazipur, Faridpur, Bagerhat and Barguna interviewed 6 pit emptiers as well as 38 people working in solid waste management as part of the ‘Dignifying Lives’ project.

  • Many combined this work with other informal jobs such as being employed as street sweepers by the municipality, or working as rickshaw pullers or day labourers.
  • They may only empty pits 3-4 times per month as customer demand is fairly limited, although compared to other sources of income it is relatively well paid, charging around BDT 1,000-1,500 for emptying a small pit, while a daily labourer may only earn BDT 100 per day.
  • This work in Bangladesh is tied to particular communities and has been passed down for generations. Although levels of social acceptance for this work have improved, the harijan community as a whole is still treated as ‘untouchable’ to some extent.
  • Although they may have been provided with safety equipment, it was rarely used. Gloves, boots and masks were found to be too hot and impaired their movement, making the job harder.
  • New sludge carts and safety equipment.

    The work is often hazardous. Workers had suffered broken bones, cuts in their hands and feet and stomach problems, losing 4-5 days of work a month as a result.

  • They are usually poorly represented in discussions with decision-makers. Neither do they have access to social safety nets to support them if they fall ill or are injured.

At the same time, we found in earlier work in Faridpur, 72% of households and 52% of institutions preferred to use the informal service providers, largely because they could do the job more quickly with less bureaucracy than the service offered by the municipality. For slum dwellers, the municipal service was not available because the trucks could not get close enough to their toilets.

In our work in both Bangladesh and Kenya we are developing models and approaches for bringing these informal workers into the mainstream. We are interested in the extent of the service which can be provided by these entrepreneurs at the citywide level. If additional capacity is needed to meet service provision needs citywide, then who and how can additional capacity be brought in while not undermining opportunities for those who already rely on it for their livelihoods.

We are also working on approaches through which their working conditions and access to social protection can be improved – and one solution is through forming co-operatives, and bringing those together into a nationwide network. That network in Bangladesh (the FSM Network) will be represented at the FSM5 conference. Come and find out more at their stand.

I’ll be at the FSM5 conference, and looking to share experiences with others in the sector who are approaching the problem in similar ways. My focus will remain firmly on how the proposed systems meet the needs of poor communities and protect the interests of existing informal sector workers. Do follow me on Twitter @lucykstevens for updates.

Taking stock – 10 years of the climate investment funds

Friday, February 1st, 2019 by

With 3 billion people still lacking access to clean cooking and almost one billion people without electricity, huge amounts of funding are needed to close the energy access gap. The Climate Investment Funds (CIF) are one of the avenues for funding this big challenge.

Practical Action has a seat as an observer on the Scaling Up Renewable Energy in Low Income Countries Programme (SREP) Committee of CIF and I just spent a week in Morocco attending a Committee meeting, as well as the CIF@10 anniversary conference. CIF was established in 2008 to help developing countries invest in low-carbon and climate-resilient development. It has had some impressive achievements – $8bn contributions received (with the UK as the largest donor country), US$1.2bn allocated to climate resilience, 11 MtCO2 saved per year and 185,000 people provided with improved access to energy.

We got the opportunity to see what CIF has done on the ground with a to the visit the impressive Noor solar power complex. Noor (Arabic for light) has a capacity of more than 500 MW of concentrated solar power (CSP), a technology that has only been used in a few other countries. Rather than directly transforming solar rays into electricity as in the more common solar photovoltaic panels, CSP plants heat a heat transfer fluid to then run a turbine to generate electricity. CSP can also be combined with thermal energy storage, using for example molten salt. This allows Noor to produce electricity for up to 7 hours during the night when the sun does not shine. With Noor, Morocco has become one of the leading renewables countries in Africa. Without CIF funding for Noor, this would not have happened.

Parabolic troughs at Noor solar power station

Of course, CIF is not without its problems. Specifically, SREP has been slow off the ground, with just 4 out of a targeted 21 projects on energy access operational at present. Its total available funding of US$ 750 million is a drop in the ocean compared to what is needed for energy access. Furthermore, there is some uncertainty about the future of the CIF, with some donor countries insisting that the Green Climate Fund (GCF) should be the only climate financing mechanism. However, as the GCF lacks resources and is still not working effectively, this seems like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. We cannot afford to let politics get in the way of effective climate action.