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  • Watson to save Africa or is small still beautiful?

    February 28th, 2014

    Have you heard about IBMs super computer Watson? It was made to compete on the US TV game show ‘Jeopardy’ which it won! It has 200 million pages of content, can answer questions in natural languages and is said to be artificially intelligent.

    It’s now being deployed in Africa to solve the pressing problems of agriculture, health and education.  Such are the transformative powers of Watson the IBM project has been called Lucy after humankind’s first ancestor.

    On March 3rd 2014 The Tyranny of the Experts written by the economist Professor William Easterly is published.  He argues in it that there is an obsession with fixing the symptoms of poverty without addressing the systemic causes. Moreover that freedom and assuring people’s rights and thus choice are key to building sustainable development.

    Maybe unfairly (and I have only read the preview of Easterly’s book available on Amazon) I would characterise there two approaches as ‘science will find a way though’ versus ‘democracy is the answer’.  There are lots that I love and think true in what Easterly says but ultimately my concern is that we are seeking a one size fits all model.

    We have to start with people and they are complicated – individually and even more so when we come together as societies. Data can help but ultimately you/we have to listen. Democracy is the best system we have, but asserting people’s rights is not enough.  Rights without options or access can lead to massive frustration.

    22626So in terms of approaches to development – and although I’m seeped in Practical Action I must caveat with these are personal views

    • We have to change our course – consumerism leading to our current 3 planet living, testing the finite nature of our planet is leading to ecological disaster. The impacts of climate change are being felt first and hardest by poor people living on marginalised land. Taking action on climate change has proven a struggle in a democracy where significant changes are needed now but the full impact won’t be felt for decades.
    • Development should be at a human scale, we should start with people their choices and needs, looking at measures of wellbeing not just economic growth. People should have a voice and be listened to in development that impacts them.
    • We have to share and set up rules that promote sharing not greed and gargantuan acquisition – a world where the richest 85 people have the same wealth as the bottom 3.5 billion is a world where something is very wrong.
    • Technology has a huge role to play – but technology needs to know its place as a servant not the prescriber of solutions. Big isn’t always better.
    • Above all warm words need to be matched by action. The world needs to prioritise sustainable development but also to fund it. That means taking tough choices when it comes to government spending – huge bonuses for bankers or bailing out people?

    Reading the article in The Guardian about IBM’s Watson I was reminded of a passage in Small is Beautiful written in 1973

    ‘In the urgent attempt to obtain reliable knowledge about his essentially indeterminate future, the modern man of action may surround himself with ever growing armies of forecasters, by ever growing mountains of factual data to be digested by ever more wonderful mechanical contrivances. I fear the result is little more than a huge game of make-believe and an ever more marvellous vindication of Parkinson’s Law. …Stop, look and listen is a better motto than ‘look it up in the forecasts’ ‘

    40 years on there is still huge wisdom – encouragements to pause and think – to be taken from Small is Beautiful.

    But to go back to Watson – I love the Benedict Cumberbatch  version of Sherlock Holmes – so what could be better than a Sherlock quote on Climate change (I may be stretching its meaning)

    ‘I think you know me well enough Watson to know that I am by no means a nervous man. At the same time it is stupidity rather than courage to refuse to recognise danger when it is close upon you’

    The Final Problem


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  • Why the Daily Mail’s petition is wrong and we are all in this together

    February 12th, 2014

    Wherever you live in the world, having your home or land flooded can be utterly devastating. The victims of the floods in the UK deserve our help but the Daily Mail is wrong to target the UK’s international aid budget to provide it.

    Their petition calling on the Prime Minister to divert some of the aid budget to help victims here is in danger of robbing poor Peter to pay Paul. Climate change makes no distinction between extreme weather here and other countries around the world. We are all in this together.

    Floods currently threaten thousands of people in Zimbabwe, Burundi and Bolivia. When communities there are flooded they not only lose their possessions, homes and livelihoods but they are also at risk from cholera and other water borne diseases.

    Given the Daily Mail’s rhetoric and petition it is easy to forget that international aid accounts for just 0.7% of our GDP.

    I am proud that the UK’s three main political parties support the 0.7% target and want to help the poorest people in the world.  Their leadership is needed now more than ever.

    Last year our supporters met the Prime Minister and praised him for meeting the 0.7% target, a process which took over 20 years to achieve. In a letter he sent to us the Prime Minister said “Thank you very much for your kind words on 0.7%. It is something I am proud of. We need groups like Practical Action – and you personally – to be out there making the case for it”.

    David Cameron meeting Practical Action supporters 20 September (1)

    That is why we have decided to speak out now.

    Last year we received £2.83 million from the international aid budget and used it to help nearly one million poor and vulnerable people.

    In the UK the cost of the clean-up and compensating people for the loss and damage will run into many millions of pounds. But as a relatively rich country, it is a bill we can afford to pay without the need to take money away from some of the poorest people in the world.

    Countries like Nepal and Bangladesh were highlighted in the Daily Mail’s article. People there do not have insurance policies and unlike people here there is no government support available to help them. But they, like the victims in Somerset and along the Thames, know only too well what it is like to lose everything. I know because I’ve been to both countries and seen the floods there for myself.

    In Nepal we have put in place early warning systems to alert people when the water level rises. There I met Parbati Gurung, 45, a widow who regularly checks our water gauge station 2 km north from Chisapani. If there is a danger of a flood she lets people along the river bank know by texting them and a siren is blown three times.

    In Bangladesh I’ve seen how with funding from the international aid budget Practical Action has helped protect many local communities by working with them to build bunds around villages and through innovative technologies like floating gardens has helped people feed themselves during the floods. We have also worked with communities to build flood-proof homes and raise wells to protect vital drinking water.

    In the short term our work in Nepal and Bangladesh has helped to save hundreds of lives. In the long term, it means thousands of people’s lives are not devastated every time there is a disaster.

    It is something I believe the British taxpayer and many Daily Mail readers would be very proud of.



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  • Innocent until proven guilty

    To a large extent, many of us rumble through life with little thought to the what if’s of any given situation, but every now and then a curve ball comes our way which makes us stop and think. This is certainly true in my case, when I recently had the opportunity to visit Practical Action’s work in Peru and Bolivia. I saw for myself the difference financial support can and does make to the communities living in the high Andes. Practical Action can only fulfill the commitments we have made to the communities who continue to live in extreme poverty, with the generosity of like-minded individuals, organisations, trusts and foundations.Digital Image

    If I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes, I could never have imagined the enormity of the Peruvian landscape and the difficulties communities face on a daily basis. If it is not the distance, or the altitude or the state of the roads, it is the extreme heat of the day or the cold of the night. Nothing is easy for these communities – they are the innocent bystanders in a far from innocent world and I know I was guilty of being blinkered to their plight.

    I suspect there are a lot of people like me, guilty through no fault of our own, just innocent actions and a touch of ignorance which is why the innocent foundation’s support of our work is so incredibly special; not only to all of us here at Practical Action, but to the communities who they have so generously supported for several years.

    Digital ImageLiving in a one room hut is the reality for communities, but the implementation of basic services – simple amenities that we all take for granted can and does make a difference to them. The difference is plain to see, and I was lucky enough to meet and talk to the community involved in this project during my own visit and who feature in the innocent Chain of Good video being aired on television.

    To have a chain of facilities such as power, water and appropriate sanitation is life changing and will break the chain of poverty for good. It means they can afford the essentials in life such as food, clothing and education. However, one thing that has stayed in my mind was the lady who when asked how the new facilities had made a difference to her, replied, ‘it allows me to take the truck down to the town to buy a few essentials.’  Not a bus with a comfy seat, air conditioning and a bag of sweets, but the back of a truck, and a five hour drive down the rough mountain track on a Saturday, to return on the Sunday with a few basics and a bad back!

    We are all innocent until proven guilty – what we do here in our everyday lives is in complete innocence, but it makes us all guilty of being inflexible to the implications of our actions in the wider world. The Chain of Good video portrays a powerful message and I hope it will stop us in our tracks and make us all think – not for me or for any of us here at Practical Action, but for the communities that will benefit from the real and lasting difference individuals, organisations, trusts and foundations can and do make.

    It is two months on since my return from Peru and Bolivia and not a day goes by I don’t think about the communities – the families that I met or the images I saw – the innocent foundation inspires; on behalf of those communities, thank you.



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  • The journey begins…

    This weekend I will be travelling to Peru and Bolivia, meeting the team there and visiting a range of projects to see for myself the difference Practical Action can and does make to the communities living in poverty. This visit is a once in a lifetime experience and I’m looking forward to so many things; hearing about specific projects, meeting our staff, meeting the communities and seeing how our work can change people’s lives for the better. The challenge will be how I can make a difference to these communities on my return, through my own area of work in Trust fundraising.

    As a non-travelling member of staff under normal circumstances, every day brings forth a multitude of questions from friends and colleagues on how will I react to…? What will I do if…? How will I cope when…? The truth is, I’ve no idea, other than to embrace every opportunity that comes my way – not unlike our communities, who clasp their own chances in life with steely strength, determination and endurance, the only difference is that their survival depends on it!

    So to all my family, friends and colleagues, who have been so encouraging and so supportive, not to mention so gracious, the countdown has begun and I hope to relay some information back from time to time whenever the opportunity permits. Thank you to everyone who has made this possible.



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  • What’s Great about Practical Action?

    September 26th, 2013

    Our Finance Director Mark Woodbridge is leaving – he has been brilliant to work with and I will miss him! Today I was contacted by the people helping with the recruitment of his successor. It was like being grilled by a very lovely female John Humphrys – and I loved it!

    Ambulance boat in Bangladesh

    Ambulance boat in Bangladesh

    ‘What’s brilliant about Practical Action?’ she asked first – such an easy question, but so many things I could say.

    Relevance was the first thing that came to mind. We work on four of the biggest issues that affect people living in poverty today

    Agriculture – how do we support small scale farmers to have more food and a better income, how do we connect farmers to market, how do we work to tackle the impacts of climate change on the most marginal lands (where poor people often live) etc.

    Energy – we’ve been working on energy for more than 30 years. It’s a huge issue! Without access to decent energy it’s so much harder to escape poverty. It’s not just about what you can’t do, it’s also about what you have to do – like collect fire wood, cope with ill health from diseases caused by breathing in dirty smoke, etc. Energy is also vital for running hospitals – incubators, x-ray machines; fridges to keep vaccines cool, for education … It’s an exciting time to work in access to energy: the Sustainable Development Goals being debated at the UN General Assembly this week has energy as one of the targets and we are one of a handful of organisations helping keep it on the agenda. Getting funding on the other hand for energy for poverty reduction is hard.

    Disaster Risk Reduction – A report from Paddy Ashdown (last year I think) talked about how much money we as a world could save if we helped people be ready for disasters rather than waiting for the disaster to strike and then trying to sort out the mess – how much better for people too. We have a huge experience in DRR, including helping people prepare for and escape from floods, building earthquake-resilient housing (and now retrofitting schools and hospitals to try and make them more resistant to earthquakes). We are even working on early warning systems with communities in Nepal to warn of an impending landslide (I was just five when the Aberfan landslide happened in Wales killing 150 people, mainly children – but it still sticks in my mind).

    Urban water, sanitation and waste – 50% of the world’s population now lives in urban areas –  the issues of waste and sanitation are huge. I was recently in Nepal visiting with waste pickers, and a few years in Zimbabwe I talked with a cholera nurse about how terrible the outbreak in Harare had been (my blog on our meeting is probably still on this site).

    Beyond relevance: all the people I’ve met whose lives have been helped by us. I’ve met some amazing people who have wanted to share their stories. Our values of working with people – starting where they are, great impact – almost a million people helped directly last year; caring for the environment; helping people help themselves; sharing everything we learn so as to maximise our impact …

    She did say I was quite succinct, but that must be on the phone rather than in writing! There are so many brilliant things about Practical Action I could go on for pages (and that was just her first question!).

    So if you have the skills, would like to work for us and fancy being our Finance Director do have a look at the jobs pages on our website. A high ranking requirement from me (I’m not on the panel) is that you love our work too!

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  • Energy: transforming lives

    There are still more than 1.3 billion people living without access to any form of electricity, and 2.7 billion people cooking on open fires, exposing themselves and their families to potentially deadly smoke fumes.

    At Practical Action are working directly with communities to develop renewable energy technologies using natural resources such as water, wind, sun and waste, which are available even in the remotest communities. Our approach is to achieve total energy for all.

    If you would like to find out more about how we are helping provide energy access to poor people why not download our energy leaflet and energy poster

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  • My reflection of Supporters’ day!

    The hustle and bustle of last minute checks, then calm descends as the clock ticks round and the first supporter arrives. Yes, I’m talking about our annual Supporters’ day. A day we show our appreciation to some ofthose who are helping make a difference to the lives of the huge number of people, for whom each day is a constant struggle.

    Floating Garden

    This year’s theme was all about ‘Connecting’ and from the opening introduction to the closing address our supporters definitely embraced the theme of the day. This was highlighted in the ‘Inspiring innovation’ workshop as I watched the look on the faces of some people who realised that working in teams, they would be making a floating garden.  One lady turning to her husband with hope in her voice said “we don’t have to make anything do we”, then both looking to me for reassurance just to have it dashed when I replied “it’s a show and tell – I hope you have a Blue Peter badge”. But twenty minutes later everyone really embraced the task as was evident by a room full of excited, and I must add very competitive voices, as each team tested the strength of their floating garden. Well done to all the teams who successfully achieved the task.

    Throughout the day we also received many testimonials from supporters:

    One lady decided last minute to come and said “I’ve never been before but I’ve really enjoyed it and will definitely come again. I love the fact you get to hear about the work from the Country Director’s, but you also have the opportunity to talk to them direct – amazing”.

    Anne from Brighton said “A number of years ago I worked for a French organisation that did similar work to Practical Action, which is why I support you. You are not a quick fix organisation”

    There were also stories of the extraordinary effort our supporters go to in order to arrive at the venue on time – like Peter from the valleys of South Wales who stayed in a guest house so he could catch his train to Paddington in good time. He was particularly interested and inspired by our renewable energy projects.

    Watt Bike

    Other highlights include Margaret playing the DRTV advert; Stephen Watson talking about our new strategy; Barney and Simon’s workshop on ‘changing the world’ and Amy pedalling on the road to nowhere trying to entice more victims to try the ‘Watt bike’. These are just a fraction of the activities and presentations throughout the day, which are far too many to mention.

    As supporters go into the closing address the frantic job of dismantling exhibitions, repacking equipment, and loading onto the van begins. So I’d like to acknowledge Julie and Michaela who worked tirelessly on the logistics of the day to make it happen, and to all the other participants and helpers behind that supported them.

    The day is over and some very contented supporters make their way home – another successful event over for another year.

    I’ve been to quite a few supporter days in my 20 years at Practical Action but I’m still amazed by the enthusiasm, passion, dedication, and generosity of our supporters – they definitely are the best.


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  • Statistics and change

    After twelve and a half years, two CEO’s, three units, four Managers, six rooms and nine desks, I am once again adding to my statistics and judging from those statistics, it could be perceived that I’m not adverse to change. That perception wouldn’t be very far from the truth as the thought of never changing fills me with absolute fear!

    For the next six months, I have taken up a new role at Practical Action and have returned to being the ‘newbie,’ in the unit and on my best behavior,  not that that’s a problem (well maybe the behavior is) as I’m really looking forward to learning new skills and getting to grips with the opportunities that come along. And that’s the crux of it, I know with certainty that there will be opportunities and openings and what I do with them is up to me to make the most of.  However, as with any change in life, it does make me think and in all honesty, I can’t begin to imagine how families living in poverty and deplorable conditions stand the test of time without anything on the horizon to encourage them to look to the future and make plans. Perhaps those communities are more tenacious than I am or will ever be? Perhaps they have an inner core made of steel whereas mine is made of putty? I don’t know, but making plans is part and parcel of who I am, where I have come from and more importantly, where I am going in life. After all, doesn’t everyone make plans? Doesn’t everyone dream?

    None of us know what the future holds but at least here in the western world we can all boost our chances of doing something worthwhile, something we enjoy, and build a home, make a living and if we are lucky, raise a family. It feels very unjust that there are people in the world who don’t have such an option, but even worse, will never have that option or such a chance.

    So as I add to my statistics and make it twelve and a half years, two CEO’s, four units, five Managers, seven rooms and ten desks, I will do so knowing that although I am very fortunate, in my own little way, I am making a difference to those whose dreams seem a long way off and hopefully, one day they too can make plans for a brighter future.

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  • Who is that man…Schumacher perhaps?

    April 16th, 2013

    “That man!”

    “Ooh that man” and the rhythmic tones of Caro Emerald reverberate around the room. Feet start tapping, hips start swaying and a general feeling of all is well in the world descends on my conscience …or does it? You only have to pick up a newspaper or listen to the news to know that all is not well in the world.

    With increased nuclear activity creating tension worldwide, conflict in war torn countries and despair in the economic climate, the world seems a very unfair place. Add the billions of people still living in deplorable conditions and trying to survive with less than adequate shelter, water, sanitation, food or electricity, and it’s not just an assumption that the world is unjust.

    So gender aside it must be some man (or woman) to so catch the imagination of the musician they felt inspired to write a song depicting such an image of someone who could make a difference to them.

    Music, whatever your taste transcends boundaries and it only takes a couple of bars to evoke thoughts and memories. The line from the song, “ooh that man” could refer to many great men (or women) either living or that have since passed through this life that have truly made a difference to mankind.

    Was Fritz Schumacher “that man?” He had a vision, a dream and a realisation of what was required to change the world and change it for the long term. He had knowledge, integrity and insight, but above all else, he had a belief and faith that through simple technologies, change was possible.

    We could all take a leap of faith and use Practical Action to change the world. Through innovative ideas, dreams could be realised, through knowledge, dreams can be achieved and through a gift, no matter how small, dreams could be fulfilled and we could all make a difference to our fellow man.

    So when you next hear Caro Emerald’s rhythmic tones, when you feel your feet start tapping, your hips start swaying and you start to hum along to “Ooh that man” remember, one man did make a difference and “that man” was Fritz Schumacher. You, through Practical Action, could make a difference too.


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  • In praise of Practical Action

    December 21st, 2012

    Sadly, today is my last day here at Practical Action because in January I will be starting a new job at another international development charity. I have worked here for three and a half years and been writing my blog for the last two and a half years. As one of the youngest people in the UK head office, I feel like I have done a lot of growing up at Practical Action. I have worked with, and learnt from, some brilliant colleagues across the organisation. They are bright, committed, passionate people, and I have been very lucky to know them.

    I am leaving with some very happy memories of my time here. My trips to Sudan and Kenya are particular highlights, and I will never forget the warmth, hospitality and helpfulness of all the overseas colleagues I have had the honour of meeting.

    I have been very privileged to have had the opportunity to meet and interview some of the millions of people Practical Action has helped. Those conversations are perhaps my most treasured memories.

    When I was in Kenya I met a woman called Syprose. Syprose was a beautiful woman, with the most magnificent face – the sort of face which has a whole life etched into it. She lived in a slum village called Nyalenda, just outside Kisumu city. She was a mother, and a grandmother. Her husband Daniel had died 3 years ago after stepping on a nail and contracting septicaemia. She was 63 years old, and she had the responsibility of looking after her five little grandchildren alone because she’d lost her four children to AIDS.

    Syprose’s village did not have a system of clean water, although it did have a natural spring. But because it just flowed along the land, it was often polluted by animal and human waste. So people would get cholera, and die. Sometimes there were as many as 10 deaths a day. Syprose’s big fear was that her grandchildren would die too. So we worked with the villagers to protect the natural spring by constructing a low concrete wall round it and directing the water through a pipe. This simple technology means that people in Syprose’s village no longer die of cholera, and they have a constant supply of clean water.

    And everyone was delighted, particularly Syprose. When I asked her how this made her feel, she took my hand, and her hand, and placed them both onto her heart. And then she said “it makes me feel like God is here.”

    Syprose’s words will remain locked in my heart forever. I am leaving Practical Action safe in the knowledge that as an organisation, we do change and save lives in a very real way. I feel really proud to have been a small part of it.

    Thank you for reading my blog over the last few years.

    Wishing everyone a peaceful, relaxing and happy Christmas, and all good things for 2013.



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