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  • Reflections on my visit to Bangladesh

    October 16th, 2012

    I arrived home from 17 days in Bangladesh at 9.30 pm last night.

    It was a brilliant trip, great to see Practical Action on the ground, the positive impacts our work is having on the lives of some of the poorest people in the world, to speak with our effective, and often inspirational, staff and to hear about how our knowledge sharing work is taking the benefits of our work to many millions more. The multiplier effect – leveraging every ounce of benefit from our work to the benefit of poor communities.

    We do a great job and we should be proud.

    But as I try and capture my impressions I am also left with the sense of so much need. The expressionless faces of the girl textile workers plodding into factories, the beggars some with obviously drugged babies, the people living in make shift tents by the side of the road – the black plastic covering ripped by rain and storms. Conversations about extremely high malnutrition in children –the figure quoted was nearly 50% – and the already felt impacts if climate change.

    Together – Communities, Practical Action, and our supporters – we are doing great things – helping people make a living, get enough food to eat, access clean water, decent sanitation – but we also have to be humble and say we are not doing enough.

    That’s not to down play our vital work but returning home to my healthy family, my safe home, my brilliant job the contrast is extreme.

    While in Bangladesh we had a meeting where the Dhaka based team sought to share Practical Action’s learning with others and to learn from other NGOs. Care, Action Aid, IRRI (International Rice Research Institute), World Fish Centre etc. were there.

    One guy who came to the meeting was A. Atiq Rahman – he was amazing, inspirational. Look him up on Google and you get a sense of how fortunate we were to have him there. Brilliant that he is a friend of Practical Action. He spoke of how in the late 70s we believed we could change the world and now with the impact and wisdom of age we look for smaller steps. Of how those small steps are vital but not enough – we still need to change the world but no longer have confidence in how. Politics being by the nature of democratic terms of office, the art of language not action and short not long term views.

    Practical Action believes that we have to change the world. We believe 100% that the work we are doing to make people’s lives better is vital but we also believe that we need to find a way to deliver technology justice.

    My reflection on my visit to Bangladesh is that change is complex but can happen. What’s great about Practical Action is our work but also our vision, our values and inspiration.

    Schumacher in Small is Beautiful – to paraphrase said – we need to act to protect our world, to find meaning and a quality of life more fulfilling than consumerism, to find a new way of doing development – and when asked who should lead he said – each and every one of us whether rich or poor, young or old powerful or powerless – to talk about the future is only useful if it leads to action now.

    My overall reflection on my visit to Bangladesh is to echo Schumacher !

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  • “A baby in Bangladesh cries in just the same way as a baby here in London”

    Over the last week or so I have spent lots of time out of the office meeting lots of different people to talk with them about Practical Action’s work. I love this part of my job – acting as an ambassador for Practical Action and inspiring people in the hope that they will support us. At the end of one meeting yesterday a dynamic young guy who had been asking lots of questions about our work suddenly said:

    “A baby in Bangladesh cries in just the same way as a baby here in London”

    His words have been sparkling through my thoughts for the last 24 hours. They are so completely true. Sometimes when you read about the difficulties that people living in poverty endure – losing their makeshift homes to raging monsoons, or making impossible choices about whether to feed children or animals, or knowingly drinking dirty water because that’s all there is – these challenges are so far removed from our daily lives here in the UK that empathy can be difficult. And giving money to help people overseas overcome their poverty is harder still.

    But being born into abject poverty – or not – is a matter of chance. Or as Scarlett Johansson, actress and ambassador for Oxfam, said in December 2011 after visiting the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya:

    “We’re all the product of our circumstance, and it’s just really by pure luck, that some of us were born in societies where we’re able to have a hot shower, where we have rights for women, where we aren’t in a state of war, or constantly struggling to find our next meal and feed our children. But it could just as easily been any one of us.”

    So those people who are fearing this year’s floods in Bangladesh, or the families in Sudan who will go to bed hungry tonight, or the refugees who are still living in the Dadaab camp – they’re not different from you and me. Just distant. And because of that distance it’s easy to feel like it doesn’t matter, that it doesn’t have anything to do with us.

    The young dynamic guy who I met yesterday also told me that if all the trees in the Amazon were chopped down, all human beings would eventually suffocate to death, due to the lack of oxygen in the atmosphere. Now I’m not sure of the exact science behind this, but it’s an interesting point. A small change a million miles away can impact directly on your life. And equally, small actions here can bring huge transformation for the people that need it most.

    For example – you donating £8 today (which is what – 3 coffees a month?)  could mean a family in Bangladesh can plant a floating garden which will enable them to grow enough food to eat all year round – even during the floods.

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  • Blue Nile, Sudan on-going violence

    May 3rd, 2012

    Barnaby Peacocke, one of my colleagues, is just back from Sudan and gave an update at our ‘stand up’, staff meeting yesterday.

    The fighting along the border between Sudan and Southern Sudan continues. This is impacting our work in the Blue Nile and the EU funded project is temporarily on hold. The likelihood is that this state of armed unrest will sadly continue.

    We need to work out how in this new reality our work can continue. Our commitment is undiminished.

    Listening to Barney I felt particularly moved as when I visited the Blue Nile area, two years ago now, people were talking about their hope following the end of the conflict with the South, they talked of the impact of the war, how some had been forced to fight, others had lost family members, all had struggled to get food, vital medicine, etc. Life had been very, very tough but now there was the hope of a better life and they were ambitious for peace and development.

    Now things have changed and we have to continue, increase our work but do things differently.

    Thankfully we have a ‘model’, ie.development speak for experience that shows us how it can be done.

    In Darfur we’ve worked throughout the conflict; improving peoples farming techniques and yields, access to and quality of water, improving stoves so that they used less fuel – requiring women to make fewer dangerous journeys in search of wood or other fuel, helped people market their crops so that they had money for vital items such as medicine, helped communities preserve foods through techniques such as pickling etc.

    After the kidnap of several of our staff and the attempted kidnap of others (thankfully eventually everyone was freed safely, but scared and their vehicles stolen or burned), we decided we had to find a different way of working. All our staff are local and so know the situation in detail – where ever it was reasonable safe for us and the communities we would continue our work directly (sometimes this changed day by day). Where it wasn’t safe for Practical Action people to travel or community gatherings could attract violence we worked with a brave group of people who so valued Practical Actions support they were willing to take extraordinary action.

    Village Development Committees and the Women’s Development Associations. Networks we helped established to expand and continue our work. From each village one or two people travelling together, often using unusual paths or routes could get safely through to places no-one else could.

    How it worked was that people from these groups would travel to a safe point, coming together they would meet with Practical Action staff. They would be trained in stove making, learn how to grow a new crop, receive seeds, be trained in water conservation, or other support. Help that on a day to day basis would improve their and their communities lives. They would then travel back to their villages and share their learning and/or support with their family, friends and community. Through these networks we were able to continue our work, throughout the conflict, even in some of the most difficult to reach parts of Darfur.

    We worked with hugely courageous, brave people in Darfur – speaking to them when I visited their villages I was moved particularly the bravery of the women.

    Having met the communities we’ve been working with in the Blue Nile, I believe we will find brave people there, too.

    The conflict in the Blue Nile is dire and needs to be stopped. But, if as news reports say, it’s likely to continue for at least the next two years – we have to do all we can to help people caught up in this continue to build their lives.

    Our commitment remains undiminished.

    Im sorry for the ramble – Ive just dashed this off – but I didnt want to forget how moved I was by Barneys words thinking about the people I met and shared with in Sudan.

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  • Prayers for rain

    I crave sunshine. I think it comes from being born just after Midsummer. I feel at my happiest when sitting in dappled sunlight, underneath the promise of a cloudless blue sky.

    So the last three weeks of constant rain, and the forecast of the wettest and coldest May for many years, fill me with melancholy.

    Yet in spite of the current weather, we are in a time of drought, and counties up and down the UK face hosepipe bans until the end of this year at least.

    It’s strange to be in drought during a time of so much rain. I was in Kenya during the drought in the Horn of Africa last summer. It was the worst that the region had witnessed for 60 years. The red flesh of the earth was barren, the empty river beds like bloodless veins. Cattle carcasses littered the horizon, and the wind carried the pungent smell of death.

    One woman I met told me that she prayed for rain every single day, a prayer for rain to comfort the earth, to bring food and hope and life.

    So today – even though the rain makes me crave tea and hobnobs and an old film and bed – I am remembering that woman, and her prayers for rain. I am reminding myself to be grateful for it.

    There’s another drought this year in the African Sahel, which comprises Chad, Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and northern Senegal. A toxic combination of low rainfall, high food prices, entrenched poverty and regional conflict means that 13 million people are at risk of malnutrition and starvation.

    Those 13 million mums, dads, children and grandparents are probably praying for rain too.

    We are so lucky we don’t have to.

    Unlike some larger NGOS, Practical Action is not an aid agency, and we do not deliver emergency relief. Instead, we believe passionately that it is only through long-term development work using appropriate technology that poor and vulnerable communities can become more resilient, and the desperate tragedy of drought and famine can be avoided. You can support our work here.

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  • Justice for the have nots

    When I am not working at Practical Action’s headquarters in rural Warwickshire, I spend my time with my friends in Notting Hill in London. Yesterday, after a yoga class and a cup of coffee, I walked home, along Ledbury Road, one of Notting Hill’s most famous thoroughfares. It was a glorious springy sunshiney morning, much longed for after two weeks of seemingly endless rain. Towards one end of the road are huge white Victorian villas, with spring blossoms veiling the balconies and graceful Greek columns framing impressive porches. As the road progresses, the white elegance fades into brown dinginess. The other end of the road is home to council estate flats: small and drab. I smile at two little girls hopscotching in a yard that’s around 10 foot by 10 foot.

    One of London’s greatest qualities is its diversity, yet all I could see during my walk along Ledbury Road was the injustice of the ‘haves and the have nots’.  This phrase – ‘the haves and the have nots’ was one I heard lots during my trip to Practical Action’s work in Kenya in August 2011.

    While travelling to a project in the informal settlements outside Kisumu city in western Kenya, my colleagues pointed out the narrow road which divided the ‘have nots’ from the ‘haves’. All that separated the people without life’s essentials: food, water, sanitation, shelter, energy, health care, education, a livelihood, from the people who had them, was a mere dirt track.

    Walking along Ledbury Road yesterday was a useful reminder that sometimes the physical distance between those who have enough and those who don’t is negligible. But bridging that gap can seem an insurmountable task.

    Technology Justice is one movement that is needed to help with this challenge. At Practical Action, we envisage a world where there is a balance between meeting the practical needs of people with less, while satiating the technological appetites of those with more. A world where all people, regardless of geography or wealth, can choose and use the technologies that will help them to live the life they value, without compromising the ability of others and future generations to do the same. A just, fair and equitable world, with a smaller gap between the people who have lots and those who have less. Technology Justice isn’t really about technology, it’s about people – and doing what is right.

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  • Sometimes we need to remember why we’re here

    In the day-to-day minutiae of working life it’s easy to get hung up on the bad stuff:

    The stresses of multiple deadlines. Or the pressures of huge fundraising targets. Exasperations with organisational bureaucracy, which exists everywhere, in spite of the efficiency of your processes and procedures. Or anxieties about re-structure, as experienced by Practical Action’s UK staff for the last eight months.

    But last week a very wise colleague reminded me:

    “Just remember – everything you do here is for the people of Bangladesh. Or Kenya. Or Peru. Sudan. Sri Lanka. Zimbabwe. Nepal. That’s why we’re here. That’s why we’re trying. The people are the only reason.”

    Her words were like a bell tolling me back from encroaching negativity to a place of clarity. I looked at the photos beside my desk and once more started to marvel at Practical Action’s work around the world:

    The dreamlike magic of a floating garden which allows the poorest families in Bangladesh to grow enough food to eat and sell all year round, even during the floods.

    The simple genius of a solar powered water pump that harnesses the energy of a resource which exists in abundance in Kenya – the sunshine – to produce one which does not – clean water.

    The quirky innovation of an eco-san loo which gives farmers in the mountains of Peru decent sanitation AND a means of preserving dry human waste to make good quality compost for their crops.

    No matter how frustrating my day is, I do feel very blessed that I can go home safe in the knowledge that I spent my time trying my best to make life better for someone in need of a helping hand. That everything I do here is “for the people of Bangladesh. Or Kenya. Or Peru. Sudan. Sri Lanka. Zimbabwe. Nepal.

    I repeated my colleague’s words to a friend this weekend and he warned me that I risked sounding holier-than-thou. I don’t feel pious or saintly, and I certainly hope I don’t sound like that. I just think that sometimes it’s important – perhaps even essential – to remember why we’re here.

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  • Once upon a time…

    ….there was a little girl who loved stories. As a little slip of a thing, she used to stand and swing on the garden gate, waving to passers-by in the hope that she could chat to them and ask them questions to find out their stories (she was a very curious little girl). A few years later, her very patient, very wonderful mother would read her favourite Maurice Sendak stories Outside Over There and Where The Wild Things Are to her every night. When she was at school, she’d set her alarm super early so she could wake up and read Enid Blyton books before going to lessons. English was always her favourite subject, and characters such as Elizabeth Bennett, Scout Finch, Jo March and Scarlett O’Hara were as familiar to her as her oldest friends. And then she studied the art of telling a story – for it is an art – during an English Literature degree at university.

    Now that little girl (who’s not so little anymore) works for Practical Action.

    I am that girl. And I work at Practical Action because I want to change the world. But my passion is storytelling: both discovering a good story, and then telling it in the best possible way. But how do you change the world with a story?

    Well, this week, we at Practical Action launched our next five year strategy. It is bold and ambitious and exciting – but challenging too. The targets, both in terms of fundraising and impact at scale, are high.

    But that’s because there are huge problems to solve. Right now 1.3 billion people across the world don’t have clean, safe water. 1 billion people don’t have enough food to eat. 2.6 billion people don’t have adequate sanitation. And 1.6 billion people don’t have access to modern energy. Too many people live in abject poverty. It is a world of great technology injustice.

    There is no question that this needs to change. So over the next five years we will work towards four universal goals:

    1. Sustainable access to modern energy service for all by 2030
    2. Systems which provide food security and livelihoods for people in rural areas
    3. Improved access to drinking water, sanitation and waste services for people living in towns and cities
    4. Reduced risk of disasters for marginalised communities

    And by the end of this next strategy period, in 2017, we will have transformed the lives of 6 million people.

    That is an exhilarating prospect for me.

    Because 6 million people = 6 million stories to find and tell.

    Each of those 6 million is not just a ‘project beneficiary’ but a living, feeling, thinking human being with their own unique life story. And those 6 million life stories are 6 million more reasons to support Practical Action, today and for the future.

    I can’t wait to get started.


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  • Joy in People

    One of the greatest joys of working in fundraising is meeting lots of amazing people who want to do  something to change the world – whether that’s donating loose change, or running 10km and asking for sponsorship, or organising a cake sale, or setting up a charitable trust to give away larger sums of money, or climbing mountains , as some of our student supporters are doing.

    Last night I was very honoured to be a guest speaker at a women only fundraising dinner in Yorkshire which was both celebrating women, and raising money for Practical Action’s work in Sudan. The room was full of over 200 women, all intelligent, funny, charming, wonderful people. Last night alone raised in excess of £7,000! And it’s all going towards a food project in rural Kassala which is helping nearly 100,000 people – some of the poorest on the planet – to make a better living from farming by giving them the tools, knowledge and skills they need to move to a life beyond poverty .  The generosity in that room was tangible. And it’s amazing to experience it. All too often it seems we’re living in the worst of times – great economic austerity, a seemingly endless war against terrorism, a government that cuts benefits from the most vulnerable while simultaneously allowing the rich to prosper. It can easy to be cynical, unmotivated, to think the worst and do absolutely nothing about it.

    But the dinner last night was a perfect reminder that people are, for the most part, pretty wonderful. Tell a room of women that there are 4.2 million people in Sudan starving, and they will dig deep and donate, in the hope of making tomorrow brighter than today.

    Today is also Sport Relief – and I know that millions of people up and down the country will be compelled to do something about the injustice of global poverty – whether that’s texting a donation while watching tonight’s TV show, or running the Sport Relief mile on Sunday.

    Gandhi once said “be the change you wish to see in the world.” Thank God there are so many wonderful people who live their lives true to that mantra. Today my heart is full of joy because of them – thank you.  Happy Friday everyone!

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  • Loos and luck

    I really need the loo. I’ve been at my desk for well over three hours and so far have filled my body with two cups of tea, one cup of coffee and a fair amount of water too. But I have the misfortune of working on the very top floor of Practical Action’s head office, which means that a trip to the loo involves climbing all the way downstairs. And I’m so engrossed in my work (and also a little lazy – it is Friday, after all) that I really can’t be bothered….

    I’m currently writing a proposal to fundraise for a hugely exciting new project that Practical Action is embarking on in Zimbabwe. We’re working with rural communities in the southern provinces of Gwanda and Mwenezi, endeavouring to reach out to 200,000 people to improve their access to clean water, ensure they have adequate sanitation and reduce their health risks from poor hygiene. The figure is massive. 200,000 people is over double the size of my home town!

    Most of these people currently live several kilometres away from a safe water supply. The task of collecting water usually falls to women and children who will spend whole days carrying up to 80 litres of water. The journey can be dangerous – these women are vulnerable to mugging and rape; and the water they do collect often isn’t fit for human consumption anyway.

    Furthermore, many families in Gwanda and Mwenezi don’t have toilets in their own homes as they can’t afford to build them. This means that people usually just relieve themselves outside in the bush. This morning I’ve read stories from women and girls who describe the complete loss of dignity and embarrassment they feel while doing this, especially when they’re menstruating.

    Suddenly my reluctance to walk down a flight of stairs to go to the toilet demonstrates not only laziness, but complete ignorance of how fortunate I am. Wherever I am, it only ever takes me a few minutes to fetch a glass of clean water or go to the loo.

    I am lucky. But it shouldn’t be about luck. Having clean water and being able to go the toilet without putting your safety or health at risk are basic human rights to which people everywhere are entitled, whether you live in Warwickshire or Gwanda.

    Now I really must go – I’m desperate.

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  • People help the people

    I have always been a Christmassy person. One of my friends calls me her Christmas friend for my propensity to tie bows and ribbons on everything all year long.

    I think it’s the twinkle I love: the glisten of decorations and the golden glow of fairy lights. In the depths of darkest winter, the whole of life somehow seems more sparkly.

    And I love Christmas foods; mountains of rich, boozy mince pies and heart-warming vats of cinnamon-scented mulled wine. I love the first deep breath of a fragrant Christmas tree, and the sweet tanginess of a freshly peeled tangerine fished from my stocking on Christmas morning.

    And I love being with my family. Admittedly it’s not always peaceful or perfect, but there is always a great deal of jolliness.

    But mostly I love the feeling of love that seems to infuse every heart in the world.

    I am approaching Christmas 2011 with more sadness and a little less joy than usual though. It has been a year of loss for me and for my family; the loss of loved ones.

    When I think of the people I have lost – whether through death or by other means – I remember the women who I met in Africa this summer. Most of them had suffered loss too – the loss of their husbands or their children. I spoke to one mother in Mandera county who had walked for 10 days from Somalia to find food and water in neighbouring Kenya. She carried her two year old son on her back for the entire journey. And then he died of malnutrition the day after she reached help.

    I think about that woman and I wonder what she is doing now. It’s raining in Mandera at the moment – the longed-for rains, thankfully, have come. Is she still in Kenya? Or has she returned to her village in Somalia? Has she found her husband? Are the rest of her children healthy, or has she lost more? Has she been able to find enough food to sustain her family? I hope with every molecule of my body that she is safe and well, and that her family is thriving.

    Christmas inspires both gratitude for what we already have and sparks a certain greater openness to generosity, kindness and compassion. Charles Dickens wrote in the most festive of novels, ‘A Christmas Carol’, that Christmas is “a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable pleasant time: the only time…in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.’

    As I prepare to leave my desk for two whole weeks of festive celebration, my heart is with all the people I met when I was in Africa, and for every vulnerable, forgotten, underprivileged woman, man and child around the world. As the embers of 2011 settle and the bright lights of 2012 beckon, I am sending them all of my love and good wishes.

    Next year I hope we can all do more to help build a fairer world, one which is free from poverty and injustice.  Two billion people live in abject poverty, with less than 80 pence a day. That’s two billion too many. People, please help the people.

    Thank you – and happy Christmas.

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