Leaving Practical Action – reflections, from a Kathmandu hotel room, on the last 10 years

July 24th, 2015

October this year will mark the completion of 10 years for me as Chief Executive of Practical Action. It has been a huge honour, joy and privilege for me to occupy this position and to work with such a fantastic and dedicated group of staff across the world. I remain enormously enthusiastic about Practical Action’s mission, the idea of technology justice, and all of our work.

It’s my belief however that organisations need to refresh themselves from time to time and that 10 years is long enough for an individual to be in a CEO position. I therefore confirmed some time ago to our Chair, Helena Molyneux, that I would not seek to renew my current 5 year contract when it expires this October. This is not a recent decision for me, as I made the then Chair Stephen Watson aware of my position when I signed my current contract back in 2010. Although Helena and the Trustees were kind enough to let me know I could continue in place if I wished, I have continued to believe that this is the right course of action and so did not change my mind.

One advantage of flagging the intention so early on is that we have managed to chart a smooth transition to the installation of a new CEO. As you can see in elsewhere on this site, after a very thorough search and recruitment process Paul Smith Lomas, our current International Director, has been appointed as my successor and will take over the reins at the start of November. I think the Trustees have done a great job managing the recruitment process and have made a great choice in the candidate they eventually picked. Paul brings a huge amount of experience of the development world and is a strong strategic thinker as well as being hugely passionate for our cause. I know he will lead Practical Action well.

I’m writing this blog in a hotel room in Nepal, having just stepped off the plane for what I think will be my last overseas visit for Practical Action. I’m here to check up on how our staff are doing after the earthquakes in April and May of this year. I will also be visiting some of the post-earthquake relief and rehabilitation work we have been involved with in the district of Gorkha, one of the worst hit. Coming in from the airport today I only saw one building that had been damaged by the earthquakes. Strangely it was completely flattened – just a pile of brick, concrete and twisted reinforcing bar, but surrounded by buildings apparently untouched. I know though that there was a lot of damage to some of the older buildings in the centre of the city that my ride today didn’t go near. My taxi driver was from Dhading District, one of the other areas most heavily affected and he told me that his house, and all the houses in his village, had been totally destroyed. Given the scale of the disaster I think it will be difficult to meet someone who has does not at least know a friend or relative has been affected in some way. I will update my blog during the coming week as my visit continues.

Sitting in my Kathmandu hotel room and reflecting back over the past ten years with Practical Action I can only feel immense pride in what our staff have achieved in that time. We’ve grown – doubled in size in fact in terms of income – which has allowed us to open new programmes of work in India, Malawi, Rwanda, Bolivia and, most recently, francophone West African. As a result, our direct impact has also grown to the extent that we now touch the lives of more than a million people a year in some way.

But we have also been able to expand our indirect impact very significantly over the same period. Our knowledge services have been perhaps one of the most dramatic examples of this expansion – 121,000 technical enquiries were answered by us and our partners in 2014/15, 50,000 more than the previous year alone. In the same year 1,600,000 downloads of technical information were made from our websites across the Group.

And our policy influence has also increased dramatically. We’ve built a global reputation as a leading authority on helping poor people get access to basic electricity supplies and clean cook-stoves. We are on steering groups at the United Nations and the World Bank and advise national governments on energy policies. Our annual Poor People’s Energy Outlook report has become so influential in the sector that the UK DFID has just agreed to put £840,000 towards securing the next 4 issues. In disaster risk reduction our reputation is such that we are seen as the innovation partner in an international programme on building poor people’s resilience against flooding that includes organisations that dwarf us in size, such as the Zurich Insurance Group and the International Red Cross. And in field of urban sanitation we are now building a strong reputation on pit latrine waste disposal in countries such as Bangladesh, Kenya and India to the extent that, even as a new player in India we have been asked to advise not just the State Government in Orissa (where we have a programme of work on the ground) but the National government too.

But what will always remain special for me, as far as Practical Action is concerned, is that through all that growth we have managed to hold on to a core philosophy, grown out of the ideas of Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful and now encapsulated in the concept of Technology Justice. It’s a vision of how the world could be different: more just, more equitable, more sustainable. A world where everyone has access to the technologies they need to enjoy a reasonable standard of living and where achieving this for the current generation does not impede future generations’ ability to do likewise. It’s a vision but not a pipe dream. And if I wished anything for my successor, apart from heaps of good luck and success, it would be that, whatever happens to the organisation, that vision of a technology just world remains at the centre of Practical Action’s work over the coming 10 years. There is a movement for technology justice to be forged and Practical Action has much to offer that movement in terms of leadership.

Leave a reply