Blogs tagged as CEO

  • The SDGs – flawed yes, but still a powerful vision of a possible future

    September 23rd, 2015

    SDGsThis week heads of state, the Pope, the UN Secretary General and a range of dignitaries meet at the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit in New York. They are meeting to launch the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that set a vision for 2030 for human development and environmental sustainability. The SDGs range from commitments to end poverty in all its forms and reduce inequalities, through to more sustainable industrialisation and peace and justice. The 17 SDGs replace the 8 Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that were agreed at the turn of the century as a vision for progress to 2015. The Guardian does a good summary of the SDGs as well as how they relate to the old MDGs.

    There are reasons to be cynical about what goal setting of this nature can achieve. Firstly there is the track record of progress against the MDGs themselves, which is patchy. You can see a good summary by the UN of achievements as of 2104  here. In short, some good progress was made across Asia, Latin America and North Africa, but most of the MDGs were not met in Sub Saharan Africa.

    More fundamentally there is the question raised by Duncan Green in his From Poverty to Power blog about how much goals of this nature actually influence behaviour of governments at a national level. As Duncan puts it do we really think that “Chinese decision makers leap out of bed every morning asking themselves ‘how can I achieve the MDGs’?”

    And finally you have to wonder whether some of the metrics used to measure progress against the goals really say anything meaningful (or indeed whether the data can always be trusted – a criticism of some reporting against the MDGs).

    Despite these reservations, I am a supporter of the SDGs for 3 reasons:

    Firstly, standing out against the miasma of bad news and dire predictions for the future that forms our daily media diet, they provide an alternative and positive vision of a possible future. A view that was built at least in part on a very large global conversation around “the future we want”.

    Secondly it’s a view around which action can be galvanised. Duncan may well be correct in saying national policy makers don’t jump out of bed thinking about the MDG’s, but that doesn’t mean they have had no influence. Access to clean water supplies was included as a specific outcome for MDG 7 for example and my sense over the past 15 years has been that that increased focus on what progress was being made, which in turn influenced allocations made for rural water supply infrastructure by donors and national governments. Progress on addressing access to water over the past 15 years has been relatively good, albeit there is still some way to go. In contrast, access to energy was not included in the MDGs and consequently much less scrutiny of progress was visible (until the recent UN sustainable energy for all initiative). As a result of the lack of interest in the sector there was a relative dearth of funding for the comparable decentralised community managed infrastructure needed to provide rural communities with electricity.

    Thirdly, however imperfect they are, the MDGs and now the SDGs can provide a handle for civil society to hold both national governments and the international community to account. They are a statement of intent that can be held up as a mirror to reflect back how actions have measured up to rhetoric. They are a tool for us to use should we choose to.

    There remain reasons aplenty to be cynical about the SDGs. But I still welcome them. In a cynical world they are a statement not just of hope but of intent. And as such they have the potential to reflect back to us all on the effectiveness of our efforts to find a just and sustainable future for everyone on the planet.

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  • Fighting myths and competitions

    January 19th, 2014
    Launch of coalition to bolster public support for renewable energy

    Launch of coalition to bolster public support for renewable energy

    I attended the 4th annual assembly of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) in Abu Dhabi today. IRENA is a relatively new international organisation seeking to promote and encourage the use of renewable energy technology but it already is a big hitter, with today’s meeting attended by Heads of State and Ministers from 150 countries plus 120 international organisations. Practical Action was there today to join in the launch of an initiative it is a co-founder of that will promote renewable energy to the general public around the world. This much needed initiative will aim to counter some of the myths and untruths that are recycled by the media and others about the supposed inefficicency, costs or dangers of renewables; myths that are holding back investment in this area.

    Zayed Future Energy Prize

    But that was not the only reason I and a couple of colleagues are here this week. Practical Action has been nominated as one of 3 finalists in the NGO category of the prestigious Zayed Future Energy Prize (see here for more about the competetion and the full list of finalists across all categories).  We are here as the guests of the competition organisers for the awards ceremony tomorrow and to attend the World Future Energy Summit Conference for the following 2 days. Practical Action has been nominated for the prize as a result of its work on energy access over the past 40 or so years and I am sure there will be some nail biting by me tomorrow night as we attend the awards ceremony and hear which one of the 3 finalists is the eventual winner.

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  • World Energy Congress – great factoids, some flies and a disappointing debate on energy access.

    October 20th, 2013

    This is my 4th and final blog from the World Energy Congress. Day 4 finally got round to a discussion of energy access, with the main morning plenary session based on a panel including Kandeh Yumkella, the CEO of the UNSE4ALL secretariat and Vijay Iyer of the World Bank. Both know their subject well but the chairing of the panel unfortunately failed to spark anything really interesting in terms of debate. Having made a bit of a token gesture to the issue the delegates then returned mostly to the sessions discussing the more profitable areas of the energy industry. The audience for the only other panel session on access (the one I was part of) was limited to under 100.

    I have enjoyed my time at the Congress and learnt a lot, both about technology trends and about how the industry sees the future. It has confirmed my suspicion however that although the there’s plenty of technical ingenuity avaiable within the energy industry, the sort of leadership and revolutionary thinking that’s going to be needed to halt climate change and ensure universal energy access is not going to come from within the industry itself. Not surprising I guess as long as global policy frameworks don’t provide real commercial incentives to drive that sort of innovation.

    On a lighter note, to finish up, here’s some interesting factoids I picked up during the week:

    • Most renewables (without subsidies) are now becoming cost competitive with coal and gas (exceptions are newest / least mature technologies such as solar thermal and wave power).
    • Solar pv costs have dropped 60% since 2010, while wind turbine costs have fallen by 30% since 2008. But solar and wind can be land intensive technologies (i.e. they take up space) and so are influenced heavily by the price of land.
    • Global annul subsidies for renewables amount to $60 billion; global annual subsidies for fossil fuels a colossal $500 billion.
    • Data centres (the things that Google relies on to shift our e-mail traffic round the world and host our internet browsing) now consume 2.5% of global power production!
    • 40% of world’s population lives in water stressed areas

    Oh yes! And maggots are set to take over from fish! A guy called Jason Drew, who’s the CEO of a South African company called AgriProtien, made an interesting contribution to a panel on the water / food / energy nexus by talking about his company’s business breeding and selling maggots. He collects 150 tonnes of organic waste a day and feeds flies on it, converting the resultant fly eggs into 30 tonnes of protein in the form of maggots each day! The market is to replace industrial use of fishmeal for animal feed!

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  • World Energy Congress: The future for sustainable energy – not a dilemma but a trilemma

    October 17th, 2013

    This is my 3rd blog from the World Energy Congress in Korea. Wednesday’s theme was what the World Energy Council calls the ‘Energy Trilemma’, the need to find the right balance between 3 conflicting goals  energy security (ensuring enough energy to meet today’s and future demands), environmental sustainability (managing carbon emmissions amongst other things) and energy equity (the accessibility and affordability of energy supply across the population). WEC publishes an annual report on this topic which contains, amongst other things, an interesting traffic light index which shows how well individual countries do against each of the 3 elements of the trilemma. Surprisingly the UK is 5th out of 129 countries with green traffic lights on all 3 elements of the trilemma. Developing countries generally do not fare well on the basis of this index and largely populate the bottom half of the table with a lot of red. Peru, ranked 45  does best out of all the countries we work in; Zimbabwe worst, ranked 129 out of 129.

    The report, or at least the executive summary version, is worth a quick read as it explores 10 recommended actions to help cope with the trilemma. Actually I found the material in the 3 boxes in the executive summary version the most interesting part as it reflects issues that seem to come up again and again during conversations this week:

    1. The need for international standards to drive improvements in efficiency in consumer electrical products,
    2. The important role pension fund investment has to play in the energy sector and what needs to change to provide the pension funds the security they need to invest at the level required.
    3. The critical importance of R&D into improving large scale storage (very big batteries to you and me) in enabling the renewable energy industry to take a real leap forward, particularly in terms of helping national grids cope with a significantly increased proportion of their generation capacity being intermittent (i.e. dependent on the sun shining or the wind blowing).
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  • World Energy Congress – Where’s the revolution in energy industry thinking?

    October 16th, 2013

    Continuing my series of blogs from the World Energy Congress in Korea, Tuseday’s theme at the confrenece was all about identifying business opportunities in the exploitation of resources and the development of energy technologies. Once again though truly revolutionary thinking to address climate change and energy poverty seemed to be strangely missing. Two examples illustrate this:

    Firstly, there is a lot of talk at this conference about the ‘shale gas revolution’ in the United States and the possibility of it being replicated in other countries, including China. In chemical terms shale gas is similar to that produced from the North Sea. It is liberated from rock strata by a process known as ‘fracking’, where water is injected under high pressure through boreholes to fracture the rock and allow the gas to be released through the cracks formed. It’s a controversial technique that can involve real environmental challenges as it needs vast amounts of water which, once flushed through the well, is itself an environmental hazard that needs careful disposal. Depending on who you talk to here, shale gas is either a revolution that will make the US energy independent in a couple of years and provide it with cheap energy for a century or it’s just another bubble that is about to burst (at the moment shale gas comes with some shale oil attached which keeps costs artificially low; the shale oil production will finish quite quickly though and once that happens the cost of extracting the gas alone will rise dramatically).

    A second example would be the session I attended on Tuesday morning called ‘New frontiers: what is the next game changer?’ I was hoping to hear something about renewables, off grid solutions or new applications of smart grid technology. Instead I got a lot of information about ‘unconventional oil’ – shale gas, shale oil, oil exploration in the artic and something called methane hydrates (for more information on the latter see here). Apparently there is 4 times more oil locked in shales alone than there are left in conventional sources, which leads to the frightening (if you are worried about climate change) claim that the idea we might be reaching Peak Oil (the point at which consumption exceeds the rate of new discoveries and oil prices start to spiral) no longer applies. According to many speakers here, Peak Oil no longer an issue as there is at least 100 years left for coal oil and gas when you include unconventional sources.

    The problem with all of these ‘solutions’ to the looming global energy crisis is that, apart from the obvious environmental issues associated with each of the extraction and production processes themselves, they are all about extending the life of hydrocarbons and our dependency on fossil fuels. Discussion of renewables is not entirely absent here, but the level of enthusiasm for innovation in renewables doesn’t seem to be anywhere near  the level of enthusiasm for innovation in unconventional fossil fuels. The mantra repeated over and over again here is that the world will still be heavily dependent on fossil fuels in 2050, however much we invest in renewables. I can’t help wondering how much this mantra is dependent on the current subsidy regime. As someone pointed out during a session, at the moment the world provides around $500 billion a year in subsidies to fossil fuels and only about one tenth as much ($60 billion) on subsidising renewables. What if we reversed this and made subsidies for renewables 10 times greater than those for fossile fuels? Would we still be heavily dependent on oil and gas in 2050 then?

    Maybe I’m just not selecting the right sessions but from what I’ve seen in the first two days I do not detect the sort of revolution in energy industry thinking that’s going to be necessary to address climate change or achieve universal access to energy.

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  • World Energy Congress: The energy industry’s view of 2050 – no controls on demand and 500 million still without electricity

    October 15th, 2013

    I’m attending the World Energy Congress in Daegu, Korea this week and I thought it might be interesting to blog on the key themes of this meeting.

    The World Energy Congress happens every 3 years and is organised by the World Energy Council (WEC), a network of 3000 member organisations located in 90 countries. Principally members come from the private sector, government or international institutions, although there is some representation from academic institutions. The conference is huge, with more than 5000 delegates and a large trade exhibition running alongside it.

    The meeting has a different theme every day. Monday’s was ‘Vision and scenarios for the future’ and to mark this WEC launched a report titled: World Energy Scenarios: Composing energy futures to 2050 that shows 2 different scenarios for the development of the energy sector between now and 2050. The scenarios are artfully named after two styles of music – “Jazz”, where there is little forced direction and reliance is principally on markets to deliver change and “Symphony”, where there is more regulation and direction provided by governments. The scenarios are supposed to represent the two extremes within which actual future energy policy paths are likely to fall. From a development perspective a major problem with both scenarios is that neither eliminates energy poverty by 2050 and so  lack ambition when compared to the UN Sustainable Energy for All goal of universal access by 2030. The Jazz scenario does the best – with markets left to their own devices reducing the level of people without electricity in the world from 1.2 billion today to 300 million by 2050. Surprisingly WEC’s more regulated Symphony scenario does worse, leaving 500 million people still without electricity by 2050 – possibly because the government regulation envisaged by the scenario’s authors was focussed on green issues and carbon rather than on energy poverty. I say possibly because the other alarming outcome from both scenarios is a massive predicted rise is global annual energy consumption from 373 EJ in 2010 to between 491 (Symphony) and 629 EJ (Jazz) in 2050.

    These two scenarios are supposed to represent extreme alternatives with an expectation that actual development will fall somewhere in-between. But scenarios are only as good as their underlying assumptions and in this case it appears those assumptions are “business as usual” for the energy industry, plus or minus a bit of green regulation.  It is disappointing that WEC hasn’t been more radical in its scenario building and had at least one of its scenarios representing what it would take to achieve universal access by 2030.

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  • Social media and development – opportunity or threat?

    November 16th, 2012

    On Tuesday this week I attended a conference in London sponsored by DFID, the Omidyar Network (set up by the founder of the on line shopping empire eBay) and WIRED magazine. The topic of the conference was the use of new communications technology (social media, mobile phones and the web) to promote open government, transparency, participation and development. It was a high profile conference with a video message form the UK Prime Minister and a speech by the new UK Secretary of State for Development Justine Greening. More information on the conference itself can be found at or on twitter at #OpenUp12 . DFID is clearly interested in this area and used the occasion to announce a new $50m fund created together with USAID and SIDA called Making All Voices Count to support the development of web and mobile technologies in developing countries that can empower citizens.

    At the conference there were some interesting examples of social media being used to promote transparency. The Ushahidi platform which was initially developed after the violence of the 2008 Kenyan elections was one. It allows individuals to post information by SMS, MMS or via the web about election irregularities, intimidation, violence etc. to create a real time map of problems that is available on line and which can be used to force government to take action. Ushadhidi has since been used in the Ugandan and Congo elections and in various disasters including the Haitian earthquake. The Ushadhidi platform (and another simpler version called crowdmap which can be set up and used in a few minutes) are open source and can be downloaded and used for free and have the potential to be used for non-emergency situations as well where you want large numbers of people to contribute to information that could be displayed on a map (for example – latest market prices for tomatoes at different town centres or the location of broken water points or villages without electricity connections).  There was also an interesting presentation on the use of Facebook and Twitter in Nigeria to co-ordinate political protest.

    One thing that struck me during the many presentations and discussions was that, just as in the real work, in the digital world there are many technology injustices. For example, depending on whose statistics you believe, in Africa, out of a population of over 1 billion people, somewhere between 400 and 750 million people have access to a mobile phone. But the cost of use, the level of connectivity, and the availability of electricity to recharge phones means that 90% of those people use less than 1 MB of data a month (in comparison the average data consumption in Europe and the US is between 150 and 400MB per person per month). This means most people are not really able to use the technology to access and exchange information beyond the most basic level.

    It also means that when we are talking about a new wave of political engagment through the use of social media, be it during  the “Arab Spring” or the co-ordination of political protests in Nigeria, we are talking essentially about political engagment by a relatively small ‘middle class’ urban group, who has the connectivity and who can afford the telephone bills.  There is a danger, as one participant of the conference noted during a question, that we overestimate the power of social media to change the balance of power and give voice to the marginsalised. Its use (at least at the moment) is just as likely to  simply accrue more power and voice to those who already have it.

    There is also a digital technology gender injustice to contend with as 300 million more men than women have access to mobile phones world-wide.

    Practical Action is certainly not Luddite in its approach to new technology. Around the world we are increasingly using social media and the web in our programme work, most obviously in Practical Answers, where we see the use of the web and  YouTube videos in Latin America to provide information to farmers, podcasting in Peru, Zimbabwe and Nepal to get recordings out beyond the reach of the internet, SMS messaging for agricultural help lines in Nepal and Bangladesh, and mobile phone networks being used to provide advanced warning of floods in Nepal.

    But we need to remeber that social media technology alone is no panecea and cannot, without other parallel action, overcome the more fundamental causes of poverty. You can’t join a twitter protest campaign if you live in a place that has no electricity to charge your phone!

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  • RIO + 20 – the end of the road for the grand international conference?

    June 26th, 2012

    I’m sitting in the airport waiting for a plane back to London having spent the past week with a small team from Practical Action at the Rio + 20 negotiations. We’ve been particularly focussed on the discussions around energy access for the poor that were a theme through side meetings and discussions throughout the week.

    This is the first time I have attended an event like this. And my impressions? Largely disappointing. Speaking with a fellow conference attender a minute ago we both came to the conclusion that if you were going to design a process to ensure agreement was reached on steps to ensure a sustainable future for all of us on the planet, this would not be it. In the formal part: endless and inconclusive negotiations on the minutiae of text, with national governments treating the process as if they were bartering for terms of trade as opposed to trying to prevent global disaster. And in the informal part: hundreds of side events – some really fascinating, others really dull, but none having any impact on or relationship to the sterile and hopeless process going on in the main negotiations.

    That said, there were some positives to take away from the week. The issue of energy access got a lot of attention in the side events and was one of the few areas where hard financial commitments were discussed during the week, albeit outside of the formal proceedings. I attended the signing ceremony for 3 agreements between the Norway and Ethiopia, Kenya and Liberia for energy access programmes under the Energy Plus initiative. And although the UN Secretary General’s Sustainable Energy for All initiative attracted some criticism for its lack of engagement with civil society (the UN could learn from the Norwegians who seem to have made a better job of civil society consultation under Energy Plus), they too announced a whole series of commitments from governments, donors, private sector and NGOs (including Practical Action). I was also heartened to attend an event discussing alternatives to GDP as a measure of social and economic progress, which included presentations about work going on in the EC and in the OECD to develop national systems of accounting that would incorporate ideas of wellbeing and natural capital.

    So all in all my take would be: an abysmal meeting in terms of the formal proceedings, with a complete lack of leadership from heads of government and a final document generous only in its use of platitudes and worryingly short on concrete proposals, but some interesting side events showing that civil society and sometimes even the EC and the OECD are occasionally still doing interesting stuff!

    For me, Rio+ 20, coming after the failed Copenhagen Climate Change talks and some eminently forgettable global meetings in between, marks the terminal decline of the big set piece international conference. The global leadership and vision that delivered the international conventions on biodiversity and climate change 20 years ago at the original Rio conference have disappeared. We need a different format if we are to make progress in the future. Maybe we should subcontract Avaaz to run the next one virtually and crowd source some common sense instead?

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  • Making markets work for the poor

    January 30th, 2012

    I returned from a visit to our Nepal programme last week and so thought I’d use my next couple of blogs to provide some news from there.

    Woman selling milk to a collection centre in Nepal

    In a previous blog I have talked about our work with dairy farmers in Nepal – helping small farmers increase milk yields through improved animal health and nutrition. In Nepal there is, in theory, a huge opportunity for small farmers to earn income from milk sales as there is a national ‘milk deficit’ with very large quantities of both fresh and powdered milk being imported from India to meet the demand of urban centres.

    For increased yields of milk to lead to higher incomes for farmers however, improved technology and technical knowledge is only part of the changes that have to occur. The technical side of ensuring access to improved feedstock, the services of vets, cooling facilities to allow milk from lots of small farms to be bulked up and stored until collection by dairy processors etc is all very important. But often there are other problems in the way market chains work which can prevent small producers from realising the potential value of their produce. That is why Practical Action works not just on the technology but also on making markets work for poor people.

    I saw an example of the latter on my first day in Kathmandu, when I attended a seminar on barriers to small holder farmers’ engagement in the dairy market, hosted by Practical Action. It was held under the auspicies of a Practical Action dairy project (funded by UK AID) and was part of the process of bringing key market actors from across the dairy market chain together to discuss policy blockages to further expansion of smallholder dairy production. The seminar was attended by about 100 people including small farmers, private sector dairy processors and government officials. The latter included the Minister for Agriculture, the Permanent Secretary for the Ministry of Agriculture and the Director General of the Livestock Department of the Ministry of Agriculture. A representative of the UK’s Department for International Develoment was also present as a speaker.

    The workshop was good evidence of our Nepal office’s convening power, in this case bringing together and facilitating discussion amongst the whole range of different players that make up the dairy market chain in Nepal. The first part of the morning included speeches by the main guests and a key note speech identifying some of the main problems in the dairy market chain today that hamper dairy businesses from operating efficently and which prevent small farmers from obtaining the best value for their milk. The principle problems listed were: limitations on the ability to improve the quality of livestock (because of an embargo on cross border cattle movement from India and very limited artificial insemination facilities), limited access to credit for small holder farmers, and the depressing effect on supply of the price fixing system used by the Government’s Dairy Development Board.

    The meeting went on to 4pm in the afternoon, 3 hours after its due closure time, because of the intense interest of the participants in the discussion. One outcome was that government officials agreed to look into the possibility of an official visit to India to, amongst other things, hold discussions on cross border cattle movement.

    This sort of meeting is part of a participatory market mapping and facilitation process that Practical Action has developed over the past few years to help all actors in a market chain better understand how a market works and what could be done differently to improve the value to all participants but, in particular, to make markets work for the poor. For more information see our website at:

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  • An era of innovation for the poor?

    January 6th, 2012

    In the 19th Decmber 2011 issue of the magazine New Statesman, Bill Gates authored an opinion piece on why he believes that “the world is on the cusp of finally unleashing innovation for the poorest”. As evidence he cites a number of examples including the development of new varieties of maize that can be 50% more tolerant of drought, a breakthough last year in the development of a more accurate and simple TB test, the Serum Institute of India releasing a low cost vaccine for meningitis A, and recent examples of technology transfer from Brazil and China.

    Bill Gates has, in recent years, consistently raised the issue of a ‘tragic misallocation of resources’ in global technology research and development, complaining in an often referenced TED talk a couple of years ago that more money is spent annually on research a cure for male baldness than for a vacinne for malaria. He is absolutely right to raise this as an issue and a barrier to the poor having access to the technologies they need to achieve a reasonable standard of living.

    But the New Statesman article reads as if technological innovation is all that is needed to end poverty (e.g. “Yes we have a global food crisis. But with innovators all over the world focussed on the problem, we also have a good chance to fix it”). But its not. Many of the technologies poor people need already exist, and in some cases have been in existance for centuries. Its their inability to access to them that is the core issue – due to a assortment of barriers ranging from simple affordability, to the poor having no voice in decisions around allocation of investments for basic services.

    We need innovation not only in technology itself, but also innovation to over come the social, political and economic barriers that prevent poor people from accessing existing technology and that prevent innovation really focussing on the interests of the poor. So, for example, we need innovation to help utilities in urban centres in the developing world overcome their reluctance to provide water, sanitation and electricity supplies to the residents of informal settlements and shanty towns, which often make up half or more of the population of developing country cities. And, in an era where governments have largely handed over resonsibility for technology R&D to the private sector, we need ways of sponsoring research and innovation into knowledge which cannot be commodified but which is never the less helpful to the fight against poverty – for example research into improving the productivity of traditional agro ecological forms of agriculture.

    Like Bill Gates, I too am an optimist. I believe this is possible and that a growing number of people are beginning to understand and respond to the challenge.

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