Blogs tagged as CEO

  • Energy Aid

    December 5th, 2011

    I was absolutely delighted last Thursday to be present at the headquarters of IBM UK in London  to witness the launch of a new charity, Energy Aid. The idea behind Energy Aid  – that British Industry support the creation of a new initiative to help tackle energy poverty in the developing world – emerged from a suggestion made by Practical Action during an IBM sponsored conference at HRH The Prince of Wales’ START festival last summer. (START was a festival aimed at inspiring people and businesses in the UK to start taking action to make their own lives and activities more environmentally sustainable.)

    From our work at Practical Action, we know that access to modern forms of energy – electricity in the home, a clean source of heat for cooking, energy for small enterprises to earn a living- is a prerequisite for development. Without access to basic energy services movement out of poverty simply isn’t possible.

    We also know, from our experience in developing countries, that this is not an insoluble problem. Although the vast bulk of people without electricity live in rural areas, out of reach of connections to national grids, affordable electricity can still be provided by simple micro hydroelectricity projects, small wind turbines or solar panels. And clean and efficient cooking stoves can make huge improvements in terms of reducing the time and effort spent collecting fuel and reducing the death toll from smoke pollution in the home.

    But we also know that, 132 years after Edison introduced the incandescent light bulb, 1.4 billion people are still in the dark and 2.7 billion still cooking over open fires. This cannot be right and we must find a way of tackling the problem. That is why I was so pleased to be part of the launch event last week.

    As one of the founding Trustees of Energy Aid I am tremendously excited by the prospect ahead and look forward to being involved in what I believe is a ground breaking and innovative new charity to tackle one of the most pressing problems of poverty – the lack of access to energy services in the developing world.  If you want to find out more about the charity please go to

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  • Pesticides in the dock

    November 25th, 2011

    Continuing on the theme of my previous two blogs about the interlinkages between water, food and energy security, one of the recurring themes at the Bonn conference last week was the impact of modern farming practices on the environment, most notably the seepage of nitrogen from fertiliser and residues from pesticides into ground water and rivers around the world. As many have argued, industrial systems of food production, relying on heavy applications of agro chemicals and an increasingly narrow range of seed varieties are unsustainable, polluting, and slowly reducing the  genetic diversity of the crops we desperately need if we are going to develop a form of agriculture resilient to climate change. More support for an alternative agro ecological approach to food production is not just good for small farmers in sub Saharan Africa, as I have argued before in this blog, but also for production and the environment in the rest of the world too.

    The overuse or misuse of agro chemicals is not just of danger to the environment of course. It’s also a hazard to health. This week I was sent a link to an interesting experiment about to take place in India. The Pesticide Action Network (PAN International), a global network of more than 600 organisations in 90 countries has been working on the hazards of chemical pesticides since 1982. In December it is planning to bring together witnesses and experts from around the world in Bangalore, India to convene a ‘global tribunal’ seeking justice for victims of the pesticide industry. From December 3rd – 6th 2011, a ‘People’s Tribunal’ will convene to hear 25 cases bought by “farmworkers, mothers, young people, scientists and consumers..” against six transnational pesticide producing companies, the IMF, the World Bank, the WTO and the US, Swiss and German Governments (where the 6 companies are domiciled). If you want to find out more about this please follow the link: “people’s trial” against the Big 6 pesticide corporations .

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  • The 3 securities we need to worry about (part 2)

    November 23rd, 2011

    The Bonn conference on the ‘nexus’ between food, energy and water security closed last Friday. Following on from my last blog post on this, some thoughts on the relevance to Practical Action’s work.

    The relevance of Practical Action’s work to future international development policy

    Listening to the various sessions of this conference brought home to me the relevance of Practical Action’s work to these debates and to the trends being set out in the new EC development policy. Our work on energy access, agriculture and food, and urban water, sanitation and waste map directly onto the three securities being discussed here and two (energy and agriculture and food) map directly onto the main priorities of the EC’s ‘agenda for change’. With the UN Secretary General’s backing, energy is likely to be a key topic at the Rio+ 20 summit and so a major component of development debates and policies in the coming years. Climate change and the growing realisation about the inter-linkages between energy, water and food mean these two subjects are also likely to be increasingly at the centre of international development policies and priorities.

    I like to think perhaps the world is in fact catching up with us. We should all be proud of the part we have played, however small, in the growing realisation globally that a sustainable future for all cannot be achieved without (a) addressing natural resource use by everyone on the planet and (b) doing this at the same time as addressing global poverty.

     Speaking with a stronger voice

     But just because there is more interest amongst governments and the main development agencies in our areas of expertise doesn’t mean that our job is done. Although many of the right noises are being made about the need to address poverty, to support small holder farmers and to provide access to energy services for all, there is still plenty of room for disagreement over ‘how’.

    The message underlying the new EC agenda for change and many of the presentations at this Bonn conference was that these problems will be addressed through growth and a trickle down of benefits to the poor, an approach we and many others believe simply does not work . There were still at least three models of agriculture being discussed at the conference, only one of which really looks at the role of food production as a livelihood for millions of poor people and as an expression of culture. And the conference was full of technical fixes to technical problems but notably quiet on the human aspects of development and the need for poor people’s voices to be heard and their interests to be better represented in some of these debates.

    There is still plenty of room for a voice that talks about technology justice and wellbeing in these discussions. And there is plenty of room for Practical Action to work with other like-minded organisations, to use the momentum and potential that is coming from increased international attention on the links between food, water, energy and poverty, to push for real and substantial change that actually benefits the poor.

    And, of course, there is still plenty of real work for us to do on the ground in developing countries to turn policy rhetoric into something real.


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  • The 3 securities we need to worry about.


    I am writing this blog from a conference hosted by the German Government in the old parliament building in Bonn.

     Influencing the Rio +20 summit

     The Bonn conference is being attended by over 500 people, including ministers, senior government officials, representatives from the UN agencies and development banks, researchers and civil society groups. It is the German Government’s attempt to put an issue on the agenda for the next ‘earth summit’ – Rio + 20 summit next year, and it is confirming for me the relevance of our work to the subjects which will be increasingly central to future international development policies. 

     The Germans held a similar conference, which I also attended, just ahead of the last ‘Earth Summit’ in 2002. That conference focused on freshwater, with a big emphasis on water and sanitation. It gained momentum for the move to get a sanitation target into the MDGs and ensured the topic got a good airing at the Johannesburg summit. So this conference has a bit of a track record of getting issues onto the ‘Earth Summit’ agendas.

     The subject of the conference this time is the critical importance to both poverty reduction and a sustainable future for all of us of three inter-related ‘securities’ – food security, energy security and water security – and it this that the German Government would like to see centre stage of the discussions for Rio +20. Interestingly, the EC has just announced its new ‘agenda for change’ which outlines a new and tighter focus to its development assistance, with a big emphasis on two of these three securities – food and energy.

     There are some fascinating figures being quoted in the various sessions here. Did you know, for example, that globally 70% of freshwater extraction and nearly half of energy production is consumed by the agriculture sector? Or that the amount of cultivated land per capita is expected to be just 1.61 ha per person by 2050, compared to 7.91 ha per person in 1900?

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  • Technology Justice

    September 20th, 2011

    Over the past 12 months or so we at Practical Action have been been working on a concept we call Technology Justice. I have talked a bit about this in my blog before, but last week a Practical Action supporter, Sam Charles-Edwards, put up a really interesting and thoughtful post on his own blog, reviewing the idea and commenting on how we plan to use it. You can see his blog here. Sam raises some valid points, including asking why we might be interested in using such a concept in the first place. He suggests one of the principle purposes of using a term such as “justice” might be to highlight injustices that exist in the world today. In this he is spot on. Practical Action is interested in promoting public debate about the huge injustices that result from the way the world develops and uses technology today.

    I thought it might be useful to talk a little about these injustices today, which I believe can be thought of under 3 headings:

    1.      A large part of humanity cannot access already existing technologies that would help them achieve a decent standard of living

    Human development has always gone hand-in-hand with technical change.  Technology development and adaptation enables people to achieve wellbeing with less effort and drudgery, or at lower cost and with fewer resources.  Improved technologies can make a huge difference to people’s lives – providing access to basic services such as water, energy, transport and housing; helping in the development of sustainable livelihoods and providing for reliable and sufficient food supplies; providing the platform from which improvements in health, education, income and wellbeing can be achieved. In short, though the development and use of technology has not always been for the good of all, we know access to improved technology can be an effective lever out of poverty and that conversely, its absence is almost always a key feature of living in extreme poverty.

    But today a substantial part of humanity still lacks access to the basic technologies that would help them achieve even a very basic minimum standard of living. For example: 1.6 billion people do not have access to electricity; 2.4 billion people still depend on traditional biomass for cooking; 1.5 billion people still live in inadequate shelter; 1.3 billion people still have no access to safe water; and 2.6 billion have no sanitation. In many cases the technologies necessary to solve these problems already exist. The injustice is that a substantial part of humanity is excluded from their benefits.

     2.      Our technological efforts to innovate are now focussed mostly on the ‘wants’ of consumers rather than the ‘needs’ of those least well off.

    This is the Bill Gates argument that there must be something wrong with our priorities given that we spend more each year on researching a cure for male baldness than we do for finding a vaccine for malaria. There are many areas where the interests of the poor in the developing world would benefit from further research – improving the efficiency of the small scale low input farming techniques that around 60% of the population of sub Saharan Africa rely on for their food and livelihoods being one such example. The injustice here relates to the misapplication of technological effort. Today’s technology research and development is largely financed by commercial institutions and, consequently, concentrates on technologies which have the potential to produce the greatest financial return rather than having the greatest impact of quality of life.

     3.      We make technology choices today that limit other people’s ability to make choices now and in the future.

    The choices we make in developing and using technologies shape our society and can, ultimately, limit or impact on the choices others can make now, and in the future. There are examples of this all around us today. The development of bio fuel based on corn in the US leads to a rise in the price of corn in international markets and a corresponding rise in the price of tortillas, the staple food in Mexico; so in this case US consumers choice of fuel impacts on the affordability of food for people in Mexico. Or another example – our addiction to fossil fuel based technologies will leave a legacy of climate change for our grandchildren to deal with; in this case our choice of technology today limits future generations’ ability their choices and options. The injustice here is that those who make the choices (generally consumers or those representing their interests today in the developed world) are often not those who will face the negative consequences (the poor and marginalised or future generations).

    Do have a read of Sam’s post on his blog and, if you feel inspired to post a comment yourself I’d be very interested to hear you views.


    Practical Action has adopted the principle of Technology Justice to try to focus attention on these issues. We define Technology Justice as combining a right – that all people should be able to choose and use technologies that assist them in leading the kind of life they value – with a corresponding responsibility – that this right could be enjoyed only so long as that choice does not compromise the ability of others and future generations to do the same.   

    We hope to use this to start a debate on how we want to govern technology development and use in the future. It is a debate, we believe, that is central not just to the fight against poverty in the developing  world but also to the understanding what a sustainable world for al of mankind might look like.

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  • Why technology choice matters

    September 11th, 2011

    It’s Sunday afternoon and I’m writing this blog on a train heading north from London to Bradford to give a lecture at the British Science Fair tomorrow. This is part of a whole series of events we’ve been attending this year to publicise the centenary of the birth of our founder, the economist Fritz Schumacher’s birth.

     Tomorrow I will be talking about the ideas Schumacher espoused back in the late 1960’s and, in his book Small is Beautiful, in the early 1970’s concerning an alternative view of economics ‘as if people mattered’. Given that it’s a science festival I will also be talking about how Schumacher came to believe that the choices we make around the development and use of technology shape the societies in which we live and can have huge consequences in terms of limiting the choices others can make now and in the future. There are examples of this all around us today, if you think about it. The development of biofuels in the US leads to a surge demand for corn in international markets and a rise in the price of tortillas, the staple food in Mexico. Our global addiction to fossil fuel based technology creates an inheritance of climate change for our children and grandchildren. Schumacher argued that we need to rethink our relationship with technology. And so on…

    It’s my belief, and that of Practical Action, that to ensure greater equity of opportunity for a decent standard of living for everyone on the planet today, and a chance for a sustainable future for all of us, we need a new principle to govern the development and use of technology. That principle we at Practical Action call technology justice. Technology justice combines a right – that all people should be able to choose and use technologies that assist them in leading the kind of life they value – with a corresponding responsibility – that this right could be enjoyed only so long as that choice does not compromise the ability of others and future generations to do the same. My point tomorrow will be that the principle of technology justice is as relevant to our lives here in the UK as it is to those of the poor and marginalised living in the developing world. Our challenge in our own society and as a global community is to find a way to govern the development and use of science and technology so that it better meets the principle of technology justice in the future.

    I’m looking forward to an interesting debate!

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  • Only nine meals away from anarchy

    July 26th, 2011

    Food prices are seldom out of the news these days. A Daily Mail report last week talked about UK shoppers moving en masse to budget supermarkets as price hikes for many essentials over the past 12 months reach double digits. A more interesting article in the 27th June edition of the New Statesman caught my eye though, entitled “Nine meals away from anarchy”. The article, which focussed mainly on the increase in numbers of people in London growing their own food, noted how hooked our food systems have become on cheap oil. The article claimed that 81% of the 6.9 million tonnes of food Londoners consumed last year came from outside of the UK. With such high levels of import dependency and with an increasing reliance on ‘just in time’ stock management systems we are incredibly dependent on oil to fuel our food supplies, leading a former head of the Countryside Agency Ewen Cameron to remark that we were only ever “nine meals – or three days – away from anarchy”.

    Of course oil prices are not the only factor causing increases in food prices – a rising demand caused by population growth, a diversion of agricultural crops into the production of bio fuels, adverse weather  events, and problems of declining soil fertility and water shortages all also play a part in inflating food costs. And it’s not just shoppers in the UK that feel the pinch. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation reports that rising food prices in the developing world have pushed another 44 million people into extreme poverty since June 2010.

    The current global food production system makes no sense. We need a system which is less dependent on cheap oil, more resilient to climate change and better able to maintain the resource on which production depends – the fertility and water retention capability of soils. This probably means a shift back towards producing a greater proportion of food for local consumption and less production for export than at present. It also requires greater support for more agro ecological farming practices that rely less on oil based inputs and do more to maintain soil fertility and water conservation. In the developing world it also means more support for the small scale producers who are already more likely to be following this style of production and who, given the right conditions, can be highly productive and part of a strategy to ensure food price stability in the poorer nations.

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  • May 27th, 2011

    Earlier this week the Global Development section of the Guardian Online started an interesting debate around how you measure development (see Talkpoint: How would you measure development progress). A number of suggestions were made by various respondents. The problem is that there is no single answer to the question. Health care, freedom of choice, equality and happiness, some of the individual candidates for indicators suggested, are all important indicators of development.

    In Practical Action we believe the concpet of wellbeing is useful here. A number of academic studies of how people themselves define well-being, whether they are carried out in rich or in poor countries, conclude that well-being has two components;

    The first is a material component. People want their material needs satisfied – food, shelter, access to basic services such as water and energy, education and health, and an income to pay for all of this.

    The same research shows that the second component that contributes to a sense of well-being is a relational one. The sense of well-being comes from more than just having one’s basic material needs met. It requires also a sense that you have a degree of control and power over your own life, that you can be a part of decisions that have a major impact on the way you live, that you can live in dignity, that you have the respect of your fellow citizens, and that you can live in peace with your neighbours.

    A set of indicators that covers both people’s material and relational well being probably stands more of a chance of showing development progress than any single indicator.

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  • Knowledge is power

    May 6th, 2011

    The simple idea behind all of Practical Action’s work is that access to technology can transform poor people’s lives and help them lift themselves out of poverty. But when we say ‘access to technology’ we don’t just mean ‘hardware’ – a hand pump for water or a turbine to generate electricity. Hardware is important, but what’s also important is access to technical knowledge that is appropriate and useful to those living in poverty and which is available in a form which they can access, understand and use.

    Practical Action has been providing a technical advisory service, now known as Practical Answers, for more than 30 years. The service takes various forms. Internationally we offer a web based service through which people can get access to short and simple ‘how to’ technical briefs on nearly 400 different topics ranging from small scale commercial production of yogurt to brick making to electricity generation by micro hydro. These briefs are extremely popular with over 1 million of being downloaded last year alone. Take a look at some of these yourself at Practical Answers.

    Information on the web is still not widely accessible to poor people in the developing world and this part of our service tends to be used more by development workers employed by local or international NGOs or local government, who have access to the internet. There are some exceptions. In Peru access to the internet is quite high and we have a number of highly used technical websites such as Infolactea for dairy farmers (have a look if your Spanish is up to it!). But in most of the countries where we have a presence on the ground, we supplement any web based offer with an enquiry service in local languages where people can phone, write, e-mail or visit our offices to get technical advice.

    We continue to look for innovative ways to get information out of the offices of development professionals and into the hands of poor people who can use it. One method we have used quite successfully in recent years in Zimbabwe is, surprisingly, podcasting – putting step by step instructions in a local language on a particular topic, say how to vaccinate your cow, on to an MP3 player which a farmer can borrow and listen to as he or she carries out the activity itself.

    One of our challenges remains getting information translated into languages other than English however. So we’ve been very pleased to team up with the mobile phone operator Orange recently to try to combine technology and people power in the UK to get some of our technical briefs translated into other languages. The idea is to break down this work into bit sized 5 minute chunks that volunteers with language skills could complete on their smart phones whilst, perhaps, waiting for a bus. If you’d like to find out more about this or download the app that will let you join in please go to our website for more information. Knowledge is power, but in this case people power is knowledge!

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  • To give or not to give

    April 8th, 2011

    David Cameron’s announcement last week that the UK Government was committing £650 million of aid money to Pakistan to help improve its education system has caused much controversy in the media over the past few days. There have been editorials and articles for and against the decision, but with the latter outnumbering the former by far. Two common themes amongst those against have been (a) that in such economic tough times we cannot afford aid and charity should instead start at home and (b) that concerns over corruption and extremism in Pakistan make it an inadvisable target for aid in the first place.

    Whilst both of these sentiments are to an extent understandable they are, I believe, misplaced or short-sighted. There is a clear moral case that we have a duty to try to help the more than 2 billion people trying to exist on less than $2 a day (a good proportion of which lives in South Asia). There is also a clear needs-based case that education is an area desperately in need of investment in Pakistan with, according to Unicef  only 54% of the adult population literate and less than 40% of boys and 30% of girls of secondary school age attending school.

    But leaving aside these two compelling reasons for us providing support, there are still plenty of enlightened self-interest arguments to bring to bear to support the decision. One of these directly refutes a couple of the most commonly cited arguments for not providing aid to Pakistan. Simply that education is a great area to start in the fight against both political extremism and corruption. An educated population is less likely to succumb to extremism and an educated population is better able to hold its own government to account and demand transparency and good governance.

    We have to take concerns over corruption and over the possibility of development assistance being diverted or used ineffectively seriously. But we should use this concern as a spur to continue to improve transparency and systems of accountability, not as an excuse to walk away not just from our responsibilities but from what, ultimately, is an investment in our own interest.

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