The first time I came across the idea of simple, poverty-fighting technology was in Lesotho in 2011, when I saw a roundabout that doubled up as a water pump. Whenever the local kids played on the roundabout, it would bring up water into the village well, giving the community a safe drinking water supply. Genius! I was captivated by the essence of this straightforward project that was making a huge difference to everyday life for some of the world’s poorest people.
The next time I came across this “intermediate” or “appropriate” technology was at university. We were asked to discuss whether these kinds of small-scale, people-focused technological interventions in developing countries were still relevant. Fair to say, I was shocked! I couldn’t imagine anyone coming up with an argument against the kinds of projects that I’d seen working successfully and appropriately first hand.
But then I found it. How can a few small, basic projects make a difference to the huge problem of poverty across our globe? According to the United Nations, one in eight people live in extreme poverty. Practical Action has found that over 840 million people are undernourished and over a third of the developing world doesn’t have access to acceptable sanitation facilities. With statistics this terrifying, how can we possibly think we can make a difference? One reason, we found, that people don’t support charities, is because they simply don’t know where to start. Poverty is too big a problem to tackle. So, as fundraisers, as awareness-raisers, as people who want to make a difference, what do we do? How do we encourage people to give when to them, their £5 or £10 or even £100 feels like a drop in the ocean?
The reason I was first fascinated by that roundabout was because it was, as EF Schumacher put it, small but beautiful. A design straightforward enough to be implemented in a rural, isolated community, used immediately, and made sustainably. I saw real people using it, and met children who had a safe water supply and therefore a much brighter future. Seeing a project up close and personal makes it so much easier to invest in, and easier to invest in similar ones in the future.
If only it was possible to take every supporter to see a project that they have helped to fund. Financially and logistically this isn’t possible, but we can still make individuals feel connected. Hearing names and stories, and seeing faces changes poverty from something that feels remote and far away to something that anyone can help to eradicate. Perhaps we can’t end poverty in one fell swoop but surely doing something beautifully small is better than doing nothing at all?
In a world where having the latest technology is up there in most people’s priorities, creating technologies that bring energy, water, sanitation and risk reduction strategies must be relevant and important. And yes, the projects may be small. But the outlook and overall impact certainly isn’t. As I learn more about Practical Action, the work that’s happening and the plans for work to come, it’s difficult to not catch the excitement. Last year, Practical Action helped 1.7 million people with simple solutions to get out of poverty. These small projects are making a massive difference.
One such project is the zeer pot fridge. This simple fridge, made from local materials in Sudan, can hold up to 12kg of fruit and veg. Carrots and okra that would have been rotten within 4 days in the Sudanese heat can now last up to 20 days, meaning that families don’t have to battle hunger and even famine. Hawa Abbas explained to Practical Action that her family’s life “has been so much better” since using her zeer pot fridge. The fridges can be made locally and support families who are already proficient at producing their own crops. Supporting projects like this, no matter how small, is vital because they are making a real difference to real lives every day.
If you’ve been inspired to make a small but beautiful difference, please contact us at email@example.com for more information and resources, or to learn more about Practical Action’s projects, have a look at what we do.1 Comment » | Add your comment
At the end of December I’ve chosen to leave Practical Action after 15 years. For me it’s time for a new challenge and I’ll start 2016 full of the spirit of adventure – news of any challenging opportunities gratefully received. I’m excited to explore what next.
But I leave too with great hope and great sadness.
Hope because of the transformation I’ve seen in the lives of people who work together with Practical Action across Africa, Asia and Latin America.
Because of the brilliance of our education work which is helping European citizens think differently about technology, poverty, and our world. We need to work for a changed world together.
And because of our work at Practical Action on knowledge – maximising the impact of everything we do, and helping others share their learning through podcasts, answering enquiries on a one to one basis often face to face, our call centre serving farmers and fisherfolk in Bangladesh, web based info in Peru….. and so much more. I first came to know Practical Action through Practical Action Publishing and remain a huge fan. Today our work on knowledge – sharing rather than hoarding – helps millions of people each year. It’s just amazing!
I not only hope, but know, Practical Action will continue to make a difference in our world – providing practical solutions to poverty, working together with communities, sharing learning and respecting the finite nature of our planet.
But I also feel sadness.
Sadness because I leave a great group of people – committed individually and as a global organisation to helping communities escape poverty. Their passion, hard work, dedication to inclusive development is just amazing. I will miss all of the Practical Action teams for different reasons – but the golden thread throughout is their commitment.
Sadness too because I’ve had some great times – I remember listening to two amazing children in a remote village in Bangladesh talk not only about Practical Action but their aspirations for their lives, laughing with women in Zimbabwe building a micro hydro who when I tried to help discovered how weak I am, and the posher things too – talking at conferences, meetings with our Patron, HRH, The Prince of Wales, exploring ideas and work with big business, even being forced to give impromptu speeches in various parts of the world. I’ll miss lots of things I’ve got to do with Practical Action – it’s been challenging, exciting and fun.
But my biggest sadness is that we haven’t achieved what we set out to do – the lives of many people are better, access to energy for poverty reduction is now firmly on the global agenda, and indoor air pollution ‘Smoke – The killer in the Kitchen’ (the first Practical Action campaign I led – together with the brilliant team) is recognised as a major health hazard – but technology – which could help so many people and issues, is still is developed primarily to meet the wants of the rich not the needs of all and our planet. I am not in any way arguing that technology is all that’s needed to change our world but technology is a lever, a way of making a difference in a big way – people talk about systemic change (big picture, the long term). Technology can be a driver of systemic change – a different approach to technology, one that focused on the big challenges in our world would be soooo exciting!
One of the things I like about Practical Action is that we work with the pragmatic, the possible, the now, but we also dream of bigger change – a world where technology is used to help end poverty and protect our planet.
Whatever I do next I will continue painting a picture of the exciting and different way our world could be.
And finally in what’s turned out to be a much longer piece than I imagined – I want to say goodbye to our supporters – you have inspired, challenged, enthused and humbled me, and you are brilliant!
Have a wonderful Christmas. And I hope we all – around the world – have a brilliant and peaceful 2016.
Ps The picture is of a boy in Darfur, Sudan where I saw some of the most amazing work Practical Action was doing in the middle of conflict, and through our work trying to lessen conflict. Reminded me that change is possible.4 Comments » | Add your comment
” …..unless action was taken to combat global warming, the next generation would be “roasted, toasted, fried and grilled.”
Not a pleasant prospect – and this prediction comes, not from an environmentalist but from the head of the IMF, Christine Lagarde, at the meeting of world financial leaders at the swish Swiss ski resort, Davos.
I have a very low level of understanding of economics – despite the best efforts of my economics student daughter to explain the basics. But even I can grasp the essential point that if we carry on emitting carbon at the rate we are we will destroy the very basis on which our economic wellbeing depends – the earth itself and people, lots of people will suffer.
The global downturn has had the effect of reducing carbon emissions for many nations simply because industry is not making as much, which seems like a golden opportunity to reform our energy supply.
1.3 billion people in the world lack access to any form of modern energy and 2.7 billion still cook over open fires using biomass. While in the developed world energy companies invest in environmentally damaging ‘fracking’. Reducing our carbon emissions and redirecting investment to renewable energy for people with no energy would stimulate growth in the developing world, pulling millions out of poverty without destroying the planet – surely a win-win situation.
It doesn’t sound so hard, does it?
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“One of the most fateful errors of our age is the belief that ‘the problem of production’ has been solved.” E.F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful, Economics as if people mattered.
The global food system is close to breaking point: growing populations and dramatic changes in dietary habits are fuelling increasing demand. Whilst increasing severity of natural disasters and escalating competition for water resources are further complicating the situation. The food system’s vulnerability is characterised by soaring food prices and more frequent food crises.
So, the question facing us today is how can increasing demand be met when conventional yields are flatlining? Is the solution to be found in the research laboratory, or is there a cheaper, sustainable and already tested solution staring us in the face?
Today, over 500 million smallholder farmers, fishers and agro-foresters supply food, fuel and fibre to almost 2 billion people living in the poorest and most vulnerable communities around the world.
A recent visit to the people living in Wokin Kebele in Amhara region of Ethiopia highlighted the difficulties that these people face in accessing support. The government extension office was over one hour drive away on an unmade road and was staffed by a handful of government officials who have significant demands placed upon them. As a consequence the villagers that I met were self-reliant. They used basic technology and largely renewable inputs. If these smallholder farmers were to receive one tenth of the support available to farmers in developed countries, their production gains would be considerable.
The potential for production gains with more investment is show in the entrepreneurial way that these farmers have innovated using their own resources. I visited one farmer who had developed a new plough to cope with increased water logging in low lying fields and met a second who had started to plant small areas of Teff (Eragrostis tef), a traditional Ethiopian staple, as warming winter temperatures allowed cultivation of the crop in an area that was previously unsuitable.
However, to encourage further local innovation as a vanguard to smallholder-led growth, a major transformation of the global agricultural system is required. This would reward innovation and optimise production by making the most of each unit of existing agricultural land.
The first step of such a transformation would be a change in the way in which small scale production is viewed, recognising the benefits of the diversity, traditional skills and potential for crop improvements that smallholder systems present.
The second step would recognise the potential for human agency and requires a change in the future choice for smallholder farmers. Smallholder producers should be offered appropriate rewards that recognise their role as custodians of the planet. Rather than repeating the mistakes of the past and driving smallholders off their land through the gradual conversion of small-scale into large-scale industrial systems, a new and alternative agricultural future for smallholder farmers should be promoted. A future that meets their livelihood aspirations while delivering a global food system that doesn’t cost the Earth.
What I saw in Ethiopia reconfirmed my belief that by improving the capacity of the poorest performing producers, the largest gains in terms of global food production can be made. Importantly these gains would be delivered where they are needed most.
This BLOG is based on work undertaken while Colin worked for Oxfam and was originally published on their Policy and Practice website. http://policy-practice.oxfam.org.uk/2 Comments » | Add your comment
Yesterday was a particularly good day. A sizeable cheque arrived on my desk from a Trust which is winding up. Actually, every day that a cheque arrives on my desk from a Trust or Foundation is a pretty good day, whether the cheque is large or small. I often receive a letter with a cheque apologising for what the sender thinks is a small amount. No amount is too small – we do truly believe in the famous words of our founder, E F Schumacher, that ‘Small is Beautiful’! Practical Action will make sure that every penny, every pound of the donation I received yesterday, and of all those donations from the other Trusts and Foundations that support us, makes life better for those who are the poorest of the poor, marginalised and vulnerable.
The cheque that arrived yesterday was ‘unrestricted’, meaning we can use the funds where we want. That choice won’t be my decision – I leave that to our finance and programme staff. But I do know that in the coming months, even years, it could help, for example, a family have access to clean water in Kenya, it could ensure children in Zimbabwe are protected from killer diseases as a result of refrigerated vaccines thanks to energy from Practical Action’s micro-hydro schemes, and the donation might enable a family in Bangladesh, whose lives have been decimated by floods, begin to earn a living from growing pumpkins.
Funding from Trusts and Foundations are vital to our work, and to the futures of the people we work with. Looking forward to tomorrow’s post already!No Comments » | Add your comment
In these straitened times, many of us are planning a more low key Christmas this year. The good news is that recent research has discovered that what most people want from this festival is to “spend Christmas reconnecting with the things and people that matter most to them.” Early planning is vital where thrift is concerned and while Christmas is a time for fun and indulgence, it doesn’t have to cost huge amounts of money.
I was surprised to discover how helpful Practical Action could be in providing ideas for gifts to make myself! Practical Answers, our online database of technical information, has a wealth of information on all sorts of foodstuffs. Browsing through the section on food processing, I was inspired by the possibilities. I think I might make some elegantly labeled jars of green mango or lime pickle or perhaps some lime marmalade?
If I’m feeling more adventurous I might try smoking some salmon, curing bacon or making some snacks like banana chips. I even found some tips for designing my packaging and labels. There’s plenty of rather more complicated guidance for those with carpentry skills (definitely not me) who would like to build a woodworking bench or a simple solar drier to preserve next year’s surplus produce from your garden or allotment? I think I might play it safe and stick with something simpler like making some candles, always popular gifts. Why not give some of these a go yourself? Do let us know how you get on.
All this information has, of course, been compiled primarily for the benefit of people in developing countries, and quantities are often for small scale commercial enterprise. I thought I might try making pineapple jam, but will have to do some maths first as 158 kg of pineapples might be rather too many!
Have a browse through the list of technical information online to get an idea of the wealth of knowledge that Practical Action has amassed over 44 years. The website has information on more than 200 different technologies. And it is practical information that is helping people all over the developing world to develop skills and to launch enterprises that will lift their families out of poverty.
More than 1.5 million information sheets were downloaded last year and Practical Action staff worldwide responded to 9,700 individual enquiries on technical subjects. This is the practical application of EF Schumacher’s philosophy: “The best aid to give is intellectual aid, a gift of useful knowledge. A gift of knowledge is infinitely preferable to a gift of material things.”
I’m hoping this Christmas will be a chance for my family to focus on these simple pleasures rather than spending large amounts on ‘must have’ presents. Putting my time and effort into making gifts for my loved ones will, I’m certain, be time well spent. Now how about a glass of banana beer?No Comments » | Add your comment
In mid-September, Oxford University held their annual alumni weekend, where a Schumacher centenary lecture was one of the events on the programme. This was held at Rhodes House, where Schumacher was enrolled as a Rhodes Scholar in 1930. Speaking to a packed house, Dr Donald Markwell, Warden of Rhodes House outlined details of Schumacher’s time at Oxford and his subsequent career, concluding that the Foundation had chosen very well when they selected him as a Scholar.
Schumacher’s daughter, Barbara Wood, author of his biography ‘Alias Papa‘, talked about her father and some of the influences that formed his philosophy and shaped his work.
Other speakers were Practical Action’s Simon Trace, who described how Practical Action is putting Schumacher’s ideas into practice in the developing world. The final speaker was Ann Pettifor of Advocacy International, who talked about the world’s current economic woes and the need to revisit the principles expounded in ‘Small is Beautiful’ to tackle our current crises both financial and environmental.
A lively crowd of science buffs came together on 14th September to discuss how engineers can help tackle poverty in the developing world. This event formed part of the British Science Festival which this year took place in Bradford and was one of a series of events that Practical Action is organising to celebrate the centenary year of our founder, E F Schumacher.
Taking as their starting point Schumacher’s ideas in ‘Small in Beautiful’ published nearly 40 years ago, Simon
Trace of Practical Action and Sacha Grodzinski of Engineers without Borders (EWB), led a lively discussion of technology options for poor communities in the developing world.
Technologies debated included biogas for cooking, animal vaccination programmes and the transport of crops across the mountains of Nepal. The audience were full of ideas and technical wizardry to solve these tricky problems, during a game of technology bingo.
Sacha Grodzinski then described how EWB harnesses the expertise of engineers from the UK to assist with projects in the developing world. Their programmes enable engineers to volunteer in projects in the developing world which take in account the a sustainable use of natural resources and minimise impact to the local environment by adapting existing low risk technology and using modern engineering methods.
Animated discussions were ongoing as the crowd departed for their next event at this exciting exploration of science and its impact on the world.No Comments » | Add your comment
to water saving showers, we’ve had lots of fabulous designs submitted from students who’ve entered our Small Is…Challenge. The final winning designs, along with others that were shortlisted from primary and secondary schools throughout the UK can be seen on our site.
The design challenge was launched to celebrate the centenary year of Practical Action’s founder Fritz Schumacher.No Comments » | Add your comment
Our founder Fritz Schumacher believed that even small things could make a big difference to people’s lives. We think so too, so to celebrate his centenary year we have designed a poster to get school students thinking about what small things they could do to make a difference, to their community, their environment and to people in the developing world.
- taking toys to a charity shop so they can be loved all over again 🙂
- growing your own vegetables and buying locally sourced food
- refusing to use products that use lots of packaging
- volunteering to help in your local community
- repairing your bike when it brakes; and
- join Practical Action’s energy campaign
There are 90 ‘things’ on the poster and space left for students to add 10 of their own. Divided into the 6Rs of Reduce, Refuse, Recycle, Rethink, Repair, Reuse this FREE large A1 poster is sure to be popular with teachers and students.
Why not try some of our small ideas yourself ?No Comments » | Add your comment
In my house the ritualistic making of tea always causes something of a debate. The traditionalists amongst us prefer a brew from a pot of tea whilst others (myself included) like it best when it’s a single cup (or ‘tea bag tea’) as we call it… (although obviously all tea is tea bag tea!)…
Anyway today whilst at a brilliant training course at the Directory of Social Change in London I spotted that the kitchen stocked a healthy supply of Traidcraft tea bags. And the strap line on the side of the box was ‘small is beautiful’…Clearly the marketers had one cup tea bags in mind (as well as Schumacher’s book of the same name I assume?)
My first thoughts were (and I’m a little ashamed to admit this!) of irritation. “That’s Practical Action’s ethos- you’re stealing it!” I thought, in my naivety. And then after my hot head calmed down and I had a few moments of reflection I was immensely proud that this wonderful idea of Schumacher’s is branded onto an ordinary box of tea.
Schumacher isn’t just on tea – at the moment it seems that everywhere I turn I am coming across people and organisations who have been influenced by his great theories. Tonight I even discovered that the first charity for which I worked (the fabulously revolutionary Reader Organisation) takes some of its thinking from Schumacher’s writings on education.
This year Practical Action is celebrating 100 years since the birth of Schumacher. More than ever I feel so privileged to work for the charity which he founded and so incredibly proud that I can tell the world that small is beautiful was Schumacher’s idea. And that that idea is helping to transform the lives of millions of poor people around the world.
PS – if you’d like to watch Practical Action at the Gadget Show, click here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hbWuTn6kgpwNo Comments » | Add your comment