The coronavirus has exposed just how fragile our lives are. Over the past decade, even though there have been increasing calls for a change to global economic and political systems, those voices remained on the periphery. However, as the pandemic unravels these systems ever more rapidly, calls for systemic change have shifted from the margins to the mainstream.
“The real problems of our planet are not economic or technical, they are philosophical. The philosophy of unbridled materialism is being challenged by events.”
Our founder, Fritz Schumacher, was saying the same thing back in the 1970s – calling for a change to the economic and political system. Back then, he was branded a crank, an outsider and his thinking around economic growth, wellbeing and sustainability was firmly rejected by the majority.
He argued that a new approach to the world’s toughest problems, built on community design and management, would provide not just greater environmental and social benefits, but also prove to be more resilient and long-lasting.
He also argued that the very measurement of economic success – growth via consumption of the world’s finite resources – had set us on a catastrophic path. Instead, wellbeing and environmental sustainability should be our primary measures of successful development.
“An attitude to life which seeks fulfilment in the single-minded pursuit of wealth – in short, materialism – does not fit into this world, because it contains within itself no limiting principle, while the environment in which it is placed is strictly limited.”
Things have moved on since the 1970s, and many of Schumacher’s principles now have powerful supporters, such as Klaus Schwab – Founder of the World Economic Forum, Kristalina Georgieva – Managing Director of the IMF, Bernard Looney – CEO of BP and our patron HRH Charles, Prince of Wales, all of whom recently came together in June 2020 for the World Economic Forum Great Reset Initiative: a commitment to jointly and urgently build the foundations of our economic and social system for a fairer, sustainable and more resilient post-COVID future.
The event solidified the fact that with Covid-19 laying bare the disastrous effects of current broken systems, it’s important we don’t return to ‘normal’ after the pandemic, and we ensure that we build a post-pandemic world that works better for everyone.
What’s working already?
Anyone who has worked with us knows that Practical Action is a bit different; a development organisation – part charity, part consultancy, part publisher – that thinks, acts and operates in a different way.
We develop ingenious solutions to the world’s toughest challenges. We know that with the right approach and values, sustainable change that works better for people and planet is possible. One thing firmly at the heart of our approach are partnerships or ‘bold collaborations’ as we like to call them.
The starting point of all of our partnerships is always people – their needs, aspirations and skills provide the cornerstones of our work. Understanding what’s working, what isn’t and why, is key to understanding where there is systemic failure. But we don’t stop there. We work with a whole array of other people, local organisations, governments, and academics – bringing together people at all levels to create sustainable solutions.
This approach has been embraced by private sector companies and associated foundations such as IKEA, Grundfos and Zurich Insurance. They have all helped us to significantly scale up our work through funding and commercial expertise.
One example of this approach is the The Zurich Flood Resilience Alliance, a multi-sectoral partnership that has established itself as a global leader in flood resilience.
In this programme, Practical Action’s consultancy arm provided technical expertise and research that has given insight into the cost of flooding for poor communities as well as into the barriers that prevent seemingly sensible solutions from working. For example, our local consultants discovered that a text messaging flood warning system wasn’t working as it should, because many households only had one mobile phone – and this was generally kept by the man of the house who often worked away from home. Crucially, a knowledge bank captures the evidence of what works and what doesn’t and the gaps that still exist.
This partnership is a great example of the common interest for the private sector and civil society working for good – improved resilience leads to better development outcomes and, in the long term, reduced insurance pay-outs. Moreover, the alliance is seeking to generate $1bn in additional funding for flood resilience and to enhance flood resilience in vulnerable communities across the world, and is a great example of what can be achieved when we work together.
There are other examples where Practical Action is working in similar multi-sector alliances seeking big change. The Global Distributors’ Collective is helping last mile distributors reach millions of unserved customers with life-changing products such as solar lights, clean cook stoves and water filters. The Renewable Energy for Refugees project, funded by the IKEA Foundation is changing the very nature of refugee camps by joining up renewable energy providers in host communities with displaced people so they can be productive and economically independent, where previously their lives were in limbo.
By working with big corporates and foundations, Practical Action helps ensure they understand the needs of the people they want to work with. Only by linking up the critical perspectives of people at the grass roots with the global picture will we find solutions that will work at all levels.
50 years ago, our founder highlighted the world was full of solutions forced upon people from above, briefly adopted and then discarded.
Today we’re facing a similar challenge of a system that isn’t working – market value chains that leave smallholder farmers starving and catastrophic climate change that’s hitting those people and nations hardest who don’t have the resources to adapt to it. The coronavirus pandemic has clearly exposed the need for new ways of thinking and acting. At Practical Action we know it’s possible to change the status quo, because we’re already doing it – working with communities who live at the sharp end of the climate crisis.
Paul Smith Lomas joined Practical Action in 2010 as International Director, and became Chief Executive in November 2015. Paul joined from Oxfam, where he’d been an African Regional Director and their Global Humanitarian Director. Paul’s professional background is as a mechanical engineer, working originally in the UK water treatment industry, before going on a VSO assignment in 1985 to Eastern Sudan, where he set up water and sanitation systems for refugees. Paul was awarded an MBE in recognition of his leadership of Oxfam’s response to the Kosovo crisis.