E.F. Schumacher’s founding philosophy and how it still guides us today
The roots of our ethos – big change starts small
For over five decades, Practical Action has been powered by a global community, all believing in a world that works better for everyone. That unifying belief stems from the influence of our founder, the radical economist and philosopher E.F. ‘Fritz’ Schumacher – who believed that we should work via small, simple and sustainable aims in order to progress and help others. Following the publication of a 1965 article entitled ‘How to help them help themselves’, published in The Observer, Schumacher saw his ideas finding a loyal audience. The article was met with considerable interest and excitement from academics, politicians and the wider development community. Schumacher would expand on his beliefs in his ground-breaking book Small is Beautiful in 1973 – which became a best seller. Small is Beautiful created worldwide interest in alternative technologies and economics, especially pertinent in the face of the energy crisis of the time.Encouraged by the reception to his article and his ideas, Schumacher and a group of his associates created an ‘advisory centre’, which aimed to promote the type of planet-friendly techniques Schumacher had written about. This advisory centred was established in 1966 under the name Intermediate Technology Development Group (ITDG) – and is known today as Practical Action. ITDG added to their offer with the launch of a technical consulting service in 1969, alongside an independent publishing arm in 1973. “In the end, intermediate technology will be “labour-intensive” and will lend itself to the use of small-scale establishments.” In 1984, ITDG brought its different groups together to establish a base in a new UK office in Rugby, where Practical Action’s UK office still stands today. Originally, when ITDG convened, the emphasis of the centre was on employing economists and social scientists. The plan was to encourage a move away from a technical or ‘hardware’ approach – and towards a ‘development’ approach instead. This development approach opted to focus on helping communities facing poverty to help themselves, rather than prescribing hardware-based solutions that may not be viable or appropriate. ITDG changed it names to Practical Action in 2005, building on the previously-held beliefs carried by the organisation to focus on pragmatic, holistic and systemic approaches to tackling poverty and the complex issues communities living in poverty face. Even though we changed our name from Schumacher’s original choice, we still very much carry his guiding principles with us to this day – using the idea of small is beautiful to inform our work as a global changemaking group.
“It takes a certain flair of real insight to make things simple again.”
Schumacher’s guiding philosophies
Our central aims and ethos are the result of E.F Schumacher’s work, writing and philosophy. Schumacher was a visionary thinker, who challenged the aid policies of the day, arguing against the use of labour-intensive and large-scale technologies in developing countries – many of who did not have the financial resources, technical skills or links to the global market to accommodate these technologies. Schumacher instead urged aid to focus on what he termed ‘intermediate technologies’: that being technologies that take the needs and skills of people in developing countries into account. Rather than speaking for communities, Schumacher wanted to work with them to better understand their needs rather than prescribing a ‘bigger is better’ or ‘one size fits all’ approach to international aid, which was revolutionary at the time and guides Practical Action to this day.E.F. Schumacher’s philosophy focussed on small, simple and sustainable development and economics – or ‘economics as if people mattered’ – feeling that contemporary economic systems were unsustainable. Instead, economic systems should benefit all, rather than a select few. “An entirely new [economic] system of thought is needed, a system based on attention to people, and not primarily attention to goods… summed up in the phrase, “production by the masses, rather than mass production.” Schumacher felt that development solutions should always be developed in context, taking each community’s specific situation into account when planning aid. Another key belief of Schumacher’s was our duty to live within the planet’s means. Rather than focus on economic growth at the expense of natural resources, Schumacher strongly believed in operating within the planet’s finite resources. Climate change is the result of what Schumacher called the ‘infinite growth of material consumption’ at the expense of the planet’s resources, alongside other manmade factors. This desire for infinite growth has resulted in catastrophic effects for communities around the world, meaning that Schumacher’s ideas are as relevant as ever. And his small is beautiful approach can help communities facing hardship change their world for the better today, too.
“Infinite growth of material consumption in a finite world is an impossibility.”
Same approach, more complex issues
Practical Action’s approach has always been people-first: today we work closely with communities to assess their needs and implement scalable solutions that benefit people and planet. It’s this approach, developed by Schumacher and still informed by his ethos, that sets us apart. In the past, our work would aim to meet the immediate needs of the communities, addressing the hardship they were currently facing in an environmentally-friendly manner – with room to grow. But with complex and interrelated issues such as environmental degradation and climate change, we need our work to scale up to go beyond isolated action at a community level and meet a wider array of challenges, addressing the systems and not just the symptoms. “There are so many things that come together for me about Practical Action: it’s practical approach to finding solutions, solutions that can be used, solutions that just work. That’s so close to my heart and so close to what I think the path of development for many countries is.” – Paul Smith Lomas (Practical Action CEO from 2010 – 2021) Today, we not only focus on the immediate needs of the communities we work with, but we look to the bigger picture to inform the scalable nature of the solutions we work with.
Then and now
A good example of our evolving approach would be our work with rural farming communities. Back in the 1990s, we had provided simple donkey ploughs and training to farming communities in North Darfur, Sudan, allowing rural farmers to farm more efficiently, in a way that was both within their means and more time-efficient. These donkey ploughs were manufactured by local blacksmiths using easily obtainable materials. More than 1,364 ploughs were distributed in North Darfur, thanks to the generosity of our supporters and the hard work of our team. These donkey ploughs meant that farmers in the communities would spend less time farming, meaning they had more time to spend with loved ones, planning future harvests or learning new skills.For our ongoing (at the time of writing) Transforming Rural Economies and Youth Livelihoods (TREYL) project, we are not only able to help address the needs of the communities but also encourage the creation of a circular economy fit for the future and champion new farming methods to address and reverse environmental degradation.
“The impact of climate change means that my father’s principles of sustainability, adaptability and collaboration have never been more relevant.”
Nicola Craddock (daughter of E.F. Schumacher)
By encouraging a new generation of farmers in Kisumu and Homa Bay, Kenya to get involved with their local farming community – rather than move to urban areas in search of work – the project started by addressing the worrying level of youth unemployment in these areas, breaking the cycle of low agricultural productivity and increasing poverty levels in young people aged 25 – 35. TREYL works to scale, initially engaging 6,000 young people in regenerative and commercially viable agriculture, with an aim to impact 80,000 young people by demonstrating the viability of businesses in their local agricultural sector. The project looked to transform local market systems, creating demand for products and services provided by young people in order to ensure that TREYL has long-term sustainability and can go on to create even bigger change.Our previous work in Sudan and our recent TREYL project both share similarities: both projects are informed directly by and created with the communities, with our team being right there and working alongside the community, and both projects are planet-friendly with long-term viability. However, the TREYL project expands the scope even further – by addressing and transforming local market systems, TREYL works in a broader sense, not only helping communities to change their world for the better but creating entire systems change. All this as a result of a combination ingenious solutions that eventually help us think bigger. “The real difference between then and now is that now we focus much more on bringing about systems change. Once you’ve found something that works, how do you find ways to make something go beyond the individual projects or individual program that we worked on in those days.” – Paul Smith Lomas (Practical Action CEO from 2010 – 2021)
“Our task – and the task of all education – is to understand the present world, the world in which we live and make our choices.”
Small is still beautiful
We still believe that small is beautiful, but by scaling projects up to meet complex situations and influence systems change, we can play a part in creating even greater meaningful change and help even more communities build a better world for themselves. Whether this is through projects that are creating jobs, improving income, improving health and sanitation or protecting communities from disaster. You can discover more about our work and our projects here. While approaches have changed over the years, Schumacher’s founding principles still guide us today. We still believe in equipping people to change their situations, development solutions suited to context and broader economic systems that benefit all. We still believe we have a duty to live within the planet’s means. We still believe in the combined power of knowledge, innovation and collaboration that Schumacher championed. Just like our founder, we believe in the power of small to change the big picture. “Start from what’s working now and see what you can do to improve.” – Paul Smith Lomas (Practical Action CEO from 2010 – 2021)