Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Solar lights - saving money, increasing safety.
In an earlier post I talked about the rationale of including cheap solar lights in future emergency relief kits distribution: it just makes so much sense. We (DFID) supported 12,000 of these last year through CONCERN and their local partners in Sindh. I went to visit these some of these communities a year later and the lights, made by Toughstuff were still doing well and people said they appreciated them so much. Many folk were using them to charge mobiles too.  This was part of our 2010 response.

Following intense rains in 2011 another few hundred thousands families lost their homes and livelihoods, so we launched more support and response.  (Again DFID being in the top 5 donors, yeh!).  This time we're supporting the reconstruction of more than 30,000 houses, but also distributing around 28,000 lights. This time using illumination products. These cost around $7 per unit (at this scale), so about half the price of the Toughstuff ones.  The difference is that they can't charge mobile phones, but we decided that it was more important to reach as many families as possible with the limited funds we could put forward.

Here's a video IOM put together about their response:

It's not our role to tell our partners where they should buy their products, I just made it clear that they should include these in the kits, or give us a good reason why they shouldn't be included.  Here's the deal: after disasters NGOs and UN agencies provide shelter and non-food items (NFIs), among loads of other sectors of support (health, food, etc.).  Shelter is a huge issue and there are many different options, which are we'll have to talk about another another day. But NFIs are also the subject of huge debate, in fact there's been over a decade of efforts to standardise these kits.  Obviously they depend on the climate, but they usually include blankets, sleeping mats, jerry cans (for storing water), cooking sets, mosquito nets, soap, hygiene kits, and so on.  These can cost a lot of money, and when there are millions of people to help, it can quickly diminish a few million pounds.  So, what are the critical items? How do we decide? Should we accept what the NGOs propose or should we request justification for every item so that more families benefit from something? These are hard decisions, but I think it's good that we have these discussions.

So when it came to this 2011 response, our first main partner was the International Organisaiton for Migration, a really professional outfit that has enormous experience in Pakistan, a really committed, mostly national team, supported by a few solid internationals. They come with really quite reasonable overhead costs, which is increasing important to us (very few international staff costs, flights, and all that admin horror of daily mail doom).  They did a sterling job running the shelter cluster after the 2010 floods, and are doing that same job this year, again really well.

One light and such a difference!

IOM's procurement unit did a market survey on different solar light units and initially proposed a chunky unit costing around 15 pounds.  After a fair bit of technical review we agreed to go for the illumination unit which gives pretty good light for at least 6 hours a night, at one third the cost! For the 18,000 families we intended to reach this meant a saving of almost half a million pounds:) We also slashed cooking sets (as most people had recovered a few cook pots). This saved another 360 grand (pounds sterling). Together, these savings meant another 2,500 families could be reached.  When you meet one of these families you know why every one counts.

I just wanted to bring this up to show how we're dealing with this value-for-money issue (a new DFID-buzzword). But really relevant in these times of economic woe, and particularly when DFID is defending its position in the light of budget cuts in other areas of life in UK.  So it's fair enough that we make sure every pound spent makes sense, and where savings can be made they are made.  And where possible we do more for less, reach more people for the same money.  I suppose we're custodians of people's money in this way, we have to make the right call. I hope this programme is an example of this in action, but I'll leave you to decide if that's the case or not.

More photos of these units in use were taken by IOM's team on the ground recently and are here: https://www2.dropbox.com/home/solar%20lights%20pakistan

Friday, 2 March 2012

The real story of unlimited growth

This has to be the best short film - animation - about the state of the world today; it summarises decades of study and observation of the state of our world's reliance on fossil fuels with incredibly dense 30 minutes of information about everything we all should know about our reliance on oil, gas and many other non-renewable resources.  It takes on the problem of our current economic model and the debunks whole idea that economic "growth" based on debt, increased energy use and industrialisation is sustainable or is the solution to poverty anywhere.

It also takes on the extremely relevant issue of energy return on energy invested (EROEI) which can't be ignored (early oil fields delivered 100 units of energy for every one invested, today we're closer to 1 to 10. Tar sands in Canada offer far less, ethanol from corn closer to 1 to 1, or less.  And so on).  In Pakistan (which is facing a massive energy crisis at the moment) they're talking about a new massive coal field in the Tharr desert (SE Sindh) which could power the nation, but would require the construction of a massive canal to divert Indus river water to "clean" the coal.  Even without the environmental issues of using this coal, folk have to look at the EROEI of this scheme, which just couldn't make sense.

Another terrifying issue is that of food - how many people know that the vast majority of food is grown with oil and gas inputs? That lands now denuded would be unproductive for years without these "magic" substances? How vulnerable have we made ourselves? How sustainable is this? And, critically, what are we going to do about it? How much more proof do we need to urge us into some radical preventative action?  How much of our aid and international development efforts reinforce existing, destructive and unsustainable conventional agriculture?

Anyone working on building community resilience needs to watch this film and think about how their project builds people's resilience to these very real threats.

In fact everyone needs to take 30 minutes out to watch this film.

But I'd also like to hear from anyone who disputes the thesis put forward by this film.  I would like to see or hear evidence that disputes these points.

Thanks to Mandy Meikle in Scotland for sending this round!