Amazing scenes were witnessed yesterday...

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ActionAid Blogs

For the past fortnight my professional life has focussed on the emergency in Haiti, but my imagination has concentrated on another part of the Caribbean: the island of Trinidad, the setting for VS Naipaul’s classic novel “A House for Mr Biswas”.

Mr Biswas (his first name, Mohun, is barely used) is born into great poverty, the son of an indentured labourer who came from India to work on the sugarcane plantations. Mr Biswas accidentally marries into a large, wealthy but squalid landowning family, the Tulsis, who see in him another son-in-law who can work on the family’s estates. Early 20th century Trinidad is poor, and Naipaul’s men and women live narrow, constrained lives. Even in this milieu the Tulsis are quite awful. Their house is dirty, the food bad, the family run as a dictatorship by the sickly Mrs Tulsi and her brother-in-law Seth. They marry off the girl children without a care for happiness or compatibility. These girls grow into mothers who boast how hard they beat their children, whilst the husbands work away on the estates, looking forward to Friday night in the rumshop. The capital Port of Spain, only a few hours distant, is another world. Mr Biswas rebels against all this. He rails against his in-laws and offends their traditional Hindu sensibility. Accidentally literate, he reads cheap detective novels and Marcus Aurelius. He escapes the sugarcane fields and the rice paddies and moves to the big city, where he becomes a journalist on the Trinidad Sentinel. And most importantly he attempts – several times - to build his own house.

Mr Biswas is a fool but he is a modern man trying, and failing, to assert himself in the face of poverty and narrow-mindedness. As Mr Biswas gets older we see Trinidad start to open out. The extended Tulsi clan disintegrates into nuclear families, and they discover personal ambition and a thirst for education. Mr Biswas’ children go abroad on scholarships and Mr Biswas himself finally buys a house.

“A House for Mr Biswas” is a personal book, not a political one, however we see a country taking its first steps in independence and attempting to drag itself out of poverty, and what this means for the men and women caught up in these changes.

Modern Trinidad and Tobago is not a desperately poor country – only 4% of its population lives below the poverty line, and over 70% of the population own a phone. Mr Biswas’ wife Shama is barely literate but today virtually all the island’s girls and boys can read and write. Things have moved on. Hearing the terrible stories from Haiti, and other impoverished nations, sometimes it’s easy to feel that nothing ever changes. Thinking about the life of Mr Biswas – journalist, joker, house-builder – dispels that feeling.

Putting the brakes on biofuels

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Emma Hughes Campaigns officer

It’s been a hectic first week for our biofuels campaign. The Department for Transport has been inundated with action cards and already the pressure is mounting – with our Meals Per Gallon Gauge standing at half a tank.

Our Zero Meals Per Gallon Campaign is telling Lord Adonis, Secretary of State for the Department of Transport, not to commit to a crazy plan that quadruples the amount of biofuel in UK petrol and diesel.

Our half tank reading means mixed news though and we were forcibly reminded this week of why we need to halt biofuel production by this piece of news: a quarter of all maize and other grain crops grown in the US goes to fuel cars rather than feed people.

The Earth Policy Institute reckons this is enough grain to feed 330 million people a year (according to average world consumption rates).

It is biofuel targets, like the ones currently being proposed by the UK government, that are motivating companies to push grain into fuel rather than food production.

ActionAid have until June to tell the UK government not to increase our biofuel use.  You can help us by taking action to demand Zero Meals per Gallon in UK petrol and diesel.

Plus if you want to learn more come along to our Big Biofuel Debate which is happening at the London Transport Museum on 16 February 2010 at 6.30pm. Places are free of charge, but please book in advance. Email to reserve your seat.

Black water and the future of farming

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Meredith Alexander Head of Trade and Corporates

Last week, I learned that water comes in three colours: green, blue and black. I’m not talking about the amazing turquoise seas of the Caribbean nor the steely slate of the North Sea. All fresh water is classified by colour. Green water is the water that falls from the sky and flows across fields as run-off. Blue water is water in streams and rivers or ponds and lakes. Black water is found in underground reservoirs.

The different categories are important because they help us think about how water can be used. A lot of green water is wasted through evaporation or run-off, so farmers can use much more of it than they do now. That’s why rainwater harvesting is such a great way to grow more crops or bring clean water to a village.  

Most of the water we use is blue water. We take water from rivers and lakes to irrigate farms, run factories and keep our taps flowing. There will be a lot more competition in the coming decades. Cities in developing countries are getting thirstier as they grow bigger and richer. At the same time, the environmental reasons why we should leave more water in rivers are becoming clearer. Fish numbers are down and some species can no longer get to their breeding grounds because rivers are running dry.

Black water is the one that has people really worried though. Globally we are mining water: taking water out of underground reservoirs that took eons to collect there.

Why so much fuss about water? We need to double the amount of food we grow by 2050 to make sure everyone has enough to eat. That’s going to take a lot more water. Unfortunately, climate change will actually reduce the amount of green and blue water in many of the world’s poorest places. We should be much more careful about how we mine the black stuff - oil that causes climate change and water that would help us adapt.

Talking about biofuels

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ActionAid Blogs

So having spent most of my time with my head stuck in planning a 'virtual' biofuels campaign, it's refreshing for me to remove it and take stock of what's happening to kick off the campaign in the 'real' world. Particularly as the launch event is the big biofuels debate. I love a good, heated debate – in this case, the debate will be (non-bio)fuelled by input from:

- Ben Webster, Environment Editor at The Times(Chair)    

- Greg Archer, Director of the Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership and        co-author of the Gallagher review       
- Professor Keith Smith from the University of Edinburgh   

-  Tim Rice, Biofuel Policy Officer for ActionAid UK          

A good mix of journalists, fuel experts, educators and campaigners. The final ingredient involves you: the audience. There will be plenty of opportunity to ask the panelists any questions you might have, there will be a wine reception (now you're talking) and I'm planning some social media action around it too (more on this later). So make sure you come!

The big biofuels debate is happening at the London Transport Museum on 16 February 2010 at 6.30pm. One word of advice – book now.  Places are free of charge, but we can only fit a certain amount of people into the one room. Email to reserve your seat.

Two days after the earthquake struck Haiti, the IMF and World Bank announced that each of them would rush $100 million in assistance. The difference between the two was that the World Bank would be giving grants, while the IMF’s money would be a loan under Haiti’s existing IMF program.

Debt and development activists reacted immediately: a new loan for Haiti, especially one with conditions, was grossly inappropriate given the devastation in Port-au-Prince. ActionAid prepared a factsheet listing the conditions of Haiti’s IMF program. We pointed out that the funds should come from the IMF’s new Rapid Credit Facility, which applies minimal or no conditions to its loans. Jubilee USA Network crafted a recommendation that the IMF guarantee that the debt would be paid by donors.

Our factsheet and Jubilee USA’s press release wound up in the hands of an editor at The Nation magazine, who posted a blog summarizing the absurdity of lending to Haiti with conditions. That inspired a Facebook group called “No Shock Doctrine for Haiti” – a reference to Naomi Klein’s book on how international financial institutions and wealthy governments exploit catastrophes to impose new economic rules on vulnerable countries. It quickly attracted over 18,000 members.

Last Wednesday the IMF put out a release, saying that it would find a way to make sure Haiti didn’t have to pay the $100 million. An IMF spokesman also declared that this loan would be free of any conditions. 

Neither of those pledges is yet absolutely official, but we have their word. A combination of policy, media, and internet activism has moved the IMF to change course in a matter of days. Now we just need to watch closely to make sure they deliver on their pledges.

Chewing the fat with the great and the good

Meredith Alexander's picture
Meredith Alexander Head of Trade and Corporates

The problem is clear: one billion people go hungry now and several trends will make it harder to ensure that everyone has enough to eat in the future. The problem may not be what you expect though: there is enough food produced to meet everyone’s needs. Poor people just can’t afford to buy it. The problem isn’t how much food we grow (production), but instead who gets to eat it (access). Access is likely to be the main problem in the future as well.

These are my conclusions after three days of discussion with academics, government officials, farmers, scientists and other experts. I spent most of last week at a conference on the future of food security at Wilton Park. There was a lot of food for thought.

On future trends, climate change will make growing food harder, and unfortunately the worst effects will be felt in the poorest countries. Linked to climate, there are real worries that there will be much less water for farming in the future.

Another trend is population growth. We will need to feed a human family of nine billion people by 2050. However the more important question is not how many of us there will be but rather how we eat. There are currently a billion hungry people and a billion overweight or obese people. A western style diet, heavy in meat and dairy, is also hard on the environment. Current consumption patterns aren’t working for lots of reasons.

After eleven formal sessions and lots of corridor conversation, the solutions to these problems were a lot less clear. We all know the basics: we need to invest more money in productive, environmentally-friendly farming. Small-holders in poor countries hold the key to feeding hungry people, not least because so many of them are hungry themselves.

I would add - though this wasn’t a consensus view - that women farmers also need a lot more attention. Women produce a huge percentage of the world’s food, but they get almost no support. Access to credit, ownership of land, advice, inputs like seeds and tools: women are always last in line. The underlying issue is how to pay for all this. Rich countries like the UK and poor country governments all need to be doing their share.

Global agreement on climate change is also essential. Again we all know what is needed, but how to achieve it? The same is true with changing people’s diets. How do we get people to eat food that is better for us and for the planet? Reducing food waste is another area where everyone is agreed what needs to happen, but not much progress is being made. All easy to say, but hard to achieve.

PS Whenever I attend meetings like this, I always tweet about the facts I find most interesting. You can follow me on twitter at