Interview with Paul Smith Lomas, “empowering people. Award 2015” jury member and Chief Executive of Practical Action.

November 04, 2015

Practical Action is an international non-governmental organisation (NGO) that uses technology to challenge poverty in developing countries. It finds out what people are doing and helps them to do it better. Through technology it enables poor communities to build on their skills and knowledge to produce sustainable and practical solutions – transforming their lives forever and protecting the world around them.

Why have you become involved with the 'empowering people. Award 2015' as a juror?
Practical Action has a focus on technology, and how it helps to improve people’s lives.

Why is it an important project?
The right technology has the capacity to transform people’s lives. I have often seen this for myself when I visit Practical Action’s projects around the world, whether it be access to electricity from an off-grid micro-hydro power station; or a gravity powered ropeway that helps transport goods from a mountain-side to a road and then on to a market. 

What is the social impact of low-tech solutions?
Low tech solutions do tend to be far more sustainable, as they are often developed by people themselves, and are more appropriate to the local environment. It is worth saying that sometimes “high-tech” is best. I was amazed by some remote sensing equipment that provides an early warning for mud-slides using an accelerometer that our Latin America team developed with a local university. Although it uses components that can be found in many smart phones, it’s still quite high tech.

How important is it to empower people sustainably in developing regions and how do you do this?
If you empower people in the process of introducing and developing technology solutions to their problems, then they are far more able to maintain things and improve them in the future. If you don’t, then the chances of failure and therefore wasted investment are much higher. 

How important is it to get innovations out there and promote them so that people see the work going on the ground?
Talking about innovations is always interesting, but doing things – demonstrating success and failure, and learning from them, is far better.

The importance of sharing information so that there isn’t the case of two different NGO’s working on the same project in the same village, unaware of the other?
In Practical Action we see the huge value of sharing knowledge. Our efforts put expert knowledge into the hands of governments and policy makers through our consulting company, or our policy and advocacy efforts. We also share knowledge with agencies and institutions through our publishing company. We also invest heavily in putting local knowledge into the hands of local actors for free  - taking information to the last mile so that a farmer in Orisa can learn how to fix a solar light (in Oriya), or a farmer in Zimbabwe knows how to vaccinate a cow (in Shona).

Can your organisation benefit from the entries submitted to the Award?
Yes!  We might find a specific technology that could be utilised in a project or programme that we’re running in one of our offices across Asia, Africa & Latin America.  Even if there is nothing specific that we can utilise ourselves, we’ll find the ideas a source of inspiration!

Paul Smith Lomas
Paul Smith Lomas

Paul Smith Lomas is currently Practical Action's International Director. He is responsible for the overall operation of its programmes and policy influencing which it runs in over 30 countries around the world.

His professional background is as a mechanical engineer. He worked originally in the water treatment industry in the UK, before going on a voluntary assignment in 1985 to Eastern Sudan, where he set up water and sanitation systems for refugee populations from Eritrea & Ethiopia. He then worked with ActionAid in the Nuba Mountains, still focussing on public health engineering with rural communities.

After a short spell in the commercial sector, Paul Smith Lomas returned to the voluntary sector in 1991, as Technical Adviser for Oxfam, based in the UK. Immediately prior to joining Practical Action, he was the Regional Director for Oxfam in the Horn & Eastern Africa, where he managed a large programme covering development, campaigning, and emergency response. He was awarded a Queen’s award, an MBE for services to international development in 2003.

Paul Smith Lomas was recently appointed to become the next Chief Executive of Practical Action, as it begins its 50th anniversary year, and takes over his new role in November 2015.