Thursday, 18 December 2008


By JULIA DAY, STEPS Centre member

Melissa Leach, director of the STEPS Centre and several of the Centre’s members, opened the third and final day of the CLTS Conference with a session giving some insights on CLTS and the key issues going forward from a STEPS perspective. Photo: Gerry Bloom / Julia Day

STEPS has been interacting with the CLTS research team here at the Institute of Development Studies for the past couple of years, thinking about how water and sanitation issues interact with dynamic environments and how diverse people in different settings on the ground, as well as policy-makers, think about and understand the different systems at play.

“CLTS is an example of a successful approach, but as a system it is a complex one,” said Prof. Leach. “So we need to think hard about what uncertainties might be around the corner and what perspectives are being overlooked that might not be apparent in some of the success stories we have heard about over the past two days… As this fantastic idea beds down what are some of the unintended consequences?

Lyla Mehta is the lead researcher on CLTS at IDS and also the STEPS Centre water and sanitation convenor – a role that puts her in an ideal position to cross-pollinate ideas. Dr. Mehta said within the worlds of water and sanitation it is now considered mainstream to look at issues of culture, politics, power and history. A lot of disciplines come together to make that disciplinary convergence happen. But although a rich body of work on the role and understanding of institutions exists, this aspect is often much neglected, she said, as are the interlocking systems between how technology and society co-evolve and produce different pathways.

“The on-going process of reflection has been the key strength of what CLTS has done. Going back to communities after research and seeing exactly what is happening on the ground,” said Dr Mehta. “But there are a whole host of unknowns, and we may have been a bit glib about that.” She also floated the idea that the framing of sanitation may be grounded too solidly in CLTS researchers and practitioners’ own framing of the issues, rather than taking on board other people’s framings: “We are coming with a certain knowledge, but are we sensitive enough about people’s own framings of problems?”

Synne Movik, a STEPS Centre post-doctoral fellow, presented an overview of her new STEPS Centre working paper, Dynamics, Sustainability and Governance of CLTS: Some Perspectives (available soon on the website). There has been a tendency in policy circles to ignore the fact that social, ecology and technological systems are inherently dynamic. And the assumption is that everybody knows what sustainability is about. However it is important to highlight STEPS notion of Sustainability, said Movik, that it is a normative concept dependent on individual perception of what functions, structures and goals are important which alters according to who you talk to. There is a need to be explicit about this in describing CLTS and its successes, she said.

To apply dynamic system concept to CLTS we need to highlight how social, technological and ecological systems are dynamic and how they dynamically interact to produce particular pathways, according to Movik. In a lot of CLTS literature it is very evident that favourable conditions to help the implementation of CLTS include communities that are quite small, homogenous and where no ethnic conflict exists, she said.

But issue of culture and religious norms also shape dynamics – such as, in sanitation, religious notions of pollution and purity – and it is important to be aware of how norms and practices shape social dynamics. In the realm of ecological dynamics, one debate in CLTS is that a visibly filthy environment makes it easier to trigger the sense of shame and disgust that CLTS is dependent on. In technological dynamics, might CLTS’ emphasis on shame and disgust actually be an obstacle for adopting other technological options, Movik asked? Might it go against other technologies that look at shit not as waste but as a resource? There are questions she believed should be explored.

A notion not explored so far over the course of the past two days, said Movik, is idea of resilience, which is very much associated with sustainability because it looks at how systems copes with internal and external disturbances, short and long-terms shocks and stresses. “The key of CLTS is the focus on social change and triggering behavioural change,” said Movik, “Which is related to how to make systems durable and stable - that lasts and endures. But it is important to look at technological and ecological resilience and sustainability issues. The notion of uncertainty and risk – how do we deal with the things that we do not know? – has not been fully explored yet. “There are risks for CLTS that we do not know about – how it is going to impact on ecological environment in the short and long term - so we need to devise strategies for those unknowns.”

Movik concluded: “If there is one word that sums up last couple of days it is diversity. The simple and understandable CLTS approach has evolved into range of different packages and approaches dependent on settings. One of the key challenges is to devise institutional frameworks – at local, district and national levels that help us exchange knowledge and learning from different settings and engage with other approaches. Emphasis must be on accommodating uncertainties so that CLTS becomes a flexible approach that works in different settings and complex environments.”

Gerry Bloom, IDS fellow and STEPS Centre health convenor, took over from Movik to give his take on the challenges ahead for CLTS, from his experience working on health issues.

“Why is CLTS so exciting for me? Because a little idea has spread rapidly and triggered lot of action in very short time,” said Bloom. “When lot of pessimism around, this is an exciting thing to see – how a little idea has a big impact. But will the idea keep spreading? And how does the idea and its expressions change as it spreads? What happens to it in different places?”

And he posed another interesting question for CLTS practitioners to consider: “Do we accept that many different ideas will come out of CLTS as it evolves and that it is no longer pure? The originators may not like where the idea goes. So how do you keep influencing where the idea goes?”

And he sounded a note of caution about the CLTS method of creating natural leaders for the within communities based on his experience of training village doctors in Zimbabwe in the 1980s. “Something very disappointing can happen,” said Bloom. “The main outcome of training village doctors was that new markets were opened up for western drugs and the people we trained became drug traders. So a very good idea can have unintended consequences.”

More food for thought came from Bloom’s experience in other health arenas. He said that increasing focus on chronic disease have brought a deluge of many sources of knowledge and information and attempts to influence peoples’ decisions. Where does CLTS fit in and what other messages are people getting about shit, he asked? It would be good to situate CLTS within this larger context, he suggests, particularly as the issues around CLTS and sanitation are are very powerful.

“On work we have done, we have radically underestimated the amount of information going to people – importance of markets, advertising, village doctors. But it is difficult to get sustainable solutions going if governments don’t take responsibility. So we need to work towards different kinds of partnerships for taking responsibility in sanitation.

A lot of papers on CLTS talk about success and good things happening. But if an idea is to be really powerful and important it must make mistakes and big ones. No ideas only have had good outcomes, but how do we look for bad outcomes and how do start to think critically about the pathways CLTS is taking. The next step might be not just to promote the idea of CLTS, but to influence its evolution,” Bloom concluded.

In the question and answer session Kamal Kar said Movik’s paper was very exciting and added that macro social, technological and ecological issues need to now be engaged with now in order for CLTS to survive.

Ingrid Nyborg added that the ideas in Movik’ paper could shift CLTS from achieving a sanitation ‘goal’ to a way of thinking about using a framework to encourage institutions to be able to manage diversity and dynamics. “This STEPS perspective could lead to a very important shift for CLTS,” she said.

Nisheeth Kumar agreed that more work needed to be done to understand CLTS in respect to other approaches, adding that CLTS is a technology and that there are other triggers to the process, apart from disgust and shame, that needed to be looked at.
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Wednesday, 17 December 2008


Have a look at photos from the CLTS conference on our Flickr photostream

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From 29 November to 2 December 2008, we went to two villages in Tianmen county, Hubei province, in the middle of China. The aim was to revisit the field site of the STEPS Centre Rethinking Regulation project, to check the preliminary findings from the first visit in July, and to explore issues more closely with some further questions. Photo: piles of cotton, Hubei / Adrian Ely

Driving on the village road, we saw the remains of harvested cotton on the road sides, villagers picking cotton in the fields, and balls drying in the sun. A female farmer, around 45 years old, told us that when last year she planted 2.7 mu (1Ha=15mu) of cotton and earned 3800 RMB yuan (1GBP currently equals about 10 RMB yuan), she had been very happy. This year she enlarged the area and planted 4.2 mu of cotton, but only earned 3200 RMB yuan, rather than an expected 7000 RMB yuan.

This situation is very common in the two villages where our project has been based. The villagers said one reason had been too much rain (flooding) in summer, which caused the amount of cotton to decline, and the other reason was the price decreasing due to the global financial turmoil: according to villagers the cotton price in the last year had been 3.1 RMB yuan per 500 gram, but this year it could be as low as 2.1 RMB yuan.

We were also surprised to see a number of younger people in the village. Usually we would expect migrant workers working in urban China to come home just several days before the lunar new year (January 26th this year) in order to spend the Spring festival with their families.

A farmer named Li told us about his two sons, both of them migrant workers in Southern China. The younger one, 23 years old, worked in a bulb factory in Guangzhou city, Guangdong province, and came back home this October. The older one, 27 years old, had been employed in a housing decoration company in Fuzhou city of Fujian province, but had come back home this November. They said that there had not been work for them in their previous positions, and that they could not find any other job. They talked about the global financial turmoil, and said that many migrant workers around them had also come back to their home towns and villages.

While the media in the West have focused on the problems in Wall Street and Main Street, China’s now globally-engaged economy is also suffering at all levels. In China, many white collar workers are suffering from the risk of unemployment. However villagers, which account for 57% of the whole Chinese population, are also facing with the severe challenge of the global financial turmoil.

The Financial Times recently featured an article pointing to one of the central government’s responses to the crisis: building confidence through the media. The world will be watching the success of this and other strategies to reassure rural China.

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By JULIA DAY, STEPS Centre member

An astounding story of success - and the potential of CLTS - came courtesy of Peter Harvey, chief, water and environmental sanitation, Unicef in Zambia. Photo: A Natural Leader from Ndeke B, Zambia, explains the village CLTS action plan / Petra Bongartz

Mr Harvey said he was initially very sceptical about CLTS, but results over the past year in Zambia have completely changed his mind. Since April 2008 - so less than a year - 517 of 812 villages have been 'triggered' by CLTS (see the CLTS website to find out more about this triggering approach) with 402 villages becoming Open Defectation Free (ODF). For some villages coverage - access to latrines - has gone from 0% to 100% within a month and overall coverage has risen from 38% to 93%. A toal of 90,000 have gained access to sanitation.

Maybe the most impressive figure of all is the total cost - US$14 per household, or US$2.3 per capita. And this figure is likely to fall as CLTS triggering takes place, said Mr Harvey, as the training has already been done.

"I have worked in water and sanitation all my professional life and this goes well beyond water and sanitation. This is a very, very powerful tool. I've been surprised how much community-ownership there is," Mr Harvey added.

You can read more about ending open defectation, including a piece by Mr Harvey in an id21 special report on sanitation. And the country reports from Zambia - and many other countries - will be available imminently on the new CLTS site.

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By JULIA DAY, STEPS Centre member

We move to the Africa this morning, where CLTS exists in 22 countries but is relatively new compared to the approach's history in Asia. Amsalu Negussie, Water and Sanitation Advisor, Plan International, East and Southern Africa, gave us an overview of the sanitation situation in this very diverse continent of a billion people. More than 300million people in Africa do not have access to sanitation facilities, and in sub-Saharan Africa, more than 50% of the population lives below the poverty line. Photo: African panel / Julia Day

Mr Negussie said different methodologies to address sanitation issues have been tried in the past, but it has been difficult to achieve what was required as the systems were very slow and with little progress it became obvious that a different, more effective method was required. Over the last two years Plan, Water Aid, WSP, Unicef have all conducted training on CLTS, which at this stage is a capacity-building process at a regional level – mobilising political will and collaborating to work together.

There are some favourable situations for CLTS on the continent - most countries have a sanitation policy and CLTS has been favourably-received by most organisations, he believes. After struggling in the past to bring sanitation on to the political agenda, with this year being declared the International Year of Sanitation, the issue was propelled to top of the agenda - good new for CLTS.

“But we cannot achieve our objectives unless all organisations collaborate together,” said Mr Negussie. “Challenges exist, but they are challenges to be addressed and not to be shied away from. “Among the challenges mentioned are how to adopt CLTS experiences from Asia to Africa, with CLTS being a young concept? Action research is needed on this, he said. There is also a lack of one institution willing to take on responsibility for CLTS and to lead the knowledge and process around it.

The training and retention of facilitators is another key area. Of a group of 40 people at facilitator training, there might be four or five that are good at the role, but what is the best way to keep them? Particularly as CLTS is just one part of their job. CLTS is about creating leaders but how can they be empowered to move forward? And sanitation in schools remains an area for work.

But the potential of the approach was demonstrated by Sammy Musyoki of Plan International in Kenya, where CLTS is just one year old. “Within a year CLTS has been spreading fast, it’s becoming like a bush-fire,” said Mr Musyoki.

In May 70 delegates from government and other organisations like Unicef took part in training on CLTS, said Mr Muyoki. So far 25 villages have ‘CLTS status’ but 200 villages have been 'triggered' (see the CLTS website for more about this 'triggering' process), and 500 facilitators have been trained. Meanwhile the political environment in Kenya is looking favourable - a Ministry of Public Health and Sanitation has been created, a great opportunity for CLTS to work with officials.

You can read more about Kenya's growing CLTS movement in a piece written by Mr Musyoki for World Toilet Day last month.
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Tuesday, 16 December 2008


By JULIA DAY, STEPS Centre member

Robert Chambers, research associate at Institute of Development Studies, opened the conference by saying it was an opportunity for insights, ideas and for maximising learning.

The three stages of participatory methodologies come in to play when talking about CLTS, said Robert. The first stage is excitement and a huge upsurge in enthusiasm that the method is happening and that it works.

Then realism, the second stage, kicks in, when initial excitement is tempered by the realisation that all is not quite as wonderful as it initially seemed. Research and deliberation about second and third generation problems becomes very important at this stage. And it is when people who are very committed to the methodology start to issue stark warnings, he said. But it is the time for great learning from diversities of practice which enables proponents to see what does and what does not work. Robert stressed that this stage is no time to be defensive but instead to maximise learning.

The third final stage is evolution – when there is a merging with other methodologies. “It’s not either/ or,” said Robert: “In Zambia, for instance, hand-washing has always been very important. It is about complementarities and we hope ideas about this in terms of CLTS come out of this conference.”

Robert summed up the importance of this conference: “We are at a tipping point in sanitation, and for CLTS. Will we look back at this moment in time and say it was when the penny dropped and good practice spreads? Or will we look back and say we missed the boat? Let’s try hard so that in three years time we don’t look back and say ‘if only’. Let’s use the opportunities that we have got.”
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By JULIA DAY, STEPS Centre member

Eight years after the Community-Led Total Sanitation (CLTS) approach for mobilising communitites to build their own toilets was pioneered, over 60 delegates have gathered together to discuss how much progress has been made in stopping open defecation. It is the last major event of the International Year of Sanitation, held here in the UK at the Institute of Development Studies. Photo: CLTS conference / Julia Day

The CLTS approach is that treasured thing in development, a success story. First trialled in Bangladesh, it has now spread across Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East.
In the past, money invested in toilet programmes was wasted as people continued to defecate in the open, which continued the spread of disease. But with the CLTS approach, communities are facilitated to conduct their own appraisal and analysis of open defecation (OD) and take their own action to become ODF (open defecation free).

At the heart of CLTS lies the recognition that merely providing toilets does not guarantee their use, nor result in improved sanitation and hygiene. Earlier approaches to sanitation prescribed high initial standards and offered subsidies as an incentive. But this often led to uneven adoption, problems with long-term sustainability and only partial use. It also created a culture of dependence on subsidies. Open defecation and the cycle of fecal–oral contamination continued to spread disease.

In contrast, CLTS focuses on the behavioural change needed to ensure real and sustainable improvements – investing in community mobilisation instead of hardware, and shifting the focus from toilet construction for individual households to the creation of “open defecation-free” villages. By raising awareness that as long as even a minority continues to defecate in the open everyone is at risk of disease, CLTS triggers the community’s desire for change, propels them into action and encourages innovation, mutual support and appropriate local solutions, thus leading to greater ownership and sustainability.

CLTS was pioneered by Kamal Kar (a development consultant from India) together with
VERC (Village Education Resource Centre), a partner of WaterAid Bangladesh, in 2000 in Mosmoil, a village in the Rajshahi district of Bangladesh, whilst evaluating a traditionally subsidised sanitation programme. Find out more about the approach on the shiny new CLTS website.

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Thursday, 4 December 2008


By JULIA DAY, STEPS Centre member

Uncontrolled outbreaks of disease have always had the power to terrify. In recent years, such fears have grown to include the spectre of pandemic influenza, multi-drug resistant tuberculosis and virulent hemorrhagic fevers. Globally, changes in land use, migration, food production, and human/animal interaction are contributing to a startling rise in emerging infectious diseases. At the same time, diseases such as HIV/AIDS and obesity are entering endemic phases in many settings. Photo credit: Sean Warren, iStockphoto

The STEPS Centre Epidemics Project seeks to analyze the nature and meaning of epidemic disease in broad terms, including both infectious and non-infectious diseases, newly emerging and long-standing, or even endemic, diseases, and diseases of the past as well as those of the future.

Through a series of disease-specific case studies on HIV/AIDS, Ebola, obesity, avian influenza, SARS, and multi-drug resistant tuberculosis, the project seeks in particular to understand better the interplay between social, technological and environmental factors that help produce epidemics.

The complex dynamics of infectious diseases means that there is often deep uncertainty surrounding likely outcomes and their consequences. Nonetheless, much policy remains predicated on notions of risk management and assessment that presume linear and predictable disease models. The implicit narratives, or framings, inherent in such policies privilege certain types of knowledge while others narratives remain invisible or ignored.

The full range of multiple, and often competing, narratives represents a wide variety of perspectives on the relative importance of social, technological and environmental dynamics in both the threat of epidemics and appropriate interventions. Such diverse perspectives on the importance of short-term shocks versus long-term stresses, for example, or relatively narrow geographical factors versus global-scale changes, may provide for valuable resilience in the face of potentially devastating new epidemics as well as epidemics with an already established burden.

STEPS case studies demonstrate, in particular disease examples, how certain narratives, and the framing assumptions they embody, can become dominant in a particular setting, setting parameters by which risks and benefits come to be understood and interventions are conceived and implemented.

Three new STEPS Working Papers have just been published as part of this project - Epdemics, Ebola and Avian flu - and are available to download for free. And the case studies on HIV/AIDS, obesity, SARS, and multi-drug resistant tuberculosis will be available shortly.

The STEPS Centre is convening an Epidemics project workshop on December 8-9 to provide an opportunity for lively discussion of the current STEPS Epidemics case studies. The workshop is intended to be a forum for developing a comparative framework for the case studies as well as identifying ideas, strategies and collaborations for future interdisciplinary research and publication.
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At a recent workshop in Delhi, academics and civil society groups discussed the STEPS Centre peri-urban sustainability project, as part of a joint workshop with LSEs climate change research centre, in collaboration with the Institute of Economic Growth supported by the Indian Council of Social Science Research and with funding from the ESRC. The project team sought critical review of the project so far and further networking and engagement with interested parties.

Following presentations from members of the project team, an excellent panel of discussants composed of Amita Bhaviskar (Institute of Economic Growth), KT Ravindran (Delhi School of Planning), Usha Ramanathan (Environmental lawyer IELRC), Ravi Agrawal (Toxics Link) and Marie Helene Zerah (Centre de Science Humaines). provided a thought provoking basis for wider discussion.

One key area of debate concerned the rationale for focussing specifically on the peri-urban. As urban poverty, social injustice and environmental degradation are widespread, do we fail to address core and pressing challenges of urban ecosystems management, by focussing on what is often seen as the urban fringe? This question goes to the heart of the issues about framings of the peri-urban.

Peri-urban is variously cited in terms of a place a process or a concept. These different framings of the peri-urban situation by those involved in city planning and management can have far reaching implications for the poor.

When regarded as a place, the peri urban becomes a site of expulsion from the city to make way for visions of a modernity, but can also become seen as a threatening urban fringe, where communities become associated with health and environmental hazards which require some form of control. When regarded as a process it can be seen as a transition zone, where for example the retirement of rural activities are inevitable and therefore require little attention.

In the context of our current work we see the peri-urban as a condition which encompasses aspects of rural and urban activities and institutions, where there is influence of rapid social, environmental and technological change and increasing marginalisation. As K T Ravindran pointed out – Delhi has many centres and many peripheries embedded in the morphology of the city. Thus, as Amitabh Kundu, one of our partners in this project, described in the context of the ongoing process of exclusionary urbanisation in India, periphery in this sense is a sociological rather than and geographical term.

We would propose that greater insight into these peripheries which are subject to ambiguity, informality and illegality in the context of formal planning processes can illucidate alternatives to dominant planning and management trajectories.
It is well recognised that environmental degradation, natural resource conflicts, health concerns and social injustice are particularly acute in the peri-urban situation, but the implications of not addressing them are far reaching.

Failure to address these apparently peripheral issues, not only results in a plethora of missed opportunities to benefit from rural-urban synergies, for example in waste management; affordable and nutritious fresh produce, but also fails to address a key flash point in undermining the the ability to improve environmental integrity and social equity and poverty in growing cities. Read more

Monday, 1 December 2008


By JULIA DAY, STEPS Centre member

HIV and AIDS is one of the greatest health and development challenges of our time. We have known about HIV, and how to prevent onward transmission, for a quarter of a century, but there are almost 40 million people living with HIV and many more families and communities affected by the disease.

There have been diverse and creative responses to the pandemic and many lessons have been learned. But unproductive and over simplistic debate about poverty, gender and AIDS still dominate popular discourse.

At the STEPS Centre, we are working with partners who believe in the power of evidence in challenging simplistic HIV orthodoxies that often obscure complex and dynamic personal, organisational and political interactions.

HIV is mutable in its ability to exploit biological and structural weaknesses. Our research follows the path of the pandemic to highlight successful pockets of resistance and resilience, particularly pertinent on today, World Aids Day.

Find out more about our work on HIV and development and also have a look at our project on epidemics.

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Thursday, 27 November 2008


By JULIA DAY, STEPS Centre member

An update on our Veterinary Science, Transboundary Animal Diseases and Markets comes from William Wolmer who gave a presentation at a Botswana workshop earlier this month. The presentation explores achieving compatibility between the Transfrontier Conservation Area concept and international standards for the management of Transboundary Animal Diseases. Have a read here or download from our Slideshare page.

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Monday, 17 November 2008



A recent report by the UK Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (RCEP) on nanomaterials - reported extensively in the media - illustrates the challenges of governing innovation in emergent technologies.

The RCEP recommend a system of adaptive innovation governance for dealing with the uncertain consequences of nanomaterial innovation and other emerging technologies. This raises some difficult issues, discussed below, about the relationship between adaptability and path dependency in innovation, and about the institutions, processes and tools for guiding the direction of innovation.

It is common to see three broad classes of technology in the national science, technology and innovation strategies of many countries, whether developed or developing: information and communication technologies, biotechnologies, and nanotechnologies.

However, the governance of these innovation endeavours is incomplete unless promotional policies are accompanied by regulatory initiatives to ensure the safe and sustainable development of these new technologies.

Too often, these two faces to innovation governance are considered separately and sequentially, which tends to build extra conflict into governance arrangements. But integrating the promotional and regulatory aspects of innovation is far from straightforward. The RCEP report illustrates and grapples with some of the challenges.

Members of the STEPS Centre – Paul Nightingale and ourselves - with Ismael Rafols and Molly Morgan from SPRU, were commissioned by the RCEP to provide a background report (and shorter paper) on the innovation of nanomaterials and their governance. Here, two members two of us of that team reflect on the RCEP’s recommendations.

Catching up?

For even the wealthiest countries, let alone resource poor nations, the creation of sufficient regulatory capacity to manage emergent technologies such as nanomaterials poses an enormous challenge.

As highlighted by the RCEP report, innovation in nanomaterials is running far ahead of issues surrounding those innovations: ahead of the creation of regulatory institutions and legal controls, public knowledge of their industrial uses and, the ability to detect and monitor the presence and pathways of nanomaterials in the environment; ahead of, the development of test protocols and, the training of scientific staff; , and even ahead of a basic understanding of the intrinsic hazard properties of nanomaterials, and of their behaviour in organisms and the environment and potential risks.

But the challenge is more severe than one of regulatory capacity per se. As the RCEP recognise, we typically lack knowledge about the kinds of technological pathways that innovation will give rise to, and for any such pathways, the likely impacts positive as well as negative, and social and political as well as physical.

Such pathways, however, have a strong tendency to lock in, as material investments, infrastructure, institutional commitments, and consumer habits develop around that technological pathway, all. This happens well before our understanding of the environmental, human health, and broader social impacts are anything like satisfactory.

Thus, in the early stages of a technology we don’t know enough to establish the most appropriate controls for managing it. But if problems subsequently arise, the technology is usually too entrenched to be changed without major disruptions.

The proposed solution to this control dilemma is to move from a system of ‘governance of risk’ to ‘governance of innovation’. That is, governance efforts need to extend beyond the issues of risk and risk management to include questions about the direction, application and control of innovation.

Furthermore, innovation governance has to rely on adaptive management systems. The RCEP say, ‘Such a regime, while encouraging appropriate innovation, would seek to avoid technological inflexibility, would be vigilant, and would be capable of intervening selectively but decisively when developments threatened humans or the non-human environment.’

These recommendations are laudable but they raise at least two difficult issues.

Technology path dependencies and reversibility

Adaptive management implies an experimental approach to technology development and diffusion. A prerequisite is that the technologies developed are flexible enough to be withdrawn, should problems arise, but without leaving too many stranded investments as a result. Stranded assets dent business confidence in the technology, and make future investment harder to achieve. Indeed, a generation of innovation studies has recognised how many technologies generate path dependencies that make reversibility difficult to attain.

The creation of path dependence is often an ingredient in the success of a technology, as more and more commitments build around the technology, thereby making it indispensable. The question with nanomaterials and other emergent technologies is whether innovation governance can guide their development and use in ways that do permit their deployment in monitored ways, and that hold open the possibility of their withdrawal.

The RCEP propose several indicators of inflexibility that, if present, suggest we should be cautious in committing ourselves to adoption of a technological development. Those indicators are: long lead times from idea to application; capital intensity (such as investment in large plant and costly equipment); large scale of production units; major infrastructure requirements; closure or resistance to criticism; exaggerated claims about performance and benefits; hubris; and irreversibility, in the form of widespread and uncontrolled release of substances into the environment.

We share these aspirations, but a crucial question this raises is how many potential technological pathways are free of these qualities? With the exception of the ‘widespread and uncontrolled release of substances into the environment’ indicator, are the remainder not inherent features of successful technologies and successful technological sectors? Empirical research is needed into the relative flexibilities of technologies, and into the contexts that make some forms more flexible than others.

Institutions, processes and tools for guiding the direction of innovation

The RCEP argue that a key element of an innovation governance regime would be a deliberative forum, capable of exploring normative questions about the purpose, direction and control of innovation, as well as issues of risk and regulation. Linking questions about the direction of innovation with those concerning its regulation raises intriguing questions.

If development trajectories are recognized as inherently uncertain, in terms of potential risks, then might a reasonable response be to commit only to technological pathways that promise to deliver broad social benefits, rather than just sectional economic interests?

Importantly, the RCEP stress that the results of a deliberative forum should directly inform government thinking and policy. We certainly share this aspiration but wish to ask what government might do in response to the outputs of a deliberative forum? Presumably, those outputs might suggest that certain kinds of technological developments should be encouraged and others discouraged. But what policy levers are available, and how would they work?

In most countries promotional policies are concerned not with picking ‘winners’, or halting ‘losers’, but with general improvements in research infrastructure, and in research and industrial capacity-building. The aim is to increase the overall rate of innovation, rather than encourage and discourage particular directions of innovation.

Yet many kinds of policy lever might be utilised to direct innovation: funding of targeted research; training of scientific and engineering staff in specific skills and applications; investment in procurement, support for specific technological niches; facilitating supplier-firm user interactions; creating favourable regulatory environments; and developing fiscal policies. Another would be the promotion of ‘softer’ measures that contribute to a climate of opinion within relevant industrial sectors over which directions for commercial exploitation are deemed appropriate and socially legitimate, and which directions are not.

Innovation governance under this adaptive view has to think of forms of innovation that can transcend or manage path dependency issues, and that can be steered towards socially desirable ends. This is an agenda that STEPS and others are working towards.
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Thursday, 13 November 2008


By JULIA DAY, STEPS Centre member

The rapid expansion of peri-urban areas presents opportunities and challenges for urban and rural activities, institutions and sustainability. No longer soley seen in spatial terms, the peri-urban interface is increasingly recognised in terms of dynamic flows of commodities, capital, natural resources, people and pollution. Although often seen as a transition zone, peri-urban areas are expanding rather than

Today’s landfills become tomorrow’s housing estates for urban migrants in an era of rapid change. Conflicts - over land, water and tenure; siting of polluting industries, waste disposal, mining, construction or commercial cash crops - are now competing with small-scale agriculture, common lands or conservation areas.

The ambiguous peri-urban interface, split between urban and rural jurisdictional boundaries, presents significant governance challenges. Contradictory or absent regulatory frameworks and technology arrangements, poor health, water and sanitation service provision and haphazard planned and unplanned operations abound. These are coupled with intense pollution, land degradation, poor public health and sanitation, changing disease ecologies and a competitive labour market. Meanwhile discrimination is rife and social capital is falling.

The STEPS Centre's new project - the peri-urban interface and sustainability of South Asian cities - is based on the expanding fringes of Delhi are indicative of the conditions that a growing proportion of the world's poor and marginalised citizens will inhabit in decades to come.

The project uses water conflicts as a lens through which to explore the technological and environmental sustainability challenges in peri-urban areas. A full-length overview of the project and a one-page flyer, as well as lots more information is available on the STEPS website.

And you can read what the UNFPA's latest thinking on peri-urbanisation in its 2007 state of the world population report, entitled Unleasing the Potential of Urban Growth.

The report said: "While the world’s urban population grew very rapidly (from 220 million to 2.8 billion) over the 20th century, the next few decades will see an unprecedented scale of urban growth in the developing world. This will be particularly notable in Africa and Asia where the urban population will double between 2000 and 2030: That is, the accumulated urban growth of these two regions during the whole span of history will be duplicated in a single generation. By 2030, the towns and cities of the developing world will make up 80 per cent of urban humanity."
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Monday, 10 November 2008


By JULIA DAY, STEPS Centre member

A week ago the western world felt like a different place. ‘Change’ and ‘hope’ were still slogans. Now, as the embers of Tuesday’s historic celebrations in Chicago’s Grant Park finally begin to die down, US president-elect Barack Obama is throwing himself into the nitty-gritty of forming a new government. But what will an Obama-led Democratic government in the US mean for international development and environmental sustainabiity?

The world has already begun speculating. Every sector of civil society and industry is attempting to decode what Obama’s election promises will mean for their area of interest and expertise.

As he prepares to visit the White House today to undergo what is being billed as a ‘psychological transfer’ from George W Bush, speculation is rife that the president elect intends to move swiftly to unpick many of the Bush administrations laws. He is expected to use his executive authority to force through rapid change without having to wait for congressional action.

But will Obama’s foreign policy commitments be anywhere near the top of his ‘to do’ list? Fighting poverty in Africa was one of the mainstays of the Obama-Biden plan. The pair promised: “To double our annual investment in foreign assistance from $25 billion in 2008 to $50 billion by the end of his first term and make the Millennium Development Goals, which aim to cut extreme poverty in half by 2015, America's goals. They will fully fund debt cancellation for Heavily Indebted Poor Countries in order to provide sustainable debt relief and invest at least $50 billion by 2013 for the global fight against HIV/AIDS, including our fair share of the Global Fund.”

You can listen to Lawrence Haddad, director of the Institute of Development Studies talking about what Obama’s win might mean for international development issues.

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Monday, 27 October 2008


By JULIA DAY, STEPS Centre member

Some success has been achieved in reducing avian influenza outbreaks in poultry and humans, but the world must still be prepared to tackle an influenza pandemic, experts were told at the sixth International Ministerial Conference on Avian and Pandemic Influenza in Sharm El Sheikh, Eqypt this weekend. Photo: avian flu blood sampling / UNSIC

“Things are a lot better now than they were when we started this work in 2005 but they are not good enough. We are still not sufficiently prepared to properly bring a pandemic under control quickly,” David Nabarro, senior UN system coordinator for avian and human influenza, told news agency IRIN.

Compensation for farmers affected by bird flu helps the early detection of new outbreaks, the U.N's avian influenza chief said yesterday (October 26), but refrained from criticizing countries like Egypt that lack such programs, according to Reuters.

Cambodia and Egypt are the only countries heavily affected by bird flu that do not offer some form of compensation.

"In our view, compensation for the value of birds that are destroyed for the control of avian influenza is important if public cooperation is to occur," Mr Nabarro told Reuters' Alastair Sharp.

The United States pledged an additional $320 million to the global fight against bird flu and warned on Saturday against complacency in combating the virus, which could mutate and cause a deadly pandemic.

The figure brings to $949 million Washington's total pledges to fight avian influenza, which has killed 245 people in Asia, Africa, and Europe since late 2003. Countless birds have been culled.

"The United States is pledging an additional $320 million in international assistance for avian and pandemic influenza," said Paula Dobriansky, Under Secretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs.

At the opening of a ministerial conference in Egypt, Dobriansky echoed comments from Egyptian ministers and heads of international organisations in warning of "flu fatigue".

"(There is) a growing feeling that the threat of an influenza pandemic has somehow diminished and that scarce resources could be better used elsewhere in the field of public health, in other words flu fatigue," she said.

Read more coverage from the conference
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Friday, 24 October 2008


By JULIA DAY, STEPS Centre member

The global financial crisis sparked by the world's rich will have the poor paying the highest price, wrote one UK newspaper columnist this week. Meanwhile the United Nations was calling for this crisis to be used positively - to refocus of the world's economy on a Green New Deal. But as the western world contemplates the collapse of capitalism as we know it, there are different priorities being expressed around the globe.

The view from Beijing, according to CCTV9, the official English language news channel, is that China just needs to concentrate on improving livelihoods in its own backyard, rather than get embroiled in a global effort to shore up other markets. The effort to raise incomes in rural areas is at least partly seen as a way to offset the impacts of slowing export markets.

In India today, ahead of the Asia-Europe Meeting, The Hindu's front page reports: "The fact that ASEM leaders will be discussing a crisis that is essentially of America’s making underlines the fact that any overhaul of international financial architecture is bound to have profound geopolitical implications as well."

And writing in India's business daily, Business Standard, Arvind Subramanian states that preserving 'Brand India' is of utmost importance at this time: "'Brand India' has come to connote not just rapid growth but a reasonable ability of policymakers to respond to challenges. Of course, this response will be assessed by outcomes. But critical to this assessment will be whether processes for arriving at outcomes are effective, and specifically, whether all concerned institutions play their rightful roles and maintain their credibility. “Brand India” must pass all these tests.

Meanwhile UN-Habitat have starkly illustrated the size of just one of the challenges facing world leaders - urbanisation - with the publicaton of the annual State of World's Cities report. The report warns that wealth inequality is creating a social time bomb. Let's hope the world leaders at the ASEM in Beijing can hear the ticking and react accordingly.

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Thursday, 23 October 2008


By JULIA DAY, STEPS Centre member

The blogosphere is a rich and varied arena for all things avian flu-related. As ministers from around the globe gear up for the opening salvo at tomorrow's conference, check out what the bloggers have been saying. Try Crawford Kilian's H5N1, Debi Brandon's Pandemic Chronicle and Michael Coston's Avian Flu Diary for starters. Read more


By IAN SCOONES, STEPS Centre co-director

As ministers of health and agriculture from around the world gather in Egypt for the International Ministerial Conference on Avian and Pandemic Influenza, the STEPS Centre, based at IDS and SPRU, launches an important new report exploring the lessons of the international response to avian influenza over the past five years.

The international response to avian influenza has been unprecedented – involving agencies across the UN system, the World Bank, the European Commission, bilateral donors together with national governments.

Over two billion poultry have been culled, major poultry vaccination campaigns have been implemented and markets have been restructured, affecting the livelihoods and businesses of millions. Substantial efforts have been invested in improving human and animal health systems, combined with major investments in drug and vaccine development. And detailed contingency and preparedness plans have been devised in case a human pandemic occurs.

Fortunately a pandemic has not occurred yet, although the avian virus has become endemic in a number of countries. But some time, some where a new, emerging infectious disease will have major impacts, given changing disease ecologies, patterns of urbanisation and climate change. How can the world be ready for such an event?

At the Egypt conference a ‘One World, One Health’ initiative is being launched, focusing on animal, human and ecosystem health in an integrated way. This is a radical departure from the conventional sectoral approaches to health. It is essential, but presents many challenges – disciplinary and organisational silos may act against it.

The new report - The International Response to Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza: Science, Policy and Politics - lays out ten key challenges for a One World, One Health approach. These include rethinking surveillance, focusing on uncertainties, redefining health security, emphasising access and equity, as well as questions of organisational architecture and governance.

These themes are central to the STEPS Centre Epidemics programme on ecology, politics, policy and pathways, and are being explored as part of a project on avian influenza policy responses in Cambodia, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam, in collaboration with the FAO.

A press release on the publication of our new report is available.
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By JULIA DAY, STEPS Centre member

Ministers of health and agriculture from around the world are gathering in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt to formulate a global plan to prepare for, and respond to, the threat of avian flu and other emerging infectious diseases at the International Ministerial Conference on Avian and Pandemic Influenza (October 24-26).

The plan - called the One World, One Health initiative - aims for an unprecedented integration of animal, human and ecosystem health issues to fight the threat of the avian flu virus, H5N1. But will the ministers come up with an agreement that works in this era of rapid change?

The two-day conference - with 500 participants from 116 countries, including 50 health and agriculture ministers - is being co-organized by the European Union as part of global efforts to combat the disease.

Just days ago, the United Nations system influenza coordinator David Nabarro was warning that more needs to be done to prepare the world for a major influenza pandemic.

"Considering that pandemic preparedness was largely unaddressed by the world's nations three years ago, the widespread awareness and action seen today is a major achievement," said Mr Nabarro.

"But more needs to be done to ensure that we are ready for this kind of major global crisis," he added during the launch of a joint report with the World Bank.

The World Bank had warned that an avian influenza pandemic could bring economic losses as high as 3 trillion dollars, or about 5 per cent of global gross domestic product (GDP). The issue has unsurprisingly grabbed the attention of the world's press.

A new report published today by Professor Ian Scoones and Paul Forster of the ESRC STEPS Centre lays out 10 key recommendations for One World, One Health, based on analysis of lessons learned from the massive $2bn international response to the avian flu over the past five years, during which time 245 people have died.

Paul is on his way to Egypt to take part in the conference and will be blogging on what happens, so keep an eye on The Crossing.
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Thursday, 16 October 2008


By JULIA DAY, STEPS Centre member

As today's World Food Day dawns, new research reveals £26-£48 billion package is needed to alleviate seasonal hunger - a fraction of the proposed $700 billion package to bail out Wall Street.

Food issues are likely to get higher profile coverage today than preceeding World Food Days thanks to almost constant headlines over the past year about food shortages, soaring prices, food riots, food security and hunger. Where once these issues were percieved to be applicatble only in certain places in the developing world, today they are recognised as global problems.

A new book published today, Seasons of Hunger by Stephen Devereux, Bapu Vaitla and Samuel Hauenstein Swann, looks at the seasonal issues causing food crises, challenges compounded by high and rising food prices.

The authors believe no single intervention is adequate; instead a comprehensive approach is needed. The Institute of Development Studies, Action Against Hunger, and the Future Agricultures Consortium - the authors' organisations - propose a “minimum essential intervention package to fight seasonal hunger”. The package includes: community-based management of acute malnutrition; employment guarantee schemes (recently legislated in India); social pensions; and community-based growth promotion.

The total estimated global cost is £26-£48 billion - not cheap, but considerably less than the proposed $700 billion package to bail out Wall Street. Mr Devereux said: "Seasonal hunger is intensifying in the face of the global food price crisis, but it can be overcome if political will is directed to mobilising the resources needed to eradicate it."

You can read more about the book, and order it on the IDS website. Food is one of the STEPS Centre's key areas of research, you can find out more about our work on food and agriculture, and our project about maize and climate change in Kenya, on the website.
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Tuesday, 14 October 2008


ADRIAN ELY, STEPS Centre member reports with our partners professor Ding Shijun and Dr Chen Chuanbo on the challenges of conducting research in China’s changing rural areas

In rural transitional China many households include absentees who live and work in urban centres and send money back to their families in the village. These individuals are extremely important in accounting for incomes and expenditures, and form a central part of family strategies to move out of poverty.

The breakdown of many traditional categories in China’s dynamic socio-economic context became apparent during a visit to two rural villages in Hubei province last year as part of the STEPS Centre Rethinking Regulation project.

Studying rural worlds at the household level makes sense in many parts of the world, and has been central to much development research over the past two decades. In Hubei we met with Prof Shijun Ding of Zhonghan University of Economics and Law. He was leading a team conducting household surveys as part of the POVILL research consortia’s important research into household complexities in China and ways of taking methodologies forward.

Prof Ding’s team collected information from 12,000 households across four counties in Hubei and Sichuan provinces in order to investigate strategies and behaviours used by the rural poor to cope with health shocks caused by major illness.

During this work Prof Ding found many of the major breadwinners within households are absent, away in cities earning money which they then send back to their parents, who act as the guardians of their children. This phenomenon was demonstrated by the 2006 national agricultural census, which reported 30% of agricultural labourers (those above the age of 16 with the ability to work) in Hubei are working far away from their homes. Between the ages of 20 and 24, this percentage doubled.

Under such circumstances, traditional questions which have featured in household economic surveys - for example about the head of the household or the income/ expenditure of the household, need to be rethought. Is the head of the household the oldest member, or the breadwinner? When calculating income and expenditure, does one include the income of the absentee breadwinners and if so, what proportion thereof?

To think these questions would obviously lead to practical research difficulties. Does one include the outgoings in the village alone, or also the expenditure in the urban areas? How does one disaggregate the income of the couple that goes towards supporting their children from that which is spent on their parents?

More than a year later, Dr Chen Chuanbo of Renmin University of China - a STEPS Centre research partner along with Prof Ding - continues to think of ways to address this challenge. Next year, for another project, Dr Chen and his colleagues plan to time their rural research visits to coincide with the Spring festival, when migrant workers traditionally return home. Hopefully this will allow them to gather more complete data on both resident and absentee household members and shed more accurate light on the complexity of China’s rural situation.
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Monday, 13 October 2008


By ADRIAN ELY, STEPS Centre member, reports from the Asia-Europe People’s Forum in Beijing

Thirty years ago, the idea that the Asia-Europe People’s Forum (AEPF) would be held in China would have been inconceivable, but the fact that civil society organisations from all across Europe, Asia and other areas of the world have come together this week in Beijing shows that the country is undoubtedly undergoing political change alongside its rapid social, economic, technological and environmental upheavals. Photo: AEPF conference / Adrian Ely

This is the seventh time that civil society organisations have gathered at the AEPF to discuss issues of global importance. This year, their aim is to feed into the Asia-Europe Meeting Summit (ASEM) , which will be held in Beijing later this month. Some 500 delegates attended the first session this morning, although it felt like more as we crammed into the conference hall, which heard the Chinese foreign minister and various international guests lay out their visions of the world, and the role of civil society and governments, especially that of China, in addressing current challenges.

I took the opportunity to attend the subsequent morning session on “Development Paradigms: trends and alternatives”, which was presented by Walden Bello (Focus on the Global South), Wolfram Schaffar (University of Hildesheim, Attac Germany), Wu Xingtang (China Centre for Contemporary World Studies), with input from MP Charles Santiago of Malaysia. All seemed to agree that current events in Washington and the financial centres of the world indicated the end of the neo-liberal economic development paradigm, and that the turmoil and impending fallout offered an opportunity for a radical people-centred political agenda to take hold.

There was an optimistic feeling that the discussions over the coming three days could significantly contribute to the main characteristics of the new financial architecture (in which the BRICS economies, it was argued, should play a more central role). According to the speakers, this financial crisis was different from that of the depression in the 1930s, and also the more recent Asian financial crisis – the rise of China and other emerging powers requires a new global approach to financial regulation. The was little debate as to whether the world was at a tipping point, and a large number of speakers were convinced that the coming months and years would inevitably see the rise of an alternative global political, as well as financial, order.

Although unable to attend the whole forum, I’m looking forward to a session on food security and food sovereignty, especially following recent decisions around land reform in China. That session will take place on Wednesday afternoon, shortly before the participants come up with a final declaration of the people’s agenda under the theme “For Social and Ecological Justice!”
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By JULIA DAY, STEPS Centre member

On the day that the UK has nationalised some of its biggest banking institutions, China has announced bold new proposals to free up the way 700 million peasants can use state-owned land.

The plans, announced by the Communist Party yesterday via the Xinhua news agency, could allow farmers to exchange thier plots of land or use the sites as collateral for loans. Across the world the news has been hailed as an attempt to 'set China's farmer's free'.

The STEPS Centre's Rethinking Regulation project has been working with Chinese farmers looking at the regulation of seeds, linking to our affiliate partner POVILL which has been carrying out a household survey of the rural poor. A view of the impact of China's new anouncements from these projects will be posted on the blog tomorrow.
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Thursday, 9 October 2008


By JULIA DAY, STEPS Centre member

The UK government’s chef scientific advisor, Professor John Beddington was here at Sussex University last night to deliver the 12th Marie Jahoda Annual Lecture, hosted by SPRU Science and Technology Policy Research. With the theme Sustainability in a Changing World, Prof. Beddington said by the end of the lecture he would reveal the contents of the (imaginary) file he would like to present to the next US president.

With the scarcity and security of natural resources central to many of today’s global challenges, we were hoping for a fulsome exploration of sustainability in this era of rapid change from a man well-qualified to give his opinion. Prof. Beddington became Gordon Brown’s scientist on January 1 2008, but remains a Professor at Imperial College specialising in the application of biological and economic analysis to problems of Natural Resources Management.

And with global financial markets in freefall, could there ever have been a better week to illustrate the rapidly changing nature of a world rocked by shocks and stresses? However Prof. Beddington started not with economics, but birds. He used the fear of the avian influenza H5N1 virus mutating into human to human transmission as an illustration of one of the human and animal disease problems in his in-tray, along with polio, TB, AIDS, malaria, CJD, BSE, FMD, and Bluetongue.

Human and animal diseases are just a fraction of the pile of papers on his office desk. What followed was a whistle-stop tour of the most pressing global challenges facing us today, the things he has been employed to help the government understand.

The problems of sustainability facing the world are multiple, but chiefly fall into three categories, said Professor Beddington: increasing population, urbanisation and under-nourishment. The first of many graphs featuring steep red lines marching diagonally upwards across his Powerpoint slides began.

The problem of population is dealt with swiftly - increasing prosperity is the only way solution, according to Prof. Beddington, who batted away a later question about birth control saying it was a very complex and difficult area.

Urbanisation poses a second problem with the number of large cities of over 1million inhabitants set to soar, with Africa’s large cities alone set to double between now and 2030. By that time developing nations will have 80% of the world’s urban population, and conflicts, over resources such as water, will be heightened, said Prof. Beddington. People in the urban environment will out-compete those, particularly in the peri-urban areas, for resources, he added.

Next up, poverty alleviation. With 1.1bn people living on less than 50p a day and 854 million of them suffering under-nutrition and hunger you would think the outlook is bleak. But Prof. Beddington was quite upbeat because of a final World Bank figure that the number of households with incomes of more than £8,000 a year is set to soar from 352million households in 2000 to 2.1 billion by 2030. This is a fantastic thing, said Prof. Beddington, because so many more people will have increased purchasing power. Unfortunately the increase is not happening fast enough, he added.

That clean and renewable energy is needed is not in dispute. But how it is delivered is very much so, as some of those listening to Prof. Beddington’s lecture were well aware - with leading UK thinkers on the subject, including Professor Gordon McKerron and Dr Jim Watson of the Sussex Energy Group, among the audience.

Prof. Beddington made one thing clear – the Labour government’s u-turn on nuclear energy was made while his predecessor, Sir David King, was in post. Although he said there are strong arguments for the government’s investment in nuclear power, he added: “It’s not to say there are no problems with nuclear, and we’ve got to address that. It’s an interim measure.” And while he believes nuclear fusion could solve our energy needs, a solution is 30 years away.

So, we’ve got an energy demand problem, food and water demand problems and then there is the small matter of climate change. At this point Prof. Beddington apologised for the lack of cheer in this lecture. Slides quoting Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) facts and figures are familiar, but the fact that the Arctic will be ice-free in 12 years, by 2020, is always shocking no matter how many times you hear it. Graphs for predicted temperature, ocean heat, floods, coastal erosion and numbers of international migrants show more ascending red lines.

On the subject of agriculture, Prof. Beddington said crop improvement and protection measures are needed to reduce losses due to pests and diseases while better irrigation and water management must be developed. He was very keen on Brazil’s hi-tech grain production methods and unequivocal on the issue of GM: “We (the UK) are being left behind by the rest of the world on GM usage.” He said the US had been using GM for 15 years, and in the most litigious nation on Earth, there has been no litigation about the health effects of GM.

So, after running through his 'to do' list of most pressing concerns, what would Prof. Beddington put in that phantom file to the next US president? “My file to the new US president is for him to recognise that the new international challenges are all linked. We can’t ignore food, water and energy problems but we have got to treat them all in an integrated way. We can’t just see climate change on its own.”

With the constraints of both time and of being part of the political machine, Prof. Beddington delivered a broad-brush picture of scientific sustainability challenges rather than revealing his personal view or that of the government. Having joked that his son’s gift of a box set of British political satire Yes, Prime Minster had been handy in his new job, Prof. Beddington proved himself an adept politician: he was voluble on the problems by less forthcoming on his thoughts about solutions.
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Thursday, 25 September 2008


By JULIA DAY, STEPS Centre member

The annual STEPS Centre Symposium is underway here in Sussex with 70 delegates gathered to debate this year's theme, Reframing Resilience.

Despite the slightly cheeky title, there is a serious aim here - to explore some of the wider frontier challenges in the resilience field and try to make progress on both intellectual and practical fronts. No mean feat.

The Symposium brings together a broad spectrum of resilience thinkers from diverse disciplinary perspectives. Some are dedicated to this area - for instance the Stockholm Resilience Centre is well-represented - and for others thinking about resilience is part of thier remit.

Throughout this year the STEPS Centre has been engaging with resilience thinking using the Centre’s distinctive approach of combining development studies with science and technology studies.

As part of this work we have just published a new Working Paper - Social-ecological resilience and socio-technical transitions: critical issues for sustainability governance by Adrian Smith and Andy Stirling. The paper can be downloaded for free exclusively from our website.

We have also been gathering some resilience resources on our website ahead of the Symposium, so have a look at offerings from Frans Berkhout, Henrik Ernstson, Per Olsson, Karl Folke and more.

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Monday, 15 September 2008


By JULIA DAY, STEPS Centre member

For presentation, podcast and photos from this event see the STEPS Seminars page:

During the past few years, bio-energy and especially liquid biofuels have gone from being a topic for mostly technical researchers to full-blown controversy and front-page headlines. It has been implicated for exacerbating climate change rather than mitigating and also been cited as a major factor in rising food prices. The reality is of course more complicated than the polarized examples that are portrayed in the media, which can be dependent on the particular group of stakeholders that managed to get their story through. We are lucky to have Francis X. Johnson, Research Fellow at the Stockholm Environment Institute here today to give a STEPS Centre seminar on Biofuels, Climate and Development: Emerging Issues and Challenges.

The SEI has been working for many years with partners in southern Africa and elsewhere to try to better articulate some of the key issues that impact the manner and the extent to which expansion of bio-energy and biofuels can support sustainable development while also contributing to climate objectives and improved access to modern energy services. This talk will review some of the main issues, and go into some more detail for the case of sugar crops in southern Africa.

Mr Johnson kicks off his seminar by asking: “What is biomass?” It is not just the ‘4Fs’ – food, feed, fibre and fuel, he says, but also fertiliser, feedstocks, flora and fauna. Because of it’s wide reach into all of these areas and more, biomass production has a fundamental relationship to development through sustainable livelihoods. Biomass was a very calm arena to work in years ago, but now is fraught with controversies, “Which is why I’m losing my hair,” quips Mr Johnson.

He shares some facts and figures on the bio-energy production potential in 2050, showing that the regional availability of biomass resources in Caribbean and Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa and East Asia and to some extent Oceania have great potential. But the intensity or agricultural cultivation remains low in most world regions. (For global shares of biomass and distribution other figures and graphs, see Mr Johnson’s presentation.)

So what about modern bioenergy? That it is not just more efficient but more controllable, is the point about modern bioenergy, says Mr Johnson, for instance, like fossil fuels it can be stored and drawn on at any time. It’s production can also provide jobs and sustainable livelihoods. It is only in the last 5-10 years that biomass has become a global commodity with a developing market.

Biomass and other renewals are more labour-intensive (in terms of jobs per unit of energy) than other energy industries so there is a greater potential in development countries, in countries with high unemployment, according to Mr Johnson. But what are the barriers to modern bioenergy production in developing countries? He dubs the barriers as the ‘Three I’s’ – infrastructure, investment and institutions, an explanation of each is in his presentation.
And of course there is the matter of scale. Scale matters in bioenergy development options – but there are more high risk problems for small scale, rather than large scale, approaches. Ultimately a smalls-scale multi-product or multi-crop approach – eg: sweet sorghum - might be more sustainable in the end.

Mr Johnson then takes a look at a research project in the Southern African Development Community (SADC), which investigated land sustainability for sugarcane cultivation. (You can see his slides on this in the presentation). Sweet sorghum is an interesting alternative to sugar cane for small scale projects - it grows in 3-4 months and is good for fibre or ethanol, not so much for sugar. Zambia, Mozambique, and Malawi turned out to have very good land suitability for sweet sorghum.

The arguments about which kind of trade in biomass is best have become hotly debated in recent years : Trade or aid?; local or global?; food, feed or fuel ? But Mr Johnson says look at it in a simpler way, in terms of the available land of different types per capita varies around the world. And it turns out that Brazil, SADC and certain parts of Asia are among the areas that have greatest potential as biomass exporting regions.

When it comes to deciding which type of crop is best to grow in terms of fossil energy balance, the most efficient is sugar cane and palm oil. But one of the palm oil grows well in rainforests, there’s a chance of cutting down the forest to grow it, so sugarcane has a physical advantage in that respect (because it doesn’t need those conditions). For yield comparisons on first generation biofuels, see Mr Johnson’s presentation, which also gives some data on land degradation and climate capture.

Mr Johnson ends with a couple of questions: What are you buying when you import biofuels technology or the sun? There is a tension between biofuels produced in developing and other countries, and the best way to import biofuels has to be by harnessing the sun, in other words, by buying from developing countries.

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Friday, 5 September 2008


STEPS member Adrian Ely has written an article on the regulation of genetically modified foods for "Food Ethics", the magazine of the Food Ethics Council.

Drawing on and extending upon work which focussed on the European food safety governance system (carried out with a team also including STEPS members Andy Stirling and Erik Millstone), Adrian outlines approaches that might enable countries faced with decisions over new GM products to consider not only food safety, but also food security and sovereignty.

The article is available from the Food Ethics Council
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Tuesday, 19 August 2008


By JULIA DAY, STEPS Centre member

Sanitation was dubbed “one of the biggest scandals of all time” by the UN’s water chief this week as World Water Week got underway in Stockholm.

At a time when billions of people live without sustainable access to safe drinking water or suffer ill health due to poor sanitation, when food crises, bio-energy crops and climate change place ever-increasing demands on water resources, 2,500 water experts have gathered in the Swedish capital.

"Sanitation is one of the biggest scandals of all times. It's something that we have to put on our radar screen," insisted Prince Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands, who heads up the UN Secretary General's Advisory Board on Water and Sanitation.

"7,500 people die every day due to this lack of sanitation," he said, pointing out that "the situation is the same as seven years ago." According to the United Nations 30 per cent of the planet's population will face water shortages by 2025.

In an attempt to inject some urgency into this situation during this International Year of Sanitation, the conference is focussing on how the lack of water supply impacts sanitation and health and has already heard calls for radical changes in behaviour and mentality when it comes to water usage.

At the ESRC STEPS Centre, our research on water and sanitation is seeking to promote changes in the ways in which water and sanitation are viewed and sustainable practical and policy solutions designed.

Why, as Prince Willem-Alexander pointed out in Stockholm, has there been no movement towards better sanitation for years, despite many interventions and international action? The STEPS Centre’s researchers believe there is a big disconnect between global rhetoric and the everyday experiences of poor and marginalised people. And until this disconnect is properly addressed, the problems of water and sanitation will remain unresolved.

Take the case of large dams, often considered to be the panacea to water scarcity but the source of great controversy around the world with the Narmada in India, Three Gorges in China and Epupa Falls in Namibia among the most high profile dam controversies.

Builders and planners have often ignored the high social and environmental costs of large dams, with benefits often going to large farmers and irrigators. The poor and marginalised are left to face displacement from river-valleys, impoverishment, destruction of ancestral homes and cultural attachments to land and river resources and unintended consequences, such as disease outbreaks.

The focus on water as an economic good can overshadow other, particularly cultural and symbolic, meanings and roles of water. The engineering and public health domination of sanitation can obscure local level priorities, needs and socio-cultural practices. For example, villagers in Merka, western India, prefer local sources of water (e.g. the tank and wells) to the ostensibly ‘improved’ government-supplied piped water.

Views that see water and sanitation problems in aggregate, technical terms, ignore the social, political and distributional issues that often underlie what may appear as water ‘scarcity’. These views often have little to do with local users’ rights and interests. Consequently, despite good intentions, many projects fail.

The UN undoubtedly has good intentions. It has set a target for halving the number of people without access to sanitation by 2015; on current trends it won't be reached until 2076.

Download STEPS Working Paper 6: "Liquid Dynamics: challenges for sustainability in water and sanitation" (pdf 566kb)
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