Behind the scenes at the Ashden Awards

6th March, 2014 by Martin Wright

Martin Wright discusses his experiences as an assessor with Ashden’s Emma-Louise Frost.

The Ashden Awards celebrate energy solutions across the world that cut carbon, protect the environment, reduce poverty and save lives. As we approach the 2014 Awards, here’s an insight into the lengths to which Ashden goes to uncover the most worthy contenders, sending expert assessors to scrutinise shortlisted projects, wherever they may be in the world.

One of these experts is Forum for the Future’s Martin Wright, who has been on over 60 project visits in his 12 years as an Ashden assessor. Emma-Louise Frost, Communication Assistant for Ashden, caught him just hours before he headed out on his 2014 trip for a rare ‘behind the scenes’ look at the assessment process:

Emma: What has been your most interesting assessment trip so far?

Martin: When visiting GIZ/Integration in Afghanistan [a micro-hydro programme that brought reliable, renewable electricity to remote North Eastern parts of the country for the first time] in 2012, what struck me most was the contrast between the shocking scenes and stories you hear and see in the UK media, and the hospitality and enthusiasm of the local people who welcomed me to see their project. The new mini-hydro energy was absolutely transforming their lives.

I met people who had previously moved to bigger towns and cities in search of a better life, who were able to move back to their local towns to set up their own businesses in the bazaars. They could now make a better life for themselves than they would have been able to in the cities. The new energy available to them gives them access to light and phone charging, both essential for trade.

Another particularly memorable trip was to visit WWF-DRC in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2013, which was still very much a war zone when we visited. WWF was helping build local clean cookstoves industry in Goma. Getting around was very difficult and, sadly, we missed the chance to film the ‘gorillas in the mist’ because heavy fighting had broken out on the road leading out of town. But it was clear from the people we met that although they were living in terrifying conditions, they still had the same everyday concerns as the rest of us.

The local women had collaborated with other organisations to build and provide clean cookstoves, which give off far less smoke than the old versions. One of the most powerful moments for me was when one of the young women proudly showed off her new hairstyle, clothes and jewellery – all the result of earning more income by selling the new stoves.

Emma: Has anything particularly funny happened on your travels as an Ashden assessor?

Martin: I was visiting the Aga Khan Planning and Building Service (AKPBS) in Pakistan [which plans and implements infrastructure and technology-related development projects aimed at improving living conditions] in March 2011. We were travelling up the Karakoram Highway from Islamabad, headed for Gilgit. We’d left at five in the morning – as it was a long journey north – and by nine or so it was time for a breakfast stop. We halted in a charming hill town and Ali, my companion from the AKPBS, bought some supplies in a friendly, bustling market. Then we stopped off for an omelette at a roadside café, just opposite a big military base.

The topic of conversation turned to our long journey. Ali said there had been some concern that I might be worried about my safety on the road. (We’d originally planned to go by helicopter, but bad weather meant we had to change our plans.) “Oh no, not at all – never felt safer”, I reassured him. Then, warming to my theme, I berated the lazy Western assumption that all of Pakistan was a danger zone. “Honestly, the way some people go on, you’d think Osama bin Laden was hiding round every corner” – gesturing, as I spoke, in the direction of the peaceful suburbs of Abbottabad, which rolled away across the nearby fields.

Just a few weeks later, of course, came the shock announcement that US Navy Seals had killed bin Laden in a midnight raid on his hideout – in those same peaceful suburbs, about 300 metres from where we’d been sitting enjoying our omelette.

Emma: Have you had to travel long distances on your trips?

Martin: The long hours and sometimes challenging terrain are often the most difficult elements of the trips. But it is absolutely worth it to see the amazing work that Ashden supports. At times like those, I honestly wouldn’t be anywhere else.
 
One mildly uncomfortable experience happened in China while visiting the World Bank and the Renewable Energy Development Project, who were working together to provide solar power to those living in the remote, largely Tibetan areas of Qinghai Province. We drove for 14 hours, climbing to heights of over 16,000 feet. By evening I started to feel very strange – slow moving, aching, with a fearsome headache, and struggling to string my thoughts together. It was only the next morning that realisation dawned on me – altitude sickness! My Chinese companions had suffered from it as well. We took some local herbal pills and gradually acclimatised, although I struggled for a while to climb steep slopes without stopping to catch my breath. (Or, just to admire the view, as of course I pretended at the time…)

Emma: Has there been any particular time on your trips when the reality of living without clean energy hit home?

Martin: One of the most emotional moments was when a woman in Pakistan was showing me her new cook stove. She took my hand between both of her palms, and even brought it to her cheeks – a surprisingly intimate gesture – just because she was so happy to show me that she now had soft skin. Before she had a cleaner cook stove, she explained, her skin was rough from the smoke, and her hair caked and messy.

But perhaps the sweetest moment was in India, when a farmer who had seen his life transformed by the wonders of International Development Enterprises, India’s (IDEI) simple treadle pumps, which were helping him grow crops all the year round, said to my companions from the project: “You have lifted poverty from this valley. You have lifted poverty from my home.”

Martin Wright is an Ashden Award assessor and a Founding Editor at Green Futures. Emma-Louise Frost is Communication Assistant at Ashden.

The 2014 Ashden Awards will be on held 22 May at the Royal Geographical Society. Read about the shortlist here.

Photo credit:Aga Khan Planning and Building Service/Ashden

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