Hillary, Stoves Won’t Save the World

Hillary Clinton set to unveil initiative on clean cooking stoves,” is among this week’s highlights at the Millennium Development Goals Summit. Indeed, climate change, deforestation, global health, and women’s empowerment are extremely important issues to address.

Yet, I am extremely wary of any products manufactured in the developed world that are touted, marketed, or delivered to “make life better” for poor people in the developing world.

I have worked for many years supporting a local, community-based organization operating in Kasese, Uganda, The Center for Environment Technology and Rural Development. They have been helping women build safer and more environmentally sound stoves with locally available materials in the Rwenzori region for years.

In their own words,

“Cooking with three stones has been common in rural areas of Uganda. But in the villages where our programs are located, CETRUD has also help women who cook the meals for their families, through the building of appropriate and safer cooking stoves. This saves wood and provides relief to women, and often their small children, who suffer constant smoke inhalation. Cooking stoves improve general health, save time, and reduce the amount of wood used.”

Before and after photos can be seen on CETRUD’s website at: http://www.cetrud.org/wb/pages/programs/appropriate-technology.php

From CETRUD's website: "Improved cooking stoves save the women and children from heavy smoke and the heavy load of looking for firewood."

At the end of last year, The New Yorker featured the Aprovecho Research Center’s 10th annual Stove Camp in Oregon, which they described as a “kind of hippie Manhattan Project” of the “small but fanatical world of stovemakers.” Despite this latest publicity among policy wonks and donors, several designs for improved cook stoves have been developed and successfully utilized in the developing world using locally available materials such as clay, mud, concrete, sheet metal, or tile. (You can find many of these described on Appropedia’s page on improved cook stoves.) Local efforts also have the flexibility and responsiveness to address environmental conditions and community needs more directly than any global alliance can.

That’s why the United States’ $50 million commitment will be met by me with a deep sigh, disappointment, and skepticism. Taking exception to newly hyped technological ideas that will “save the world” can be unpopular. In fact, in a previous discussion a fellow international do-gooder once criticized my view as an “a priori xenophobic dismissal of the intentions and products of rich-world technological intelligence.”

Rather, my concerns are based on wanting to ensure that any efforts to improve people’s lives in the developing world are first based on the locally available resources, rather than creating additional dependency on outside “expertise,” supplies, or technology. (The blog, Good Intentions Are Not Enough, write a lot on this topic and has some great guidelines on in-kind donations of this sort.) My concerns also include wanting to avoid undermining local economies and local organizations, especially if products such as these are delivered through traditional funding mechanisms, with each layer of bureaucracy taking its share.

Clinton needs to take a more responsible approach to throwing her support behind “solutions” such as these. The media must also stop portraying foreign assistance as a kind of ever-elusive (and arrogant) search for a single, magic “silver bullet” to solve poverty. Instead, let us all focus on putting real resources behind local initiatives and means of overcoming obstacles in the developing world.

Despite whatever trend comes next from the policy-makers, development experts, and donors, skilled and experienced people working on the ground know that no technological initiative in and of itself can offer the full answer to complex problems in the developing world. As former Clinton crony, Al Gore, reminds us in his movement to stop global warning, “It’s not a silver bullet, it’s silver buckshot.”


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  1. great post. love this line: “my concerns are based on wanting to ensure that any efforts to improve people’s lives in the developing world are first based on the locally-available resources, rather than creating additional dependency on outside “expertise,” supplies, or technology.”

  2. joe

    I guess to some extent it depends. It might actually be cheaper to manufacture in bulk and import – of course, one needs to carefully consider the cultural, economic and social effects of any new ‘low tech’ solution. My understanding is that some of the cookers have not been taken up well because of some cultural issues which were not adequately considered before the programmes start (I’m no authority though, and just from memory).

    I guess this also needs to be broadened to consider what the objectives actually are. Simple local low-tech solutions might get those in the programmes to point x, but maybe what they’re really wanting is point y which could never be achieved in this way.

    Then we’re back to the old chestnut of whether it is it better to have a dramatic effect on a small number of participants or a much smaller effect spread across a much wider group.

  3. J.

    I agree.

    “Clean cooking stoves” are basically a public distraction from the more meaningful conversation about how to address poverty at a systemic, structural level.

    Oh yeah, and CETRUD. *Really?* They need to change that acronym.

  4. Pingback: Women Take Center Stage at Opening of Clinton Global Initiative | Human Rights | Change.org

  5. Pingback: A compilation post on articles written about the Clinton Global Initiative and UN Week | Good Intentions Are Not Enough A compilation post on articles written about the Clinton Global Initiative and UN Week | An honest conversation about the impact of aid

  6. Pingback: Predicting Aid Mistakes | Good Intentions Are Not Enough Predicting Aid Mistakes | An honest conversation about the impact of aid

  7. See also Hesperian’s recent blog, “Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves Falls Short” http://ht.ly/2Ssh1

    Hesperian wrote about the problems associated with many stove designs and poor ventilation in their most recent book, A Community Guide to Environmental Health. The book contains a comprehensive section on indoor air pollution, fire safety, and instructions for building more fuel efficient, cleaner stoves. You can find it for purchase or download at:


  8. this is it. Sometimes experts from the developed nations miss the point. They imagine a lot that, what has worked in the west will work else where. This has greatly failed developing nations from taking off. Let them try to give a hand up not hand out to the challenges we face as developing countries. The whole idea of cooking stoves stinks to me.

  9. Really appreciate your thoughtful comments and insightful observations around the launch of the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves. Here’s some good news for you – I believe there is a widely shared perspective within the little world of the international stove movement (that just got bigger with Hillary’s announcement) is that it’s not just preferable that stove design and construction include local input, cultural considerations, materials and labor – it’s essential. Our organization – Trees, Water & People, has been doing stove work in Central America for more than a decade, and our lessons around this were often surprising, sometimes a little painful, but they’ve been learned and shared and reinforced with the experiences of our cohorts in the field throughout the world. Of course you’re justified to have concerns about the delivery of the newly announced, very ambitious goals of 100 million stoves in 10 years. We sure are – the last 20 years of work has yielded maybe 10 million stoves, TWP is a major player in the field by virtue of doing 45,000. This is going to be challenging from every point of view – the raw numbers, achieving economic, social, and technical appropriateness, capacity building for local production, after market maintenance, etc. etc. etc. Reasons for skepticism? Absolutely! Reasons not to go ahead? Hell no! In the NY Times article announcing the formation of the Alliance on Sept. 20 (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/21/science/earth/21stove.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=clinton%20clean%20cookstoves&st=cse), Reid Detchon, VP for energy and climate for the UN Foundation, is quoted “t>”the group hopes to create an entrepreneurial model in which small companies manufacture or buy the stoves close to their markets, taking into account local fuel choices, food consumption patterns and methods of cooking.” This of course is no guarantee that this strategy will be carried out, but they’re clearly aware of it. Frankly, my biggest concern is whether the funders (US, EU, UN) will come through with their financial commitments, or if it will, like the Millennium Development Goals, fall short due to lack of follow through by funders.

  10. Biochar Work in Nine Developing Countries:

    World Bank Study: The survey data from 150 biochar projects located in 38 developing countries is available now on the IBI website at: http://www.biochar-international.org/sites/default/files/IBI_Survey_5-11….

    The IBI now has 33 biochar affiliates around the world — including in China, India, Japan UK, US, Australia, Korea, Canada, Italy and Israel.
    Note also that our Japanese colleagues in the Japan Biochar Association have a very long tradition of biochar use and have been developing “modern methods” over the last thirty years. A governmental act officially acknowledged charcoal as a “soil ameliorator” back in 1988 and have completed work using Biochar as an in situ sorbent of Cd, and starting work on heavy metal radio-isotopes.

    PRO-NATURA INTERNATIONAL has the largest numbers of agroforestry soil-C & Biochar projects. Certainly the largest NGO, across the global south. They are very sensitive in both design and co-opting local social values for creating self perpetuated systems. Like the Exponential growth of biologic systems. http://pronatura.org/index.php

    The Biochar Fund has doubled subsistence farmer’s incomes;
    Exceptional results from biochar experiment in Cameroon
    The broad smiles of 50 subsistence farmers say it all, that , and the size of the Biochar corn root balls

    Cocao growers in Belize; http://www.carbongold.com/

    NSF Awards $1.6 million in grants;
    BREAD: Biochar Inoculants for Enabling Smallholder Agriculture

  11. Hello, I am Peter Scott’s wife. He is one of the Stove Designers in the “small but fanatical world of stovemakers” who was written about in the New Yorker. I just wanted to say that he is the most committed men I have ever seen in my life.
    He has devoted his life to making stoves that reduce indoor air pollution to save lives of women and children and to stem massive deforestation. He started out making mud and clay stoves in Congo and other areas for refugee camps but when the stoves were tested they reduced the air pollution by very little and sometimes used more wood than the three stone fire. It was a humbling experience for him…
    HE now works with women in africa in focus groups to find out what size, shape, height and even color the women will want, and therefore be most likely to use. He is on the way to opening a large factory in Kenya, hiring locals to build and sell stoves, thus helping local economies.
    For the last two years since Peter opened Burn Design Lab on Vashon Island in Washington, he has spent his life savings on this project…we have had to even go to the food bank to supplement our lives and make ends meet. He does this because he cares.
    I think it is easy take an aid project and lump the whole lot together and think they are all a bunch of buffoons…I am certainly guilty of doing this while in Africa.
    WHile I am not sure what or how the 50 Million is to be spent (Peter has not seen a penny of it…) I do know that the hippies in Oregon and Washington (and Colorado and Georgia and….) who are working on these projects really believe in what they are doing and the people they serve.
    Here is a short video showing what peter is doing at Burn Design Lab.

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