“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
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.”