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Hillary, Julia, Stoves Won’t Save the World

This post first appeared on HUMNews for World Pneumonia Day. 

Hillary Clinton unveils initiative on clean cooking stoves,” was among last year’s highlights at the Millennium Development Goals Summit. But what has become of The Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves a year later?

Climate change, deforestation, global health, and women’s empowerment remain extremely important issues to address. And I remain 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,

CETRUD, a local organization in Kasese, Uganda, helps women build improved cooking stoves from local materials that save them from heavy smoke and the heavy load of looking for firewood.

Cooking with three stones has been common in rural areas of Uganda. But in the villages where our programs are located, CETRUD has helped 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.”

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 recent 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. Local efforts also have the flexibility and responsiveness to address environmental conditions and community needs more directly than any global alliance can.

This is why the United States’ $50 million commitment was met by me with a deep sigh, disappointment, and skepticism, Julia Roberts-endorsed or not. Taking exception to newly-hyped technological ideas that will “save the world” can be unpopular. In fact, 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, before creating additional dependency on outside “expertise,” supplies, or technology. 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.

On this World Pneumonia Day and beyond, Clinton and other thought leaders in the international aid sector need to take a more responsible approach to throwing their support behind “solutions” such as these. The media must also stop portraying foreign assistance as a kind of ever-elusive, 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 policymakers, 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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This post was based on one that originally appeared at:
http://www.how-matters.org/2010/09/21/hillary-stoves-won’t-save-the-world/

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5 Comments Add Yours ↓

  1. 1

    Indeed, cook-stoves have been popular for community level interventions for many years now. I myself worked on this kind of projects some 15 years ago.

    The economics seemed very sound, but still there was not a lot of multiplication effect beyond the project. My suspicion always stayed the same: the improved stoves are seen as a partway solution. Just another sunk cost before moving to decent gas or electricity cooking.

    When I asked the women they indeed preferred the gas stoves, only, they never thought they could get one from a project.

  2. Mahmoud A. Abdulhadi #
    2

    I believe it is a matter of political as well, it is not enough to take an action here or there and say a word every now and then, it is whether there is a real intention to do it.

  3. 3

    I agree fundamentally with your premise. Certainly, that solutions in developing countries must be community based and driven and involve locally available materials.

    But, I think the bigger point and one the millennium development world is still missing, is that it is not going to be “a new kind of cooking stove” or “a new kind of irrigation”. It is a multi-faceted approach primarily driven by women in developing countries. It must deal with maternal child mortality and health; education for girls, including leadership skills; and, microfinance.

    And, as another poster alluded to, it should not involve much, if at all, interference by host governments. Dambisa Moyo, in her book “Dead Aid” argued precisely against this premise.

  4. Rex Kinder #
    4

    Spot on. I remember miracle rice! I also remember the induced poverty. I remember too some 30 years ago when a new overhead projector was introduced in a couple of African school systems. They would displace the chalkboard, and a new globe cost more than a month’s salary for a teacher. Sorry Mrs. Clinton and Julia, neither of you would recognise a real solution to poverty if you fell over it.

  5. les lira #
    5

    J ~ the end of your article sums up nicely.
    ~ ~ ‘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.” ‘
    ~ ~ Silver buckshot IS the key! Meanwhile, when buckshot is nowhere to be found, I also see unquestionable merit in the diligent single silver bullet efforts of those whose programs, while imperfect and offering less than complete solutions, move in the right direction, illuminate the issues for the sleepy masses and bring SOME measure of success to those who they attempt to serve.
    ~ ~ Were I to respond on Hillary and Julia’s behalf, I might ask what you would suggest, or are aware of in the development space, as “in-between” steps toward more comprehensive solutions. I get the frustration with the many highly funded, and touted, programs aimed at growth that never achieve much of it. Or are WE missing the degrees to which it does?
    ~ ~ To the Sam Gardner who says, “the improved stoves are seen as a partway solution. Just another sunk cost before moving to decent gas or electricity cooking,” I ask, what can be done today, this month, this year, to reduce the severe health problems the clean cookstoves project was geared toward reducing?
    ~ ~ My questions to the like of you and Sam (and me) are sincere and an invitation to continued dialogue. Meanwhile this experienced dude on the ground survives by knowing that the specks of my contribution (as shared by local nationals) will be part of the solutions that more skilled workers on the ground will eventually burst forth with.
    ~ ~ Con amor y respeto, Les



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