Un­lit stoves

The Pak Banker - - FRONT PAGE -

It was sup­posed to be a magic so­lu­tion. In the late 1990s, de­vel­op­ment pro­fes­sion­als want­ing to de­liver ru­ral women from the drudgery of dark, cramped and smoke-filled kitchens came up with a recipe for their de­liv­er­ance. The home­made ba­sic stove (which, at least in In­dia, had been in use since 1800 BC) was to be dis­carded. In its place, women would be sup­plied with one of 100 mil­lion clean-burn­ing stoves.

The project was re­ceived very warmly, not least be­cause ev­ery­one work­ing in the de­vel­op­ment aid sec­tor, global health, women's em­pow­er­ment and even on climate is­sues all saw some­thing to love in it. The new clean stoves would pro­duce a dra­matic im­prove­ment in health, it was said, with the ab­sence of smoke and par­ti­cles pre­vent­ing dis­eases such as pneu­mo­nia. Climate ac­tivists said that the new stoves would burn only clean en­ergy (elec­tric) and so there would be a re­duc­tion in fos­sil fuel emis­sions. Nearby forests would not be de­pleted be­cause women would not go out in the forests and cut down trees for fire­wood. Both the global health and the climate ac­tivists put their full sup­port be­hind the plan.

The stoves were also go­ing to be the magic so­lu­tion that would re­duce women's dis­em­pow­er­ment in poor and ru­ral ar­eas around the world. No longer re­quired to gather fuel for the timein­ten­sive stoves, the women would have sev­eral hours a day freed up to do other things. Women could even pur­sue wage labour out­side the home, which in turn would give them greater eco­nomic power and im­prove their sta­tus as de­ci­sion-mak­ers within the home and the fam­ily.

With so much zeal at­tached to the clean stoves idea, the United Na­tions set about mak­ing it pos­si­ble. The UN Clean Stoves Al­liance raised $130m which would al­low 100m stoves to house­holds all around the world. By 2010 (and ear­lier in some cases) the Clean Stoves

Ini­tia­tive was ready to get into mo­tion and de­liver the by now much-hyped prom­ises, since three bil­lion women and chil­dren in poor coun­tries around the world in­hale the pol­lut­ing smoke or suf­fer from res­pi­ra­tory and other prob­lems that were at­trib­uted to the stoves they used. Be­fore long, rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the al­liance, through var­i­ous NGOs and UN or­gan­i­sa­tions, set about get­ting to the poor hin­ter­lands where they would in­tro­duce in­no­va­tion in ev­ery house­hold.

The rea­sons for the fail­ure of the clean stove could have been pre­dicted had any­one con­sulted the women.

In the early years of the ini­tia­tive, op­ti­mism con­tin­ued to pre­vail. Ob­vi­ously, given the length of time that women in poor ru­ral por­tions of West Africa or In­dia had been us­ing the old stoves, it was sug­gested that it would take time for them to change their habits and get used to the new stoves.

The sort of trans­for­ma­tional change that they were pur­su­ing, the pro­gramme man­agers of var­i­ous NGOs told each other, was not some­thing that could take place overnight.

These in­sis­tent op­ti­mists should have taken more note of the early ev­i­dence that was pro­vided to them. As the years have rolled on, more and more ev­i­dence has piled up to show that the prom­ise of the clean stoves was not what so many ex­perts, NGOs and fun­ders had sug­gested. Not only were the women re­fus­ing to switch from their tra­di­tional stoves to the clean stoves, there were also women who tried the new stoves and then switched back to the old-style smoky stoves that they had al­ways used.

There was a host of rea­sons for this. First and fore­most, was the is­sue of the stoves them­selves. Many sim­ply did not work, or if they did work they also broke down and re­plac­ing parts of the stoves re­quired vis­its to the big city where parts were quite dif­fi­cult to pro­cure. In other words, the stoves were a has­sle. The old stoves may have been smoky and prim­i­tive, but they were what the women were used to, what the women could re­pair, what the women and the fam­i­lies that they took care of as­so­ci­ated with home.

The other sup­posed ad­van­tages were also overblown. The im­pact of the small amount of fire­wood that the women gath­ered from the forests or scrub­lands near their homes, was not enough to have any real im­pact on de­for­esta­tion, whose main cul­prits were log­ging com­pa­nies and other sim­i­lar en­ter­prises.

Fi­nally, the women them­selves did not want to use the stoves. The rea­sons could have been pre­dicted if any­one had con­sulted the women: the gath­er­ing of fire­wood with other women in the com­mu­nity pro­vided the women with valu­able time in which to so­cialise, pool re­sources and solve prob­lems. Even when the stoves did work, the women did not want to work out­side the home in the me­nial jobs that were avail­able to them. Break­ing rocks at a con­struc­tion site or work­ing at a brick kiln was not some­thing they wanted or saw as prefer­able to their old ways and lives.

The les­sons of the stove ex­am­ple are ob­vi­ous. NGOs, par­tic­u­larly at the pol­i­cy­mak­ing and pro­gram­matic lev­els, rely on as­sump­tions to con­struct their pro­grammes and fail to con­sult those for whom their prod­uct is meant. While the lo­cal NGO work­ers may have known that the ini­tia­tive would fail, those higher up may not have had any con­tact with those who were at the re­ceiv­ing end of their grand plans for trans­for­ma­tion.

At the heart of it all, how­ever, was the as­sump­tion that poor peo­ple, par­tic­u­larly poor women, do not know what is best for them and that their prob­lems like their lives are sim­pler than the com­pli­cated and com­plex lives of peo­ple with money. That one thing, a stove, could trans­form the ex­is­tence of these poor women was a caus­tic and, in this case, costly, as­sump­tion. Of the hun­dreds of thou­sands of stoves dis­trib­uted, only a few thou­sand are still even in use, and the project it­self is (iron­i­cally, given the fact that propane is a fos­sil fuel) switch­ing to propane stoves.

Hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars that could have been used to less dra­matic but just as nec­es­sary projects are now gone for­ever, stolen from the poor whom they were sup­posed to ben­e­fit.

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