Unlit stoves

23 Sep 2020


The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

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 time-intensive 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.

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.


Published in Dawn, September 23rd, 2020