By Jennifer Lentfer
(HN, Novermber 12, 2011) - "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,
“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."
Lentfer is a blogger at how-matters.org, a blogsite aimed at raising the level of human dignity within development assistance and putting real resources behind local means of overcoming obstacles. Serving with various international organizations over the past decade, she has worked with over 300 grassroots groups in sub-Saharan Africa. 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/
Watch this video on cookstoves by the Global Aliance for Clean Cookstoves: