Wooster’s First Law of Poverty-Fighting is, “listen to the poor and give them what they want, not what you think they need.” It’s a constant of philanthropic history that well-meaning do-gooders have gone into the field in Detroit, Dhaka, or Darfur, armed with the answers, laboriously acquired at great expense in New Haven, London, or Turtle Bay, only to be frustrated when poor people don’t do what the experts say they need to do because they have their own preferences about how to succeed in life.
Writing in the Washington Post, Marc Gunther discusses the latest philanthropic folly, the effort to persuade poor people to use clean cooking stoves rather than other stoves that use smoky fuels that are dangerous and could cause the cooks, mostly women, to get sick from the fumes.
I wasn’t familiar with Gunther’s work until I read his Washington Post piece, but I looked at his website and found that he is a former Fortune staff writer who has written several books on philanthropy and poverty-fighting. I’d like to read more of his reporting.
According to Gunther, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves in 2010.“Today, we can finally envision a future in which open fires and dirty stoves are replaced by clean, efficient stoves and fuels all over the world,” Secretary Clinton proclaimed. Speaking at the annual meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative, Hillary Clinton declared that having poor women use clean cookstoves “could be as transformative as bed nets or even vaccines” in helping better the lives of the poor.
The Global Alliance is a project of the United Nations Foundation. It says it spends $10 million a year on cookstoves and has gotten $143 million in contributions. I looked at their website and didn’t find that many major foundations donating to the project, but they do get money from the State Department, the Agency for International Development, the Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Peace Corps. They also work with several major nonprofits that focus on development, including Habitat for Humanity, Mercy Corps, and Lutheran World Relief. Among the smaller organizations they work with is an Ethiopian expatriate who decided to call his stove the “Obamastove”.
Gunther reports there have been several problems in the introduction of cookstoves around the world.
They’re not really clean. The Global Cookstove Alliance says it has introduced 28 million cookstoves to the Third World. But of these, only 8.2 million—those that run on liquefied petroleum gas, biogas, or ethanol—meet the definition of a “non-polluting” cookstove created by the World Health Organization. The rest still pollute, although less so than the traditional wood and dung-burning stoves they are replacing.
They’re not durable. Many cookstoves have relatively short lives as they break or corrode within a few months.
Poor people don’t like them. “Even if people are aware of the health risks of cooking over open fires (and many are not),” Gunther writes, “they are reluctant to abandon cooking methods embedded in their culture.” Author Meera Subramanian visited one village in India and found that women had largely abandoned the cookstoves given them by the government because they didn’t get hot enough to cook, they burned too much wood, or the stoves broke. “I couldn’t find a single stove operating in any condition resembling what its designers had intended,” Subramanian wrote in her book A River Runs Again.
A Stockholm Environment Institute research team led by Fiona Lambe and Aaron Atteridge quizzed women about cookstoves and found that most preferred cooking roti, the traditional Indian bread, over old-fashioned stoves, because they could bake the bread on the stoves and because they liked the taste burning wood or dung provided, much in the same way people like food cooked over charcoal.
Gunther reports that while Indian consumers balk at the new cookstoves, China ordered 100 million stoves and made sure they were used. But India is a democracy and China is Communist
Fuel is expensive. The cleanest cookstoves are gas-fueled, and gas costs a lot, particularly in rural areas far from the nearest pipeline.
Does the cookstove problem have to be solved by the government? Gunther describes how Eric Reynolds, formerly the head of Marmot, an outdoor gear company, has started Inyenyeri, a benefit corporation which intends to lease cookstoves at low prices in the hopes of making profits on the biomass pellets used as fuel. The company, Gunther says, remains “small and unproven.”
Eventually poor people will have cookstoves they like and the pollution caused by older stoves will decline. But Gunther warns that the promise made by Hillary Clinton in 2010 of a future in which Third World families will have “clean, efficient, and affordable stoves and fuels” is one that “remains a long way off.”