Third World Aid: Cooking up misconceptions

Third World Aid: Cooking up misconceptions

The Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves showed off some of its latest products in Johannesburg recently. Daily Maverick reporter J BROOKS SPECTOR took a look-in at some of these new stoves designed to help save the planet – at least according to their manufacturers and sponsors.

There was a time, long ago, when the world’s major – and lots of minor – powers vied to provide the flashiest, showiest, most flamboyant foreign aid projects possible in countries that were strategically important – or which were sources of strategic resources.

Back then, if America decided to equip the People’s Republic of Itchyscratchystan with new roads from distant rural hinterlands to the capital and major port cities so farmers could get their crops to market, the Soviet Union – or even North Korea – would respond by building a massive soccer stadium that could accommodate half the capital’s population.

But my favourite foreign aid project was Jakarta’s Patung Pemuda (the Spirit of Youth) statue – colloquially known as the Flaming Pizza Man by every Indonesian and foreigner alike. It’s one of those Stalinesque, mock-heroic bronze sculptures favoured by Soviet city planners back then. And it formed one of the most visible parts of Russia’s foreign aid largesse in Indonesia in the early 1960s, along with a bunch of tanks, a naval heavy cruiser, a squadron of excess Mig fighter jets and untold metres of some really ugly rayon textiles.

Rather than celebrating the Indonesian version of Julius Malema, Flaming Pizza Man really looks like a buff waitron bearing a white-hot, flaming pizza overhead. The statue, of course, made no discernible contribution to economic development – in contrast to unassuming agricultural research projects to grow bigger rice crops, but Flaming Pizza Man has been a memorable downtown landmark in Jakarta for half a century – and something of a reminder of how foreign aid can be a real loss leader.

In recent years, as befits its new economic superpower status, China has given Africa projects like the Tazara railroad between Zambia and Tanzania, and now the massive new AU headquarters in Addis Ababa. That one is the real deal: pure, unadulterated, 24-carat bling in the foreign aid game.

But now, of course, for most nations in the foreign aid business, the 20-year period that has followed the end of the Cold War has meant there is less domestic political support for foreign assistance. American citizens are convinced that a quarter of the federal budget is shovelled abroad (although less than 1% actually does) and that this wasteful effort should be shut down. With austerity budgets the order of the day in the wake of the global financial crisis, pressure in Congress continues to grow to scale back foreign aid. Cutting it has been a guaranteed applause line in Republican Party presidential debates for years.

It should not be surprising, therefore, that aid administrators are attempting to find increasingly money-light ways to carry out economic assistance in ways that use relatively modest amounts of seed money, draw on crowd-sourcing support, international public-private partnerships and the force-multiplying power of the internet. The Daily Maverick recently got a look at one such project – by the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves – at a pitching session for some innovative cookstoves.

The GACC, officially a public-private partnership led by the United Nations Foundation, is a broad international effort drawing in about 35 nations that aims to make a real improvement in the lives, health and domestic economics of as many as three billion people around the world. These people are in families that still make use of polluting, inefficient stoves to cook their food and heat their household water, every day, throughout the year.

In fact, about 95% of the populations of poorer countries still burn coal or wood directly for fuel in efforts to heat their homes and cook their food. The World Health Organization estimates that the noxious smoke from these indoor cooking fires kills about two million people a year, most of them women and young children. According to international health sources, this represents a yearly death toll that is more than malaria and tuberculosis combined.

Not surprisingly, a growing coalition of aid groups, as well as heavy hitters like US secretary of state Hillary Clinton, have endorsed the alliance in a push to get 100 million homes around the world to adopt cleaner stoves and fuels by 2020. The stoves generally in use now pump out plenty of soot, which helps warm the planet. The GACC organizers explain that this particulate matter, ash and other indoor pollution from traditional cookstoves, combines to be the fifth biggest health risk in the developing world.

Apart from everything else, reliance on these less than efficient cooking stoves means women and children spend hours hunting wood, dung and other biomass fuels to keep their stoves lit. In conflict zones, this becomes an even more problematic and dangerous exercise as desperate people take risks to secure anything that will burn. Of course, none of this includes the stark environmental impact of growing populations scouring the landscape for fuel. Combined with cutting down forests for farming and grazing land the forests eventually morph into treeless, eroded landscapes.

The 35 nations – along with China – have elected to participate in this coalition that aims, in the words of US aid organizers, “to do well by doing good.” At first blush there seems to be something of an earnest whiff of Samuel Smiles’ Self Help-style philosophical utilitarianism about this effort. But, organizers insist they are looking for real solutions to deal with this major problem via the intelligent introduction and application of some very modest changes in technology and behaviour that will produce major impacts.

At a recent demonstration at the US Consulate in Johannesburg, together with NGO representatives and government officials, we saw two versions of improved cookstoves. Yes, they still used miscellaneous biomass fuel or smokeless methanol as the primary fuel (no miraculous solar-powered cookers or perpetual motion machines here), but they also drew on simple but important engineering changes that have made the stoves much more energy efficient as they boil water for tea or to cook the morning porridge. And, truth be told, they actually did bring one of those big kettles of water found in every household in Africa to a very quick boil – almost as fast as the standard electric kettle used in middle-class kitchens.

But, if the rewards are so great, what’s the problem with getting everyone, everywhere to buy one tomorrow? Well, it seems there still are two issues that are crucial. In a widely reported, recent study of the rollout of new, more efficient cookstoves in India, the Washington Post reported that having a cheap, clean cooking technology is no guarantee that people will actually adopt it. In the Indian trial that distributed 15,000 stoves in one of the country’s poorest areas, “in the first year of using the stoves, households saw a serious drop in smoke inhalation. The cleaner cookstoves were working exactly as they did in the laboratory.”

“But in the years after that, the stoves stopped working effectively.” So what went wrong? Essentially, neither this trial nor other initial efforts took into account how people could or would use the stoves. “In early tests, there were trained technicians on hand at all times to inspect and repair the stoves. Not surprisingly, households used the stoves frequently. But when the technicians departed and the owners had to clean the chimneys themselves, they lost interest over time. People were spending too many hours conducting repairs and eventually just preferred to switch back to indoor cooking fires.” Anyone who has tried to fix an unfamiliar gas-powered braai all by him- or herself will surely sympathise.

Then, of course there is the possible problem that new technology alters the kinds of foods that are prepared, or that new technologies can upset carefully balanced, time-honoured domestic arrangements. Who does what in a household and what kinds of reciprocal social ties are cemented from the gathering of fuel, the preparation of food and the distribution of it remain subtle but crucial questions.

Southern African proponents of these new stoves – as well as US state department staffers acting on behalf of Clinton, who has put her considerable prestige on the line for the GACC project – insist the new efforts here are taking due cognisance of the challenges of the Indian experience. Representatives of the stoves, being made by a Philips affiliate in Lesotho and a South African company in association with a Chinese manufacturer, say they have designed their products with minimal needs for servicing and cleaning with these issues in mind.

Following the stove demonstrations, in conversation with Kris Balderston, Clinton’s special representative for global partnerships, the Daily Maverick asked whether someone had thought about commissioning cookbooks with recipes consistent with local diets and traditional food prep preferences. Balderston admitted they hadn’t reached that point yet, although it sounded like an interesting idea. But the GACC had brought in influential international chefs like José Andrés to serve as culinary ambassadors to introduce an understanding of how culinary studies can contribute to the alliance’s efforts.

With all the people in South Africa claiming to be world champion braai-meisters, here’s a chance for a whole new area of public-private partnership activity: develop and document tasty recipes that can reduce environmental damage even as they lower the death toll from smoke inhalation – and help people cook food they really want to eat. There’s got to be a market for this. DM

Read more:

  • What Cookstoves tell us about the limits of technology at the Washington Post.
  • Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves website.
  • The International Culinary Center Announces José Andrés as Newest Dean at the Clean Cookstoves initiative’s website.
  • House releases State and Foreign ops funding proposal; proposes wide range of cuts at the Foreign Policy magazine website.

Photo: American ambassador to Lesotho, Michele Thoren Bond, watches as SLK Walker of the African Clean Energy Company demonstrate their new cookstove, developed as part of the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves. DAILY MAVERICK/J Brooks Spector.


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