Today, The Washington Post published my story about the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves in its Sunday Outlook section. Clean cookstoves strike me as a classic example of a well-intentioned development intervention about which evidence of impact on a meaningful scale is lacking. I’m going to try to draw a couple of lessons from my reporting but first, please take a look at the story.
Here’s how it begins:
About 3 billion of the world’s poorest people burn wood, charcoal or dung in smoky, open fires to cook their food and heat their homes. Millions die annually from lung and heart ailments caused by cooking with solid fuels, according to the World Health Organization.
With that in mind, Hillary Clinton, as secretary of state, launched a public-private partnership called the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves in 2010. By creating a global market for “clean and efficient household cooking solutions,” the alliance would “save lives, improve livelihoods, empower women and protect the environment.” Providing poor women with clean cookstoves, Clinton said at the annual gathering of the Clinton Global Initiative in New York, “could be as transformative as bed nets or even vaccines,” which have saved tens of millions of lives.
It hasn’t worked out that way, despite the best efforts of the alliance, which operates as a project of the U.N. Foundation in Washington.
The global alliance, in its five-year report, says it has helped drive more than 28 million clean cookstoves into the field. But clean is a nebulous term. The vast majority of those cookstoves–roughly 20 million–burn biomass (wood, dung, charcoal, agricultural waste) and don’t meet admittedly strict WHO health guidelines for indoor air emissions. They would be better described as “improved” or “efficient” than as “clean.” This distinction, alas, is sometimes blurred by the alliance. The uncomfortable truth is that it is extremely difficult to design, manufacture, distribute and sell truly clean cookstoves at a price that the world’s poorest people can afford.
Within the sector, there’s honest disagreement about improved biomass cookstoves. I find myself mildly troubled by the idea that government and foundation money is being used to subsidize and promote biomass cookstoves that don’t meet health guidelines. These are not devices that anyone of us would use. On the other hand, cooking over an “efficient” or “improved” biomass cookstove is inarguably better than doing so over a smoky, open fire, as the EPA’s Jacob Moss argued recently in a guest post. Other environmental health problems, like air and water pollution, have been solved incrementally, as he notes.
Many more challenges face the cookstove sector, not the least of which is a practice so common that there’s a term of art for it: stove stacking. What this means is that when a poor family obtains a new cookstove, they continue to cook over an open fire. Studies have found that “the exclusive use of new stove technologies in homes has been rare,” according to researchers Michael Johnson of the Berkeley Air Monitoring Group and Ranyee Chiang of the cookstove alliance. This isn’t surprising. How many cooking devices do you use? More than one, I’m certain.
So what are the takeaways from the cookstove story? First, begin with the end in mind. Hillary Clinton got the global alliance off on the wrong foot by comparing cookstoves to proven, life-saving medical interventions like bed nets and vaccines, and then setting a goal of getting 100 million cookstoves (which may or may not improve health) into the field by 2020. In the argot of the NGO world, this is an output, not an outcome.
So what, exactly, are cookstoves supposed to do? When launching the alliance, Secretary Clinton told corporate executives, government officials and nonprofit leaders:
Whether you’re passionate about health or the environment or sustainable development or women’s empowerment, this is a project for you, and we need you.
The EPA’s Jacob Moss got it exactly right when he told me:
The blessing and the curse of the issue is that it touches on so many things — climate, women, health, deforestation, job creation.
Even, today the global alliance pursues multiple goals. It says cookstove can “reduce deaths from smoke-related illnesses, mitigate climate change, and lower air pollution….[and] provide new sources of livelihoods for women while reducing the risk and drudgery of fuel collection, and can lower household expenditures on cooking fuel.”
The trouble is, these goals aren’t necessarily aligned. A company promoting a biomass cookstoves that will be financed with carbon credits — a practice promoted by the alliance — may deliver help curb climate change but deliver limited health benefits. An electric cookstove, even if powered by a coal plant, eliminates indoor air pollution, but makes climate change worse. Local manufacturing creates jobs, but may add costs.
Second, evidence matters. After five years of work by the alliance, which followed decades of efforts to push cookstoves into the field by governments, nonprofits and companies, there’s little evidence — perhaps none— that clean cookstoves are solving the problems they are designed to solve, at any meaningful scale. That doesn’t mean they won’t. But if you don’t have a clear-cut, time-based, goals, there’s no way to track and measure your success.
A final point. A PR person at the global alliance was displeased (to put it mildly) by my story. This, despite the fact that I wrote (and believe) that “the alliance has accomplished a great deal” despite a small staff and modest budget. Its work promoting international standards for cookstoves is vital. And its research may uncover answers to the stubbornly difficult questions about cookstoves that have plagued the sector for years.
I’m going to post in the comments an email or two that I got in response to the Post story. I’d like to know what you think and, as always, please send me ideas for future stories, about this sector or others.