It’s a once-obscure issue that has leaped to the top of the global aid agenda. Thanks to a massive $105-million campaign by the U.S. government, with money from Canada and dozens of other nations, the effort to produce clean cooking stoves has suddenly become the most fashionable cause in foreign aid.
At first, everyone jumped on the bandwagon, from big multinational corporations to Hollywood actress Julia Roberts and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Momentum and publicity grew steadily, with 35 countries joining.
But now there are hard questions about whether the campaign is actually benefiting poor people. A new study has found awkward evidence that casts doubt on the much-hyped campaign.
The randomized trial in India found little benefit from the new stoves, no reduction in air pollution, and no improvement in the health of their users.
The official campaign goal is to produce 100 million clean new cookstoves by 2020. The campaigners have produced research showing that the smoke from traditional stoves is killing two million women and children annually – mostly in Africa, India and China. That’s twice the annual death toll from malaria, which gets far more attention.
There is little question about the serious risks of most stoves in the developing world. They burn wood, charcoal or dung, and their dirty smoke fills the air in small huts, releasing dust that contributes to pneumonia, lung cancer, heart disease and many other illnesses.
The health risks were long ignored. “This is probably the biggest health problem you’ve never heard of,” says Kris Balderston, a senior official in the U.S. State Department who is in Africa this week to boost the cookstove campaign.
Replacing old stoves with new efficient ones could also fight global warming. The “black carbon” from old cooking stoves is a major contributor to greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
While the campaign’s goals are laudable, there’s never been much research into the effectiveness of its efforts in the real world. Now a new study in India, led by top scholars at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has found that the new stoves are much less useful than their supporters had hoped.
The researchers took 2,600 new stoves and sold them (at heavily subsidized prices) to families in 44 villages across India. Then they monitored the families for up to four years.
The results were worrisome. The study found some reduction in smoke inhalation in the first year, but no significant improvement in the long run.
The use of the new stoves declined rapidly over time, the health benefits failed to materialize, lung functioning did not improve, there was no significant change in fuel consumption or pollution levels, and those who adopted the new stoves actually suffered a decline in their living standards because of the additional time they needed to spend in maintaining the new stoves.
By the end of the study, most families were hardly using the clean stoves. Others used the stoves improperly. Many stoves fell into disrepair or disuse because families could not afford the cost of repairs and maintenance.
Despite the new study, the U.S. campaigners are determined to push ahead. Speaking to African journalists in a conference call today, they argued that the randomized trial in India was a good lesson in how to improve their campaign and make it more effective.
“It’s a great study,” said Jacob Moss, a U.S. official who helped found the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, the driving force behind the worldwide campaign.
He praised the “impeccable” research by the “top-notch” researchers. But he argued that the study is actually a validation of the campaign’s efforts. The stoves distributed by the researchers in India were low-quality stoves (valued at just $12.50 each) and the campaign should instead be distributing better stoves, despite their high cost, Mr. Moss said.
He said the India study shows how the campaign needs more than just good technology to succeed. It needs to persuade people to adopt the stoves, and it needs to ensure that the results in the real world are as good as they are in the laboratory. “If the stoves don’t perform in the field as they do in the lab, it won’t work,” he said.