Saturday, September 29, 2007

Stoving in Peru - Lessons and Observations

What if an alien spaceship hovered over your house and dropped in some new fangled thing that they said would improve your life - but sought no input from you, never considered your needs for such a device, and left no instruction manual? Now imagine that you live in a remote village in the developing world and well meaning Western engineers rappelled down through your roof and dropped off a cooking stove that assumed knowledge that you have never had a chance to acquire? If the technology/cultural discrepancy is too great then the probability that this new change will be embraced and used as intended (so that all of the promised benefits are realized) is about zero. No one trusts things arriving from an unfamiliar place, and improved cooking stoves are no different - without local participation there is virtually no chance that a new program will save effort, reduce deforestation, postpone climate change, reduce stove injuries, or improve the indoor air quality. No amount of intervening crack Special Forces personnel can force someone make a fundamental change to their life. If introducing fuel efficient or smoke free stoves was easy it would have been accomplished a long time ago!

It is not that Western ideas for improving the quality of life in developing countries are wrong, it just may be that they initially seem (to the local people) inappropriate for the situation - other people in different cultures may never understand the changes that you are introducing in the same way that you do. Get used to it - cultures are different, we learn mostly what our mothers taught us, and we are very reluctant to change just because strangers tell us that it might good for us sometime in the future. Change is hard, and it takes time - if we can ever be convinced that it is desirable or necessary for us. Be warned that local people will rarely comprehend your fears about deforestation, climate changes, etc. - Maslow postulated in his Hierarchy of Needs that until people satisfy their basic needs for food, shelter, social standing, and a good future for their children they will not be able to appreciate abstract ideas about the future like these.

My feeble few observations while helping to determine rural wood (or biomass - any dry plant matter that can yield energy) cooking stove requirements indicate that overcoming cultural barriers is 90% of the effort in introducing new stoves. What percentage of the world knows that water boils at exactly the local equivalent of 100 oC and it doesn't get any hotter than that so a bigger fire does not help (so that you can reduce the fire size once you reach a boil)? Or that it takes a huge amount of additional energy to go from 99 oC to 100 oC, but the food doesn't cook any faster in this case either (so a retained heat cooker is a good idea)? Or that poor thermal contact between a battered pot and a metal griddle makes a tremendous difference (so it is worthwhile flattening the pot)? Since some things like these can be hard to explain or demonstrate clearly, and for some reason cooking while actively trying to use the least of your scarce fuel is apparently not genetically favored or culturally encouraged, we might as well be trying to explain rocket science.

Some things are clearly beneficial - like the electric razor and the cell phone - so people adopt them readily and without our help. Other things are more important, in our opinion, but are frustratingly hard to teach by just repeating our opinion of the advantages over and over - or we may not understand the local priorities well enough, as when we introduced a smoke free stove when they really valued speed to boil far more than anything else (enclosed stoves are always slower than an open fire, when started cold). And we may not even be able to anticipate what people will like or dislike about a particular design - food that tastes less smoky turned out to be a great selling point in Darfur, but someplace else this would be a disadvantage and maybe a show stopper. We need new ways to listen better, teach more appropriately, listen even better, market stoves according to what people want and how they learn and make decisions, listen really well, and be patient. My present working definition of culture is "what your mother taught you", and this may never be more true than when it is applied to food and food cooking practices - you have a very strong tendency to reject life changes which are fundamentally in opposition to your life experiences. How do we overcome this? We may not be allowed to issue instruction manuals with stoves, but why not instructional comic books - in the local language? And this style can also be used for guerrilla marketing, tickling people into talking about your new thing, until they develop their own reasons for adopting it.

Once you learn that your close friends rarely think like you, and that people from different cultures never think like you, you may be ready to contribute to humanitarianism. Now what - how can you have your new idea/stove/practice/alternative succeed in an new place? Oddly enough, some changes you suggest may never be adopted - using candles or other purchased fuels to start fires, asking people to adopt a new pot type, suggesting that people add a milliliter of oil to reduce heat loss, efficient burning of corn cobs - in advance you may never be able to know which of your suggested changes may be implemented! The inability to be "predictive" creates all sorts of problems - including that you may not obviously be able to accomplish the goals of your projects (fuel saved, injuries prevented, smoke reduced). Your project may not be doomed, you just need to spend the requisite 90% of your effort working on persuading (and showing) local people why what you have brought really improves their lives; despite their suspicions.

In "The White Man's Burden" author William Easterly describes bottom up and top down development efforts, where the first endeavors to learn from the people what they want and continuously solicits feedback - a market based approach. Top down indicates that we (outside people) know what other cultures need to do to advance themselves so we just need more money and bigger projects, while bottom up implies that outsiders with resources should always involve local people from the beginning so that new proposed solutions are aligned with the existing cultural needs. And sometimes you just have to believe that there be may no agreement - such as when I tried to slice carrots when only prying chunks off of them will do. Or implying that siestas would be a good time to get additional work done, when plucking head lice has always been a more important social activity.

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