Cooking up a storm

Woman cooking on a clay stove in Nepal. Credit: Ah Zut, Creative Commons licensed on Flickr
Woman cooking on a clay stove in Nepal. Credit: Ah Zut, Creative Commons licensed on Flickr

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced this past week the launch of a new international alliance to supply improved cooking stoves to 100 million poor households by 2020. An article in the Economist describes how many programs to promote cleaner stoves throughout the world have failed: “Too much emphasis has gone on technology and talking to people at the top, too little to consulting the women who actually do the cooking.”

That statement, all told, is probably true. Nonetheless, a quick search in Google Scholar and my university library’s electronic databases reveals many relevant studies including some by cultural/social anthropologists. They address and document both the health risks especially for women and children of traditional cookstoves and perceptions of improved cookstoves.

The most fine-grained anthropology study that I have found is Patrice Engle and co-authors with some Maya people of Guatemala. She and her co-authors used observation and recall methods to learn about time spent over cooking fires. The results indicate that young mothers and young children (who are with the mother while she is cooking) spend the most time in the kitchen and are most at risk for smoke-related health problems. Women with co-resident husbands spend more time in the kitchen than women without husbands or whose husbands are away.

In terms of how to provide improved cookstoves, the best publication I know is by Rob Bailis and co-authors. They assess subsidized versus market-based stove dissemination and compare several contexts in which clean cooking technologies were promoted.

Cultural anthropologists and others who take a grounded approach to learning about important issues: get cooking on cooking! This topic connects to social and gender disparities, environmental pollution and sustainability, and the future of all of us.

Related Reading:
Dherani, Mukesh et al. Indoor Air Pollution from Unprocessed Solid Fuel Use and Pneumonia Risk in Children Aged under Five Years: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Bulletin of the World Health Organization 86(5):390-398, 2008.

Masera, Omar et al. Impact of Patsari Improved Cookstoves on Indoor Air Quality in Michiacán, Mexico. Energy for Sustainable Development 11(2):45-56, 2007.

Simon, Gregory. Mobilizing Cookstoves for Development: A Dual Adoption Framework Analysis of Collaborative Technology Innovations in Western India. Environment and Planning A42(8):2011-2030, 2010.

Troncoso, Karin et al. Social Perceptions about a Technological Innovation for Fuelwood Cooking: A Case Study in Rural Mexico. Energy Policy 35(5):2799-2810, 2007.

Boomerang aid: giving to get back

According to the World Health Organization, the Asia-Pacific region is one of the highest risk areas for the emergence of new infectious diseases. Factors such as dense rural populations living in close proximity to animals and dense urban housing are found throughout the region. Existing national and regional capacity to prevent or deal with disease outbreaks is uneven, ranging from more adequate systems in Singapore, Australia, and New Zealand to countries with minimal health-care infrastructure such as the Solomon Islands, Micronesia, and Papua New Guinea.

In June 2007, the revised International Health Regulations (IHR) of the World Health Organization became official after a 12-year revision process. The new IHR emphasizes prevention of disease outbreaks and spread rather than reaction. Each member state of the WHO has five years to fulfill the seven key obligations. While richer countries will not face a serious problem in implementation, developing country members will find it difficult if not impossible to meet the obligations by the deadline. They require an advanced health-care infrastructure including well-trained medical professionals and scientists, diagnostic laboratories, surveillance systems, and health care services far beyond their economic means.

In an article in the Australian Journal of International Affairs, Adam Kamradt-Scott, Research Fellow at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, reviews the challenges to the developing countries in the region of meeting the IHR obligations. He then considers the role of Australian aid in helping developing countries. Most recent AusAID funds have supported general development goals such as improving economic infrastructure and local employment with smaller amounts of funding targeted to strengthen health care infrastructure.

Kamradt-Scott finds this pattern regrettable since more emphasis on health care investment would have two “spin-off benefits:” improving the capacity for early identification of disease outbreaks and strategic building on the investments Australia has already made in enhancing pandemic preparedness in the region. Both, in turn, will benefit Australia in protecting the health of its own people.

A final benefit the author mentions, drawn from a AusAID document, is that such aid from Australia to regional LDCs will “bolster, and potentially extend, its existing sphere of influence” and help Australia achieve “other foreign policy objectives such as promoting regional stability and governance reform.” Refreshingly direct, isn’t it.

Cultural anthropologists have defined many categories of gift-giving and exchange including the “free gift” for which there is no thought of a return of any kind at any time. A “free gift” is the logical opposite of theft in which someone takes something from someone else with no intention to ever return it to the owner. In between is reciprocity (which has subcategories such as generalized or balanced) in which two people exchange items of roughly equivalent value over time with no exact date specified for the return. Kula trading in the Trobriand Islands is a classic example of reciprocity. And then there is market exchange in which a seller seeks to make a profit through a sale in which a buyer agrees to transfer a specified payment by a specified date.

Development aid explicitly to expand influence poses a challenge to anthropological categories of giving and exchange. Unlike a pure gift, there is a sense on the part of the giver that a return is expected. Unlike reciprocity as in the kula, identifiably similar goods are not exchanged between roughly equal-status trading partners. Unlike market exchange, there is no sale involved, no buyer and seller. It’s not theft. It’s a gift given with the knowledge that its benefits will come back to the giver. It’s boomerang aid.

I don’t mean to point the finger of blame at Australia alone since many other countries, my own included, direct most of their aid to serve their own political or business interests. Readers: do you know of any recent studies that have compared bilateral aid organizations in terms of how much of their aid is self-interested and how much is more altruistic?

Photo, “long distance”, from Flickr, Creative Commons.

The nightmare lives on: Indian wars in our time

By Barbara Miller

An article in the Economist (“A national shame,” August 27, 2009) points the finger of blame at the Guatemalan government for the current high rates of childhood malnutrition in Guatemala, especially among the indigenous Maya people (August 29, p. 33). With almost half of its children malnourished, Guatemala is the sixth worst-performing country in the world on this measure.

Guatemala is not the poorest country in Latin America by any means. Other low-income Latin American countries such as Bolivia have reduced child malnutrition. So, the article says, government failure is to blame. The government is to blame for Maya victimization during the decades-long civil war and, now, for failure to put in place a progressive tax structure that would help improve life for impoverished Maya by providing schools and health care. The many very rich people in Guatemala City don’t seem to be listening.

But shouldn’t the finger of blame also point northward to the United States? The genocide and sustained trauma suffered by the Maya during the civil war have to do with hemispheric imperialism as well as state government failure (for more detail, see Jennifer Schirmer’s profile of human rights violations during the country’s civil war, The Guatemalan Military Project). The United States owes a huge debt to the indigenous peoples who suffered so much and who continue to be economically insecure in their own homeland. What does the Obama administration have in mind for Guatemala?

The Economist article says that the high rate of child malnutrition in Guatemala is a matter of national shame. That’s only partly right. We in the United States should be hanging our heads in shame and thinking of how to make things better for the people that our imperialism harmed so deeply.

Photo, “Guatemala siblings”, via Flickr, Creative Commons.