Thursday, July 26, 2012

When Solutions Become Problems

For some time now there has been talk about how indoor air pollution kills more people than anything else in the world, and how this is prevalent in rural India. A lot of it has been attributed to cookstoves, and while it is true that they are a major cause, the solutions that have been bandied about for some time now are all in the same direction. Let us improve the cookstoves is the unanimous voice that resonates across the world. But there seems to be more to it than this. A recent paper by Esther Duflo, Rema Hanna and Michael Greenstone has been doing rounds for a while now. For those who have seen the program upfront as well as others who are familiar with it, the paper seems to have confirmed the worst - the problem of women's health in rural areas has not been mitigated in any way. The paper goes on to highlight how the distribution of cookstoves has been an abysmal failure because people stop using them within a year.

Why is it so? The question does not have a difficult answer. Sunita Narain had adequately found the reasons three years ago.A survey by the National Council of Applied Economic Research found, in many cases, the stoves were not appropriately designed or had broken with use; over 62 per cent of the respondents said they did not know who to contact for repairs. Technology deployment in poor and unserviced households is a job the market does badly. 

So what is the solution? The solution is not a simple one. What is needed to understand is that there is no single silver bullet. You need multiple bullets. You need to understand that one size does not fit all. You need to design products that pay attention to market needs. You need to realize how different fuels have to be addressed by it. You also need to understand how people behave. Most importantly however is the need to give up this high handed manner in which 'developmentalists' (as I call them) think of when it comes to understanding how solutions are to be developed, and refuse to hear what is needed the most - a patient ear.


Anonymous said...

What you reflect here is THE reason why there has been such a sudden shift in the functioning mechanism(s) of several aid agencies working in the area of health.
After decades of emphasizing policy reform and 'non - community - involving; based interventions, even the UN is back to a more bottoms up approach.
You have given an example of one such "but it seemed so perfect an idea!" 'vertical' approach of aid. I would like to give another one.
Its why the jeep ambulances didnt work in Zambia. Instead the E Rangers bike did.

Nice read :-)

Rohit said...

Thank you. There are several such more indeed; it was just the exasperation that I have with compatriots in the field who think all solutions can be driven top down and not pay heed to what people really want.

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