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close this book Boiling Point No. 32 - January 1994
View the document Back to Basics in the Kitchen
View the document Fuel Saving with Three Stones
View the document Household Energy - Problems, Policies and Prospects
View the document The Twin-House Tests
View the document Biogas in Rural Nigeria
View the document Cooking Energy and Fuel in Dar es Salaam
View the document Invisible Household Energy
View the document Messages from the Hearth
View the document Solar Villages
View the document Save Fuel with a 'Fireless Cooker'
View the document Rural Electrification in Tanzania
View the document Heat-storage Cookers in Nepal
View the document The Fuelwood Issue Restated
View the document Kerosene Stoves in Ethiopia
View the document Charcoal from Coconut Shells
View the document News
View the document R & D News
View the document Publications
View the document Letters

Invisible Household Energy

by Emma Crewe, lecturer in Social Anthropology at the School of African and Asian Studies,

University of Sussex.

As women know only too well, running a household in any country, needs large amounts of energy - both human and brought-in. Human comfort and, in the extreme, survival, depend heavily on fuel. The cook needs fuel to cook with, and fuel - food - for herself. In households which rely on wood, charcoal, dung and agricultural residues for fuel, a large part of the woman's time or money has to be spent on obtaining these biomass fuels by collecting or buying.

When work is not work

In Europe, 'housework' is not regarded as real work at all - it is invisible to the outside world. My experience in Kenya has shown me a slightly different picture of women's attitudes to housework. They expect and receive admiration for their multiple workload; combining work in the house with food-growing or chicken-raising on the shamba, community work, petty trading and, often, waged employment. To them, each activity is, recognizably, work. In Sri Lanka, the situation is again different. A housewife's role is seen as the safest, most respectable, and seemly job for a woman after marriage, and its value is fully appreciated. In some ways, British women place less social value on a housewife's role than their Kenyan or Sri Lankan counterparts, and society takes them at their own valuation. As middleclass women in these countries gain access to more automated homes and kitchens, and more opportunities for professional employment, their attitudes may change also. For the vast majority of Third World women, housework is long, hard labour whether appreciated or not.

Energy technologists- men and women, local and expatriate - are becoming more interested in stove development, and energy and fuel conservation. Social scientists, economists and small business advisers have recognized that household energy (HE) is related to health, environmental pollution, nutrition, forestry, and small enterprise development, as well as women's work in the home. Women need help to find ways to make their work load lighter and more pleasant by better use of their energy resources.

You may wonder why this area of household energy attracts so little attention from international development agencies. Perhaps:

Q. ...Not enough people are affected ?

A. No, between 400 and 800 million women depend on biomass fuels. Including their families this means nearly half the world.

Q. ...Not much has been done in this area?

A. Not true, several options have been tried, some with success - afforestation and wood lots, fuel-switching, time- and fuel-saving strategies and habits, improved cooking and heating stoves.

Q. ...They have not achieved much?

A. Incorrect; in some places, local women have developed effective fuel-saving methods, and development programmes have disseminated over 100 million more efficient and better stoves.

Q. ...There are no national institutions or experts who are interested in household energy?

A. Wrong again. Most African and Asian governments are establishing or supporting SHE programmes, and very experienced Third World energy specialists are advising them and a multitude of small NGOs.

Q....So international agencies (multilateral, bilateral, and international NGOs) are ignoring the problems?

A. This is no longer entirely true, although the amount of money committed bears no comparison to the enormous sums invested in large-scale, modern energy projects - for example the hydro and thermal power stations, distribution systems, and for subsidizing fuel imports.

Q. ...Does that mean that the problems of poor village women are not considered important by rich politicians who direct their aid programmes?

Are major donors ignoring household energy? In November 1990, a review of the World Bank's Energy Sector Management Assistance Programme (ESMAP) proposed that the implementation of household-energy programmes, such as stove projects, should be devolved to local authorities and NGOs, and investment in household energy should be reduced substantially, partly 'because the returns are unattractive on economic grounds'.

As intended, these policy directives had a strong influence on other multilateral agencies. During meetings of ESMAP in 1990, representatives of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the United Nations Sahelian Office (UNSO) announced that they were no longer interested in funding stove programmes unless it could be shown that reducing domestic fuelwood consumption could have an impact on desertification. USAID (The US Agency for International Development) cut funding drastically for stoves in Nepal, because ESMAP had conveyed negative signals.

USAID, some other Northern government aid agencies, UN agencies and even some governments in developing countries were influenced or affected by this withdrawal policy, and the argument that there are no export promotion benefits in domestic biomass energy.

More recently, ESMAP has relaxed a little and bodies such as FAO, WHO and GTZ are still supporting HE-related activities in a small way. Several African and Asian countries have severe local fuel-supply problems, and need support.

The collective effort in the North is pathetic compared to the amount of support needed by Southern agencies. Primarily, they need funds; but communicating past successes across the South, working to influence the policymakers positively, and facilitating South-South exchanges, are all valuable roles for the North to play.

Other reasons for declining support

There are other reasons for the declining momentum of support for HE programmes by the major funders and aid agencies. Their current priorities are illustrated by comparing the total of all aid monies directed to HE activities worldwide, which is equivalent to the cost of one dam, or one power station, or the Brazil Highway. The problems cited by funders and agencies, as causing less enthusiasm for household-energy programmes, are:

- The exposure, made by observers such as Foley and Eckholm, of the mistaken belief that improved stoves could reduce significantly the wide-scale destruction of tropical forests.

- Multilateral-funded stoves programmes have a poor record, as have large, integrated rural development programmes.

- The evidence that improved stoves can reduce global greenhouse gas emissions is now seen to be weak.

- It is too difficult to work with biomass-fuel users because they are, relatively, resourcepoor.

- The problem has to be tackled at the household level in millions of villages; international agencies are not geared to work at this level, and have failed to find a way to help others to do so.

I believe that other features of HE programmes also drove the policy makers away from smoky kitchens and wood-fuel shortages to more expensive energy systems. An effective deterrent is that fuel use for cooking and heating is hard to measure, and the various forms of human energy cannot be quantified. They are generally ignored, or regarded as 'only a woman's normal unpaid work'.

So what can we do?

Indiscriminate propaganda is not much use to anyone; pleading with all and sundry to recognize the household energy needs of about half a billion women will achieve very little. To help readers to make the most of the particular situation in which they find themselves, for example, in communicating with an aid donor, a recipient country government, or an NGO, it is important to wrap one's argument in the right kind of package.

1) international campaigning agencies could present the Northern public, donors- and policymakers with specific information - hard facts and figures proving that there have been successful strategies implemented by Southern agencies/communities which solve household energy problems. Northern-based international agencies should take advantage of their location, in order to present their arguments in person at conferences, meetings, visits, etc.

2) Southern women, men, children, households and communities need to present their problems to governments and NGOs (including community organizations). Household energy needs could be described using various media, depending on the exact situation, verbally, in writing, by group members, representatives or allies - whichever is most appropriate.

3) The processes described above can be strengthened with support from Southern governments and NGOs, sharing lessons learned, successes and failures, and hard empirical evidence from energy programmes with other Southern governments, donors, and international campaigning agencies.

The combination of these groups working together could be forceful and transforming. The policymakers are ready to listen to good arguments if presented in a convincing way. I believe that the key demand is to put household energy back onto the development-map. There is evidence that improved stoves can help to reduce greenhouse gases, in addition to their other benefits (see 'The Case for Stove Programmes' by Kirk Smith, enclosed in BP31). It may take more patience working with resource-poor rather than richer folk, but if development is not aiming to benefit the poor, then how can it be justified?