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close this book Boiling Point No. 28- August 1992
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"Energy Assistance Revisited - A Discussion Paper"

by Gerald Foley, 1991, pp 34, obtainable from the Stockholm Environment Institute, P O Box 2142, S-10314, Stockholm, Sweden

Extracts by BP editor, Ian Grant

Gerald Foley's paper on Third World energy problems contains many valuable ideas and recommendations and valid criticisms of stove programmes. As many of our readers may not have seen the paper and 34 pages are too much for BP, some of the points particularly related to stove programmes are reproduced here.

Energy Assistance

Energy assistance over the past 2 decades has had a disappointing record. Many projects, especially in the fuelwood and household energy sectors, have failed completely and the majority of programmes to promote renewable energy sources, apart from large scale hydro, have had little impact. In the power sector, despite massive amounts of assistance, the financial and technical condition of a large number of electricity utilities is now worse than it was a decade ago.

The most important fact in the present context is that the success ratio in renewable energy projects was low. Many projects did not work at all; few survived the departure of the foreign project staff who installed them; the degree of spontaneous replication was small. The impact on petroleum imports was negligible.

In some cases, the impact of programmes was arguably negative. Instead of helping Third World countries with their energy problems, they induced governments to use scarce technical and managerial resources to establish renewable energy organizations with little real function or operational capacity.

Fuelwood Supply

The fact that rural people do not cause deforestation by cutting trees for fuelwood does not mean that they do not suffer when the woodlands from which they obtain their fuel supplies disappear. The loss of traditional sources of supply means a series of new measures have to be developed in order to obtain the fuel needed for cooking.

The initial response is that women, who are mainly responsible for supplying their families with fuel, walk further and spend longer collecting the wood they need. But, with time, a variety of other ways of coping with the diminished fuel supply begin to emerge.

The immediate, practical concern of the fuelwood user is to obtain the fuel needed to cook the family's daily meals. Energy conservation and fuel conservation allow rural women to continue cooking the family meals even after the disappearance of most of the trees from the landscape.

The majority of programmes to promote tree growing for fuelwood have failed simply because whatever the views of outsiders on their relevance to local needs, they were not attractive to the people expected to implement them.

During the 1970s, there were fears that some Third World cities would run out of woodfuels with catastrophic social consequences as prices rose out of the reach of the poor. In practice, the urban woodfuel crisis has failed to materialise.

This picture of universal and inexorably rising prices is simply not true. It can only have been drawn by a careless reading of price trends in nominal terms, without correcting for inflation. In fact, in real or constant currency terms, urban woodfuel prices in some cities have been remarkably steady or have fallen over long periods; in others, they have risen sharply for a time and then flattened off or fallen; in others they have been extremely erratic.

Changing Cooking Habits

An important factor which damps down the growth in urban fuelwood consumption is the change in dietary patterns which takes place as families become integrated into the urban way of life. Rural diets with their long routines of pounding grain and simmering stews give way to quicker, simpler - though possibly less nutritious - urban cooking patterns. Processed or semi-processed foods which require little or no cooking come increasingly into use; bread is the most obvious example. Women may be able to make a trade-off between paid employment and increased use of such foods. A growing number of people buy their food from small kiosks or restaurants where there are economies of scale in the use of woodfuels, or which have switched to bottled gas or kerosene. These shifts in eating and cooking habits mean that urban consumption of woodfuels tends not to grow as quickly as some of the more pessimistic projections suggest.

The recognition that women are the main collectors and users of domestic fuels in the rural areas of the developing world led to a specific focus on women and energy. These attempts to establish a specific women and energy nexus have shown little concrete result. Although it is clear that the provision of family fuel supplies is a matter of crucial importance to women, this has led to few workable proposals for women-centred programmes of action in the energy area.

It is, of course, obvious that women should be consulted about the design of energy programmes intended to improve their living conditions. The fact that this was not done in some stove programmes which, instead, obsessively concentrated on energy efficiency, is more a question of incompetence in design and marketing rather than a specific gender issue. It would be unthinkable, for example, in the industrial world to launch a new kitchen appliance on the market without thorough user trials in which women were consulted.

It is quite clear that women in a large number of developing countries are in an extremely disadvantaged position in comparison with the more enlightened countries of the industrial world. Nothing has, however, emerged which suggests that specific women and energy programmes have a useful role to play, still less that energy provides a specially useful starting point for attempts to transform societal attitudes to the role of women.

Better Stoves & Better Programmes

The broad rule is that projects should provide a minimum economic internal rate of return (IRR) of 10%. This should not be used as an inflexible criterion for al; projects but a low IRR should always be regarded as a strong warning signal and an indicator that the project has poor development-creating potential. It should also be noted that projects which have a negative rate of return, however worthy their other attributes, do not promote economic development; they act as a drain on the local economy.

Referring to the lack of success of fuelwood programmes, Foley says, very few of the large number of fuelwood projects which have been launched by governments and donor agencies over the past two decades have had any significant success. It is not that people do not have problems, but that the solutions offered by fuelwood programmes tend to be less attractive or practical than the spontaneous adaptations which people make for themselves.

The urban areas do, however, offer opportunities for well-designed stove programmes which are based upon local, generally informal sector, manufacture and distribution. The stove models used in such programmes should be thoroughly tested for consumer acceptance and particular attention should be paid to the fact that energy saving tends to carry as little weight as it does in the industrial world.

The technology should be fully proven. If it does not work with a high degree of reliability in the industrial world, it is most unlikely to perform better in a Third World context. Programmes which have attempted to develop energy technologies in the field have rarely been successful or useful. Programmes must also be adequately supported at a technical and managerial level in recipient countries. Installing isolated pieces of equipment and hoping that local people will keep them in action is a certain recipe for failure. If programmes are to be self-sustaining, there must be a critical mass of users sufficient to support a repair service and willing to pay the necessary costs to keep their equipment in action. In the case of technologies which are not fully commercialized, this means that there must be local counterpart organisations which have the skills, commitment and continuity required to provide the necessary long term backup. There is no point in supplying renewable energy equipment which local people will not be able to repair or replace once the project has been completed and the implementing staff have been withdrawn. In short, the poor experience of the past is not a reason to write off renewable energy projects. It is rather a reason to treat them more seriously and ensure that the projects of the future are better chosen, designed and implemented.


What is now clear is that providing energy assistance is considerably more difficult, time-consuming and expensive than previously assumed. The main message for the future is that there will have to be considerably greater care and rigour in the identification, appraisal and design of energy assistance programmes. Unless projects provide an adequate economic rate of return and are sustainable in the long term it would, in general, be better if they were not implemented. An increasing willingness to say no to unsuitable projects is a prime necessity if energy assistance is to be more effective in the future. Donor agencies need to make clear decisions about the energy sectors they wish to support and the programmes to be funded within them. Detailed guidelines and criteria for use in project appraisal and design will have to be drawn up.

Editors Comments

Although some of the points mace above are already well known to stove workers, they need to be kept in mind and presented to the new generation of planners. I suggest that the disappointment felt at the lack of success of some stove programmes and their failure to achieve targets, results from the unrealistic expectations of the funders and some of the implementors who were influenced by them. Bottom up development implemented by NGOs funded by charities and aimed at benefitting the very poor is inevitably slow to have nationwide impacts when compared with World Bank type infrastructure projects. On the other hand, they do not devastate huge areas of rain forest when they fail or "succeed ". Equally remarkable is that stove programmes have disseminated many millions of improved stoves benefitting significant proportions of the population of several countries within the relatively short period of 10-20 years. Improved stove programmes are relatively cheap and when they succeed they are likely to be widely appropriate and enduring. Concern is sometimes expressed about millions of dollors spent on such programmes which have little to show after 5-10 years. But many large scale projects become near disasters in less time than that and waste hundreds of millions of dollors.

When the first wave of stove programmes to provide direct benefit to the women of poor rural and pert-urban areas were planned, there was little or no recorded experience of these forms of development or successful methods of work. Twenty to thirty years is not a long time to acquire experience of their complex processes which are the subject of these extracts from Foley's paper.

The widespread misconception that the main cause of deforestation was felling for firewood rather than clearing for farming was a misconception accepted at the time by many stove programme planners and unfortunately still held by some politicians, media people and organizations which should know better. As Foley says, "Deforestation is not primarily an energy related problem and hence it cannot be solved by energy means". Improved stove programmes, like all development programmes, learn from their mistakes and past experiences and it is only through the recording and analysis of these experiences by people such as Gerald Foley, that planners can improve the success rate of future programmes. ITDG's SHE Programme will be discussing the paper to see what implications it has for its work with stove programmes throughout the world. We hope to be able to report the results in BP29.