Monday, December 1, 2008

Aid is for the poor? Really?

One of the most interesting people I met last week works for Solar Cookers International. I have long been interested in solar cookers because they appear to have numerous advantages. In the field of international development this is very significant. Some people see development as being just one thing, population control, globalisation, political circumstances, corruption or whatever. I don't wish to define development but rather to say that, if the problem is malnutrition, food security is an issue, if the problem is a health risk factor such as acute respiratory infections, health is an issue, etc. They all relate to development; development is not just one thing.

Solar Cookers International make cheap solar cookers and other 'intermediate' technologies. More importantly, they give demonstrations and courses on using these technologies. This could play a part in development because it addresses nutrition, health, the environment and many other things. Using a solar oven, then, is not just a matter of cooking; it has implications for the nutritional value of the food, the environment, the economic circumstances of the user, the health of the user, the amount of time spent on domestic tasks, water and sanitation, using recycled materials and a whole lot more. Here's a partial list:

1) They don't require expensive fuel (that means time saved and less environmental degradation)
2) Reduced levels of smoke inhalation, experienced by women cooking and other occupants of kitchen
3) They preserve nutrients in the food because the food cooks more slowly
4) They can be used to pasteurise water and other utensils in areas where water may be contaminated
5) They can be used to heat water for cleaning and washing
6) Training in their use gives people knowledge about many other practical health and social issues
7) Recycled and cheap materials can be used to construct solar ovens, creating employment
8) They are light, portable and take up very little space when stored, compared to other cookers
9) They contribute to increased self reliance and self sufficiency

Another organisation I visited was called SHOFCO, based in Kibera, Nairobi. They carry out a number of activities relating to HIV, education and poverty reduction. I found their details when I was researching the use of income generation schemes as a way of allowing women to reduce and even eliminate their need to resort to commercial sex work.

Kibera is not an ideal place for solar cookers. There is not much space and Nairobi has less sun than many areas. However, there are communal areas in Kibera and there is enough sun to cook on many days of the year. Given the costs and advantages, the cost of a solar cooker would be recouped in a couple of months, perhaps less.

In addition to reducing household costs, it is possible that solar cookers could be produced by people in Kibera as a way of raising income. That's what I'm hoping, anyway. The problem is that many people adopting income generation schemes are undercutting each other's market. In Kibera, some women make and sell bead jewellery. However, there are so many people making and selling bead jewellery that it's getting harder and harder to make any money from it.

If you can't make enough money from your job, whatever it happens to be, you still need to resort to commercial sex work. If times get hard, and they are getting harder in Kibera, each woman needs to have more clients and to engage in more dangerous kinds of sexual intercourse, for example, agreeing not to use a condom. Bad economic conditions increase the vulnerability of people who are already poor, exposing them to HIV and other risks.

I look forward to meeting and hearing from others who have tried out income generation schemes of various kinds, and those who have successfully adopted intermediate technologies.
Renewable energy, of course, is not the only type of intermediate technology. Solar Cookers International also sell cheap and easy to use water testing kits. Many diseases in a country like Kenya are water borne, eg. cholera, E Coli and the many diseases caused by various intestinal parasites. Water and sanitation also play a part in the spread of malaria as mosquitoes breed in stagnant water.

If I seem to hop from one subject to another, I apologise, but these matters are all connected, really!

Cholera and Malaria relate to one of the largest sources of funding for the search to eliminate these problems; I'm referring to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Far from wishing to criticize an organisation that contributes so much to good causes, I'd like to look at disease a different way. The Gates Foundation is putting a lot of money into finding a vaccine for cholera. Yet cholera only exists where there is little or no water and sanitation infrastructure, where people don't have access to clean water.

The cure for cholera is clean water. Dying from cholera means dying of dehydration, perhaps after repeatedly drinking contaminated water. Countries who once had a problem with cholera no longer have that problem because they have addressed water and sanitation issues. A vaccine would be brilliant, except that it would not solve all the other water borne diseases, and there are many. What is the point in surviving cholera only to die of E Coli or hepetitis E?

Malaria is not so simple but again, countries that now have good water and sanitation no longer have malaria. The Gates Foundation has, quite rightly IMHO, been criticized for taking human resources from other projects, overlapping with existing health projects and distorting health funding. The Foundation has prioritised a few diseases when it's not the diseases that are the main problem. It's the risk factors, such as water and sanitation or acute respiratory infections that we should be concentrating on.

There are two other concerns that receive a lot of the Foundation's money: HIV and genetically modified crops (GM). The foundation is interested in finding a cure for HIV or treating HIV positive people and 'feeding the starving', allegedly. But only if these solutions involve intellectual property, it seems, intellectual property being something very close to the Gates heart.

Anti retroviral drugs (ARVs) and GM technologies are pieces of intellectual property. There are very cheaply produced drugs that do the same thing, but US money goes into expensive ARVs, produced by Americans in America. Does this make you think of the free condoms distributed in Mumias?

GM corn is a modified version of the corn that you see hundreds of hectares of between Mumias and Eldoret. But it costs a lot of money and it belongs to the company that produces it, not the person who grows it. A farmer can grow one crop with GM corn before buying more seed, from the GM producer, of course. Using the non GM version, they can save seed and grow corn every year.

Where was I? Oh yes, intermediate technology, such as renewable sources of energy. This technology is owned by whoever uses it. This can be contrasted with high technology, which belongs to very rich multinationals. So, would you choose a cheap technology that eradicates cholera and most other water borne diseases and has many other advantages, or would you choose a very expensive one that only eradicates cholera for those who can afford it? It only works for as long resistance to it is not developed. But then, a new version can be found, at a cost.

Finally, for those working with HIV and AIDS, I hope you have a productive World Aids Day! I'll post the news from Mumias later today or tomorrow.



Rachel Dove said...

Wow...this is an amazing blog- its going to take me more time than i have at the moment to digest all this, so i will be reading more in depth in the coming days. I appreciated your email "why I'm angry" and damn right, we should all be angry- if only we all paid attention so intently as you do- something you should be proud of. Your blog has stupefied me actually- and I cant give it its due respect in this commment. Please allow me a day or two to go through it all and then I'll comment on the topics at hand. For now I just wanted you to know i miss you and i will enjoy getting to read your thoughts through this! Thank you. Do you mind if I set up a link on my blog to your blog so my readers can see your information?
Talk with you soon!~

Simon said...

Hi Rachel, hope you're doing well.Thanks for your comment, I am trying to think where to do with the blog. Linking is cool, go ahead. I'm looking forward to hear how things are going in Zanzibar. xs