At their worst, improved cookstoves can look very much like classic development bloat: a high-minded idea cooked up by comfortably well-off researchers in rich countries to address to what they think should be the priorities of the global poor, even though that bears little relation to what the global poor really want.
For sure, studies of improved cookstove take-up can make for some depressing reading.
Everybody talks about the culture clash between the aid worker and the aid recipient, but who worries about the culture clash between the aid worker and the his brother-in-law who works in Marketing back home?
Here’s more or less how it seems to go: earnest young development workers trudges out to god-forsaken African hellhole. Earnest young development worker hands out stoves. Earnest young development worker gives a meticulously research-based talk on how good they are for your health. Earnest young development worker trudges back. Six month later, evaluation team trudges out to same village. Evaluation team finds stove gathering dust in a corner of the hut.
Plenty of reasons have been put forward for why this happens: from ignorance to sheer cultural stubbornness/resistance to change to time-inconsistent preferences to the fact that it takes too damn long to boil water for tea with the things. But one really really obvious explanation seems MIA from the discussions: development interventions are just horribly tin-eared about marketing.
In some ways, this is puzzling.
Back home we’ve developed a whole array of techniques to persuade people to over-ride their present-biased preferences. We know how to get people to buy life insurance. We know how to persuade them to put on seat belts. We manage to convince (some) teenagers to use condoms. We know how to sell even the ruinously fun-annihalating idea that you should go to a party and not drink so you can drive your friends home safely.
How did we persuade so many people to accept these ideas?
When your grandparents were kids, they called it salesmanship. Today, it goes by the more professional sounding term “marketing”. Whatever you want to call it, it’s a family of techniques designed to make us want to do something. Classically, that boiled down to making us want to buy something, but obviously the techniques of the marketing world long since burst their commercial banks. Appealing to emotion, to the world of wants and aspiration and prestige-seeking, they’ve evolved into a crushingly effective set of techniques for attaching specifics meanings to given products or behaviours. And in the development world, we’re about 3 generations behind.
I think I know why this happens. People go into development work as an implicit (or not so implicit) rejection of the hyper-commercialization of the societies we grew up in. Your average expat aid worker in Benin is exactly the kind of person who ran full speed in the opposite direction when her parents suggested she consider a business degree. Everybody talks about the culture clash between the aid worker and the aid recipient, but who worries about the culture clash between the aid worker and the aid worker’s brother-in-law who works in Marketing back home?
But what if instead of earnest young aid workers with scrupulously research-based talking points, we sent people with a marketing mindset out to the villages? What if we developed a strategy to associate that improved cookstove not with an ineffective message about public health but with an appeal to prestige, to modernity, to cleanliness, or whatever value it is that a beneficiary aspires to? Is it too much to ask for aid workers to Always Be Closing?
I’m going to tell you when Clean Cookstoves are going to catch on: when people start gathering around the huts of the first villager to get an ICS, oohing and aahing their approval. When cookstoves become a prestige good, the village’s version of an iPad.