Part 1 of a 2 part series in which international economics specialist Lisa Frumin applies her field experience to key debates in development
I sat talking to my host mom and dad in Boca de las Minas, Panama at 8pm. Without electricity and only flashlights in hand, it was hard to see their faces, but I could hear the gratitude in their voices. One year ago, a group of thirteen graduate student volunteers from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) installed an eco-stove in their house.
This was the second year a group from SAIS visited this community in Panama, and I joined both the March 2012 and March 2013 teams. As part of the original thirteen in 2012, I mixed cement, built bricks, carried them to individual houses and constructed the eco-stoves in kitchens alongside my fellow volunteers while locals looked at us with wonder and curiosity.
To us, the stoves made sense. Many rural women cook over open fires forcing them, and the children who accompany them, to inhale unhealthy amounts of smoke each day. There are high levels of asthma and emphysema as a result. There are various eco-stoves, ranging in price and design. The ones SAIS Corps made were of brick (which we made ourselves) and cement. An eco-stove is a cooking box which allows for air to flow in one end fueling the fire and up the cement tower along with the smoke, thus concentrating the heat. The eco-stove uses half the wood of an open fire, which means less cutting of trees in the surrounding watershed and less particles that the women breathe in as they cook.
I left Panama in 2012 unsure and skeptical of what impact we had made, or what good, if any, the project had accomplished. At the time, the families in Boca de las Minas community seemed to share my ambivalence: they were still not sure what they thought of the eco-stoves yet. They had no idea how these stoves might help them or why we came to build them. Some were grateful while others just looked at us and shrugged as we completed the new equipment.
International development projects at the micro level often raise a lot of questions. Is the project what the community really wants? Is it what the community truly needs? How sustainable is the project? Will it have a dramatic impact on the community? Is the project simply the Western world pushing its agenda on a community that simply does not think the project is necessary? What will the project do to the social fabric of the community? These questions are extremely important, and they were raised when the second group of ten SAIS students traveled to rural Panama in March 2013 to continue the eco-stove project that the first group worked on with the Peace Corps the year before.
Perhaps just like the folks in the community that suddenly had a brand new style of stove, I left the first year with as many questions about our work as answers. The opportunity to return one year later, however, added depth to my perceptions of development, and I have reoriented some of my beliefs regarding the age-old development debates on issues such as demand, sustainability, and agenda-pushing.
(Please note that I, by no means, am stating my observations as a generalization of all international development projects. This project altered the minds of some volunteers who came in skeptical about international development. I am simply offering my views based on the results of this particular project, as I understood it.)
Demand. The Boca de las Minas population is about 600 people. We built a total of six stoves in the first year. These numbers do not seem to demonstrate a demand from the community for our work. My spirits rose, however, when I found out that another six households wanted eco-stoves, which we came to build in March 2013. Moreover, five out of the six stoves built in March 2012 were in constant use over the last year (we built the sixth for a family planning to build a house around it—a house they never got around to building). As a result of how those families felt about the stoves, more families wanted them.
Sustainability. I appreciate the question of sustainability when it comes to international development projects. In both years team members questioned what good does it do for a group of students to come in, build stoves, and promptly leave. To that I answer that we had continuity via our Peace Corps partner. After we built the first set of stoves, a Peace Corps volunteer went around to the different households and taught them how to use the stoves. He checked in on these families throughout the last year before our return to continue teaching them the importance of these stoves and how they can be used. The same will follow this batch of stoves. In reality, our team dropped in for ten days and coordinated with and helped a Peace Corps volunteer with his longer-term project. Without us, the volunteer would have had to do the project by himself and it would have taken much longer to complete. We simply accelerated the process of an existing project with our manpower, thus increasing the impact that Peace Corps volunteer had in the community.
Pushing a Western agenda. To this question, I have no real answer. Perhaps we did push this community towards an idea that might not otherwise have seemed important. However, the families spoke on the presence of “hut lung,” a condition most of the women have contracted as a result of standing over open pits and breathing in particles and smoke. They recognize that using eco-stoves help the women in the community reduce health risks and they welcomed these stoves as a way to battle “hut lung.”
The way I see it, we may have pushed our agenda the first year, but when families in March 2013 asked us if we will come back and build more eco-stoves and work on other projects that they mentioned involving agriculture and energy, I have a tough time seeing it as us pushing our agenda and more this community accepting a transfer of knowledge and know-how to help better their lives. Moreover, while there is no way to tell for sure as we were only there for such a limited time, but from our evaluations and questions, this eco-stove project did not alter the social fabric of the community.
The people of Boca de las Minas have their own demands of their government (namely electricity and a paved road into their community). A group of ten students can never provide these services on their own, but there are smaller projects that we are capable of executing and if the community asks for our return, then why not?
Lisa Frumin is an international economics specialist with experience on the US Senate Banking Committee. She is currently completing a Masters degree at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies