The cookstove conundrum
In low-income countries, indoor air pollution from household cooking fires is the leading environmental cause of death, resulting in nearly 2 million deaths a year worldwide. To counter this, the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves was formed in 2010 and sought to get 100 million homes to adopt so-called 'clean stoves' by 2020 to improve health, reduce fuel costs and limit environmental hazards. A recent study by economist Esther Duflo and her colleagues Rema Hanna within the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) at MIT, tested the efficacy of clean stoves in real-world conditions in Odisha, India and found that most cooking stoves distributed in their trial were eventually abandoned. The study found that acceptance and, crucially, usage, of a new stove was not universal even initially, and usage declined rapidly over time, as stoves broke down and households failed to make the necessary repairs or investment in maintenance.
In some cases, households who volunteered for the study refused to receive the new stoves, and those who got them often used them alongside their old stove until it eventually broke. Not only this, the health benefits were not conclusive. While the study showed some health improvements for the primary cook in the household during the first year after installation, the effect vanished over time as proper use and maintenance of the new stove declined. The study prompted discussions about whether redirected resources should be prioritised to programmes with stronger evidence of efficacy such as conditional cash transfers, bed nets and deworming.