Smart Power Meets Field Experiment

From the NY Times Magazine’s profile of Hillary Clinton:

Not long after becoming secretary of state in 2009, Clinton took up the cookstove cause, one of what she describes as “smart power” issues — though skeptical veterans of American foreign policy tend to deride them as soft more than smart.
In September 2010, Clinton announced the creation of a partnership led by the United Nations Foundation to provide 100 million cleaner and more efficient stoves around the world by 2020, and she has since used every opportunity to implore world leaders to adopt policies to encourage their use…Clinton can recite the arguments by rote: The smoke from poorly ventilated stoves kills nearly two million people a year, more than malaria. Foraging for wood consumes the time and effort of women and children and exposes them to attack. The stoves are a significant source of black carbon in the atmosphere, contributing to climate change.

From a new working paper by Rema Hanna, Esther Duflo, and Michael Greenstone (via Shankar Vendantam):

It is conventional wisdom that it is possible to reduce exposure to indoor air pollution, improve health outcomes, and decrease greenhouse gas emissions in the rural areas of developing countries through the adoption of improved cooking stoves. This belief is largely supported by observational field studies and engineering or laboratory experiments. However, we provide new evidence, from a randomized control trial conducted in rural Orissa, India (one of the poorest places in India), on the benefits of a commonly used improved stove that laboratory tests showed to reduce indoor air pollution and require less fuel. We track households for up to four years after they received the stove. While we find a meaningful reduction in smoke inhalation in the first year, there is no effect over longer time horizons. We find no evidence of improvements in lung functioning or health and there is no change in fuel consumption (and presumably greenhouse gas emissions). The difference between the laboratory and field findings appear to result from households’ revealed low valuation of the stoves. Households failed to use the stoves regularly or appropriately, did not make the necessary investments to maintain them properly, and usage rates ultimately declined further over time. More broadly, this study underscores the need to test environmental and health technologies in real-world settings where behavior may temper impacts, and to test them over a long enough horizon to understand how this behavioral effect evolves over time.

3 Responses to Smart Power Meets Field Experiment

  1. Matt July 2, 2012 at 9:48 am #

    It’s not quite a simple story of “these things definitely don’t work” – there’s been a few other RCTs on cookstoves see discussions here:

    and here:

    • John Sides July 2, 2012 at 12:07 pm #

      Thanks, Matt. This is really helpful.

  2. Andrew Gelman July 2, 2012 at 4:17 pm #

    More generally, I’m bothered by some of this sort of debunking. I agree with Hanna et al. that it is a good idea to see how ideas work out in practice, but I worry about holding international aid to a higher standard than we hold most of our spending. For example, people in the U.S. buy new cars, new computers, new refrigerators, etc., all the time–we spend tons more on these things than is spent on rural cookstoves in low-income countries. I have a feeling that a careful study would likewise find “no evidence of improvements in lung functioning or health and there is no change in fuel consumption (and presumably greenhouse gas emissions)” from new cars, computers, etc., bought here in the U.S.

    Again, I think this sort of research study is valuable but I am bothered if the conclusions are over-interpreted.