If Stoves Could Kill

Political advocacy, humanitarian intervention, and the “manageable problem.”

Newly produced mud stove in El Fashir, North Darfur. (Photos by Samer Abdelnour)

When San Diego-based Invisible Children (IC) released KONY 2012, a short film advocating the capture of Ugandan rebel Joseph Kony, it drew intense criticism for fundraising and promoting military intervention by way of misinformation and oversimplification. IC’s campaign exemplifies how domestic political advocacy can re-construct complex crises into simple scenarios, influencing thinking on a global scale. Perhaps equally pernicious is the role advocacy can play in transforming far-away crises into “manageable problems” that can be solved through simple technical solutions. A telling example is the portrayal of efficient cookstoves as a tool for preventing rape and other forms of gender-based violence, first in Darfur and now globally. I discuss below, drawing on an ongoing research project I’m conducting with my colleague Akbar Saeed.

Cooking up the case for Darfur’s stoves

Fuel-efficient stoves, a docile domestic technology, have been promoted for decades as tools to combat deforestation and the negative health effects of traditional cooking. During the Darfur crisis, they took on an entirely new function as a technology to prevent sexual violence. In 2005, Washington-based Refugees International (RI) released a widely publicized call advocating stoves:

“By reducing the need for wood and emission of smoke, a switch to simple, more fuel-efficient stoves could reduce the time women spend collecting wood, a task that exposes them to the risk of rape and other forms of gender-based violence.”

Backed by USAID and public donations, dozens of NGOs began to promote stoves as a way to protect Darfuri women and girls from attack.

How did stoves come to be thought of a solution to sexual violence?

During the 1990s, in Kenya’ s Dadaab refugee camps, NGOs and advocacy organizations (including RI) sought solutions to pervasive sexual violence. Unable to provide comprehensive protection for women inside the camps, RI advocated for the provision of firewood to address one spatial dimension of rape: that which occurs when women leave camps to gather firewood.

Producing metal stoves in Nyala, South Darfur.

When Darfur emerged as a significant domestic political issue in the US, advocacy networks—including the Save Darfur Coalition and RI—drew from longstanding racial and gender frames to form a US-centric understanding of the conflict as an Arab-led genocidal rape.

This, combined with the idea that firewood provision would help prevent rape, permitted efficient stoves—for the first time—to emerge a solution to sexual violence in Darfur. Encino-based Jewish World Watch succinctly captures the tragic narrative:

“Women and girls who have fled the genocide in Darfur, Sudan, are particularly vulnerable to rape while performing the critical task of collecting firewood for cooking.”

Realizing the complexity of risk

Having spent time in Darfur researching the competitive dynamics of stove-promoting NGOs, it became clear to me that the overly simplistic assumptions on which stove solutions are predicated do not reflect the complex intersection of ethnicities, violence, and gender roles.

This recognition is not without precedence.

In fact, multiple assessments reveal the provision of firewood to have been an erroneous “solution” to rape:

“Banditry and acts of sexual violence, especially rape, were known to occur frequently in the camps. Considerable publicity highlighted the rape of women while collecting firewood outside the camps.”

And in a 2007 report, RI withdrew its claim, saying that in Darfur: “There is little evidence that producing fuel-efficient stoves reduces violence against women.”

Furthermore, in a 2009 report, Amnesty International reveals that Darfuri refugees in Eastern Chad, also recipients of stove interventions, are just as vulnerable to sexual violence inside camps as they are outside of them.

No simple, global solution

In Darfur, the “stove solution” persists through a number of untruths, including simple notions of “Arab” and “African”—and that only ”Arabs” rape. Camps are construed as safe, and no consideration is given to women and girls who must travel for work, to markets, or to collect grasses. These untruths are reinforced through the work of US-based advocacy networks and NGOs.

Amazingly, despite RI’s retraction and historical experiences, determined US-based organizations continue to promote efficient cookstoves as a technology that reduces incidents of rape—not just in Darfur, but globally.

For global promotion, narratives of sexual violence are further generalized. For example, Berkeley-based Potential Energy markets a blanket experience of displaced women in Darfur and Ethiopia: “Outside the relative safety of refugee camps, they are vulnerable to acts of violence”.

It is unethical, not to mention impossible, for advocacy organizations and NGOs to claim or guarantee that vulnerable, displaced, conflict-affected women and girls are safe in camps, let alone that they can be made safe through using cookstoves. Yet to step away from this claim undermines the suggestion that stoves can “solve” rape. The elaborate risks facing women and girls should never be simplified such that simple technologies are thought to solve complex humanitarian crises.

Across the US, well-intentioned people are working hard to design, develop, promote, and fundraise for stoves to help poor, vulnerable women in Darfur and elsewhere. Unfortunately, the underlying assertions holding up the stoves as a solution to gender-based violence are based on US domestic worldviews rather than actual realities of conflict-affected people.

Research is beginning to question the ability for efficient stoves to effectively reduce fuel consumption and health risks. It is time to unearth the notion that stoves are a comprehensive solution to sexual violence and other issues. NGOs must be aware of the power of political advocacy to re-construct complex realities into “manageable problems” with simple technical solutions.

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  • BY Paul Hudnut

    ON September 19, 2012 11:26 AM

    The link to the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves does not appear to support the author’s contention that “determined US-based organizations continue to promote efficient cookstoves as a technology that reduces incidents of rape, not just in Darfur but globally”
    The Global Alliance site discusses three issues: 1) women’s livelihoods, 2) health (due to indoor air pollution) and 3) environment. I could not find a reference to rape or violence against women.
    While the author makes some good points about issues of cookstoves for refugee camps, and whether they are primarily appealing for donorfunding or actually addressing real customer needs, the implication that this is a driver for the cookstoves business is misleading. Refugee stoves are relatively small niche in this market.
    As for the “research is beginning to question the ability for efficient stoves to effectively reduce fuel consumption and health risks” the cited study used stoves known to be unreliable and difficult to maintain. That people refused to use stoves that didn’t work points to a narrower problem than the author implies, and ignores the efforts of some stove manufacturers to provide fuel efficient stoves that do work in the field over time.
    As someone involved in cookstoves for some time, I agree that the field faces challenges, and that the manufacturers will need to continue to monitor data from the field to show impact. The microfinance field’s failed response to RCT studies should be instructive to the more emergent stoves industry.  I am also concerned that carbon finance schemes may drive focus away from the needs of the user, and more toward some artificial demand signals (due to baselines showing very different wood usage in different areas, which if incorrect can distort demand).

  • Samer Abdelnour's avatar

    BY Samer Abdelnour

    ON September 19, 2012 04:55 PM

    Hi Paul,

    Thanks for your comment, and I certainly agree with your cautioning the use of stoves as a carbon offsets tool.

    Our study, on which the original blog is based, explores why and how the rape-stove problem-solution construction comes to be so resilient even in the face of contradictory (or lack of) evidence. On that note, I’d like to provide some clarification as to the Global Cookstoves Alliance (GCA) link. It was intended to simply direct the attention of readers to the existence of the global network.

    When launched in September 2010, a Fact Sheet of the US Department of State listed three main areas of focus for the GCA: 1) Health Problems, 2) Personal Security Risks, and 3) Environmental Consequences and Climate Change. Under Personal Security Risks, the Fact Sheet reads:

    “Women and girls face severe personal security risks as they collect fuel, especially those living in communities of instability, including refugee camps and conflict zones.”

    Here is the link for your reference:

    In addition, numerous NGOs have begun to promote stoves as a protection tool in conflict areas, such as the DRC and Ethiopia, even after RI’s retraction about the effectiveness of stoves in the Darfur context. In addition to the Potential Energy example provided, you might look into the activities of World Vision and others.

    As for your questions with regards to the study ‘Up In Smoke’ by Hanna, Duflo and Greenstone (2012), it is perhaps premature to assume that ‘better’ technologies and testing would resolve the complex behavioral challenges associated with efficiency. Theirs is an important longitudinal study which many designers and NGOs, due to the nature of their work, do not give appropriate consideration.

    It is also but one of many studies that have questioned at micro and policy levels the ability for stove interventions to solve serious complex problems since the 70s, when after the first oil/energy crisis efficient stoves were promoted globally by development agencies and governments en mass.

    Improved field testing and behavioral change would certainly not compensate for the fact that women and girls facing risks of violence require protection, not stoves. In Darfur, a further critique could point to the way various NGOs promoted competing technologies, leaving some households with multiple stoves and little monitoring to ensure if they were being used as intended or even at all.

    Yet I do appreciate that under the right circumstances (such as training and longitudinal evaluation) culturally appropriate efficient stoves may have measurable benefits in terms of health and consumption, especially at the household level of analysis.



  • BY Paul Hudnut

    ON September 20, 2012 10:46 AM

    1) If the Alliance website no longer features the issue of rape, I still think the link is misleading. To me its absence indicates that they have gotten the message in the past two years and changed their mind before you wrote the post. Declare victory and move on to those who haven’t gotten the message. Like you, I am not a fan of those who use false pretenses to raise money.  It distorts the market, however imperfect, for funding energy products for the poor.

    2)  “As for your questions with regards to the study ‘Up In Smoke’ by Hanna, Duflo and Greenstone (2012), it is perhaps premature to assume that ‘better’ technologies and testing would resolve the complex behavioral challenges associated with efficiency. Theirs is an important longitudinal study which many designers and NGOs, due to the nature of their work, do not give appropriate consideration.” OK, RCTa are a new, but limited tool in development economics. RCTs are a validated method in medicine, but not economics.* It is one thing to use them in drug testing, as humans largely share the same genes. So a vaccine that works (or doesn’t) in Peru is likely to work (or not) on humans in India. When it comes to families, communities, and societies there is much more variation. It shouldn’t be assumed that a cookstove that works in Peru will work in India… different types of food, fuel, behaviors and customs.  That is where those same “designers and NGOs” (and businesses!) come into play. It is easy to theorize about markets and ecosystems, and much harder to actually build them. It is a process of testing and iteration, and finding out what works at a smaller scale to start. 

    The problem with tools is the “if you are a hammer you want everything to look like a nail” bias.  RCTs bring data to the field and I agree they should be given “appropriate consideration.” But appropriate consideration is not blind following, right?  I hesitate to question very smart, well meaning people who may someday win the Nobel prize, but since I already have, I may as well continue. It is not that the emperor (or empress) has no clothes, but it is that s/he is not dressed for every season and climate, and shouldn’t claim to be.

    I hope that future studies of technologies test products that work. For example, if one were studying smartphones in 2012, they would use the iPhone or Android, not the Razr. Or at least if they used the Razr for their study, they would realize that when people didn’t use it, it wasn’t that they didn’t want a smart phone or didn’t want to communicate.

    3) I think as both our posts point out, cookstoves are not a panacea for the poor, and the products and the industry face challenges. Personally, I think that the fuel savings will drive the business, with some environmental and health benefits. I also think that those benefits are not all well quantified and tend to be overstated. All the more reason that when a study gets funded, it is designed to produce useful data.

    Appropriately yours,

    * and even in science, the approach has challenges: (of course, this author has suffered a “decline effect” in his reputation).

  • Paul Hudnut's avatar

    BY Paul Hudnut

    ON September 20, 2012 07:52 PM

    I have posted more on the general topic of RCT’s on my blog.
    Perhaps we should turn the question around and ask: What If RCT’s Could Kill?

  • BY Jose Gomez-Marquez

    ON September 22, 2012 06:58 PM

    The lab next door to us at MIT works on more efficient sources of fuel, and occassion prototypes cookstoves. Rape has been brought up as a consideration that more appropriate cookstoves mitigate, but it’s never been the leading driver compared to things like indoor air pollution and efficiency. That said, while RCT approaches to define what works in development is laudable, this is an example of where it can lead to a bigger backfire.

    If an RCT had been used to attest the audiophile improvement of consumers when MP3s and the Rio (the who!?) came out, we would not have had the iPod. If the Kyocera Smartphone had been subject to and RCT on executive productivity, we may have found out that they spent often more of their time navigating the calendar menus than flipping through their Filofax. We may have never gotten an iPhone, or an Android.

    Remember that the majority of the world’s designers are not in a race to design the next cookstove, or hand water pump, or drip irrigator. These are technologies chased by a few groups around the world trying to inspire a bigger marathon of designers to give us the killer app for communities like Darfur. They don’t do it for the allure of participating in RCT. They just don’t. Expecting every product to be an RCT homerun is not only unfair, but it may lead you scramble for finding interesting artifacts to randomize. We don’t invent for the purpose of Consumer Reports, we invent because it’s part of a long process of trial and error. The ultimate arbitrers of whether we pulled off the design or not are the users. That study is often pretty straightforward: they vote with their dollars.

  • The author creates the false impression that fuel-efficient cookstoves were simplistically designed as a solution to gender-based violence. Potential Energy was one of many organizations responding more than five years ago to the need for improved cookstoves in the Darfur market. And while our initial venturing in cookstove technologies in Darfur might have benefited from advocacy campaigns to protect the lives of Darfuri women and girls, our goal from the beginning was to develop a stove that poor women want and can afford, and that indeed creates health and livelihood benefits while reducing firewood consumption. While many donors and advocacy groups have moved on to other conflict and disaster areas, we are still working in Darfur, under very difficult circumstances (where most stove makers wouldn’t go), to develop a sustainable business model to offer a stove that will make the lives of women significantly better. We continue to implement longitudinal surveys to measure stove efficiency, fuelwood savings (resulting in cash savings), reduced time gathering firewood and customer satisfaction overall.  Since the majority of the women interviewed by our local partner report that they have to go on fewer trips to gather firewood in the bush, it seems hard to imagine that there would not be a reduced exposure to violence, no matter where they live.

  • Samer Abdelnour's avatar

    BY Samer Abdelnour

    ON September 30, 2012 07:52 AM

    Dear Jan,

    It is encouraging to read a response from Potential Energy. Of course, PE is not alone in having benefited from the claim that women and girls can be made safer through using cookstoves. Nor is PE the originator or greatest advocator of the rape-stoves frame.

    My prior Darfur stoves research reveals how the competitive dynamics of stove promoters helped to construct a post-crisis stoves market in Darfur, albeit one which was overwhelmingly supported by foreign agencies and interests and thus out of tune with local needs and demand. I have also written on the various global ‘crises’ for which efficient stoves were thought a solution since the 1970s, these being deforestation/environmental, smoke and health, and sexual violence.

    What I find astonishing is that today stoves are promoted as a ‘sustainable’ market solution capable of addressing all of these immensely complex challenges simultaneously. Presented in this way, one would think efficient cookstoves are forged by the hands of Hephaestus.

    Jose wisely reminds us that design is a rigorous process of trial and error. My interviews with Berkeley-Darfur designers, including Michael Helms and Ashok Gadgil, as well as NGO officials and producers in Darfur, revealed clear efforts to concretely deliver technically efficient stoves free from dependence on external donors, even when not conceivably viable. The discourses that have come to embody stove value propositions should also be approached with the same spirit, be they those governing humanitarian impetus or used in funding campaigns.

    Market surveys are useful in stove design and marketing. Research must also aspire to more credibly frame the benefits and limitations of technology interventions. Independent studies – longitudinal, mixed-methods, and capturing social and environmental indicators at multiple levels of analysis – might help to more appropriately focus the claims that through cooking, poor women globally are able to solve some of the most pressing issues of today.



  • Samer Abdelnour's avatar

    BY Samer Abdelnour

    ON June 8, 2014 07:44 AM

    The research paper on which this blog is based is now published and can be found at:

    Technologizing Humanitarian Space: Darfur Advocacy and the Rape-Stove Panacea

  • Susie Kinyanjui's avatar

    BY Susie Kinyanjui

    ON February 16, 2015 11:25 AM

    This is an interesting article highlighting important questions about the perceived and actual implications of stove interventions. On a related note, I think there is a paucity of information about the importance of regenerating fuel sources in discussions about the ability for stove interventions to solve serious complex problems. For example, tree planting initiatives offer a huge potential for job creation and security, income generation, and long term fuel security among other environmental and health benefits. This is not to say that tree planting initiatives are highly appropriate in all situations (e.g. refugee camps). However, I believe consideration should be given to the potential positive implications of tree planting for all of us who either work in or are affected by the cook stove industry. It is important for us to start planning and incorporating biomass regeneration as we move forward in all aspects of stove production and distribution.

  • Ashok Gadgil's avatar

    BY Ashok Gadgil

    ON June 2, 2016 05:27 PM

    Tree planting is not an an answer in Darfur, where the refugees own no land within walking distance.  When I visited Darfur for the first time in Nov 2005, Japanese aid workers had been killed in response to their efforts to plant trees for fuel on nearby land.

  • Samer Abdelnour's avatar

    BY Samer Abdelnour

    ON June 15, 2016 03:22 PM

    Practical Action (and others) have planted thousands of trees, baobab and other varieties in Darfur. As early as 2006 I visited their nurseries in Darfur where thousands of seedlings were being prepared for transport and planting. It is true that planting around most camps for the internally displaced, at least in urban areas, is not desirable nor sustainable. However, when viewed as a resource (e.g. fruit harvesting) communities have been known to protect trees. The issue of the commons and risk that trees will be cut for fuel are greater threats to tree planting. Either way, planting trees is not a solution to firewood demand, though sustainable harvesting of biomass can and should be considered.

  • Ashok Gadgil's avatar

    BY Ashok Gadgil

    ON June 15, 2016 04:35 PM

    Darfur is about the size of France.  The point is not about planting trees somewhere in Darfur.  Think about it.  My comment is about planting trees near IDP camps, specifically intended as relief to their fuel shortage.

  • Samer Abdelnour's avatar

    BY Samer Abdelnour

    ON June 15, 2016 11:49 PM

    I agree about the futility of tree planing as a source of fuel for the internally displaced (not refugees) in Darfur. Yet the the original comment negated tree planing in Darfur as an issue of land ownership and hostility. Neither are obstacles to tree planting if approached thoughtfully. Practical Action and partners planted over 200,000 seedlings, but of course they have a positive way of working with communities.

  • Samer Abdelnour's avatar

    BY Samer Abdelnour

    ON June 16, 2016 12:32 AM

    I should add, many of those were planted in El Fashir and surrounding areas with a high concentration of people in camps.

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