Unexpected Bonuses in Bolivia

If I give money to an organisation, I may simply be expecting the thing they said would happen, to happen. If that was the case, I’d probably be happy enough. However, often when good development activities are carried out, there can be positive ramifications beyond what was expected.

If I may use the example of Irish Methodist funded work in Bolivia. The basic idea was to provide solar ovens (10% of cost was paid for by recipient) for domestic use. The results:

1. As intended, time has been freed up for women to explore other productive activities or even recreational pursuits. As one women has said, “I think I love my oven more than my husband!”

The forests, previously used as the source of firewood, are being conserved. All this was hoped for before things started.

However, there have been other consequences:

2. The involvement of the Methodist Church in Ireland has led to new Bolivian Methodist communities joining the scheme.

3. Because of the ‘extra’ time now available to women, community discussions have been initiated and training delivered around gender roles within the community.

The solar ovens have become less about economics and the environment and more about women’s empowerment.

4. The ‘ovens project’ is happening where a proposed hydroelectric dam may be built. It is risky to do leadership training in such an area as the powerful and wealthy do not wish to be challenged.

However, the ‘ovens project’ provides a cover under which such training can happen less obviously so that local people can understand the issues and mobilise themselves to lobby for their rights.

5. The ovens and their success has been seen by other local NGOs and this has led to an increase in demand. A deal is now being brokered with local commercial enterprises to produce the oven parts locally and the increased demand will mean a reduction in cost.

Also, importantly, it is expected to lead to 800 new jobs.

As was told to me by Emma Donlan, Christian Aid Country Manager for Bolivia, “The Methodist Church in Ireland has been the springboard”. It is great when development throws up unexpected bonuses and very significant bonuses at that.

NB Irish Methodist World Development & Relief co-funds some work with Christian Aid Ireland. In the above case the ‘shared’ partner is the Bolivian NGO, Soluciones Practicas.


Could you dumb that down for me please?

If anyone missed it, the United Kingdom is currently trying to extract itself from the European Union i.e. Brexit. This has been one of the most contentious national issues in the UK, ever. No one seems to understand what Brexit will mean for UK citizens. In mid-November, a draft withdrawal agreement (between the UK and EU) was presented by the UK Prime Minister, Theresa May. The media tried to help us understand the document’s contents.

If we really want to understand what is on offer, we could read the document but we’re just not going to do that, are we? It is 585 pages long, will contain big words, stuff that goes right over our heads and many particular elements that don’t interest us. At the end of the day, most of us want a nice bite-sized summary that gives us the gist of what is going on. However, in reducing a 585-page document, the media is bound to dumb things down a bit and we end up not getting the full story, creating our own ‘fake knowledge’ and, despite our good intentions, not actually understanding the situation fully at all.

Recently, I was visiting Dabane Water Workshops (WDR partner) in Zimbabwe. What an impressive outfit they are; working with local people to access water and address broader water management issues and livelihoods in rural areas. One conversation with Stephen Hussey, the Director, stays with me.

Why is there water scarcity in parts of Zimbabwe? If you were standing by the riverbanks as I had been, the answer would seem obvious; there is no water in the rivers because the rains are seasonal and when rivers do flow, they may only flow for a few days. That’s the simple answer or the ‘dumbed down’ answer, if you like. It seems to make perfect sense, satisfies a superficial interest or concern and can be used to give rise to some simple (dumbed down?) opinions, even solutions.

The Mahwanke River in September

The Mahwanke River in September

When Stephen and I discussed why there was water scarcity where these people lived, his answer was much more complex. Indeed, rains are sporadic and inconsistent. Why? Well, the changing rainfall patterns, he sees as part of the documented global climate change. Immediately, any long-term solution is now going to need to address that massive problem and it involves governments and their policy making, not just a local water project on the Mahwanke River. So why don’t people move nearer more reliable water sources? Where they are now, may be the only land they have as a result of colonialists taking the better irrigated and productive land. So now we’re into colonial history and land rights. How are these factors, perhaps defined centuries ago, addressed justly? That question brings in national and local leadership. Let’s not forget tribalism. And then there is the question around why countries like Zimbabwe don’t have the wherewithal to sort out these problems. Yes, there has been corruption and leadership deficiencies but there is also a global economy dominated by the rich West. It is extremely difficult for developing countries to get a foothold in international markets, get fair deals and benefit sufficiently in order to improve the lot of their citizens.

Tim listening to Stephen outside the Dabane offices

Tim listening to Stephen outside the Dabane offices

 So why have people in Matabeleland been struggling to access sufficient water? It’s complicated and, therefore, the solutions are not straightforward.

Many of us are genuinely concerned about the plight of the materially poor. But we mustn’t be lazy in trying to understand the “Why?” and the “How can we best respond?”. Let us commit to going a little deeper in our understanding of people’s suffering so that we can get more fully behind good potential solutions or lobby for necessary change to happen.

And was that the full explanation of why some people in Zimbabwe do not have access to water? No. It’s even more complicated than that. I dumbed it down a bit so we could all try to understand it a little better. Sorry about that…

Solar ovens: Challenging traditional gender roles in the Amazon

A few months ago, we shared a blog from Emma Donlan (Christian Aid Country Manager in Bolivia) who explained a bit about the work of our shared partner Soluciones Practicas. Here she updates us on the use of solar ovens in the Amazon, and how their benefits reach far beyond their practical uses... 

"I spent the weekend up in Rurrenabaque with women leaders who came together from across the Amazon, many travelling for over 2 days by foot, boat and long bus journeys to share their experience of receiving and using the solar ovens over the past year.

They were representatives of the 20 communities and over 250 families we have now reached with solar ovens. These women have taken up the role of leadership in their communities to provide technical and moral support to the families who are integrating this new technology into their lives.

On Saturday morning we had a meeting in the local university with municipal leaders and community authorities who joined us to congratulate the women and present them with certificates and the new recipe books that the project has produced  - and of course to sample the delicious food that was prepared in the ovens. It was like the 'Great Bolivian Bake Off' as we enjoyed all sorts of cakes, breads, marmalades, steamed fish, chicken stew, desiccated coconut etc. as well as marvelling at they increasingly innovative ways that they are using the ovens to make handicrafts for drying wood and seed and even for preparing natural plant medicines.

It was a truly celebratory day and very moving to hear the words of each woman as they shared with us the impact that these ovens have had on their lives. I think what most moved me was how they correlate the use of the oven to looking after the environment and the future of their communities.

Solar Oven 1.jpg

It is very clear that the ovens are so much more than “a domestic appliance”. They have come to represent in a very real way, that alternative low carbon energy models of development are possible and are being implemented. This is especially relevant in the current context of this Amazonian region where the government plans to build hydroelectric plants and is prospecting for oil and gas which will destroy the livelihoods and delicate ecosystems of the forests which, only 2 weeks ago, were recognised as the most biodiverse place on the planet.

We were really impressed by the women. For many it was their first time leaving their regions and their communities to travel so far, and for the way that they spoke out against these threats and the need to develop local solutions to protect their land rights and the environment. They talked about the amount of time they have saved and the fact that they are no longer tied to the kitchen all morning and this gives them time to spend more time talking with other outside the home. We detected a new confidence in them to speak up and assume this leadership role. We're now considering how we can extend this solar oven initiative to other communities which are under threat and where there is very low participation of women in decision-making processes and public spaces. These are the places where implementing  “gender and female leadership” workshops is often difficult because of the existing domestic burden of women and the suspicions of the men in the community of challenging gender relationships.

The solar oven project has succeeded in doing just that, challenging gender relationships, not only giving women more time to do other things outside the home but also it has brought men and women together to learn how to build the ovens and to cook with them. One women this weekend told me that it would have been unthinkable for her to have left her home to attend an event like this a few months ago as her children would have gone hungry, but now she can leave her husband in charge of the kitchen and he was happy and confident to prepare meals for all the family – something that would never have happened in the past before they had the solar oven.

On Sunday, the women took the ovens to the local market where they prepared food and sold small plates of chicken stew to the lines of people who queued up, eager to try food cooked in the ovens. I looked on as the women explained how they prepared the food, how the oven could work in the sun or on rainy days as a thermal cooker. Within minutes they had sold everything they had prepared and several townsfolk and local businesses were enquiring where they could buy the ovens as they were convinced not only be the delicious taste but also by the amount of fuel and money they could save, enabling them to recover their investment.


This opportunity to meet the high demand for ovens is being taken up by Christian Aid, WDR and  our local partner Inti Illimani. 

We appreciate the support so much of WDR. If it hadn’t been for your funds that first enabled us to explore renewable energies in the Amazon we would not be getting these great results now. Thank you for believing in us and for continuing with us along this journey.