Who pays the bill?

Who makes the decision about the next appliance in a household? And what are the consequences? Sarah Wilson reports.

Edwina Fingleton-Smith, BA (Development studies) ’05, spent three years living and working in Kenya to try to understand how access to energy can improve a person’s wellbeing.What she found was that modern development practices were compounding traditional customs and leaving women in the dark, literally and metaphorically.

To bring about change we need to consider who makes the financial decisions in the household.

For instance, Kenyan men are making decisions about energy use such as electricity for the household, but spend most of their time outside the house, so don’t necessarily value having access to modern energy at home.

However, even when they work, women are responsible for nearly all domestic chores so suffer the most from traditional energy use, such as being exposed to pollution from the traditional three-stone, open fire place.

Edwina is studying for a PhD at ANU and is a Lecturer at the Fenner School of the Environment.

She began researching links between energy and development. “I read for six months but I didn’t find out what those links actually were,” she says. “It turned out we needed to ask some much more basic questions.”

To pursue this research, she conducted interviews with men and women from urban and rural locations across Kenya. “I tried to ask as few questions as possible,” she says. “I wanted people to freely and widely discuss their experiences of energy use from their own frames of reference and raise issues that were important to them.

“We use energy in really personal ways - we light our bedrooms, we cook with it and feed our families. So I invited people to tell me stories about their lives.

“I focused on asking individuals how they could use energy to improve their wellbeing. I wanted to tease out how they use energy specifically. For example, what is the next appliance you would like to buy and who would that benefit most in your household?"

One of the key findings that emerged from the interviews was gender differences. “The idea that members of the same household want the same outcomes and worked together to achieve them just isn’t true,” Edwina says.

“The traditional gender roles in Kenya mean women are seen to be inside the home for considerably more hours each day than men.

“In contrast, even when men were unemployed, they were perceived to spend their days outside the house and so were not generally considered to benefit greatly from increased energy in the household.

“Here is the conundrum – women would benefit from better access to energy, but the traditional gender roles mean that men are the ones who control the household finances.”

Edwina’s research supports the idea that Kenyan households do not prioritise the purchase of domestic energy technologies to benefit women.

“For example, this would be the purchase of a safe and efficient cook stove,” she says.

“In Kenya many families cook using the traditional three-stone fireplace which, as the name suggests, is like a campfire consisting of three large stones encircling an open fire.

“Using a modern stove instead of a smoky, inefficient three-stone fire would greatly reduce household air pollution and improve the health of users.”

Edwina points to data from the World Health Organization: household air pollution (of which open fires are the main source) led to more than four million premature deaths among children and adults in 2012.

“Women and young children, who spend the most time near the domestic hearth, are particularly vulnerable,” she says.

“More than 50 per cent of pneumonia deaths among children under five are linked to household air pollution.

The use of improved cook stoves instead of open fires would save lives, while also reducing the workload of fetching wood and other solid fuels for women and children.

“To bring about change we need to consider who makes the financial decisions in the household, usually men, and understand how those decision makers are perceived to benefit from increased energy access,” said Edwina.

“Cooked food, hot bath water and clean ironed clothes are some of the benefits men were reported to enjoy, so there is ample room for marketing energy technologies to men”.

But can qualitative research gleaned from Kenya be applied to other developing countries? Edwina thinks so. “The differences in the way individuals use energy is far greater than the differences between how countries use energy. For example, hairdressers in Kenya probably use energy in a much more similar way to hairdressers in India, than they do with say fisherman in Kenya.”

Dr Matthew Dornan from the ANU Development Policy Centre and Convener of the ANU Energy Change Institute’s Energy for Development Research Cluster supports the call for research on how household behaviour affects energy-spending decisions.

“Most research in the energy for development space is technical or, where policy-focused, draws on household survey data that doesn’t explore these important intra-household dynamics,” he says.

“If we’re to understand why so many aid-funded energy projects have been ineffective, we need to better understand behaviour at that household level.”

Edwina says energy access itself is a means to an end. “Electricity is of value because of how it can be used to power useful appliances,” she says.

“Therefore, researchers need to focus on the services that energy provides. Understanding how men’s and women’s roles affect their ability to access energy services will help to improve energy access programs and ensure that they are of value to the poor. “We need a systematic approach to energy. The barriers that exist for women will not simply disappear due to increased energy access. Energy programs need to be built on a strong foundation of understanding the cultural environments they will operate in.”

*In 2018 the ANU Energy Change Institute established a Women in Energy network to support ANU women researchers in the field of energy. Chaired by Professor Kylie Catchpole from the College of Computer Science and Engineering, the network connects researchers across the University and offers opportunities for external networking and professional development.

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