Preserving garlic
Firewood used to dry and preserve garlic in Nepal. Photo: Kamana Bhattarai.

If we miss the context policies may be toothless

Around the world, governments are fighting poverty, environmental degradation, and many other deprivations. Despite lacking resources and limited capacity, they have no choice but to try. Numerous policies and interventions are published every year: subsidies, promotion, social mobilization, and so on. Each policy looks great in writing, but many of them do not move at all. Hardly anyone in government can even answer how many such policies exist. These policies are adapted for the sake of satisfying populism or to show progress. Many of these policies go unfunded, especially when leadership changes, or the interest shifts to some other issues and not much happens.

Attending the 17th Annual Meeting of the Environment for Development Initiative (EfD) in Accra was a real privilege. Surfing through several presentations and learning about policy instruments to protect the environment and improve socio-economic welfare was amazing. The presentations helped me better understand how environmental protection and development can co-exist and how countries and communities can alleviate poverty without compromising the quality of the environment. Back to work at Curtin Institute for Energy Transition in Australia, I now ask myself: what does it take to make these interventions work on the ground?

Who benefits?

Few policies are put to work on the ground with budgets and activities, and the government rarely evaluates their policies and programs. When policy evaluation is rare, it is difficult to calibrate their level of success or effectiveness. Another challenge is the heterogeneous context, which further complicates identifying the effects of policies. We may not need a complicated policy evaluation report to know if the policies work. However, the difficult part is figuring out if the policies have any effect at all and, if so, identifying the spaces and people who benefit from them.

Having worked as a civil servant in Nepal for around a decade, I realized that the ground is not smooth as I, as a researcher, had assumed. Development and infrastructures are unbalanced across regions, socio-cultural diversity exists, and communities each have their own ways of life rooted in variations in geophysical and climatic conditions. On top of this are the differences in patronage, politics, and practice. These variations give rise to heterogeneous contexts throughout a nation. Each community is unique. Policymakers understand this, but targeting interventions within a heterogeneous context is difficult.

Must understand where, why, and how it works

When interventions are designed at the center – often in consultation with foreign specialists – they can easily get lost in the maze of heterogeneous contexts. These interventions may not receive attention in communities as the policy does not respond to the underlying cause in their specific context. At the same time, people in some areas could find it relevant and respond to it. Overall, the effect might be insignificant or limited depending on the proportion of households that respond to it.

When we think of who benefits from the policy, it’s important to understand that the communities who benefit may not be those who need it. While it is helpful to understand the overall impact, the difficulty is ascertaining where, why, and how a policy works. These are the three key parameters that providing feedback on the policy is targeting.

Problems can be worsened

Take, for example, the efforts to reduce the dependence on traditional fuels and introduce clean cooking. Research says moving from fuelwood to clean cooking improves household welfare indicators, like health and education, and saves the environment by reducing deforestation and GHG emissions. So, it's worth going clean. However, the ground reality is different, as a recent IEA report on clean cooking in Africa indicates the risk of an increased population using traditional fuel in Africa.

It’s a complex problem: some areas are transiting rapidly to clean fuel, whereas others haven’t moved much. How should we understand this slow progress? As a researcher, should I try an infinite combination of interventions to understand what works where? Or, the quicker solution would be to go to the household and figure out why they use firewood when we have a range of clean cooking stoves that work as a ‘magic bullet’. I appreciate the ongoing test of several interventions like subsidies and market channels. These pieces of work are very helpful. Households make decisions based on their individual contexts. Understanding these contexts through user experience helps identify reasons for slow clean cooking progress. Transiting from traditional cooking practice to clean cooking is a multi-step process. Villages unable to get through these steps fail to adopt clean cooking solutions.  

Problems can even be worsened when the government promotes a single solution in a heterogeneous context. On average, biogas users in Nepal have 27% of the cost as subsidized, but biogas is suitable for only a small fraction of households. For example, it doesn’t work well in cold climates, needs space for construction, and dung is an essential input. This is where a large number of communities are restricted from using it. As a result, after three decades of biogas promotion in Nepal, around 2% of the population uses biogas, which is almost one-third of the dung cake users.

Households in urban areas either do not need many of these services or can access them through commercial services. By contrast, remote households pay unproportionally high clean-cooking costs. For example, the price of LPG gas in Namche – a village near Mount Everest – is several times the price of that in cities in the lower hills. When subsidies for clean fuel do not equitably respond to this varying cost of space, the subsidy provided is much less than households pay in remote areas.

Numerous co-benefits from firewood use are linked to a wider livelihood strategy. Cooking is not just burning fuel to cook meals; it’s an integral part of livelihoods that has a synergistic relationship with a range of other aspects, including social exchange among family members, heating, agriculture, waste management, preserving seeds, and fulfilling rituals/culture. Have we considered these co-benefits in our cost-benefits? Of course, the demand for these services varies by climate, culture, and access to commerce. Even if households desire clean cooking fuel, they might not get it. When the context is heterogeneous, and deprivation comes in many forms, clean cooking becomes challenging unless policy can be flexible.

Let me return to the question: Do these interventions work on the ground? My answer is yes – if the intervention fits the context. However, missing the context means uncertainty about why and how policies work. I think there is an opportunity to fill this gap and answer ‘what makes the policy effective?’ if we could dive deeper into the context of the place and households we aim to serve.

Blog post | 16 November 2023