Cooking Up Behavior Change

That’s exactly what I am trying to do this summer as a Research Associate for Duke’s TRAction Project – a USAID funded project led by Sanford Profs Subhrendu Pattanayak and Marc Jeuland.

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About half of the global population depends on solid fuel, such as wood, for their cooking needs, but this dependence has drastic consequences for global health and the environment. Traditional cookstoves are responsible for widespread respiratory illness (due to smoke and cooking inside), unsustainable wood/forest product harvesting, and both black carbon and CO2 emissions (wow that’s really bad right?) and improved cookstoves (ICS) have the POTENTIAL (key word here) to reverse all these problems (great, right?). So I’ve come to Uttarakhand, a state in Northern India, to help out with a randomized controlled trial (RCT) that is trying to uncover the barriers to adoption, so we can increase adoption of ICS aka cook up some behavior change.

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Despite reading tons about RCTs and behavioral economics this past year, nothing really prepared me for the field realities here in rural India. I’ve been particularly struck by how the randomness of an RCT, which is obviously the desirable and necessary part, can be so inimical to the way local NGOs work – I’ve been having flashbacks from Manoj’s class about how difficult the politics of RCTs are – and the thought of withholding a beneficial product from certain populations is just completely contrary to their operating missions! The issues of time inconsistency and self-control problems have become real to me now that I’ve seen them in action in the field – many of the villagers we are trying to reach are so liquidity constrained they cannot afford a new stove at the full cost, but we’ve also found some are unable to commit to pay in small installments because they know the longer they wait to pay – the faster the money will go. A perplexing catch-22 situation.

Uttarakhand View

I couldn’t have asked for a better location for field work. The village I am living in this summer is situated in the beautiful Kumaon mountains of Uttarakhand and, despite monsoon season coming a whole month earlier than ever before, I wake up to the most spectacular view every single day. On the days when I go out to the field, I am helping to finish up the cookstove pilots we’re doing to test various stove types, financing plans, and information campaigns before we launch the full-scale RCT. Everywhere I’ve been villagers welcome us into their homes, offering chai and usually lots of fruit, which has been a spectacular experience.

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On the days when the monsoons are too heavy for fieldwork, I hole myself up in the CHIRAG (Central Himalayan Rural Action Group – NGO partner for the on-the-ground implementation of this project) office and work on all sorts of data projects, from continuing analysis of the baseline survey completed last summer to running power calculations and tests of balance for the intervention sample. Needless to say, those stats classes are really coming in handy! After staring at Stata files all last semester, its nice to finally put a face to the data (so to speak)!

photoA day in the life of cookstoves

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