A "projet collectif" with the World Bank
- (From left to right) Leon, Gia, Tom, Fran, and Tallie after a team meeting
In the first week of October 2019, five Master level students at Sciences Po met at the crowded student-filled bar around the corner from campus to discuss their projet collectif, an eight-month intensive project with the World Bank and its Energy Sector Management Assistance Program (ESMAP). The topic was centered around “clean cooking,” a concept that first produced blank stares among us but would soon become a subject of expertise and even greater passion.
We were a diverse group. Leon and Franziska hailed from Germany, Gia from the Philippines, and Tallie from the United States. Tom--the native French--served as our translator whenever necessary. Aside from arriving on the same steps of 27 Rue Saint-Guillaume, our backgrounds hardly converged, with interests spanning international development, microfinance, human rights, and public policy; and professional experiences wide ranging, from public sector to private sector work. Nonetheless, we had all been selected to work on clean cooking, a topic that due to its far-reaching impacts on the climate, the environment, the economy, public health, and gender, precisely required a multidisciplinary perspective that a team like ours could provide. We reported to Franck Gbaguidi, Infrastructure Specialist in the Office of the World Bank Vice President for Infrastructure, member of the Clean Cooking team at the World Bank, and alumnus of Sciences Po.
So, what is clean cooking? Clean cooking is part of Sustainable Development Goal 7, universal access to affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy for all, and refers more specifically to access to modern cooking solutions. When most of us cook, we don’t think about what it takes to turn on our ovens to reheat leftovers or boil water to make tea. Unfortunately, half the world is not as fortunate--roughly 4 billion people still rely on polluting biomass fuels, such as charcoal and woodfuel, and basic stove technologies. This carries major implications for a variety of development objectives. Illnesses arising from traditional cooking practices poses a larger mortality burden than HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis combined. Reliance on biomass fuels also results in significant CO2 and black carbon emissions, as well as deforestation. Finally, due to entrenched gender roles that assign cooking responsibilities to women and girls, traditional cooking practices are drivers of gender inequality. In other words, “this project had something for everyone--whether you were interested in climate change, girl’s education, or women’s empowerment” says Franziska.
From left to right) Tom, Tallie, Gia, and Leon during the ideation exercise to narrow down our topic and region of focus.
A gender-centered approach, focused on sub-saharan Africa
After an extensive period of research, the team decided to take a gender-centered approach to the issue. We focused on the effects of traditional cooking practices on women and applied a novel approach to clean cooking called smart economics. Smart economics is a development framework that places women at the center of the agenda, under the premise that investing in women has exponential positive effects for the wider economy. While this approach has been applied in the health and education sectors, clean cooking has not benefited extensively from this type of analysis. We also decided to focus on Sub-Saharan Africa, “a region that has experienced particularly slow progress on the SDG 7 agenda and is also one of the most gender unequal regions in the world” (Tom).
Our analysis centered around evaluating the costs and benefits of transitioning to clean cooking for women end-users and the wider Sub-Saharan African economy. If the benefits are larger than the costs, then clean cooking access is smart economics--there is an exponential positive effect derived from investing in women. We found that “although the price tag for infrastructure, production, delivery, and maintenance can indeed be big, the benefits returned to women in terms of health, time, and economic savings are much greater” comments Gia. Importantly however, to achieve this reality, the right policy environments are crucial, and public, private, and civil society sectors have a lot of work to do to ensure a smart economics outcome. “The investments required to meet universal access to clean cooking for all Sub-Saharan African women is truly immense, but if achieved, the expected benefits are even more remarkable” (Franziska).
An intense process...
The process was intense. Collectively, we spent hundreds of hours producing the final deliverables: a 100-page report, a 40-page policy brief (PDF, 2.5 Mo), a 15-page executive summary, and a PowerPoint presentation. We began with an extensive literature review, a process which “allowed us to dive into the intricacies of the world of clean cooking - from its regional differences to its financial and social impacts” (Tallie). Next, we delivered a first draft, which at that point could be compared to a dish made from all ingredients in your cabinets--disorganized, discombobulated, and not particularly pleasant to consume. After receiving extensive and deeply valuable feedback, we decided to rethink the structure and flow of the report. We rewrote entire sections, which at first felt redundant and painstaking, but in the end “allowed us to determine how to bring a new perspective to the field of clean cooking and feel like our addition would be valuable” (Tallie). We delivered the final outputs by the end of April, including case studies based on interviews with practitioners in the field. “Conducting the case studies was a particularly eye-opening learning experience, as many of our assumptions were challenged and we were able to visualize the reality of clean cooking operations in certain local contexts” reflects Tallie. In the beginning of May, we presented our project to various experts in the field.
As any collaborative, multi-month project, we faced many challenges along the way. While working with a diverse group of students with different interests and expertise was a tremendous upside, it was also challenging to bring varied perspectives together to deliver a unified product. From narrowing the scope and focus of the project, to agreeing on inclusions and exclusions of each draft iteration, to aligning writing styles during the drafting and editing phases proved time consuming and sometimes difficult. “My teammates and I could easily spend hours and hours debating and exchanging ideas about how to define terms, design a framework, conduct an analysis, or phrase a single sentence in a report,” reflects Gia. However, it was precisely this challenging process, involving debate and compromise, “over Monoprix pizzas and beers” that allowed the final report to be well-developed and highly thought out.
From a more logistical perspective, a further challenge was coordinating the schedules of five students. Simply finding a time and space to meet each week proved difficult and at times frustrating. “On one occasion we couldn’t find a room for a partner meeting and were subsequently forced to take the call in a dark hallway somewhere deep inside a Science Po building,” remembers Leon. Alongside this, prioritizing and planning project milestones to align with various deadlines, external classwork, work schedules, and personal activities was a major challenge. Some phases of the project were incredibly time-intensive, and “what seemed to be a simple and straightforward report turned out to be one of the most painstaking and labour-intensive materials that I had ever worked on,” says Gia. When overlapping with Sciences Po deadlines, finding the time and energy to continue the work for projet collectif was incredibly demanding.
...Made even more challenging with the COVID-19 crisis
Finally, a wholly unexpected challenge was navigating the effects of COVID-19 on the project. To ease academic requirements under the uncertainty of the pandemic, completion of the project was left up to individual teams and partners. Having invested so much time at that point, the team decided to carry on for the remainder of the project to deliver the final outputs to the World Bank. “Stopping at that stage would have been a huge disappointment and would have gone against our motivation--delivering a product that could have a small impact on the millions of women suffering daily from traditional cooking practices,” says Franziska. However, coordinating across time zones (there is a fifteen-hour time difference between Oregon and Manilla) and through online forums, proved challenging. Furthermore, after an immense amount of collective efforts, finishing the project without being able to present the work in a formal and celebratory setting was disappointing.
A very positive and rewarding experience
Despite the aforementioned challenges, the entire process was incredibly rewarding. Several key tenets of the project were particularly enriching, including working with a diverse group of students. Each of us brought unique perspectives to the table and greatly enhanced the quality of the end product. During long work nights together, “colleagues turned to very good friends,” says Leon. While disagreements were part of the process, the ability to compromise, listen to others, debate on divisive issues, and ultimately unify, were greatly strengthened along the way. “These debates and conversations weren’t always easy, but they served as the foundation of our arguments and the backbone of our report,” reflects Gia.
Another positive aspect was the in-depth nature of the project. The team spent eight months researching and writing a report on a novel topic, reaching a much greater depth of analysis and expertise on the subject. “Working on the same topic for eight full months allowed us to acquire some in-depth knowledge of clean cooking, and more generally the issues of gender, energy and economics in Sub-Saharan Africa,” says Tom. This was especially rewarding for a sector like clean cooking, which is often forgotten as a key piece of the global agenda on energy access, but remains a major driver of poverty, climate change, and gender inequality. Furthermore, beginning collectively at the novice stage and progressing to junior experts in the field was incredibly empowering and rewarding: “we all ended up developing a deep interest and passion for a development topic we all had never heard of before,” reflects Gia.
Creating a product of value for a leading development organization like the World Bank, while gaining practical experience alongside traditional academic work, were additional positive outcomes. “It’s easy to stay stuck within the four walls of the classroom when you’re a student but having a projet collectif allowed me to balance my academics with valuable professional experience,” says Gia. “It helped to broaden my horizon beyond the theoretical studies and frameworks of my master’s degree,” says Leon. Working on a project with real-world implications was incredibly empowering, offering the opportunity to gain first-hand experience working in the development sector and “to develop insight about the inner workings of a specific team” notes Tallie. Collaborating with the World Bank in a professional manner, including with experts in the energy field and practitioners working directly on the ground to bring modern cooking solutions to women end-users, served as a springboard for future professional engagements. “It helped me grow and learn valuable lessons before entering the job market,” says Leon.
From the World Bank’s perspective, the project was a “very positive and rewarding experience” comments Yabei Zhang, World Bank Senior Energy Specialist and Lead of the Clean Cooking Fund. “The Sciences Po team of student-consultants showed their passion and dedication for this cross-sectoral topic and brought some fresh perspectives.” Furthermore, “they showed great commitment, creativity and dedication and were thus able to exceed our expectations” added Franck, the team’s supervisor at the Bank. After the conclusion of the project, Ms. Zhang even hired a few of the students as summer interns and consultants to work on a clean cooking online course at the World Bank “to help more people understand and work on this important development challenge.”
Putting the challenges and immediate rewards aside, in the end, the project felt much larger than this. Clean cooking, an oft-overlooked development objective, carries immense implications for the lives of women across the developing world. Providing access to modern cooking technologies seems simple enough and the impacts would be massive: Sub-Saharan Africa loses an estimated 58.2 billion dollars per year from its reliance on traditional cooking solutions. We now know that the issue is more nuanced than this, as women’s cooking behaviors are tied deeply to entrenched gender norms and traditional food preferences. At times, this reality felt overpowering--what could we, five Sciences Po students just beginning their professional journey, do to change this reality? Engaging on an eight-month project to deliver a novel take on clean cooking, one which highlights the power of investing in women on the energy agenda, is a small step in the right direction. Our take on smart economics “is a reminder that achieving universal access to modern energy cooking services could yield significant economic benefits and new opportunities for countries and communities alike” reflects Franck. Although “the clean cooking space in Sub-Saharan Africa may be small at the moment, it holds immense promise for gender equality and economic growth for the entire region,” concludes Franziska.