Saturday, December 21, 2013

Carbon for Water - Evan Abramson & Carmen Elsa Lopez

Carbon for Water is a movie about a project aiming to make Kenyans from the Western Province boil water using plastic filters donated by Vestergaard, a company manufacturing public health tools such as mosquito nets and water filters.

Though the project may sound like charity, Vestergaard would make money in the carbon finance market: Vestergaard PR team was smart enough to convince the Gold Standard Foundation (one of the two major accrediting bodies) that the carbon dioxide issued by Kenyans was enough to be offset by issuing carbon permits.

Carbon for Water won the Best International Short Film Award in the Planet in Focus Environmental Film Festival (2011), Best Short Documentary in the California International Short Festival (2011), was picked as the official selection of the Festival international du film d'environnement (2012), and was "highly commended" at the Development & Climate Days Film Competition, a side event at COP 17 in Durban, South Africa. The film and the project were also praised by the good-doers of the World Bank.

From a public relations point of view, Vestergaard's project was tremendously successful: a movie, kudos from development partners, and carbon-finance money. The development community, in its relentless search for funds, and in the context of has been recently joined by NGO people and other kind of characters with people skills who are very good at marketing ideas and concepts -Carbon for Water is a sign of the things to come...

However, from a public policy perspective, it is unclear whether Carbon for Water had any significant impact on the lives of the people this project was supposed to help. To begin with, this project is one more in the long list of well-intentioned initiatives that compete with the State as a provider of public services. There is a reason why "public services" are called that way, and ample evidence indicates that public services tend to be under-provided by the private sector. Water being the ultimate public good, I am afraid that Vestergaard's project will eventually fail.

Also, a quick google search shows a tremendously high number of laudatory comments from NGO people and only two critical comments by a guy named Kevin Starr. I was unable to find any impact evaluation, peer-reviewed article, or anything that really tells me whether this was a good idea. I personally don't think it is, but beyond my personal preferences, I would really like to see anything measuring the impact of this initiative on the Kenyans' living standards, not on the pockets of Vestergaard's shareholders -I'm sure they made a lot of money out of this.

Journal articles, randomized trials, and impact evaluations are boring and imperfect. They are also the kind of things that NGO people (mostly school dropouts or people with the white man's guilt) and donors (bureaucrats who actually hate under-developed countries) hate. But they are a better tool to know what works than a movie.

I am unable to recommend this movie until I get some serious evidence about the benefits it brought to the Kenyans in the long run.

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