Forward With Intention: Solar Cooker Project

When humanitarian organizations provide aid to refugee or survivor populations, there must be thought given as to the impact of those services on the surrounding communities.
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It has been a long, exhausting and thought-provoking two days of meetings here in N'djamena. We have been meeting with Cord, our implementing partner in the Solar Cooker Project (SCP) in the Farchana refugee camp, as well as with Tchad Solaire, our partner in the Iridimi, Touloum and Oure Cassoni camps. We were also formally presented to the director of NGO projects in N'djamena and the Program Assistant for UNHCR's N'djamena office and his staff. All of the meetings were meant to inform our understanding of the projects and their collaboration with the local players. But we came away in some ways with more questions than answers. It's a complicated situation here on many levels.

It seems as though the situation might have changed here seven years ago. Our initial motivation in starting the SCP was to protect the women who were raped and brutalized when they left the camps to collect firewood for cooking. Today, however, while the firewood has become very scarce and solar cooking is an important option for families, it has been suggested that at least in this area that violence is declining since the advent of a joint security force between Chad and Sudan.

While all the organizations with which we spoke stressed the critical nature of solar cooking to the region, each organization had its own reason for the necessity of the project. Our partner, Cord, is interested in the project as a way of retaining girls in school. When the girls leave the camp to collect firewood it can mean several hours out of the camp, hours they could be spending in school. Cord also believes that solar cooking is a means of reducing conflict with local Chadians who also need these scarce resources. For other organizations the benefits of solar cooking are environmental. The smoke from cooking causes harmful emissions into the environment as well as damage to the lungs of the women doing the cooking.

We will learn more about the violence issue once we have arrived in the camp. But at the very least, it seems that some analysis needs to be done as to what part solar cooking plays in all of this.

One of the terribly sad realizations, however, is that it no longer seems feasible (at least for the near future) that the refugees will be able to return to Darfur. As long as Sudanese President Bashir rules Sudan, the danger is too great. It sadly seems that there is no progress in resolving the situation in Sudan in a way that would allow the displaced Darfuris to return home. When the Jewish World Watch contingent first visited the camps many years ago, the refugees had just arrived and the encampment was meant to be temporary. The hope and expectation was that within a few months or a couple of years at most; they would return to their homes. But now, seven years later, it is clear that returning to Darfur is not a reality and the camps are turning into permanent settlements. As a result the programs for the refugees must begin to move away from survival resources and begin to address ways of achieving self-sufficiency and permanence. In other words, helping to create a life, not an existence.

There is another critical aspect of the situation as well. In the communities surrounding the camps, the local population suffers from much of the poverty and lack of resources as the refugees. As a result, there is a resentment building over the special access to resources that the refugees receive. When the Darfuris were newly arrived the local population understood the need to provide them with assistance. But now there is a concern among government officials and aid workers that if everyone is not included in the programs and assistance is not shared equally, there will be new strife and conflict between the groups.

It is clear that when humanitarian organizations provide aid to refugee or survivor populations, there must be thought given as to the impact of those services on the surrounding communities. After the initial emergency has abated, a more encompassing strategy must be put in place that considers the long-term impact of those services. The last thing anyone wants to do is to create more strife or conflict through what were intended to be humanitarian actions.

Everyone with whom we spoke reiterated the same message and made the same request of us -- to please help provide services including solar cooking for everyone, not just for the refugees. It's a daunting task and clearly not one that Jewish World Watch can take on alone. But it is an important new way of looking at the situation here and one that needs serious consideration from all the players involved.

Diana sits on the board of Jewish World Watch (JWW), a leading organization in the fight against genocide and mass atrocities worldwide. JWW's work is currently focused on the ongoing crises in Sudan and Congo. Diana is currently traveling along with Janice Kamenir-Reznik, JWW co-founder and president, on a site visit to the JWW Solar Cooker Project in the Farchana refugee camp in eastern Chad, home to approximately 25,000 Darfuri refugees.

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