Washington — * The project had such promise. Western experts were sure solar cookers would be a big hit in West Africa: After all, the stoves were cheap, easy to operate, and didn't require any scarce, expensive firewood.
Unfortunately, the average West African didn't agree. The stoves seemed strange. What's more, they cooked too slowly and could only be used at an unpopular time of day. Despite repeated efforts, solar cooking in West Africa has yet to become a trend.
* Then There's the story of the solar water pumps. An American solar film has been negotiating with the government of India, eyeing mass sales of a portable water pump powered by photovoltaic cells. Perhaps mindful of the fate of solar cookers, the company strove to tailor the pump to the needs of Indian farmers. But the project stalled, as the fledging Indian solar industry successfully lobbied to restrict foreign competition.
These examples, culled from a book just published by the International Institute for Environment and Development, show how misunderstanding has often clouded the West's energy aid to underdeveloped nations.
On one hand, well-intentioned Western programs often barge into a country, with little regard for local customs and needs. On the other, suspicious third-world nations block proferred help because they fear economic colonialism with no long-term gain for themselves.
Yet it is in the West's best interests to continue energy aid efforts, says the report. And it claims such efforts could even attract the support of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.
"Two and a half years ago we decided there was a gap in discussion about the world energy problem," said report coauthor Thomas Hoffman at a recent meeting with reporters. "There was no thought being given to the third world."
Mr. Hoffman added that poor, underdeveloped countries suffer more from OPEC price hikes than industrialized nations do -- since their budgets are tighter to begin with and they depend on oil for their development projects.
Gas in America may have gone past the $1.30 mark, but the Tanzanian government recently announced emergency measures to cut national oil consumption 50 percent. And Turkey's oil bill exceeds its entire foreign exchange earnings.
"Americans tend to forget that the third world doesn't tend to blame the oil crisis on OPEC," Mr. Hoffman said, "but on the US and Europe because they consume such a large percentage of the world's energy."
The West should aid third-world energy development for four reasons, according to the report:
1. It will help stabilize international finance.
Before the first oil price shock, in 1973, the foreign debt of the third world was $93 billion. By 1978 it was $210 billion. Many underdeveloped nations are loaded with a burden of debt they can barely support. If further price hikes cause them to drop the load, Western banks will be left holding billion of dollars in suddenly worthless loans.
2. It would solidify markets for Western exports.
Sales in the third world are already big business: The US now earns more from its exports to developing nations than it does from those to the Common Market, Japan, and the Communist countries combined. (Though in this case the report's figure for "developing nations" includes OPEC countries.)
3. It would ease political tensions.
The need to elbow for scarce oil raises international tempers and disrupts the daily, interdependent business of the world.
"You can literally go to a country and not be able to leave for two or three days because the airport is out of fuel oil," said Mr. Hoffmann, describing how co-author Brian Johnson was stranded in the Sudan while researching the report.
4. Energy aid to many underdeveloped nations would defuse the growing threat of a firewood shortage.
The Asian Development Bank, for example, estimates that Asian developing countries need to plant 24.8 million acres of forest each year, if they are to avoid a crucial "wood deficit" by 1990.
Mr. Hoffmann admits a foreign wood shortage seems remote from Western national security interests. But it is the basic fuel of much of the world, he says, and an extreme shortage could crack the political stability of many underdeveloped countries.
It is this risk of instability that threatens OPEC itself. One cracking country could set off the tinderbox of the Mideast -- disrupting production and dragging down many OPEC economies. Thus they too have a vested interest in easing the problem, says the report.
The report says the first step toward breaking the "energy triangle" of hostility between the West, underdeveloped nations, and OPEC is to encourage more exploration for oil in third-world nations.
"The major oil companies are not that interested in small projects," says Erik Eckholm, a fellow at the institute.
In 1975 over 40,000 wells were drilled in the US and Canada, while less than 4,500 were drilled in the non-OPEC third world.
"Twenty thousand barrels a day would make a vast difference to any African country," said Mr. Hoffmann.
The report also recommends throwing US political weight behind a World Bank effort to form an affiliate that would oversee a $25 billion third world energy program.
This year in Kenya the United Nations will sponsor a conference on new and renewable sources of energy. It would be an ideal forum, said Mr. Hoffmann, for the US to announce support for a cooperative approach to underdeveloped-nation energy problems.