Cover image courtesy of We Care Solar
–by Ian Schwind–
This article will explore the humanitarian aid provided to parts of Africa including Ghana, Uganda, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Malawi, Tanzania, and Ethiopia by the American nonprofit organization We Care Solar. The organization was started by an obstetrician-gynecologist who had originally intended to address the problem of high maternal mortality rates in Nigeria. Upon arrival in Northern Nigeria she realized that the problem was not with the doctors, but rather with the lack of consistent electricity. A common criticism of humanitarian organizations in Africa is that they are too shortsighted, too narrow in the scope of their actions, and inefficient in accomplishing their goals. This article will explore how We Care Solar is generally effective with respect to these common criticisms and what common pitfalls they have avoided. It will also talk about the problems with We Share Solar, the subsection of the group that provides educational outreach to American students and adds a voluntourism aspect to the group.
Oftentimes an organization is assumed by the general population to be good and effective simply because they claim to do humanitarian work. This can be a dangerous assumption to make, as history shows numerous instances of proclaimed humanitarianism causing more harm than good. These range from the ill-intentioned charade of King Leopold to the well-meaning but ultimately harmful Enough Project fighting against conflict minerals. King Leopold was the king of Belgium during the European colonial period. He claimed to be carrying out humanitarian work, but in actuality he was stripping the Congo of many of its resources and stripping the Congolese people of their ability to use money and other basic human rights.[ii] The Enough Project, on the other hand, truly was attempting to help the Congolese people by taking actions meant to prevent providing money that was thought to go to militant groups and fund their weapon supply. Their thoughts were flawed though, and the people most affected were actually the locals who worked in the mines and no longer had a steady source of income.[iii] When examining humanitarian work the most important aspect is the necessity of the work, otherwise a group risks turning out like the Enough Project and bringing with them a slew of problems, causing more harm than good. Outside humanitarian aid carries with it inherent negatives that affect the local economy along with other potential issues stemming from cultural differences, so the necessary good provided by the humanitarian group must outweigh the inherent evil. Once it has been established that the humanitarian group is needed, it is equally important to ensure that they are effective enough at their job to ensure that their aid outweighs their drawbacks. This includes having a long-term vision and addressing the full scope of issues. The work done by We Care Solar, an American humanitarian group, will be compared against this rubric in order to show why they are effective and why they feel an urge to help.
We Care Solar was founded by Laura Satchel, an American obstetrician-gynecologist who originally went to northern Nigeria in 2008 to study the mortality rates of women during childbirth. At that time, Nigeria accounted for 11% of the world’s maternal mortality rate despite only accounting for 2% of the world population.[iv] During her time there, she discovered that the problem was not with the nurses, doctors, or other healthcare professionals, but rather with the lack of reliable electricity, resulting in a best case scenario of performing life saving operations by flashlight and a worst case scenario of delaying operations for too long in hopes of the electricity coming back.[v] She consulted with her husband, Dr. Hal Aronson to discuss the feasibility of a solar energy solution. Dr. Aronson, a solar energy educator with experience in training teachers as well as installing residential solar energy systems, developed what We Care Solar refers to as a solar suitcase, so named because the entire system fits in a suitcase sized travel container.[vi] His solar suitcase comes with two 20 watt solar panels, a 14 amp hour battery to store energy for when the sun is not out, a 15 amp charge controller to prevent the system from causing electrical damage to the medical equipment, and a variety of medical equipment including medical quality lighting and fetal imaging equipment.[vii] They created their humanitarian group, which has now expanded to also provide solar suitcases to Liberia, Sierra Leone, Ghana, Uganda, Malawi, Tanzania, and Ethiopia, as well as other countries outside of Africa, though the work in those countries is outside of the scope of this paper. They have partnered with multiple different research and manufacturing groups including the Liberian Institute for Biomedical Research in an effort to continue improving their products. They also have their own research and development lab in California.[viii] When the group grew in size and no longer needed students and teachers to help manufacture the solar suitcases for hospitals, they created a STEM outreach program called We Share Solar where students could volunteer to put together different solar suitcases for schools and orphanages.[ix] We Care Solar’s own description of itself in its background and mission statement indicates generally good intentions and a willingness to work with people on the ground in the countries where they are working in order to improve.
Necessity of Aid in Hospitals
The most important thing to consider when analyzing the efficacy of a humanitarian aid organization is whether or not the aid they provide is truly necessary. The Enough Project is an example of a group providing well intentioned aid that ultimately ended up causing more harm to the local people than it did good. They lobbied to get legislation passed to ban the use of conflict minerals from the Democratic Republic of the Congo in phones and other devices, believing that the money used to purchase those minerals went to murderers and rapists, when in actuality most of it went to impoverished local townspeople who worked in the mines. The Democratic Republic of the Congo was already a very poor nation with minimal resources to begin with due to European colonialism, and the American legislation further compounded these issues.[x] We Care Solar’s reason for providing solar suitcases to Africa is to help combat high rates of maternal death during childbirth due to lack of electricity in the hospitals. As mentioned earlier, Nigeria accounts for 11% of maternal deaths worldwide during childbirth despite making up only 2% of the population. Maternal mortality during childbirth is also a problem in other parts of Africa, with post-partum hemorrhaging continuing to be a rising concern in many sub-Saharan countries.[xi] The higher than expected rate of maternal mortality is certainly alarming, though that by itself does not automatically give justification to providing humanitarian aid. Pearson and Shoo’s article “Availability and Use of Emergency Obstetric Services: Kenya, Rwanda, Southern Sudan, and Uganda” examines some of the issues facing expecting mothers in various African countries, including Uganda which is a country where We Care Solar has provided many solar suitcases. The study revealed a number of factors preventing the studied countries from reaching the United Nations recommended coverage of services, including lack of trained staff, cost of treatment, poor working conditions, lack of proper supplies, lack of trained workers, and lack of proper infrastructure including a reliable source of electricity.[xii] The solar suitcases provided by We Care Solar help address a number of these issues, which is an important step and shows some level of awareness to the problems in the area. Obviously solar panels help rectify the situation regarding the lack of electricity, but their solar suitcases also come with at least some basic medical equipment to help address the lack of proper supplies. Consistent light is also a step in the right direction to improve workplace conditions. While the group does not address the cost of treatment or the lack of trained staff in some countries, that is arguably a good decision, because addressing these issues requires prolonged interaction in the nation where help is being provided which opens the door to a number of issues that come when outsiders come and interfere excessively with the local workforce. It also avoids having misunderstandings due to cultural differences. Since there are already nurses and doctors in these African nations, it is best to let them handle training on their own.
Viability of Solar Energy
The next criterion that must next be met is that the method in which aid is being provided is viable and sustainable. A widely held assumption is that Africa as a whole is a very sunny continent, which therefore means that it should lend itself well to solar energy. David Hilling confirms these assumptions in his article “Alternative Energy Sources For Africa: Potential And Prospects,” and says that Africa is more favorable for solar energy than other continental land masses.[xiii] Solar energy has also proven itself to be sustainable. Jenny Nelson and Christopher Emmot state in their article “Can Solar Power Deliver?” that solar panels are rather durable and can last for years. They also state that while the upfront cost of creation and installation can be high, this form of energy is much cheaper in the long run and requires minimal maintenance.[xiv] The solar suitcases in particular require the battery to be replaced roughly every two years, but other than that there is almost no maintenance to be done, making it remarkably sustainable.[xv] The sustainability factor is important because it means that We Care Solar does not have to keep itself involved at every hospital. This reduces their effects on the local economy and culture and allows the doctors and hospitals to retain their own autonomy, because once the suitcases are installed We Care Solar has minimal interaction after installation. These suitcases are far from a perfect solution, as the only have the ability to power individual locations and institutions, but the solar suitcases can at least provide a sustainable temporary solution while the national governments of the different countries in which We Care Solar is involved can come up with more widespread and long term solutions by designing and implementing a nation wide power grid with consistent electricity. We Care Solar seems to have realized that at the very least they cannot be the ones to implement this long term solutions, and it is possible that they realize they also should not do that, and should instead leave the running of the country to the government of that country.
Willingness to Work with the Local People
We Care Solar has proven themselves willing to engage with local people when developing solutions by working with groups such as the Liberian Institute for Biomedical Research. This allows them to have a more complete understanding of what is most needed, because even extensive amounts of research cannot compare to the experiences of someone who has lived through the local situation. It also acknowledges African agency, which unfortunately is not always true with many humanitarian groups. Partnering with a research institute in particular acknowledges that their design is not perfect and shows their commitment to improve the design so that more hospitals can have better access to electricity. They are also partnered with local manufacturers to support the local economy and keep costs down as there is no overseas shipping costs. This shows a commitment to providing the greatest number of solar suitcases as possible and a recognition of African agency not commonly shown by some larger humanitarian groups.
We Share Solar is We Care Solar’s student engagement program meant to teach students about solar energy and allow them to construct a solar suitcase on their own. Upon completion of the project many students travel to the location the suitcase is to be installed. This is the biggest flaw in We Care Solar’s system, since voluntourism is almost always less effective than humanitarian work carried out by professionals. Voluntourism is a term commonly used to describe humanitarian work where the motivation behind the work largely has to do with the opportunity to travel to Africa. It is admirable that the group is looking to get high school students involved with solar energy, and they do at least take the time to teach the students the basics of the system before allowing them to construct the suitcase, but this subsection of the group still sacrifices the quality of their product. High school students are far more likely to make mistakes while construct the system than professionally trained engineers and electricians. This is problematic since it implies that We Care Solar finds it acceptable to sacrifice the quality of its work in countries such as Ghana or Uganda so long as they are providing educational outreach in the United States. The motivation behind the We Share Solar subsection is primarily to aiding American high school students. While this is a noble cause, it should not be such a large focus for a group trying to do humanitarian work throughout Africa. This is the largest stain on an otherwise impressive record for the group.
We Care Solar is obviously not a perfect humanitarian organization. The rather high cost of their suitcases is still a factor preventing more widespread access and utilizing students to help construct the solar suitcases increases the possibility of faulty equipment being delivered. It also shows that at least some of their motivation for building solar suitcases is also to provide hands on STEM experience to American students. This is not inherently a bad thing, and it is possible to still provide humanitarian aid while teaching high school students about solar energy and electrical systems, but it is slower and less precise than having work done exclusively by trained, professional engineers and electricians. Overall though, We Care Solar shows itself to be on the right track to providing good humanitarian aid, as it changed its focus to the most immediate problem plaguing the countries in which it operates, and tried to solve it in the way that would require the least amount of outside interference, allowing the African people to retain agency and still solve the biggest problem of lack of a reliable national power grid on their own. The work done by We Care Solar is necessary, effective, and in the process of getting better without displacing African workers.
This post may have been edited by admin for clarity and length.
 We Share Solar, “We Care Solar”.
[i] Laura Satchel, “Press Kit”, We Care Solar. Accessed 12/12/2018. wecaresolar.org/media/press-kit/.
[ii] Adam Hochschild, “King Leopold’s Ghost: A Storry of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa”, (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: 1999).
[iii] Seth Chase, director, We Will Win Peace, Concept 81. Accessed 10/13/2018.
[iv] CleanTechnica, “We Care Solar’s Founder Talks Solar Suitcases and Saving Lives”, CleanTechnica. Accessed 10/14/2018. cleantechnica.com/2018/09/30/we-care-solar-founder-talks-solar-suitcases-saving-lives-cleantechnica-video/.
[v] Laura Satchel, “Our Beginnings”, We Care Solar. Accessed 10/13/2018. wecaresolar.org/about/our-story/.
[vii] Laura Satchel, “What We Do”, We Care Solar. Accessed 10/13/2018. wecaresolar.org/about/what-we-do/.
[viii] Laura Satchel, “Designing a Better Suitcase”, We Care Solar. Accessed 10/13/2018. wecaresolar.org/about/designing-a-better-suitcase/.
[ix] We Share Solar, “We Care Solar”, We Share Solar. Accessed 10/14/2018. www.wesharesolar.org/about/we-care-solar/.
[x] Seth Chase, director, We Will Win Peace. (Hochschild 1999)
[xi] Faraja Mpemba et al, “Towards 2015: Post-Partum Haemorrhage in Sub-Saharan Africa Still on the Rise.” Journal of Clinical Nursing, vol. 23, no. 5-6, Aug. 2013, pp. 774–783., doi:10.1111/jocn.12126.
[xii] L. Pearson and R. Shoo, “Availability and Use of Emergency Obstetric Services: Kenya, Rwanda, Southern Sudan, and Uganda.” International Journal of Gynecology & Obstetrics, vol. 88, no. 2, July 2005, pp. 208–215., doi:10.1016/j.ijgo.2004.09.027.
[xiii] David Hilling, “Alternative Energy Sources For Africa: Potential And Prospects.” African Affairs, vol. 75, no. 300, 1976, pp. 359–371., doi:10.1093/oxfordjournals.afraf.a096739.
[xiv] Jenny Nelson and Christopher J. M. Emmot, “Can Solar Power Deliver?” Philosophical Transactions: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences, vol. 371, no. 1996, 13 Aug. 2013, pp. 1–8., doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rsta.2012.0372.
[xv] Laura Satchel, “What We Do”.