Global activist’s visit to GW class highlights economic and educational opportunities clean cookstoves present.
By Menachem Wecker
“How could you not be inspired listening to José Andrés?” asked Rick Leach, president and CEO of World Food Program USA. If its frequent applause was any indication, the audience that filled the Jack Morton Auditorium agreed.
Mr. Andrés, a global activist who owns restaurants in several states and in the District, seamlessly transitioned between cracking well-received jokes and delivering sobering accounts of poverty and abuse in the developing world.
“Tweet a lot,” he directed the audience at the beginning of the 90-minute event Tuesday evening, during which he was initially interviewed by Kathleen Merrigan, executive director of sustainability at GW. He subsequently joined a panel, which included Dr. Merrigan; Mr. Leach; Mary Ellsberg, director of the Global Women’s Institute; and Radha Muthiah, CEO of the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves.
The program, part of the class “The Sustainable Plate,” focused on work to help the about 1.3 billion people globally who do not have access to electricity, let alone cookstoves. Up to 25 percent of black carbon emissions come from burning solid fuels for household energy needs. Nearly 10 million people annually become sick from household air pollution.
Many households in the developing world can spend up to half of their incomes on fuel. “Can you imagine spending 50 percent of your salary on gas?” Mr. Andrés said.
Mr. Leach agreed, noting that his organization knows of people who sold food that was given to them in order to buy firewood.
Clean cookstoves in kitchens can improve people’s lives, Mr. Andrés told the audience, and that is particularly true of women and girls, who spend a lot of time exposing themselves to vulnerable conditions gathering firewood outside of their communities.
Clean cookstoves not only could help keep girls and women safe, but also could free up their schedules to improve their education, according to Mr. Andrés, who has taken his daughters on volunteer trips to expose them to the “real world.”
“Clean cookstoves have everything to do with education,” he said.
In the panel discussion, Dr. Ellsberg cautioned that research has not yet demonstrated that cookstoves either enable girls to spend more time in school or protect them from assault. Although rapes outside of a village might drop if women and girls do not have to gather wood, attacks could rise in bathhouses and other secluded areas within the village. “This is not a silver bullet,” she said.
Ms. Muthiah, of the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, stressed the importance of her organization’s “market-driven approach,” rather than just giving away free stoves.
The alliance’s public-private partnership and encouragement of entrepreneurship means that a lot of “actors” have skin in the game, so to speak. “It’s a bit like a play on stage,” with a choreographic component, she said.
There can often be a cultural challenge inherent in trying to convince women to cook in a different way than their mothers taught them, Ms. Muthiah said. But she insisted that the cause not be abandoned. “This shouldn’t be a fad for five years,” she said.
Mr. Andrés addressed a parallel challenge in developed countries that prevents those who can help from recognizing the crisis of the global lack of proper kitchens. “We really don’t have friends that are hungry,” he said.
Those who do not observe hunger often cannot wrap their heads around the need to intervene. However, that is not how things should be, according to Mr. Andrés.
“The best moment is when you are confronted by hard reality,” he said.