Cooking School:  The UN Primes for Community-Driven Peacebuilding, Dr. Robert Zuber

26 May

Clean Cooking

It takes as much energy to wish as it does to plan. Eleanor Roosevelt

The most remarkable thing about my mother is that for thirty years she served the family nothing but leftovers. The original meal has never been found.  Calvin Trillin

For a moment, or a second, the pinched expressions of the cynical, world-weary, throat-cutting, miserable bastards we’ve all had to become disappears, when we’re confronted with something as simple as a plate of food.  Anthony Bourdain

Cooking is a kind of everyday magic.  Juliet Blackwell

When the leg does not walk, the stomach does not eat.  African Proverb

This was another diverse and busy week at the UN, literally overflowing with potential policy significance as well as more than the usual number of government and UN Secretariat interventions reminding us that this state-centric institution is rightly judged less by what we have to say about global policy and more by how we impact the lives of people on the ground.

One key to this impact for the UN is its peacekeeping operations, an increasingly complex and multi-faceted undertaking that seeks to blend nationally-seconded contingents (often with “caveats”) and then engage them in what are often a staggering array of tasks – from the physical protection of civilians and UN personnel to community outreach, support for elections and peace processes, and even the projection of force in areas where insurgencies threaten.

This week, UN corridors were filled with women and men in uniform, in part to participate in moving ceremonies to honor the fallen and in part to help address what the Republic of Korea referred to as our “reality gap” that places insufficient attention on what it called “holistic” and “prevention-oriented” responses to conflict.  The USG for peacekeeping LaCroix made a complementary point during the peacekeeper honoring ceremony when he noted that the safety and effectiveness of peacekeepers requires, among other things, that peace operations be tied closely to a political process that “can advance lasting solutions” to conflict.

To the UN’s credit, despite the limitations inherent in our collective policy bubble, there has been in recent years much more of an effort to ascertain the multiple dynamics and expectations of peacekeeping missions beyond ceremonies honoring the service and sacrifices of peacekeepers. To our mind, this is more important than it might appear.  In the US but surely elsewhere, people across the board seem to know less – and in many instances care less than they profess – about what military personnel do “in our name” than at any point in my lifetime.   We have written about this before and won’t repeat it here, but the substitution of what a recent Washington Post article calls our “sanitized way of remembering our troops” for a deeper attentiveness to the complexities of security threat and response, is both demeaning to the troops and dangerous for the rest of us.  We need to know more and care more about military matters regardless of our stances on the use of armed violence; this in part to guarantee that troops are not needlessly sent into harm’s way, but also to help ensure that those so sent (and the weapons that accompany them) are not doing significantly more harm than good.

Thankfully, the UN continues to wrestle sincerely with the many challenges of peacekeeper safety and effectiveness.  Moreover, led by several current UN Security Council members, notably Peru, Poland, Belgium and Indonesia (May’s Council president), we have witnessed a more robust, if still subtle shift in peacekeeping discussions; combining concerns for force generation and legal accountability mechanisms for abuses committed with an interest in communities – not only their concerns and impediments, but also their capacities to build and keep the peace.

Just this week alone, the aforementioned states and other stakeholders reinforced the importance of enabling greater community resourcefulness in the service of peace.  In Friday’s helpful Arria  Formula discussion on the relationship between peacekeeping and peacebuilding, Peru reminded colleagues that guaranteeing access to services and resources people need to improve their family and community circumstances is critical to peacebuilding success, especially to what the Ambassador referred to as the “recovery of the social fabric” after conflict.  Belgium was even more pointed, noting that at the end of the day, “states don’t make lasting peace so much as people do.”  This echoed Belgium’s excellent intervention during this week’s Security Council debate on protection of civilians in which it urged peacekeepers to “master the skills of community engagement” and remain attentive to the ways that “communities remain essential to peace.”

As Thailand rightly noted during that same debate, a durable peace is much less possible “when civilians and communities feel themselves under threat.” And as I was reminded this week by one of our remarkable former interns, not all of that threat is attributable to matters such as terrorism and corrupt governance.  Indeed, much is related to circumstances affecting families and communities, circumstances that the UN has pledged to address in other conference rooms, in part by exploring how best to help people access public services and ratchet up the contributions they are capable of making to the building of more peaceful societies.

One of those human security-related “circumstances” raised this week was on our collective progress on Goal 7 of the 2030 Development agenda related to “affordable and clean energy.”   One speaker after another conveyed the news that while some strides have been made on issues such as “greening” our energy sources and the electrification of rural areas, we are now (as a recent set of policy briefs makes clear) “playing catch-up on almost all of our energy goals and targets. For instance, we are still widely subsidizing fossil fuels and using available energy resources in inefficient and uneven ways.  And despite growing public interest in sustainable energy options, we remain reluctant to finance the full (if socially complex) shift to renewable energy resources despite the many climate and employment benefits that would thus accrue.

But perhaps more germane to this post, as explained by UN Energy co-chair Rachel Kyte, we also remain reluctant to “think about the people behind the numbers,” the children without power in their schools, the persons displaced by conflict who lack even the most basic access to energy for lighting and communications, the mothers (and fathers) for whom “clean cooking” is still a pipe-dream.

This issue of clean cooking touched me deeply.   My own cooking skills are barely sufficient to keep me upright, but I have many friends and acquaintances –including married folks living in a St. Louis (US) suburb — for whom cooking is a major form of self-expression, a joyful bonding exercise that contributes to their general well-being well beyond mere nourishment, providing a respite from our “world weary” selves.

Thus it is sobering to consider the many millions of people worldwide who must cook but who cannot cook cleanly, those who may well face gendered food insecurity and related struggles to provide family sustenance, and yet whose cooking may inadvertently become a death sentence for themselves and others.  Indeed, well over 3 million people each year die as a consequence of cooking without access to the (often simple) equipment and ingredients that could make it safer. Even during a week filled with testimonies to fallen peacekeepers and conflict victims, this narrative saddened me.

It may seem like a long distance from peacekeeping missions to the “everyday magic” of clean cooking, but it isn’t really.   If Brazil was right this week – if effective and robust community skills and resources provide the formula best able to fill our “protection and accountability gaps”– then we have a responsibility to ensure as best we can the general well-being of those community members, to listen more and impose less, to recommit to access to the health, food, energy and other basic needs that will allow citizens, peacekeepers and diplomats to build (and sustain) a durable peace together.

In the Security Council this week, Indonesia’s Foreign Minister insisted that, above all, “We must not let the people down.”  To get there, we have much still to learn about both the abundant skills and often-simple needs that remain resident in our communities. Much like with military matters, our attentiveness to the complex expectations, needs and assets of diverse populations will help us monitor, plan and collaborate for building peace with greater effectiveness.

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