Monday, February 24, 2020

Journey to the United Nations: Strengthening Alliances from Within

By. Kristi Pelzel, 2019 UNA-NCA Graduate Fellow; MA, Georgetown University, '19 Pat Tillman Foundation Scholar 

The things you do today make the "luck" that seems to fall in your lap tomorrow.

Spring of 2019, I was chosen to be a United Nations Association - National Capitol Area Graduate Fellow. During the fellowship I became serious about joining the United Nations as a staff member, and staying connected to the UNA-NCA leadership was an important part of my journey to being rostered as a Public Information Officer now waiting for my first assignment.

It was at about my tenth application, I was invited to take an exam, write essays, and sit for a panel interview. At the start of the panel interview, the citizenship of the panelists was presented to me along with their names. One of my instant fears was sitting before people who were citizens of countries that had major conflicting issues with the United States. Ultimately, politics didn't play into my competencies, helping me reflect on what it means to be a member of the international development community.

There is always going to be political and other relationship ebb and flows around the world - at all times. Working across different cultures, religions, and citizenships requires opening up to the idea of active conflict between counties, and still working together to keep touchpoints in place. You never know when even the smallest connection can mean the biggest difference in a life and death conflict later.

Now, as a rostered candidate, I continue to apply to roster positions for placement, as well as jobs outside of the roster in other job categories because until I get placed, I can explore all opportunities. Seventeen applications and one year and three months into my United Nations hiring process, today, my goal is to get placed upon graduation from Georgetown University.

Leveraging the connections of the UNA-NCA leadership has been a critical component of creating internal visibility at the UN. However, not all networking is positive, driving me to think in terms of numbers and not measuring my success by experience to stay positive.

A friend recently sent me a picture that sums up this journey, and maybe my life journey, in one visual. It's a picture of an iceberg with a small tip visible above water; looking from that vantage point, all you see is the word 'success.' Below the water, you see a massive iceberg with layers of sacrifice, failure, rejection, late nights, hard work, and persistence. This image struck me at the perfect moment not only to describe what I've been going through but for what lies ahead.

Someone like me never reaches success, staying below the surface, because even if I did reach the tip of the iceberg, I'd dive back into the water, working for the next goal. The work is never done, and the journey is an infinite one. This is one thing that tells me I'm right for international development work. It’s work that never ends and lives within the levels of challenges below the surface of success.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Creating Civic Engagement Through We the People

By Sara Smith, GCDC Program Assistant

“I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion.” - Thomas Jefferson 

Analyzing this quote from one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, I took away two major points.

First, Jefferson alludes that the power of the democratic republic lies in the hands of the people. The citizens of the United States decide how the government runs by actions such as voting or communicating with elected officials.

Second, it is a disservice to the society to shrug off others that seem uninformed. Instead of eliminating people from the conversation, Jefferson urges people to engage their peers by sharing the proper information and tools to participate. If everyone had the knowledge to engage fully as an active citizen, imagine how inclusive and powerful the American political system could be.

The purpose of the We the People program is embedded in this quote. Created by the Center for Civic Education, We the People aims to educate students on the American government, how it works, its philosophical foundation and history, and their rights and responsibilities.  Educating people to develop civic competence will enhance society since the power reins in their hands.

The We the People Program is an engaging curriculum on the history and principles of the United States constitutional democratic republic with content-rich textbooks and simulated congressional hearings. The experience simultaneously deepens students’ knowledge of American history, like the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights, while developing valuable skills. Through the curriculum, students practice skills such as public speaking, teamwork, conflict management, and consensus-building. Students are exposed to knowledge and competencies that are required to participate as citizens in the American political system.

As a judge of a simulated congressional hearing for We the People, I had the opportunity to witness first-hand the students’ knowledge about the American Government. Prior to the hearings, the students were assigned topic questions to narrow in their research and guide their testimony. The questions required students to provide their understanding of historical and contemporary issues by reasoning and applying constitutional principles and examples to support their answers. After the students stated their testimony, the judges had the opportunity to ask students follow-up questions. These questions tested the students’ ability to critically think by applying their civic knowledge to formulate an answer.

Throughout my experience as a judge, I was astonished by the overall performance of the students. The courage that was displayed from these students to partake in the simulated hearing being judged by accredited businessmen and women was incredible to witness. It was evident how engaged the students were in their learning and the extensive research that was done before the hearing. The passion that the students have was unsurfaced when the judges were able to ask interpretive questions. It became a conversation where the students were able to voice their perspectives on the historical and current American political system based on the facts they have learned.

It was through these conversations where I became inspired by the high schoolers sitting across the table from me. Hearing how they are utilizing historical facts to drive their visions of what the future American government should look like, was a lesson that was impactful. To create a promising future, we have to learn from the triumphs and mistakes of the past. These students were a testament to Thomas Jefferson’s quote above. With exposure and involvement in the We the People program, I am confident those students have the information and tools to fulfill their civic duties and even be a driving force in future development.

Monday, January 27, 2020

Will China solve the long-standing Kashmir issue?

By Jaiya Lalla, Global Classrooms DC Deputy Manager

As the United States falls into a period of isolation, the international system requires another actor to fill its space, and right now, the obvious answer is China. As tensions rise in South Asia, India and Pakistan need a global mediator to quell the conflict before the conflict escalates into nuclear war.

China has a long-standing involvement in the region that dates back to the 2nd century B.C. through trading on the Silk Road. However, once the British Raj partitioned the region into separate states, China’s relationship with India and Pakistan ebbed and flowed based on U.S. involvement in the region. Considering diminishing Western influence in the region, China has begun to warm up to both nations, opening up the idea that China could be an essential actor in solving the Kashmir crisis.
Historically, China sided with Pakistan’s claims to Kashmir because of tensions with India over Tibet. Yet, as the United States began warming up to India in its resolve to spread global capitalism, China declared neutrality on the issue to maintain its interests in both states. Considering India’s current aggressions in Kashmir, China has again sided with Pakistan, declaring support for Pakistan’s “legitimate rights and interests.”[i]

However, despite supporting Pakistan, China still maintains their ties with India. During the G-20 summit in Summer of 2019, before the decision to revoke Article 370 was announced, Prime Minister Modi held a trilateral meeting with Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin. At this time, the Belt and Road Initiative was starting to gain steam in Eurasia, and India wanted to get involved. The initiative and who is involved is still progressing today. Prime Minister Modi claims that India, China, and Russia are “laying the groundwork for [an] equal and indivisible security architecture in Eurasia.”[ii]

Despite condemning India’s declaration of Jammu and Kashmir as Union Territories, China seems to remain committed to an improved economic relationship with India. A few months after criticizing Modi’s action, Xi Jinping traveled to India to discuss their future economic and trade ties.[iii] Against a background of never-ending border skirmishes, this new cooperation could represent a further turn for the Sino-Indian relationship. Considering the new deepening ties and China’s historical relationship with Pakistan, could China finally solve the Kashmir issue?

Since India revoked Article 370, China has repeatedly called upon India and Pakistan to peacefully resolve the issue without immediately getting involved.[iv] The United States, namely President Trump, has also offered to help solve the dispute. However, with the aftermath of the Indo-Pakistani war of 1965, India is committed to limiting foreign intervention in the Kashmir issue, and the United States has essentially been forced to back down.[v] Nevertheless, Kashmir will continue to be on China’s radar. Considering their physical proximity to the region, an escalation of the Kashmir conflict would implicate China’s southern border, especially if India and Pakistan begin to employ nuclear weapons. Furthermore, China pursuing economic relationships with both states shows that they still have vested interests in the region.

However, unless China is willing to completely mobilize support behind Pakistan (unlikely, seeing that attention towards CPEC has subsided, and China is preoccupied with other issues), they will most likely only get involved if the conflict erupts into war. A war between India and Pakistan not only implicates China’s national security and economic interests but also their territorial claims to parts of Kashmir. Yet, it would not be unlike China to hold Kashmir as leverage, especially as it negotiates economic and trade issues with India.[vi]

At the same time, India’s aggressive nature is not without its disadvantages for its relationship with China. If war breaks out, they have the most to lose. China will most likely side with Pakistan, risking India’s attempts at stabilizing their trade imbalance with China. Internationally, conflict with China endangers India’s competing sphere of influence in Sri Lanka and Nepal. Finally, India jeopardizes losing more of Kashmir to China as it did in 1962. Although the Modi government will continue to pursue its Hindu nationalist objectives across the region, they must strategically avoid agitating China.

[i] Ankit Panda, “China Issues Statement Condemning Indian Decision to Bifurcate Kashmir,” The Diplomat, August 7, 2019,; Keegan Elmer, “China says it will support Pakistan ‘upholding its rights’ in Kashmir row with India,” South China Morning Post, August 10, 2019,
[ii] Andrey Panevin, “Osaka G20: The Important Meeting Most Media Missed,” The Diplomat, July 2, 2019,
[iii] “The Leaders of Asia’s Two Rising Powers Meet in Chennai: Does It Amount to a Reboot?” Rising Power Initiative – Sigur Center for Asian Studies, October 17, 2019,
[v] Sumit Ganguly, “The United States Can’t Solve the Kashmir Dispute,” Foreign Affairs, July 30, 2019,
[vi] Kunal Purohit, “How far will China go to support Pakistan’s position on Kashmir?”, DW, August 12, 2019,

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Why MUN Matters - Finding Victories Within Failures

By Nayana Celine Xavier, Global Classrooms DC Youth Intern for 2019-2020

Growing up, there was nothing I wanted to do more than sing. Unfortunately, I was not blessed with vocal cords that could produce the melodies I yearned for. Instead, my vocal cords were used to deliver speeches. I started public speaking at a young age and participated in local competitions.

Although I dreamed of standing under the spotlight and belting out songs, I soon realized that I could still be under the spotlight, but through different circumstances. When I entered middle school, I was all set to be part of my school’s debate team. We had debate team tryouts, and the first part of the selection process required a written persuasive essay on a given topic. I meticulously worked on my essay for weeks, editing and rewriting it. I was proud of my work. If my essay didn’t make it, I didn’t know what would!

The day results were announced, my shaky fingers opened up the email. To my surprise and confusion, I did not make the first cut. My heart dropped, and I felt every ounce of confidence in myself wither away. I couldn’t believe that I didn’t make the team! Up until that time, I had never truly experienced failure, and I hated the cold blanket of dread that surrounded me and supplanted my usual cheerful demeanor.

As I sat in anger and on the verge of tears, my friend consoled me and told me it wasn’t a big deal. She said that she was going to try out for Model UN, and that I should as well. It was during that moment of despair that I first heard the words “Model United Nations”.

Something about those words ignited a spark in me, a spark that had been let out by failure in not making the debate team. I decided to avenge my failures and tryout for the MUN team. Unbeknownst to me, as one door closed, a million others had opened. I tried out for MUN and I made it.

Fast forward to my first MUN conference, I strode into committee confidently, expecting to be the best in the room. I thought my past public speaking experiences would give me an upper hand in committee. I had never been so wrong. I was surrounded by incredible delegates that were able to deliver compelling speeches and propose well-rounded solutions. I was awe of those amazing delegates, and I realized I had greatly overestimated my abilities. That day, I learned about the power of humility. No matter how great I think I am, there will always be another person who is smarter, more experienced, and better at MUN. But I can strive to learn from that delegate and work to be the best delegate, person, and leader I possibly can.

The willingness and ability to accept and learn from others and one’s own mistakes is what pushes us forward. It is what separates a good delegate from the best delegate. Model United Nations has been an integral part of my education and teenage years, making me more aware and connected to a myriad of issues that face our world today.

After participating in a UNEP committee with the topic of discussion on electronic waste (e-waste), I realized that my community was not aware of the environmentally sound management of e- waste. I set up an e-waste drive and received an overwhelming response. Not only was my community able to properly dispose of their electronic waste, but they also became better informed on the issue and became aware of local e-waste disposal facilities.

My participation in one MUN conference resonated greater change in my community, and in myself. Awareness is the first step in addressing any issue, no matter how big or small it may be. MUN makes you aware, and it equips you with the knowledge to take action. MUN has also taught me how to effectively work with others. Several times during committee, you are met with backlash and little support for your solutions. It can be frustrating to have your work be completely disregarded. But you succeed when you’re able to direct that frustration into progress. Compromise is paramount in solving any problem, whether that be in MUN or in life. It requires us to see beyond our personal pursuits and work for a greater goal.

Most of all, MUN has shown me the path of perseverance. Every working paper that failed, every block that dismantled, and every award that was passed over has made me stronger. We have an incredible will, and the obstacles in our path serve to remind us of this will. I have learned to never give up and try till the very last second, for there is always a chance of success.

MUN has opened my eyes to the world, to others, and to myself. Model United Nations has forever changed my life. It transformed me as an individual, leading me to find victories within my greatest failures.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Celebrating International Education Day 2020

by Sara Smith, GCDC Program Assistant

The United Nations General Assembly established January 24th as International Education Day to bring awareness to the profound impact of education. Many people realize that education is important, but when I asked a group of peers why it is meaningful to them, the responses were limited to personal benefits, such as personal growth and career advancements. These responses do not seem to appreciate the immense benefits education has on not only the individual but also the society, planet, and prosperity. That sentiment is reflected in this year’s International Day of Education, as it brings attention to this important issue by announcing the theme as ‘Learning for people, planet, prosperity, and peace.’ While education provides us opportunities to advance personally, it also allows us to design the world we live in.

Through education, you gain knowledge by learning to store, interpret, and apply information. The acquired knowledge enlightens our perspectives and influences our individual opinions and beliefs, weighing in on our character and actions. On an individual level, education is a tool for self-discovery and self-improvement. The more knowledge a person has, the more skills and insight they will be able to provide. In a job market with an emphasis on known skills, quality education can offer benefits to an individual’s career path. 

Further education allows the individual to progress in their career, yielding more financial and economic benefits. Having educated individuals in the workforce benefits everyone in society. Education gives people opportunities and resources to participate fully in society. With a plethora of knowledge, comes the progress and enrichment for everyone.

For these reasons, education plays a vital role in sustainable development. The United Nations set 17 sustainable development goals to be reached by 2030. Each goal is interconnected and rooted in education. 

For example, the first goal is to eliminate poverty. The UN’s Global Education First Initiative conducted a study that showed if people who are burdened by poverty had access to education and gained basic literacy skills, 171 million people could no longer live in poverty. The second goal is zero hunger. If people were knowledgeable about fundamental nutritional values, could hunger be eradicated? Over 800 million people are undernourished. Results from this same study showed that if mothers received secondary education, 12 million children could avoid stunting issues. This leads to the third goal of good health and well-being. If people were educated on common signs and symptoms, would they be able to realize illnesses before it was too late? If individuals in a poverty-stricken society had access to a medical book, could that change the medical issues in that community? 

Research shows that secondary education could lead to 49% fewer child deaths. For the rest of the SDGs, I continued to see links between the goals and education. Education allows humanity the opportunity to reach these sustainable development goals by being our most valuable and renewable resource for future progress.

Monday, December 9, 2019

Human Rights Awards Interview with Ambassador Suzan Johnson Cook

Ambassador Suzan Johnson Cook
F. Allen "Tex" Harris Human Rights Diplomacy Award

Interviewer: Beth Akiyama, UNA NCA Human Rights Committee Secretary

Suzan Johnson Cook has represented the United States in 28 countries and more than 100 diplomatic engagements, bringing faith leaders and women to the Religious Freedom table. Additionally, she has been the faith advisor to two U.S. Presidents, three cabinet secretaries, as well as political and celebrity leaders.  On the front lines of 9/ll, she helped New York and our nation through traumatic times, and become known as “America’s Chaplain”. She served Harvard’s Divinity School as an Associate Dean, and Faculty member for three years, as a President’s Administrative Fellow. Her alma mater, Union theological Seminary, awarded her with the UNITAS and Trailblazing awards, as well as the Activist Scholar Fellowship for two years. She also was a Fellow at Catholic University of America, where she concentrated on women and Peace Building.  Ambassador Johnson Cook’s passions are education, desiring to shape a generation of 21st century scholars, and enhancing the role women play as leaders, both domestically and internationally.  Her Pro-Voice /Pro Voz Movement is in direct response to seeing first-hand the lack of access, and the lack of women at corporate, political and diplomatic tables worldwide. Her movement helps Black, Latina and Asian women become both a political and economic force, through  connections, celebrations and conversations, and mentoring them into key leadership positions.

UNA-NCA:  Can you tell us about yourself and what lead you to get involved in human rights work? 

SJC: First I want to say I am very grateful and honored because Tex Harris is such an icon and I appreciate his work so much.

I was born into a civil rights family, I’m what you call a “Civil Rights Baby”.  Certainly “civil rights” is “human rights”.  

My parents were Southerners, born in the Deep South during Jim Crow segregation.  They moved to the North and had us, but we went South every summer. You know you connect to your roots, particularly your maternal roots.  You lived on the farm with your relatives. Rich, rich time, but you were in the midst of the segregated South. I remember as a kid being stopped all the time.  We’d go down and they’d see these Northern license plates. We’d stop and I remember not being able to eat at certain counters when we would go shopping downtown on Main Street with my grandmother.  I was small but I remember it because it was just so prevalent. So I was born into a consciousness of things not being right. My parents as well as their friends who were Black and primarily Jewish in New York, were very involved in the Martin Luther King Civil Rights Movement and the Civil Rights March.  And I remember being a little girl and sitting in the basement of Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem while our parents all took these buses to the March on Washington. I was about 5 or 6. It was 1963. They didn’t take the kids, but we were taught the Freedom songs and why our parents were going. And so on black and white TV we’d look for our parents in the mass of about 100,000 people.  So I knew that things were not right, but I knew my parents and their extended family were fighting for things to be right. So I took on that mantle. You couldn’t escape it, it was part of the fabric of our life. In our homes we talked about it, in our churches we talked about it. So I was very moved as I entered my teenage years and then when I entered the ministry with a consciousness that we are supposed to live out the dream.  We are supposed to have rights for children, for teens, for adults, no matter what their skin color.

At 14 I went to Spain on a semester abroad.  When I came back it was really the beginning of the Latinization of America.  My neighborhood in the Bronx was becoming heavily Puerto Rican at the time. You had Blacks you had whites you had Puerto Ricans. Now I’m bilingual in Spanish and English coming back and so I’m able to translate for my playmates and parents.  I just understood that you have to be global, the rights are for everybody. I would defend my friends, because usually there were just one or two Puerto Ricans in my class. We had been the minority before, so I was like, “You can’t treat people like that, you know.”  That first generation. So I always was kind of like a Freedom Fighter. 

I didn’t know how it was going to play out, but I knew it was going to be global after that trip to Spain. I knew I was going to be a Freedom FIghter in some respect and I knew what I wanted for our family had to be for everyone else.  So it’s great to be “privileged” in the sense of having privileges, but then everyone should have the same access and rights to that. So that’s what started my journey.

UNA-NCA:  Has there been an event or experience that has had a continuing impact on your life? 

SJC:  Faith has been the common denominator throughout my life.  It was my faith community that has sustained me, that has encouraged me.  As a kid, they were like “Where are you going to college?” And I was like, “I’m just reading Dr. Seuss books!” And they were, “OK. And where are you going to college?” So they helped me keep focused.  They helped me be encouraged. They celebrated when different occurrences happened in my life. So it was the faith community that has been the common thread all the way through my ambassadorship.  

We were part of the churches of Harlem and there was a church on every block. It was a very united community. The Church was a very integral part of the community.  We would have intergenerational parties, so our pastor, our parents and the kids would be at the same table.  We learned how to socialize in a clean, good way. Our standards were always high. We would look for good men like our fathers, because we were always around strong men.  Families were intact and they cared about their kids, it wasn’t like we were to the side we were always involved. So the faith community was critically important throughout my life, to this day.  

UNA-NCA:  What are you most proud of in regards to human rights in your service as an ambassador? 

SJC: It was not just about success, but about a word I call “significance” that I was able to make an impact in many places for many people.  Sometimes your “presence” is the greatest “present”. I remember being in Saudi Arabia and the diplomatic table was all men, except me, and then there was a second ring of chairs around that table, against the wall and the women had to sit on the outer circle.  The women had their hijabs on and you could only see their eyes, but they looked at me and they were smiling. Afterwards they passed me their card. That’s when Pro Voice started for me: “You have to amplify our voice for us when we can’t do it.” So I am most proud that I was able to get to the table.  So my thing is, I’ve been the first, but I hope I am the first of many.  That’s really what I wanted to be, the door opener, and that’s what I think I am most proud of.  

UNA NCA: Do you have any heroes or role models that you’d like to share with us? 

SJC: Certainly Rosa Parks.  Martin Luther King, Coretta Scott King.  I always zero in on the women! I am the god daughter of Coretta Scott King and I would always sit with her and just admire her.  She didn’t have to be up front, but she had a major role and a major impact. Not only on Dr. King, but on the Movement. It’s that quiet strength that I like.  It doesn’t always have to be up in your face. She was this quiet, brilliant, beautiful strength. I really admired Coretta Scott King.  

Then, she wasn’t famous, but my mother was just the bomb!  She had the package: She was elegant, she was fiscally fit, physically fit, she was a ladies lady.  She wielded power. My parents collectively employed a lot of people in the Bronx when employment wasn’t plentiful for people.  They believed that if you were going to do right by people, particularly for the fathers in those days, you had to help them put food on their table.  Because if a man can’t go home at the end of the week and feed his family, then nothing else is right. Their human rights was not always marching, and there was a need for that, but there is also a need for people when the march is over to help the people who are still there, still poor, still broke, still their spirits are in poverty and that’s what my parents did.  And I think I got a lot of that. 

UNA-NCA:  What are some of the ways you can suggest which people who are in human rights can make an impact? 

SJC:  Volunteer. During crisis times and also not during crisis times.  In this globe that we’re in, there’s a crisis somewhere every day in the world.  So volunteering, but I would say organized volunteering. Not just to show up and be another body, but if there is training involved, trauma training, whether its training to serve 5000 people food, but to prepare yourself before. But to show up and volunteer.  Find an issue that’s important to you and to serve there. 

The second is to mentor, because if you’ve already done it and you have life experience then passing that on to another generation is critical so that can continue.  That’s what I feel legacy is, so that after you go, it can still continue otherwise every generation has to start all over again.

The third thing is, if you can’t show up physically, then you can write a check.  That’s what Giving Tuesday was all about. Remember that there are some of us out there are some of us out there doing it every single day.  So you can fund the project. You can fund human rights. 

I would say those are some of the ways I would encourage people to get involved.

UNA NCA:  Regarding the position of Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, what do you think was, and continues to be, the importance of that ambassadorship?

SJC: There has to be a voice in the globe that cries out.  The holy scriptures talk about “a voice crying in the wilderness”.  There has to be a voice that speaks and amplifies the voices of those who are voiceless. Religious persecution is real and unless someone speaks up for you or impacts governments to treat you correctly, then it’s not going to happen.  So it has to be intentional. The creation of this position was the intentionality of the U.S. saying, “We want to do something about it.” 

It’s not the headlines kind of ambassadorship, like if you’re an ambassador to Spain or the Bahamas, but this is 199 countries and many times you cannot be in the headlines, because you’re trying to save the life of a family, of an individual, of a tribe, ,of the Kurds, of the Shias - of people who are being persecuted for their beliefs.  So you have to do the opposite kind of thinking for this. You can’t be the one that’s looking for glory and glamour, because it’s really not about you. You have to work within the vision and the parameters of the Secretary of State and the President of the United States. Again, if you’re coming from a place where you’ve been the leader and you’ve been in charge.  You have to realize that “at-large” is different than “in-charge”. You are there to serve the President, the Secretary and the American people and represent them. It’s not about your opinion, it’s about “How do I join the team to help human rights become effective globally?” 

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Human Rights Awards Interview with Nate Mook, Executive Director of World Central Kitchen

World Central Kitchen
UNA-NCA Community Human Rights Award

Interviewer: Nicolas Wicaksono, UNA-NCA Member

In anticipation of the United Nations Association – National Capital Area’s Human Rights Award ceremony, the association interviewed awardee World Central Kitchen (WCK). In 2018, WCK worked in 13 natural or man-made disasters across Africa, the Americas, and Africa, serving warm nutritious meals to vulnerable populations, helping them develop ‘clean cooking’ skills, and building their resilience against disasters. Below is a profile of the WCK’s work, as informed by an interview with executive director Nate Mook, who will be receiving the award on behalf of the organization.


When a devastating 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck Haiti in 2010, the international community responded swiftly by providing humanitarian aid worth tens of millions of dollars. Despite this encouraging display of goodwill, José Andrés, founder of World Central Kitchen, noticed a troubling trend: local producers of rice and other food products were rapidly losing their businesses as the US flooded the country with free or subsidized food aid.

The harm of good intentions offered a sobering lesson on the importance of empowering communities to take ownership over recovery efforts. For Nate Mook, who was supporting Andrés in Haiti at that time, helping local communities develop their own ability and systems for cooking nutritious foods is key.

By 27th birthday, Mook had already founded or co-founded three technology-based companies. His tech-savviness and proficiency with media eventually helped him transition to a career in storytelling, where he produced numerous video projects throughout the world, including in humanitarian crises in Iraq, Haiti, and Somalia. Besides the general shortages of food in many of these contexts, Mook began observing a profound irony: cooking and food were poisoning people when they should really be nourishing people and supporting vibrant livelihoods. Billions of people globally lack food security, and many cook in ways that create harmful side effects, such as toxins produced by burning charcoal or environmental harms from cutting trees down for wood. 

In Mook’s view, food security is a linchpin for the many human rights issues that the international community cares about. Nutrition and health can themselves be considered human rights, but food insecurity can also have knock-on effects that impede on other rights. “Cooking touches everything,” Mook emphatically asserts. For example, “cooking is education because if girls have to go out and collect firewood everyday … so the mom can cook over a wood fire, then they’re not going to school. If trees are cut down to make [firewood], then food is [harming] the environment.”

Indeed, Mook notes that the natural disaster itself is often not the most lethal part of a humanitarian crisis. Rather, as communities seek to survive and recover from the damage, deep inequities in their abilities to access essential resources like food are often revealed. Existing problems with how resources are managed, such as the presence of food deserts, are often the main culprits behind casualties. Mook therefore sees providing food security to the most vulnerable populations as supporting both people’s immediate survival and broader socio-economic equality.

At the same time, essential to a person’s dignity is the understanding that they, too, have their own aspirations, needs, and agency. Thus, critical to World Central Kitchen’s work is building local communities’ own long-run resilience and ability to find solutions to the challenges they face. For example, as water and electricity began returning to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, WCK began winding down their provision of meals. Instead, WCK began distributing monetary grants to help local producers sell their products and to support the development of domestic markets.  After a recent hurricane devastated Moore’s Island in the Bahamas, WCK worked with local community leaders to identify the main barrier to food security: a lack of functioning docks. In addition to distributing meals, WCK worked to import supplies of lumber and helped rebuild several docks, allowing the island’s own food supplies to flow more effectively.

Of course, as an organization working to respond rapidly to humanitarian disasters, WCK also has an extensive infrastructure to provide short-term palliative aid. Even so, WCK innovates on traditional humanitarian aid models by providing nutritious cooked meals. As Mook explains, typical humanitarian responses to food crises often involves the mass distribution of generic pre-package food stuffs which often amount to little more than “junk foods.” On the other hand, in every disaster, WCK’s staff, including a nutritionist on staff, carefully identify local cultural norms to ensure that the food they cook are appropriate for local communities. Additionally, WCK chefs have mastery over a broad range of recipes given that the locally-available ingredients vary greatly by location. This model, Mook argues, ought to be the new standard.

WCK’s method of supporting food security is not without challenges. Because of the organization’s focus on specific local contexts, each disaster WCK’s addresses will be unique, and there are few models that can be readily transferred from one context to another. This means that WCK often has to learn “on the go” when a disaster strikes. Additionally, the new model of food aid will take time to become normalized and scaled among more established actors working in this field. Nonetheless, Mook believes that WCK’s work will in time become more widely-known and adopted. Indeed, there is cause for optimism, as Mook has observed some progress on this in the past two years.