Julia Roberts for clean cookstoves

Let’s be honest: International development loves fads. The latest one to grab the headlines? Clean cookstoves. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has gotten behind it, helping fund the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves. Foreign Policy named cookstove gurus Peter Scott and Agnes Klingshirn to its Top Global Thinkers in 2010. Now, this cause célèbre ...

By , International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Colombia.
Jemal Countess/Getty Images
Jemal Countess/Getty Images
Jemal Countess/Getty Images

Let's be honest: International development loves fads. The latest one to grab the headlines? Clean cookstoves. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has gotten behind it, helping fund the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves. Foreign Policy named cookstove gurus Peter Scott and Agnes Klingshirn to its Top Global Thinkers in 2010. Now, this cause célèbre is getting its very own celebrity: Julia Roberts.

According to the alliance, the smoke from cooking over fires leads to 1.9 million premature deaths each year. In war zones and refugee camps, for example those in and around Darfur, Sudan, women have often been assaulted when they go and look for firewood; a more efficient stove reduces their trips. And as an added benefit, the stoves knock down greenhouse gases. In her new role, Roberts will "be instrumental in achieving the Alliance’s goal of 100 million homes' adopting clean and efficient cookstoves and fuels by 2020."

I must admit, I remain a bit skeptical of development work that just provides people with things. I've seen one too many donated items repurposed for other things. (A favorite: a refrigerator in a village with no electricity used to store pineapples. Close second: mosquito net as hair net.) Whether the recipients of cookstoves will get training on how to use the stoves and whether they wouldn't rather sell the stove for something else will be the real determinants of how well this program goes.

Let’s be honest: International development loves fads. The latest one to grab the headlines? Clean cookstoves. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has gotten behind it, helping fund the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves. Foreign Policy named cookstove gurus Peter Scott and Agnes Klingshirn to its Top Global Thinkers in 2010. Now, this cause célèbre is getting its very own celebrity: Julia Roberts.

According to the alliance, the smoke from cooking over fires leads to 1.9 million premature deaths each year. In war zones and refugee camps, for example those in and around Darfur, Sudan, women have often been assaulted when they go and look for firewood; a more efficient stove reduces their trips. And as an added benefit, the stoves knock down greenhouse gases. In her new role, Roberts will "be instrumental in achieving the Alliance’s goal of 100 million homes’ adopting clean and efficient cookstoves and fuels by 2020."

I must admit, I remain a bit skeptical of development work that just provides people with things. I’ve seen one too many donated items repurposed for other things. (A favorite: a refrigerator in a village with no electricity used to store pineapples. Close second: mosquito net as hair net.) Whether the recipients of cookstoves will get training on how to use the stoves and whether they wouldn’t rather sell the stove for something else will be the real determinants of how well this program goes.

But with Roberts now on board, perhaps it’s time for a new slogan: Eat (food cooked on clean stoves), Pray (the recipients actually use and like them), Love (it).

Elizabeth Dickinson is International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Colombia.

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