Commentary: Hungry for Change

Article Date

19 May 2010

Article Author

By ICRW Communications Staff

Media Contact

Anne McPherson

Vice President, Global Communications email [email protected]

As governments and donors recommit resources to reduce world hunger, it would be wise for us to reflect on past efforts to spur agricultural development.

The renewed attention to the issue is evident: On May 20, a symposium sponsored by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and ICRW, among others, marks the debut of “Feed the Future.” Led by U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration, the initiative aims to reduce global hunger through agricultural development. The World Bank, U.S. Treasury and other governments have initiated a multilateral trust fund for the same purpose. And the U.S. Congress will consider legislation to support global food security this year.

Now with the spotlight once again on agriculture and hunger, it would serve us well to learn from prior efforts in the 1980s and 1990s to improve agricultural development. The unfulfilled promise of the past can be attributed, in part, to the flawed assumptions about women farmers, who make up the majority of poor, rural populations in sub-Saharan Africa.

Previous attempts to include women in agriculture projects failed to understand that women farmers’ roles and responsibilities were as diverse as their male counterparts. For example, in Zimbabwe, efforts to adopt high-yielding maize found that taste was more important to women who grew maize for consumption. Men cultivated the vegetable as a cash crop.

Another analysis found that women are less likely to take risks and are slow to adopt new technologies. This is because they typically have and control fewer productive resources. Traditional roles and relationships between women and men also influence agricultural growth; microeconomic research has shown that gender inequality in farm households can contribute to reduced productivity.

But by heeding lessons from the past, we can identify opportunities to tap into women’s productive potential and increase the likelihood of reducing rural poverty and hunger. However, it requires a sincere commitment this time around: New public and private sector initiatives must involve women as key economic agents of change. Women farmers must be recognized for their contributions to local, national and global food security as well as agricultural and economic growth. Investments must be linked to thoughtful strategies relevant to local agricultural environments, market conditions and social realities, including gender norms.

Finally, donors, policymakers, development practitioners and agribusinesses must significantly shift their thinking about women, food security, agriculture and the global marketplace. Not until our investments recognize and support women’s roles in agriculture – from production and processing to marketing – will we truly achieve success in feeding the world.

A Significant Shift builds on ICRW’s decades of research and practical application on how and why to involve women in agricultural development efforts, as farmers, farm workers and agricultural businesswomen and entrepreneurs. Learn more about ICRW’s current work in agriculture and food security ››