Top Funders and NGOs Think Empowering Women Farmers Can Reduce Hunger. Are They Right?

Rafal Cichawa/shutterstock

Rafal Cichawa/shutterstock

In 2017, about 11 percent of the world’s population—around 821 million—was undernourished, according to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). This data confirms a recent trend of deteriorating food security, especially in South America and Africa—a result of many factors, including climate change, drought, political instability, conflict, and endemic poverty.

This problem isn’t new; famines and food insecurity are one of the oldest development challenges in human history. What is new is a recent shift by donors—both public and private—to focus on female empowerment in agriculture as a key solution to humanity’s food and nutrition deficit. This strategy is exemplified by the PepsiCo Foundation’s recent grant of $18.2 million grant to CARE to implement a female empowerment agriculture program called “She Feeds the World” in six countries: Egypt, Guatemala, India, Nigeria, Peru, and Uganda. With this investment, PepsiCo joins other heavy hitter donors in the food security space that are bringing a gender lens to such work. The U.S. government’s flagship aid program, Feed the Future, incorporates a focus on female empowerment, as does the agriculture program of the largest private foundation—the Gates Foundation.

“She Feeds the World” is one of the most ambitious projects in CARE’s history, and PepsiCo’s commitment is “the biggest corporate contribution that CARE has ever seen in terms of a multi-year partnership,” said Michelle Nunn, CARE’s president and CEO.

The grant will provide 5 million female farmers and their families around the world with education, resources and economic support to help them increase their crop yields, incomes and access to nutrition locally. This partnership is part of a broader effort by PepsiCo to support a more sustainable food system by empowering women in its own agricultural supply chain, including through its Sustainable Farming Program currently active in 38 countries, and by investing in multisector agricultural programs that have the potential to achieve systems change at scale.

Origins of Female Empowerment Focus

This emphasis on female empowerment in agriculture seems to be a result of the confluence of two separate events in the late 2000s: the 2006-2008 price hikes of wheat, rice, corn, and soybeans—the four food items that nearly three billion people who live on close to two dollars a day depend on—and Hillary Clinton’s tenure as Secretary of State, beginning in 2009. The first sparked a renewed interest among donors in food security, while the second gave rise to a focus on female empowerment in U.S. foreign policy, as illustrated by this quote from HRC on the front page of USAID’s Gender Equality and Female Empowerment policy, released in 2012:

Achieving our objectives for global development will demand accelerated efforts to achieve gender equality and women’s empowerment. Otherwise peace and prosperity will have their own glass ceiling.

All of these programs tend to share the same core components and theory of change, which generally goes like this: If women are given more access to land, secure property rights, better seeds, technology, water, fertilizer, information, training, and access to credit and investment to grow their businesses, then they will increase the yields on their plots, generate more household income, and possess more bargaining and decision-making power to provide more nutritious meals to their families.

Does Female Empowerment Actually Increase Yield and Improve Nutrition Outcomes?

PepsiCo deserves praise for donating to nutrition issues—especially since the bulk of PepsiCo’s products, namely soda and chips, are helping fuel a new global obesity crisis and undermining public health around the world. However, the current evidence base for CARE’s strategy of linking female empowerment to higher yields and improved nutrition outcomes is weak, and so if the foundation is really interested in finding solutions to those problems, it should carefully monitor the results of this program.

In its program strategy, CARE notes that the program rests on evidence that gender discrimination is “one of the major causes of poverty and food and nutrition insecurity.” The evidence it cites is the World Bank's 2012 World Development Report, entitled “Gender Equality and Development,” which is a flagship document for the gender and development policy agenda.

But the World Bank’s report never claims gender discrimination is a “major cause” of either poverty or malnutrition and is much more cautious in its language. What it does say is that, first and foremost, gender inequality matters intrinsically, because “the ability to live the life of one’s own choosing” is a “basic human right.” The report also argues that gender inequality also matters instrumentally, but here its language is much more circumspect, claiming that gender equality “can enhance economic efficiency and improve other development outcomes.”

The reason the Bank was cautious in 2012 was that the evidence that female empowerment interventions produced wider development benefits, such as productivity gains and improved child health outcomes, was mixed, and, frankly, is based on simplistic theories of human behavior. The MIT economist Esther Duflo summarized the literature in a 2012 article for the Journal of Economic Literature. On the impact of one critical tool of female empowerment--female education—on child health, Duflo wrote:

While more needs to be learned about this, the automatic presumption that female education is more important than male education for child mortality and for other children outcomes may need to be revised. It seems that both matter.

Duflo’s own research published in 2003 investigated the link between another key female empowerment intervention—transfers of household income to women—and child nutrition outcomes. She analyzed the post-Apartheid expansion of the pensions program in South Africa and found that pensions received by women (compared to men) translated into better nutrition outcomes for girls—but not for boys, which is a highly problematic outcome.

Other research by Duflo and her colleagues found that quotas for female local government leaders in India resulted in spending decisions that reflected the desires of women rather than men. But Duflo herself warned that different did not necessarily translate into better: “The fact that women have different preferences does not mean that these preferences are always benevolent, that they always favor ‘good things’ favorable to development.”

As donors have jumped on the female empowerment bandwagon, more evidence has been generated and synthesized. A 2016 literature review cited in the Gates Foundation’s gender equality strategy synthesized the evidence about the impact of female empowerment interventions on a range of development outcomes, including agricultural productivity and household nutrition.

Although this review found some evidence of an association between nutrition outcomes and “levers” that increase women’s control of income, assets, and resources—which is at the core of donor strategies in this sector, including CARE’s—stronger associations were found with maternal decision-making power and general education “levers.” One important qualifier is that none of the reviewed studies claimed a causal relationship—only statistically significant associations.

According to this review, there is a “paucity” of peer-reviewed literature on gender and agriculture outcomes. However, recent research has shown that increasing female access to “inputs,” such as land, seeds, technology, fertilizer, etc.—again part of CARE’s strategy—does not address the gender gap in productivity returns, “suggesting there are additional gender barriers that must be overcome to maximize effective use of these inputs to achieve equal productivity.”

One of the articles included in the review, a 2014 World Bank report on gender inequality in African agriculture, concluded that labor was the main barrier to equality in productivity. For a variety of reasons, female farmers in Africa do not have access to sufficient labor on their farms. The World Bank study also concluded that another core component of many donor strategies in this sector—agricultural “extension” services and access to information—do not increase female productivity.

However, as the World Bank noted, empowering women is a laudable goal in itself, even if it doesn’t result in these other development outcomes. When I spoke with CARE’s Senior Director of Food Security and Nutrition, Juan Echanove, he conceded that: “The ultimate goal is empowering women. Empowering women is an important goal in itself and not necessarily a medium for other gains.”

Echanove explained that CARE’s program is directed at the community level to build the agency of women. One of their preferred tools is Village Savings and Loans Associations, which bring women together to build social capital, experiment with peers, learn new skills such as financial literacy, and gain confidence in decision-making.

In terms of the other postulated outcomes, as the old saying goes, the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. CARE is rigorously evaluating the impact of “She Feeds the World,” so hopefully all donors in this space will learn from the program.