Monday, March 5, 2012

How Do We Know if Aid Programs are Working? An Innovative Tool to Measure Women's Roles and Empowerment in Agriculture

I was intrigued by the panel discussion led by U.S. Ambasador for Women's Issues, Melanne Verveer. It focused on a new index to measure progress on women’s roles, empowerment, and gender parity in agriculture She mentioned how “Feed the Future,” one of President Obama’s key foreign policy programs, has served as a catalyst to explore food security and agricultural issues. Although women are a vital force in agricultural development around the world, significant challenges continue to affect productivity and gender parity in this crucial area. While women make up 40% of the agricultural labor force internationally (up to 70% in sub-Saharan Africa), they represent only 3% to 20% of the world’s landowners. Why?

This side event provided an interesting discussion of how “sophistication and science” can be used to more effectively gauge the progress of international aid projects targeting rural women in agricultural settings. Ambassador Verveer said “aid effectiveness is a top development priority” and is directly tied to the empowerment of women and girls. She reiterated the importance of getting women involved in the protection and decision-making process as it relates to peace and security issues, including food. New gender guidelines will be outlined and implemented for all of the United States’ development programs. USAID Administrator, Rajiv Shah, spoke about women’s access to markets, technology, capital, and tools tied to agricultural productivity. He mentioned that Secretary Clinton has said “political will” is important, but not sufficient in measuring the success of aid programs for women.

The rest of the panel presentations and discussion focused on how this innovative agricultural index can provide a more specific measure of aid effectiveness, women’s empowerment, and gender parity. The index, for example, helps aid programs monitor women’s access to income, credit, assets, and leadership opportunities. Dr. Agnes Quisumbing, Senior Research Fellow for Health and Nutrition at IFPRI, helped the audience conceptualize the 5 domains of women’s empowerment in agriculture: production, resources, leadership, income, and time. Each of these 5 areas has specific indicators to measure progress. As women often have less income, access to resources, education, or land, Dr. Quisumbing discussed how these characteristics contribute to the gap in gender parity. The use of a “systematic index” will help to evaluate results and mainstream gender into international aid projects. It will also assist in reducing food security issues and food dependency in many parts of the world. The key will be to take these conceptualized domains and facilitate practical implementation of the index.

The final portion of the side event examined pilot surveys done in three different contexts: Bangladesh, Guatemala, and Uganda. Dr. Sabina Alkire, Director of the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative, asked the question: How are women empowered or disempowered? The index is meant to be applicable across nations and cultures, but adaptable to local contexts. By capturing levels of empowerment, aid organizations and national policymakers can find different ways to address women’s progress in the agricultural sector, as well as gender parity in various places. While the index is not necessarily the answer, it will enable groups to move in the right direction toward food security and women’s empowerment.

Representatives from each of the three countries discussed progress and challenges in their respective nations. In some areas, women had been empowered and reached gender parity with men, while in others, they lagged behind. The context of each place also indicated similarities and differences. It was interesting to think about how this specific index will enhance the work of national and international aid programs in the future. While working recently in Nigeria and Cambodia, it made me reflect on the critical role of rural women in agricultural production, food security, and global health, and how these indicators could lead to increased empowerment and gender parity. I am certainly looking forward to seeing how this innovative tool will be expanded and used in a wider context in the hope of empowering women and girls throughout the world!

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