How to Eradicate Hunger: Economically Empowering Rural Women


Recently I interviewed Ann Tutwiler, Deputy Director-General for Knowledge of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). We discussed the economic empowerment of rural women, key trends in agriculture and international development, leadership lessons of social change and more.

Prior to joining FAO, Tutwiler served as Coordinator of Global Food Security in the Office of the US Secretary of Agriculture. Previously, she served as Senior Advisor for the Africa Bureau of the US Agency for International Development and prior to that, from 2006 to 2009, was the Managing Director for Agricultural Markets at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

Rahim Kanani: Recently, as one of the keynote speakers during the UN Commission on the Status of Women opening session, your focus was on the economic empowerment of rural women as an untapped approach to fight poverty and hunger. Can you describe this relationship?

Ann Tutwiler: Rural women play a critical role in the development and well-being of their communities, but their economic potential is wasted due to the gender gap in access to productive resources and opportunities.

According to FAO’s most recent State of Food and Agriculture report, just giving women the same access as men to modern seeds, fertilizer and tools could increase production on women's farms in developing countries by 20 to 30 percent – enough to feed up to 150 million more of the world’s hungry people.

Yields on plots managed by women are lower than those managed by men, but this is not because women are worse farmers. In many countries women don’t have the same rights as men to buy, sell or inherit land, to open a savings account or borrow money, to sign a contract or sell their produce.

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Women make up, on average, 43 percent of the agricultural labor force in developing countries, but only comprise between 3 and 20 percent of agricultural landholders, depending on the country.

FAO estimates that feeding a global population of just over 9 billion in 2050 will require a 60 percent increase in global food production. Three-fourths of that production will need to come from developing countries. If we’re going to meet that challenge, we can’t afford to continue squandering half of our human potential.

Gender equality is not just a human rights issue, it makes good business sense. Rural women are active economic agents who could unleash major advancements in hunger and poverty eradication if they were able to participate equally with men in the agricultural economy. They aren’t a problem to be solved. They’re a solution.

Rahim Kanani: As you survey the landscape of global hunger, poverty and development, what are some of the key trends you're noticing in recent years?

Ann Tutwiler: One trend that is encouraging is that agriculture is back on the international agenda after years of neglect. Agriculture's share in official development assistance dropped from 19% in 1980 to 3% in 2003, and it’s now at around 5%.

The 2008-2009 economic and food crises and the continued volatility of world food prices have resulted in a growing awareness of the need to increase investment to much higher levels in order to achieve the goals of rural poverty reduction, increased agricultural production and food security.

In developing countries economic growth originating in the agricultural sector is at least twice as effective in reducing poverty as growth originating elsewhere, and there is increased recognition that food security is closely connected not only to economic growth and social development but also to political stability and peace.

The African Union’s Maputo Declaration commitments, whereby countries resolved to allocate at least 10 percent of their national budgets to agriculture and rural development, and the food security commitments made by the G8 at L’Aquila signal a turning of the tide in favor helping the poor and hungry produce their own food.

There is also general agreement among the development community that we can’t deal with these complex, interrelated issues in isolation. Efforts to increase agricultural production and improve food and nutrition security need to be coupled with sustainable water, land and soil management, and the protection of biodiversity, so that these natural resources are preserved for future generations.

Actions also need to be “climate-smart” – that is, sustainably increase productivity, while strengthening farmers’ resilience to climate variability and reducing and removing greenhouse gases. Agriculture not only suffers the impacts of climate change, but it has enormous potential to mitigate its effects, and around 70 percent of this mitigation potential could be realized in developing countries.

Rahim Kanani: As Deputy Director-General, but also reflecting on the culmination of your prior experience, what have been some of the leadership lessons you've learned along the way with respect to creating social change?

Ann Tutwiler: The most important lesson I’ve learned about creating social change, whether inside an organization or in the broader community, is that you have to identify the key stakeholders in change, bring them together despite sometimes conflicting points of view, help them see how they can accomplish their goals if they pull in the same direction, provide a space for them to reach consensus and then help them implement that consensus.


Rahim Kanani: Lastly, what's on the horizon for the Food and Agriculture Organization moving forward?

Ann Tutwiler: Last year, FAO launched what amounts to a greener revolution that can increase agricultural production without the environmental damage and depletion of natural resources caused by current farm systems.

This model, which we call “Save and Grow”, draws on conservation agriculture techniques that minimize tillage and preserve soil structure and health. Methods such as precision irrigation and fertilizer placement not only help grow more food but also contribute to reducing crops' water needs by around 30 percent and energy costs by up to 60 percent. Integrated pest management minimizes the need for pesticides. Field trials in 57 low-income countries have produced yield increases averaging 80 percent.

FAO will be helping developing countries gradually adopt this new model, which could play an important role in helping  them achieve more sustainable economic growth, an issue that will be front and center at next June's Rio +20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development.

FAO is also working to integrate its emergency and development programs to allow us to better address both immediate needs and the root causes of hunger, and to strengthen the resilience of vulnerable populations, particularly those in protracted crises.

We have tremendous experience in helping people in emergency situations get back on their feet.  Cash-for-work programs that inject desperately needed resources into rural economies have immediate positive effects in stimulating local growth by creating jobs, income and markets for small-scale farmers, rehabilitating infrastructure and improving the local supply of fresh, safe and nutritious food.

Other FAO priorities include the conclusion of the organization’s ongoing reform process, which will improve efficiency, transparency and accountability.

The expansion of partnerships and South-South cooperation is another key area. FAO will continue to foster technical and financial collaboration among developing and emerging countries, which have a wealth of experience and knowledge to share on common problems and challenges.

FAO’s new Director-General, Jose Graziano da Silva, who took office in January, has made the total eradication of hunger the organization’s top priority. This will require harnessing the joint efforts of governments, United Nations agencies, civil society, the private sector and others.

As a neutral forum that can bring all these actors together, FAO has a unique role to play in making that happen.

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