Zero Hunger: a challenge of gender and democracy

Blog post by John Coonrod.

When most people think of meeting the Secretary-General’s bold “Zero Hunger Challenge” I suspect they think of new seeds, new farm inputs and new sustainable farming methodologies. These are certainly important, but they are secondary. The primary challenge is developing governance structures that are responsive to women.

My organization, The Hunger Project, learned this in the action. Our field programs started, as many progressive NGOs do, with people-centered, community-led, rural-development strategies. These increasingly focused on women, as women were among the poorest. And when women’s lives improved, so did the lives of everyone in the family.

Then – in 1995 came the Beijing Conference: a wake up call for The Hunger Project and the world. In 1996 Ramalingaswami and others published the landmark Unicef paper The Asian Enigma. Why was child malnutrition in South Asia twice as bad as in Africa? One reason – gender discrimination was that much worse in South Asia. And the status of women was not brilliant in Africa. Our strategies could improve the lives of women, but to get at the root cause of hunger, they needed to also transform the entrenched unjust gender relations that were the root of the problem.

Hunger will persist as long as society teaches little girls to eat last and least – saving the best for the men and boys – and as long as girls are married off too young, and have children before their bodies are fully developed and while they are malnourished in pregnancy.

In Africa, women grow the majority of the food – yet get the smallest share of extension services, farm inputs and agricultural credit. As Kofi Annan once famously said – “if there is to be a green revolution in Africa, it must be a gender revolution.”

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Image courtesy The Hunger Project

All five elements of the Zero Hunger Challenge have gender discrimination as a root cause: (1) Zero stunting requires halting child marriage and improving maternal nutrition, (2 and 3) Doubling the productivity and income of small farmers and ensuring full-time access to nutritious food means ending the gender barriers faced by women farmers, (4 and 5) Zero waste and sustainable food systems means ensuring political voice to the women who are the traditional environmental stewards.

The Hunger Project spent several years listening to the leading feminist thinkers in each region where we worked to discover what the highest leverage interventions would be for transforming gender relations.

In India, the opportunity is political: the passage of constitutional amendments guarantee women seats in local government – bringing more than one million previously voiceless rural women to elected office. We “bet the store” on building the leadership capacity of more than 100,000 of these elected women leaders, and uniting them into federations for mutual empowerment.

In Africa, the opportunity is economic: pioneering effective strategies of training, savings and credit to make women food farmers effective economic actors. We have mobilized 120 women farmer-run credit unions at our epicenters across Africa.

In Latin America, it is social: empowering indigenous women’s organizations – ensuring they have voice both in their indigenous societies and in the majority social and political system.

In each case, progress in this highest leverage opportunity results in comprehensive social, economic and political transformation.

And for women, in particular, all politics is local. The issues that matter most to women – health, education, nutrition, water, sanitation, hygiene, natural resource sustainability and public safety and social justice – all must be solved at the local level, through responsive, effective local governance. All our programs – in every region – work to strengthen people’s partnership with grassroots-level government.

The Zero Hunger movement was born in Brazil – and the back story to Brazil’s stunning progress is the story of political transformation: a vibrant saga of civil society activism successfully transforming Brazil from being one of the most centralized authoritarian countries in the world to a highly decentralized participatory local democracy, with women in important leadership roles.

President Lula, who made Zero Hunger his national policy and is now promoting it worldwide, rose to power following more than a decade of this social transformation. And he scaled up local government innovations, many pioneered by women and focused on women. Not surprisingly, his successor is a woman. We’ve summarized more than a dozen academic studies of this revolution on our Participatory Local Democracy website.

For thousands of years, women have met the survival needs of their families despite being subjugated, marginalized and disempowered. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has called the mistreatment of women in the developing world the moral issue of our age. We are living at a time when formerly taboo issues are turning into mass demonstrations and resulting in fundamental legal changes. Winning the Zero Hunger Challenge is indeed within our grasp – but we will only succeed by accelerating the full equality and empowerment of women.


John Coonrod is the Executive Vice President of The Hunger Project, a Zero Hunger Challenge participant.



This post does not reflect the views or opinion of the Zero Hunger Challenge, and does not imply endorsement by the United Nations.