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.”

THP-blog img

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.


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  2. I am thrilled to see a renewed commitment to end hunger. And it appears that several important lessons have been learned and are in the process of being scaled up to meet the global need and finally achieve the global commitment originally set in the late 1970s. It is no doubt an achievable and affordable goal. It always has been.
    I am skeptical however that this renewed commitment will be achieved without adopting some other key elements not mentioned in your blog, that I believe were missing in the previous decades of work to achieve the same basic goal.
    First is the need for the political will. Unless there is global public swell of demand to remove the barriers and provide adequate resources to ensure clean water, sanitation, basic education, nutrition and basic healthcare services, not to mention the local governance structures and enforcement capacity to protect the rights of women…we are bound to fail again. Given the global recession, national debts and other issues that grab the attention of policy makers I’m not hopeful the ‘end hunger movement’ will be creative enough and focused enough to create sufficient political will.
    Within this context I believe there are three other essential elements required to do the doable. First, is a truly comprehensive approach. One that would include peace and security from the nation state down to the community level. This will require a revolutionary new approach to resolving human differences. The force of law (justice) and not the law of force (war and sanctions). Police enforcement of basic human rights and the protection of individual security at the local, state, national and even the global levels.
    Second, a new and adequate source of funding for essential services. Perhaps from a global financial transaction tax that would also increase global economic stability as well as the needed resources for schools, health clinic staff and medicines, clean water, sanitation…police protection, courts and lawyers.
    Third we must recognize that ending hunger is not just the moral thing to do. We must realize it is essential to our own individual and national security. In 1980 Congress was given such a warning by a Presidential Commission’s exhaustive study of world hunger. The prestigious group of experts concluded:

    “In the final analysis, unless Americans — as citizens of an increasingly interdependent world — place far higher priority on overcoming world hunger, its effects will no longer remain remote or unfamiliar. Nor can we wait until we reach the brink of the precipice; the major actions required do not lend themselves to crisis planning, patchwork management, or emergency financing… The hour is late. Age-old forces of poverty, disease, inequity, and hunger continue to challenge the world. Our humanity demands
    that we act upon these challenges now…”
    Presidential Commission on World Hunger, 1980.

    Congress failed to act but the microbes were already in the process of fulfilling on the Commission’s prophecy. Less than 2 years after the release of the Commission’s report, our nation began to feel the sting of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. In the last few decades AIDS, climate change, loss of species, wars, terrorism, WMD proliferation, global recessions, illegal narcotics and crime (just to name the most obvious) are all related to hungry and desperate people in fear of losing a child.
    And last, you correctly stated “for women, in particular, all politics is local. The issues that matter most … all must be solved at the local level, through responsive, effective local governance. ” This is half correct. Almost every local issue is affected by global factors poor women have no real control over. From climate change to pandemics, the war on terrorism, religious movements, recessions, counterfeit drugs, human trafficking, illegal narcotics, advances in technology… Without careful consideration, global regulation and investments in prevention of such negative influences, poor women will not achieve their fullest potential. And neither will we.
    In this context, the single greatest focus of our efforts could be to make the Universal Declaration of Human Rights an enforceable global bill of rights…and the means to enforce it. I believe it’s safe to say that anything less– and we will be making similar commitments to end world hunger on the 100th anniversary of this profound document in the year 2048.


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