Women’s Empowerment as a Key to Alleviating Poverty

by Nora Simpson
With civil wars, ethnic wars and terrorist and anti-terrorist campaigns bloodying our planet, international peacekeeping has become, in many critics’ eyes, the United Nations’ most compelling mandate — and most singular failure. UN peacekeeping forces have inadequate resources, inadequate military power, and ineffectual rules of engagement for quelling the chaos of modern warfare.
Peacekeeping, however, is only one of several aims enunciated in the UN Charter. One of the most important activities of the UN is grounded in the second founding aim: the “economic and social advancement of all peoples.” UN Agencies have pursued this economic and social advancement — the catch-all term is “development” — throughout Africa, Asia and Latin America with innovation and persistence since the 1940s. And since the September, 2000 Millennium Summit in New York, the UN has entered a new era in its commitment to ending poverty.
Image of starving childThe hope of renewed commitment was palpable among the delegates from 189 countries as they gathered six years ago at UN headquarters. The first UN Secretary-General from sub-Saharan Africa, Kofi Annan of Ghana, was in his fourth successful year of leadership. Eight years of American multilateralism and U.S.-UN cooperation, under the leadership of President Bill Clinton, encouraged a visionary optimism within the international community, fueled by a strong and growing U.S. economy that fostered a willingness to reassess the grave economic and social inequities of the world.
The Millennium Declaration which emerged from the Summit, was a bold set of commitments to end the desperate poverty and horrendous living conditions of the more than one billion people in the developing world who live on less than one dollar per day. The opening language reflects the optimism of the time:

We, heads of State and Government, have gathered at United Nations Headquarters . . . at the dawn of a new millennium, to reaffirm our faith in the Organization and its Charter as indispensable foundations of a more peaceful, prosperous and just world. . . . We recognize that, in addition to our separate responsibilities to our individual societies, we have a collective responsibility to uphold the principles of human dignity, equality and equity at the global level. As leaders we have a duty therefore to all the world’s people, especially the most vulnerable and, in particular, the children of the world, to whom the future belongs.

The commitment to focus the UN’s power on combating world poverty was a mark of Kofi Annan’s leadership; he is often referred to by insiders as the most development-focused Secretary-General in history. Guided by Annan, member countries agreed on an ambitious list of responses to the complex and overlapping problems of poverty. These commitments were streamlined by UN staffers into what came to be known as the Millennium Development Goals:

  1. Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
  2. Achieve universal primary education.
  3. Promote gender equality and empower women.
  4. Reduce child mortality.
  5. Improve maternal health.
  6. Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases.
  7. Ensure environmental sustainability.
  8. Develop a global partnership for development.

Each of these goals included measurable indicators and specific targets to facilitate the results-based policies needed in each developing country.
The leadership exercised by Annan, and the partnership forged between developing-country governments and wealthy-country governments for achieving the Millennium Development Goals, marked a major departure for the operations of the United Nations. Beginning with the first blueprint for the UN drawn up at the 1944 Dumbarton Oaks Conference in Washington, D.C., as well as the Monetary and Financial Conference held at Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, a few months earlier, the institution had been at the mercy and under the leadership of the world’s leading economic and military powers.
At Bretton Woods, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and an institution that would become the World Bank were created, with the aim of preventing further world conflict and economic collapse. To the credit of the 730 delegates gathered at Bretton Woods, the conference produced a system of rules, institutions and procedures designed to stabilize global exchange rates and unify international monetary policy — necessary foundations for rebuilding the world capitalist economy.
At the time these agreements were written, however, Africa and South Asia were still mostly colonial extensions of European powers. It wasn’t considered necessary to ensure that Nigeria, Ghana, or the Ivory Coast had fair access to markets or basic human rights because they existed as exploited colonies of England and France. While the Marshall Plan, the World Bank, and the IMF worked well to restore Western Europe from the devastation of World War II, the Bretton Woods development model would soon help foster some of the worst poverty in history in the developing world.
One telling example of the conflict between Western leaders’ vision for the UN and their attitudes towards Asia and Africa was the Bengal Famine of 1943, in which an estimated four million people perished from hunger in Eastern India, a region that is now part of Bangladesh. It was the worst food disaster in the recorded history of the world. Originally, the famine was thought to be a direct result of a severe shortfall in food production in the region. However, according to Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen, the more potent factors were the stresses of World War II on Great Britain, which led India’s colonial rulers to place India’s food supply low on their priority list.
Memories of the famine were fresh for India’s leaders after independence, and the struggle to produce enough food to feed the population was a major concern throughout the 1950s and 1960s. In 1967, India began implementing three agricultural policies that enabled food production to outpace population growth: the expansion of farmlands, the double-cropping of existing farmlands, and the use of genetically improved seeds. These policies yielded what is termed the “Green Revolution,” which, in development circles, came to be seen as a blueprint for addressing the problem of hunger.
Yet there were serious problems with the Green Revolution. Although India now accrues a yearly production surplus of over 40 million tons of grain, poverty, disease and severe malnutrition continue to ravage the country, particularly in rural areas. In 1992, a team of UNICEF researchers published The Asian Enigma, a report examining low birth weight as the single best predictor of malnutrition. The team observed that approximately one third of babies in India and one half of babies in Bangladesh are born at low birth weights, which stood in stark contrast to sub-Saharan Africa’s proportion of one-sixth — this despite the image of Africa, in the public imagination, as the home of the malnourished child.
The problem, the UNICEF researchers determined, was not food availability or government neglect. In fact, the Government of India’s Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) program was the largest effort in history to improve nutritional standards for children. ICDS is now more than thirty years old and covers nearly 70 percent of the country’s community development blocks and 260 urban slum pockets. Instead, the UNICEF team looked to the factors that lead to low birth weight: malnourishment of the infant in the womb and malnourishment of the mother during her own infancy, childhood, adolescence, and pregnancy.
According to the report, “The proportion of babies born with low birth weight . . . reflects the condition of women, and particularly their health and nutrition, not only during pregnancy but over the whole of their childhood and young lives.” Hunger and malnutrition, long the key indicators of poverty, would be impossible to conquer, the report concluded, without “a sustained, long-term effort . . . to promote equal freedoms, opportunities, and rights for women — including the right to participate in decision-making both inside and outside the home. Signs of progress along this road will include better health, education, and nutrition for women; a reduced incidence of low birth weight; improved access to basic services; and increasing control over fertility. All of these are priority development goals in their own right — but they are also a means by which child malnutrition might be defeated.”
In Africa, meanwhile, centuries of colonial oppression created an environment of fear and exploitation that was wholly opposite to the growing citizenship and civic participation taking shape in Europe over the same period. When Africa’s nations began to win their independence during the 1950s and 1960s, African leaders found themselves faced with an exploited and oppressed population who had little knowledge of the responsibilities and powers of democratic citizenship. While the development models offered by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund — institutions that had cut their teeth on the full recovery of Western Europe after World War II — had succeeded in societies with centuries of economic, social, and technological progress, Africa, after centuries of repression and exploitation by European colonialism, had problems that were utterly different.
Yet the conventional wisdom of development experts in the 1960s held that Africa, which was exporting grain at the time, had a lower risk of extreme poverty and hunger than the Indian subcontinent. As India was overhauling agricultural production, however, Africa’s farmlands were disintegrating.
According to Bread for the World, a non-profit anti-poverty lobbying group in Washington, D.C., half of Africa’s farmland has now been damaged by soil degradation and erosion, while 80 percent of African pasture and range areas are severely degraded. And according to The Hunger Project, a non-profit focused on grassroots empowerment and anti-poverty programs in Africa, South Asia, and Latin America, this decline, combined with the AIDS pandemic, has led to a 23 percent decrease in food production per capita in the last twenty-five years. Nowadays, the continent imports one-third of its grain, and 43 percent of Africans do not have adequate food security. These statistics are particularly staggering, considering the vast amounts of money invested by governments and donor agencies in African agricultural programs.
The Hunger Project points to an explanation: the oppression and marginalization of African women, who produce 80 percent of Africa’s food through small-scale farming. Women also perform 90 percent of the work to process food, collect and transport 90 percent of the water, wood, and fuel used on the continent, and perform 60 percent of the work to market Africa’s food. Yet African women own 1 percent of the land, and receive less than 7 percent of farm extension services and less than 10 percent of credit given to small-scale farmers. In addition, 40 percent of women in Africa have never seen the inside of a schoolhouse, much less achieved any sort of education or literacy. With so little attention paid to the people responsible for meeting basic human needs, there is little wonder that the development programs of the last fifty years have not achieved their goals in Africa.
The watershed achievement of the Millennium Development Goals is that problems of hunger, poverty, women’s oppression, and lack of education are being viewed as interdependent issues requiring integrated solutions. Certainly, lofty goals were set to reduce infant and child mortality at the 1990 UN World Summit for Children in New York; strong mandates for environmental stewardship were set forth at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro; a powerful platform for the empowerment of women was established at the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing; specific goals to cut hunger were established at the 1996 World Food Summit in Rome. However, the Millennium Development Goals are the first to acknowledge the need to address the many dimensions of poverty simultaneously — especially women’s rights and empowerment — or face failure again.
According to Dr. Geeta Rao Gupta, president of the International Centre for Research on Women, the UN is to be commended for convening the nations of the world around progressive, visionary goals, and for focusing attention on improving women’s status and gender equality. In implementing effective actions to improve gender equality, however, the UN is falling short, Dr. Gupta says, which dooms another generation of development programs to failure. The UN itself has slipped backwards, she says, by putting fewer women in senior positions and marginalizing gender-focused agencies both financially and geographically.
When women are appointed to senior positions, says Dr. Gupta, it happens in a cursory way. Many positions created specifically for gender experts have been filled by women with little expertise in gender issues and policy. “Not every woman is a gender expert,” she points out, “just like not every man from the developing world is an expert in development.”
In addition, Dr. Gupta explains, the UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), an agency formed to be the financial engine of programs to empower women throughout the UN, is excluded from senior budget and leadership decisions within the UN system. Leaders of the UN Development Programme (UNDP), the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), and other agencies focused on development all have major policy-making power at the senior level. But UNIFEM has been constituted as a branch of UNDP rather than an independent agency. Unlike the heads of all the other major UN agencies, the head of UNIFEM does not possess Assistant-Secretary-General status. As a result, UNIFEM is excluded from senior level policy and budget decisions and is severely hindered in its ability to mobilize the finances required for truly effective actions to ensure gender equality in UN program.
Dr. Gupta also points to the marginalization of the UN International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women. INSTRAW was supposed to be in charge of research and training to ensure gender equality for the UN as an organization and for all UN policies. However, INSTRAW’s headquarters were inexplicably placed in the Dominican Republic instead of New York or another major city. INSTRAW’s remoteness removed it so entirely from the action that it was completely left behind in the efforts to bring gender mainstreaming to the UN.
Dr. Gupta observes that the UN’s intense focus on individual staff attitudes towards gender, rather than on positive outcomes for gender equality and empowering women in the context of development programs, has led the UN to become highly skilled at gender-sensitive language, with very little effective action to empower women or advance the peoples of the world. “The net effect of the UN’s gender mainstreaming policy,” she concludes, “is to render women invisible.”
Lynn Freedman, professor of clinical population and family health at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, extols the UN as a major force behind an international paradigm shift regarding family planning and women’s health. She also distinguishes, however, between the UN’s ability to articulate ideas and put those ideas into funded actions. She cites as one major problem the $34 million that the U.S. Congress has withheld from the UN Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA) for allegedly advocating abortion in China — a charge against UNFPA that Congress’ own internal documents contradict.
It is highly likely that ineffective internal UN policies and the politics of individual nations will be the major obstacles to achieving the UN Millennium Development Goals. “The UN,” says Dr. Andrea Bartoli, director of the Center for International Conflict Resolution at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, “has always functioned as a mirror of its member states. It doesn’t truly govern anyone. It merely reflects the differing identities, visions, missions, and capacities of its member countries. If the member countries are rowdy and disagreeable, the UN will be, too. If the member countries are interested and committed, then actions by the UN will be more effective.”
Dr. John Coonrod, vice-president and chief operating officer of The Hunger Project, asserts that there have been very few times when the UN has been perceived as effective. It was frozen out of the Cold War and, Dr. Coonrod observes, “the structure of the specialized agencies continues to be terribly inefficient.” He cites the UN response to the African famine of the 1980s as one of the few times when the institution was perceived as being effective. But in that instance, the political will of individual member countries towards averting the African famine was one of the strongest in history. Celebrities organized benefit concerts all over the world to raise money and awareness. Millions of people participated by attending the concerts or watching them on television, raising awareness in other ways, and donating money to the aid efforts.
The future of the UN and the Millennium Development Goals, therefore, appears to depend on the willingness of wealthy member countries to fund integrated programs and the willingness of developing member countries to implement them effectively and to ensure that both women and men are empowered by these programs. In addition, support from grassroots organizations in every country will be essential for any of the policies to be effective.
In Africa, The Hunger Project, Dr. Coonrod’s organization, works with a budget of only $3 million to reach 2.7 million people in over a thousand villages — a level of efficiency unheard of at the UN. One of The Hunger Project’s foundational tenets is to empower women and men to work in authentic partnership to mobilize home-grown development programs that effectively reduce and even eradicate hunger and poverty in each village where The Hunger Project works. When asked how such success could be replicated, Dr. Coonrod replied: “The way to deal with issues of poverty and hunger is in close collaboration with civil society,” i.e., the non-government organizations, churches, and community groups that work at the grassroots level. “It’s fine for government to be an important actor, but most governments are unable to do the job. A lot of direct civil society-UN partnership would be a plus.”
In light of the strong grassroots response to the 1980s African famine, Dr. Coonrod’s admonition seems appropriate for efforts to achieve the Millennium Development Goals. As for what he calls the thankless tasks of peacekeeping and relief that the UN performs every day, he doubts that the UN will become more effective. “The UN always gets the snarliest problems,” says Dr. Coonrod. “It’s not going to get any better at solving them because the snarly problems are the hardest to solve.”
Nora Simpson worked for several years in the international development policy realm with a focus on gender and hunger issues. She is currently a free-lance writer in Manhattan.