Gender Justice and USAID

“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” 

This opening statement from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the cornerstone of the Post-World-War II quest for a peaceful world following decades of war, fascism and genocide. It mirrors the founding aspiration of America and is central to every spiritual tradition.

USAID is a major actor in this quest, and many sincere professionals at USAID have devoted their lives to this ideal and to promoting this cherished American value. USAID, like each of us, has struggled for decades to learn what works to advance this goal — and particularly what is required for women and girls.

On August 19, 2020, USAID released for public comment a new policy document on the Empowerment of Women and Gender Equality (available here).  Missing from this draft policy, however, is the most important recognition in the quest for gender equality — that the subjugation, marginalization and disempowerment of women is systemic. It is a deeply entrenched social condition that — like racism — is the consequence of systems of laws, policies and social norms. Transforming the patriarchal structure of society requires a long-term social change process. 

While patriarchal systems are nearly universal, the specific barriers to gender equality are locally specific. Country-level strategies must begin with a detailed gender analysis of both the systemic barriers to equality and the highest leverage opportunities to transform them.

History has shown that the change process is driven by social movements led by those whom the system has oppressed, hopefully with genuine solidarity from the rest of us. To quote the great educationist Paulo Friere, “The oppressors, who oppress, exploit, and rape by virtue of their power, cannot find in this power the strength to liberate either the oppressed or themselves. Only power that springs from the weakness of the oppressed will be sufficiently strong to free both.” 

Working for gender equality is not imposing a “foreign idea.” In every country where USAID works and where poverty and hunger persist, there are organizations of courageous women that have been striving to transform patriarchal structures for more than a century. The starting point, therefore, of any honest commitment to gender equality is to strengthen the hand of local women’s organizations — to listen to them — and to ensure that local women’s voices are the first voices heard in the design of any program that has the intention to advance equality for women and girls.

A gender policy should influence budget priorities. It has been estimated that less than 2% of aid money goes to support grassroots women’s organizations (Neuwirth 2017). If we are serious about gender equality, that number must increase dramatically. To advance democracy and self-reliance of low-income countries, a top priority must be to help build a strong, sustainable, independent women’s movement that can ensure the collective voice of every woman and girl is heard in every country.   

The draft policy wisely asserts a policy of “do no harm” but it fails to recognize the principle that the economist Ester Boserup pointed out 50 years ago — that when aid is addressing a problem like hunger and poverty in which gender inequality is a root cause, unless the majority of resources are going to women and girls, those funds are widening the gender gap. They are doing harm.

Some agencies are pleased when they can report that 40% of participants in a farmer training program are female. After all, within a deeply patriarchal society, that takes something. Yet — by the Boserup criteria — that means that the program is widening the gender gap, not narrowing it. It is doing harm. Perhaps four times less harm than if it only served 20% female participants. But it is widening, not narrowing the gender gap. This is particularly harmful and unjust when the majority of farmers in low-income countries are women.

If gender equality is a goal, then the majority of funds must support the advancement of women and girls.

Finally — what is the role of men and boys? This draft highlights their victimhood in the prevailing patriarchal system — which, of course, is true but not helpful. Boys and men must come to understand their own role in either perpetuating or transforming an unjust system. A top priority for gender policies should be gender-awareness training for men and boys. 

Action for gender equality has evolved through three frameworks of thought — 1) women’s welfare, 2) women’s empowerment — supporting individual women to succeed within a fundamentally unjust system, and 3) women’s voice and agency — women’s power to lead transformative social and systemic change.  The current draft seems to have landed somewhere between 1 and 2. To achieve its vision of equality and self-reliant development in low-income countries, USAID must take steps to ensure its policy is aligned with this third paradigm — a policy framework which supports and strengthens women’s grassroots organizations as they strive to transform their own societies.


Woman’s Role in Economic Development. Ester Boserup, 1970.

Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Friere, 1968. Available online.

Too Little Aid Money is Reaching Grassroots Women’s Organizations, Jessica Neuwirth.

THP signs Climate Compact

On the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day, April 22, 2020, InterAction and 80+ Member NGOs launched the NGO Climate Compact to pledge concerted, unified, and urgent action to address climate change.

Photo: UN Climate Special Representative and former THP global board member Mary Robinson at the Compact launch.

The purpose of the Compact is to initiate large-scale change across our sector. It recognizes that the environment is central to achieving our mission to serve the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people.

The Climate Compact will contribute to meeting higher-level global goals, such as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and U.N. Paris Agreement on Climate Change.

The Compact’s four areas of commitment emphasize actions that Members can take between 2020 and 2022 to start the process of collective action, generate dialogue and learning, quickly advance initial actions, and kick-start initiatives that will lay the groundwork for more behavior and attitudinal shifts in the years to come.

This effort stems from the work of leaders within the InterAction Board of Directors and a group of 30+ Member organizations since September 2019. It builds upon the long-standing work of the broader climate movement and decades of experience by NGO leaders and partners in environmental policy and programming.

The NGO Climate Compact is still open for signature by Member CEOs.

Call for a #Feminist Foreign Policy in the US.

The Hunger Project is one of more 50 organizations endorsing the call for a Feminist Foreign Policy in US. Below is an excerpt from the ICRW page:

Publication Year: 2020
Publication Author: Lyric Thompson, Senior Director of Policy and Advocacy at the International Center for Research on Women

As the world marks the 25th Anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, a growing number of feminists inside and outside of government are pioneering new approaches to policy that are tailored to address the issues of the day and advance new ground in the global quest for gender equality and the fulfillment of women’s human rights.

Today’s most pressing issues, and the solutions that are envisioned, are not radically different from those addressed at Beijing. The context, however, has changed. Despite measurable progress in girls’ education, maternal health and, increasingly, the repeal of discriminatory laws, there are new and dynamic challenges that threaten to reverse progress and rollback rights. 

At this moment of increased nationalism, populism and misogyny, it is time to call out backlash and call in new allies and champions for gender equality and women’s human rights, using all the tools at our disposal. Feminist foreign policy is one tool that shows promise for taking a much-needed, intersectional and often multilateral approach to women’s rights, simultaneously addressing urgent issues such as climate change, peace and security, inclusive growth, global health and poverty alleviation. 

This framework attempts to distill a definition and few core components of feminist foreign policy, drawing from the few examples that exist today, as well as the insights of feminist thinkers, advocates and experts inside and outside of government. This growing collective will be formalized in the course of the Beijing+25 Generation Equality process, in hopes of informing the fledgling field of feminist foreign policy and expanding the number of countries bold enough to embrace it.DOWNLOAD THE FRAMEWORK 

The Framework can be found in Spanish here, and in French here.

Rapid Assessment of Rohingya Crisis

A rapid assessment was carried out by The Hunger Project in October 2017 primarily to identify the violent extremist issues relating to the recent Rohingya influx and the community hosting them. It is clear that the welcoming attitude of the host community toward the Rohingyas is disappearing fast and the prospect of conflict between the two groups is on the rise, partly due to the host community’s feeling increasing threats from the Rohingyas, who greatly outnumber them in some areas. There are also economic pressures on the host community from the recent influx of Rohingyas. The minority and ethnic members of the host community are also experiencing increased threats from the influx of Rohingyas.

Click here to read the full report.

Visit by a CNN Hero!

December 17, 2018 – The Hunger Project hosted a CNN Hero Reception and Round Table on Young Women’s Empowerment and Employment in Nigeria. Our special guest was Abisoye Ajayi-Akinfolarin, Founder and CEO of Pearls Africa Foundation.

Abisoye Ajayi-Akinfolarin is one of the 2018 top 10 CNN’s Heroes of the Year (click here to see her in action in Nigeria!) for her work to bridge the gender divide in Nigeria’s growing technology sector.  A computer programmer by training, Abisoye left her successful career in Lagos, Nigeria’s “Silicon Valley” where Google and Facebook have set up offices, to found the Pearls Africa Foundation.  She hopes that through her foundation she will be able to break the cycle of poverty for girls by exposing them to new possibilities for career and life through coding and technology.

Pearls Africa Foundation helps girls transform their lives and achieve economic independence through ten educational and training programs in STEM+ that will enable their long-term participation in the economy.  The foundation provides functional skills such as technology training, coding and computer programming, entrepreneurship, and mentorship and internship placements to young girls living in slum villages of Lagos.

Core programs include:

  • Girls Coding – digital literacy training for girls age 7-17
  • Lady Labs – technology and shared work space
  • Empowered Hands – vocational training
  • Safe Space – mentorship and advocacy program
  • Community Outreach – community feeding program
  • Medical Outreach – free health care assistance
  • Educate Her – scholarship program
  • School Outreach – mentorship for secondary school aged girls
  • Internship Placement – pre-career opportunities with IT companies

Getting to “@” — Case Study of Corporate Advocacy for Email Standards

It’s hard for some of us to remember a time before email. Email has actually been around for a long time, but in the early days it was not generally based on the internet standards. Each dial-up network (AOL, MCIMail, Compuserve, ATTMail, Envoy100  and individual Unix computer networks) had its own system of addressing, and these did not talk to one another. If you wanted to reach a Compuserve email box you needed to use a Compuserve account, and use an address like 12345.678. MCI preferred numbers that looked like phone numbers. There were also standards like Novell MHS and UUCP that exchanged mail between local networks – but not to each other. What was missing was a single, universal standard – a “business card” standard that will allow one to publish their email address, and it would work on all systems.

For example, the 1990 membership directory of the Electronic Mail Association, its 86 members listed their Email addresses in a total of 24 different, non-compatible formats. The most popular format? No listing at all! (32) Followed by MCIMail (26),
Compuserve (10), Internet (8). Six hearty members dedicated the four lines it required to use the “standard” X.400 format. Even Unix networks – the heart of the internet – were using something called “bang addressing” over uucp where you had to know the full pathway of the network to reach someone !bigcomputer!littlecomputer!username.

There was already the basis for such a system – “@” sign domain addressing invented by Ray Tomlinson but it was not being used. There a much more complex standard – the X400 standard – that also wasn’t being used.

To address this, I launched a letter-writing (fax!) campaign to computer magazines in January 1990, urging publishers to adopt the @ sign standard when publishing email addresses (even though most email companies were not prepared to handle it.) This generated a flurry of supportive emails to my MCIMail account.

The next step was to find the email addresses of all the decision makers in the various email companies, and develop a listserv that would actually reach them (as they were not on the internet). My office used Novell MHS internally, so I created a software gateway program “UGate” to connect MHS to the internet and to be able to dial up and exchange messages with other non-internet providers. (The Hunger Project earned $50,000 per year in $200 per copy shareware fees for Ugate from 1990 through 1997).

With Ugate and my list of emails, I began lobbying the chief decision makers in March 1990, including Internet pioneer Vint Cerf. By mid-1991, most of the proprietary companies were exchanging email directly on the internet with addresses such as

The lesson from this? Even something as obvious and commercially advantageous as universal email addresses faces market-based obstacles. Like every advocacy campaign, winning required (a) making the case in a clear, non-confrontational way, (b) raising the flag, (c) finding the champions and the decision makers and (d) driving the conversation day after day towards something that works for everyone.


Top 10: How to think about the SDGs

As global citizens, it is not only important that we think about Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development — better known as the SDGs or the Sustainable Development Goals — but also that we transform how we think about them.

In the year 2000, the nations of the world signed a Millennium Declaration setting a bold agenda at the start of the century for achieving a world free from hunger and poverty. They created an initial set of 8 Millennium Development Goals (the MDGs) to get us halfway there by 2015.

Despite a very slow start and great initial cynicism, the world did far better on the MDGs than many people expected. This resulted in the world adopting a set of goals to finish the job — and to incorporate key components left out of the MDGs. (See earlier discussion on the differences at this link).

Here are my top 10 recommendations.

  1. Don’t think of them as “17” but as “1.” The SDGs recognize that the challenges of poverty, hunger, conflict, the environment and discrimination are inextricably linked and can only be solved through an integrated approach. You will hear people say “Goal X (fill in any number 1 to 17) is really the key to solving all the others” and they will be right in a way. But if you focus on any goal without fully taking account the complete system, the SDGs will not succeed.
  2. The SDGs are for every country. Every nation on earth has poverty and discrimination. Every nation is threatened by crime, violence and climate change. This is a paradigm shift — from focusing on aid from rich countries to help poor countries, to every nation working in alignment for a world that works for everyone.
  3. The SDGs apply at every level.  Similarly, the SDGs recognize that progress is not just the job of national governments. In fact, many of the key challenges must be solved in local communities.
  4. Going for the “High-hanging fruit.” When you are trying to get “half-way” you start on the easiest pathways to progress – the “low-hanging fruit.” But to include everyone, you have to start with the most difficult situations – the most remote, the most marginalized – because that will take the longest.
  5. Good governance.
  6. Partnership, not patronage.
  7. Harvesting the data revolution.



Top 10 Policies for Civil Society Engagement

June 28, 2017: The Hunger Project recommends that international governmental organizations (IGOs) adopt the following practices for effectively engaging with civil society as an essential element of good governance:

  • Major Groups: IGOs should utilize a framework like the major groups defined by the UN, rather than dealing with civil society as a single category. IGO should ensure that youth, women, farmers, indigenous people, organized labor and others from the Global South express their own voices in addition to that of INGOs.
  • Democratic Selection:  Civil society should select their own representatives in consultative processes through an inclusive, democratic process rather than having representatives chosen by the IGO.
  • Mainstream Participation: Civil society representatives should have a seat at the table, with equal voice alongside government representatives. Civil society representatives should be allowed to be present and participate in intergovernmental negotiations.  Good examples: the GAFSP Steering Committee and the Committee on Food Security/Civil Society Mechanism.
  • Existing Networks:  Civil society is best equipped to prepare and provide coherent recommendations through its existing, regularized networks, not through ad-hoc work groups of individual organizations. IGOs should avoid establishing “their own” civil society groups and processes.
  • Travel Funding: For IGOs to legitimately include perspectives of civil society from the Global South at meetings, they must allocate sufficient travel and accommodation funds for Global South representatives.
  • Mandates to Offices: Civil society participation should be a mandated priority of regional and local offices, and not optional depending on local leadership. It should be regularized in a transparent manner, held at times and places that work for all stakeholders and announced well in advance.
  • Early and Sustained Engagement: Civil society should be invited to engage as early as possible in the policy-making process, and be informed of a clear timeline to review and provide recommendations to draft statements including follow-up processes.
  • Caucus Facilities: At major meetings, IGOs should provide civil society with its own meeting rooms with adequate time and space for caucusing before and during official deliberations, in close proximity to the policy makers and the media.
  • Side Events: The prevailing competitive approach to side events is chaotic and counterproductive. Major groups should facilitate civil society in cooperatively organizing all side events, and conference organizers should provide an official, unified online schedule for both side and parallel events.
  • Updates and Information Flow: Email and web-based announcements and updates should uniformly reach all participants, both from governments and civil society. IGO websites should include email list subscription forms.

Photo: Civil society representative Josephine Atangana addressing the plenary of the Second International Conference on Nutrition, Rome, 2014. John Coonrod/The Hunger Project.



Top 10 Books Relevant to Our Approach

Here are what I believe are the ten most influential books relevant to our work, with short notes on why you should read them.

The Hunger Project is committed to empowering women and men to end their own hunger. We did not “invent” the commitment to empowerment; Socrates taught it 2500 years ago. In fact, as a learning organization, we have always sought out the wisdom of the deepest thinkers and activists in this field.

This respect for wisdom is all too rare in international development. It often seems like everyone is chasing the latest fad — whether it’s mobile apps or micro finance or child survival interventions. All these become fads because they are helpful contributions. But they are not a comprehensive solution.

To help build comprehensive solutions, we need to ground ourselves in the writings of the best of those who’ve pioneered this work. Here are what I consider ten books everyone interested in development should have read and be able to apply. These are listed here “earliest first” with links either to the book’s own website or to Amazon.

Hind Swaraj, Mohandas K. Gandhi, 1905.  This is the book that laid the foundation not only for India’s freedom, but for the dignity of all impoverished people.

Women’s Role in Economic Development, Ester Boserup, 1970. This Danish economist points out that when the root problem is a gender gap — and your action is failing to deliver the majority of developmental inputs to women — you are actually widening the gender gap. This puts the lie to those projects that claim to be women-focused, yet are only delivering 40% of their inputs to women.

Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Matter, E. F. Schumacher, 1973. The former head of Britain’s giant Coal Board dives into “meta-economics” — the values underlying economic planning, and finds them sadly lacking. He tells beautiful stories of the radically different economic decisions you would make if you actually cared about people.

Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paolo Friere, 1973. This Brazilian educator recognizes that literacy is not merely skill acquisition — it is a fundamental transformation in who people are, from a victim of history to an actor in history.

Rural Development: Putting the last first, Robert Chambers, 1983. This former member of the colonial Kenyan civil service became the “inventor” of participatory rural development and PRA. This is the source book on that movement.

Whose Reality Counts? Putting the First Last, Robert Chambers, 1997. This takes his case further, into the realm of data and evaluation.

Development as Freedom, Amartya Sen, 1999. Sen shows that freedom and democracy are not simply the outcomes of development, they are the means to development.

White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good William Easterly, 2006. NYU professor and former World Bank economist makes the case against top-down planning and for bottom-up entrepreneurship.

Poor Economics, Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee, 2011. These co-directors of MIT’s famous JPAL are the champions of rigorously-evaluated experimentation. This book highlights how wrong our instincts can be about what works and what doesn’t work.

The Last Hunger Season, Roger Thurow, 2013. Thurow is a journalist, and gives an in-depth portrait of four families engaged with the One Acre Fund’s social-mobilization approach to improving small-farmer productivity.

FfD Analysis – Preliminary

(This piece was largely informed by today’s MFAN/Brookings event – many thanks to the organizers for a very useful discussion!)

ffd3_logo_700x323Washington DC, June 15, 2015:  Last month, the organizers of the upcoming Third International Conference on Financing for Development (FfD3) in Addis Ababa released a revised draft outcome document, which they are redrafting this week. FfD3 is a critical milestone in finalizing the Sustainable Development Goals in September.

The Hunger Project is hosting a side event at FfD3 on Wednesday, July 15th at 1:15PM at the Intercontinental Hotel with CONCERN WorldWide. In light of the draft outcome document and discussions around financing for implementation, we will  emphasize local partnerships and gender-specific, community-led approaches that  we have found to be the most critical investments to restore empowerment to the hungriest and most impoverished people to control their own lives and destinies.

One central transformation at FfD3 is Domestic Resource Mobilization. While official aid is still seen as important, it is seen as most important in building each country’s financial self-reliance: its ability to reduce corruption, and raise its own tax revenues and spend them wisely. A particular area of concern is strengthening the ability of the world to halt tax avoidance (para 20) by multi-national corporations that may be generating wealth in lower-income country but evading paying any taxes. This significantly reduces national revenue that can be allocated for development expenditures.

Here is our top-10 list, based on the current draft. Half are elements we would hate to lose in the upcoming negotiations, and half are areas where greater attention could be useful.

Five Points we love and would hate to lose

  1. Start with women: The draft wisely includes a strong commitment to gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls in its very first paragraph, and in para 6 calls for gender mainstreaming in the formulation and implementation of all financial, economic, and social policies and agrees to take concrete policy actions to ensure women’s equal rights, access and opportunities for participation and leadership in the economy. In para 12 it promises to substantially increase public investment in ending hunger, explicitly including promoting gender equality and the empowerment of women in that context. Para 18 calls for “social infrastructure and policies to enable women’s full participation in the economy.” These sections seek to meet the inalienable and inherent human rights of women as well as boost economy in placing development initiatives into the hands and empowerment of half of the world’s population.
  2. Ending hunger by empowering small-scale producers: The draft explicitly recognizes that ending hunger “will lead to rich payoffs across the SDGs.” . Para 12 recognizes that ending hunger depends on increasing incomes through higher smallholder productivity, and Para 14 therein calls for greater financial access to micro enterprises. This is fairly revolutionary, as it points to a bottom-up,  approach (the argument that economic growth leads to ending hunger). This bottom-up perspective has been bolstered by an IMF Report, released June 15, which states that “increasing the income share of the poor and the middle class actually increases growth while a rising income share of the top 20 percent results in lower growth—that is, when the rich get richer, benefits do not trickle down.”
  3. Engage Local Governments: Para 31 is an explicit commitment to “scale up international cooperation to strengthen capacity” of local governments to achieve sustainability, “particularly in areas of infrastructure development, local taxation, sectorial finance and debt issuance and management, including access to domestic bond markets.” This paragraph has expanded quite significantly from the earlier draft, now listing a dozen other areas of capacity building.
  4. Integrated Approach: The draft commits to a “holistic strategy” (para 2) “integrating the economic, social and environmental dimensions of sustainable development” (para 10). It commits to delivering social protection and essential public services for all including spending targets on health, education and WASH. Ideally this will be implemented through coordination between ministries and multisectoral approaches.
  5. Data for the People: The focus on data and transparency has expanded a great deal in this draft, and it starts (Para 115) with emphasizing the role of data for smart decision-making, including at the local level. We specifically applaud this empowerment role of data, especially as  the draft goes on to make many statements about the due need for accountability.

Five points that ought to be stronger

  1. Youth Employment: The draft calls for developing a global strategy for youth employment by 2020. This is a very weak response to a huge and urgent economic challenge, as well as to the complex challenge of seizing the opportunity of the “demographic dividend” of the current youth bulge.
  2. Social Capital: Nowhere in the document is the recognition that people’s own energies  are an enormous resource for achieving the SDGs. Utmost capacity goes beyond allocated funds and paid positions; it includes sweat equity and pro bono assistance.
  3. Conditions for inclusive economic growth: Private business activity, investment and innovation are identified as major drivers of inclusive economic growth. While this is sometimes the case, it often has the opposite effect: increasing inequality. The document is missing an important opportunity to describe necessary policies and principles of practice that will make private economic growth at least sufficiently “inclusive.”
  4. Civil Society: While civil society appears in various lists of the “usual suspects”, nowhere does the draft identify the distinct roles that civil society plays in development (such as, for example, in points 6-8 above!). This includes catalyzing social accountability mechanisms to hold local governments to account, building effective partnerships between citizens and their local government officials, and capacity building through training and leadership skill development.
  5. Bottom-up Data: While the Post-2015 agenda called for a data revolution, the sections on data are not very revolutionary. The call to strengthen national statistical systems is more of a  solid 19th century recommendation at a time when 21st century technology offers huge new possibilities for aggregating lower-cost, higher-quality community-level data rather than attempting to disaggregate expensive, slow, national-level surveys and evidence.