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.

The Value of the Girls LEAD Act: Successes from The Hunger Project-India

By Matthew Boltansky and Claire Lorenzetti

In 48 districts across six states, The Hunger Project-India helps catalyze the inclusion of women in rural governance as elected women representatives (EWRs) of Gram Panchayats (local villages). These programs have successfully engaged approximately 183,000 EWRs to encourage and empower women and girls to champion the skills that they already possess. This strengthens the quality of their civic and political participation, and builds their confidence to lead local initiatives in their Gram Panchayats.

In alignment with the goals of the newly introduced Girls LEAD Act, The Hunger Project-India has seen that empowering local women leaders helps achieve positive impacts on food security and nutrition rates, employment, child marriages, and quality education. Simply put, women and girls’ civic engagement and political participation yields more comprehensive and effective development outcomes. 

Elected women representatives, and any women in office, are uniquely positioned to empower adolescent girls and have profound effects on the course of their lives. For example, The Hunger Project-India’s workshops between EWRs and local adolescent girls have helped mitigate the prevalence of child marriage and built momentum for further female inclusion in Indian governance structures.

THP-India’s successful programs and interventions for empowering EWRs and adolescent girls are an established consultative and programmatic framework that reflect the strategies and goals of the Girls LEAD Act. We believe that the realization of women and girls’ civic engagement and political leadership through the Girls LEAD Act will accelerate the Journey to Self-Reliance and ensure sustainable development. 

To read the Girls LEAD Act in full and more about the scope of The Hunger Project India’s operations and impact, please visit the following references.

The Hunger Project India,

Girls’ Leadership, Engagement, Agency, and Development Act of 2019, S. 2766, 116th Congress (2019-2020).


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.

If, When and Whom to Marry: Young Women Choosing Their Best Future of Health

28796175381_0b954aa4ae_zIt is perhaps easy to envision what should constitute quality health care for all people. What about choice in what quality health care means per person, according to what one wants for their lives?

When a person reaches the age of adolescence, they become more aware of how their surroundings and choices affect their future. When that adolescent is entrenched in a patriarchal society, the set expectations for their future more so affects their current life and health. Examples include teen pregnancy as a result of early and child marriage, lack of access to age-appropriate sexual and reproductive health education, and young women dropping out of school.

The Hunger Project is working in Africa and South Asia to shift these patriarchal mindsets and empower youth – both young women and men – to make decisions about their health and future through the Her Choice Program.

Through a community-based mentoring approach, including peer mentors, the program mobilizes relevant community actors to build local ownership over ending child-marriage. Activities aim to foster empowerment among girls and young women to take control of decision-making, and sensitize the community to value such.

Girls and communities become increasingly aware of the negative [health] consequences of early, child and forced marriage, which allows girls and young women to better participate in society and apply newly gained knowledge from sexual and reproductive health rights (SRHR) into their life choices. “If, when and whom” to marry is the primary choice in focus.

Early, child and forced marriage pervades the cycle of poverty, especially for young women: dropping out of school, teen pregnancy, limited or no household decision making capacity, poor health of young mothers and newborns, lack of decisions around one’s sexual and reproductive preferences, and stagnated economic empowerment and income generation among women. The program aims to improve access to formal education for girls by supporting girl-friendly schools and access to youth-friendly SRHR services.

035Relevant community actors are key in helping shift the patriarchal social norms to ensure an enabling environment wherein girls can make their own life choices. Women’s “self-help” groups carry out trainings and education about financial services to improve economic security of girls and their families. This helps to decrease incentive for marrying off daughters and increase women’s independent economic empowerment. Relevant community actors also include traditional leaders and supportive groups of men of all ages to help transform social and traditional norms toward inclusion of women and girls in decision-making. Traditional leaders are especially crucial in helping enforce national policies around child marriage, in not approving or overseeing child marriages in their respective communities.

By imbedding youth-friendly SRHR leadership and program activities into communities, Her Choice is influencing sustainable results. They can continue building on local assets and train additional young leaders to continue fostering women’s choice in marriage.

Do you want to marry? If so, when would you want to marry? And to what kind of person would you like to be married? Do you want to finish school before you consider marriage? Do you want to finish school and pursue work more than you want to be married? The choices – at least in some way – affect health and economic security.

There are many ways we can degrade, stabilize or improve our own health. Everyday habits like washing your hands, drinking clean water, eating healthily, to more long-term choices like getting vaccinated. Young women have a right to choose their future of health, and that right includes choosing “if, when and whom” they should marry.



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

Gender Focus: The Promise for Self-Reliance from a Transformed USAID

25897178921_13df6cb2b1_oThe DC community of civil society organizations (CSOs) has been buzzing, often in direct engagement with USAID, about the current USAID transformation. It seems promising and the timing could not be better, but given that the majority of the world’s poor are women living in patriarchal societies, will it deliver on gender?

The Agency has not undergone such an extensive transformation at all levels since the 90s, and this one could realize sustainable implementation that will be more efficient in cost, time and management. The new structure of USAID bureaus could also be more conducive to integrated solutions and adaptive programming, wherein local persons can take on greater leadership roles in their own development process.

The new Policy Framework for USAID (1. focusing on country progress, 2. seeking resilient, sustainable results, and; 3. partnering for impact) would purportedly preside others. There is concern among CSOs and USAID partners that without gender as a priority in the Policy Framework, USAID’s transformation will fall short in the transformation and implementation processes.

It is a fact that inequality undermines economic growth and development; gender inequality must be addressed as a key factor that pervades social and economic barriers. The Policy Framework is therefore the most promising “home base” for gender in order to build the self-reliance required for host countries to end their need for foreign assistance.

Gender analysis is good, but it is not enough.

The inclusion of the “economic gender gap” metric in USAID’s “Journey to Self-Reliance” does provide a valuable measure of the gender gap in salaries, work force participation, and professional leadership. It is in alignment with a 2015 McKinsey Global Institute study, which states that a “scenario in which women participate in the economy identically to men… would add up to $28 trillion, or 26%, to the annual GDP in 2025.”

Secondary metrics for gender in the areas of health and education offer space where USAID has a suite of indicators (see: USAID’s Child, Early and Forced Marriage Resource Guide) that can be “inserted” across silos. Women and girls’ health indicators, such as maternal mortality ratios and rates of HIV among adolescents, can help determine health and well-being as a key means to empowerment and gender equality. Sex- and age-disaggregated data should be collected across all sectors to show a holistic “picture” of the status of women and girls in society.

Finally, it will be beneficial for the Policy Framework and gender in secondary metrics for USAID to continue to use the standard foreign assistance indicators (F indicators). These measure country capacity and commitment, as they measure performance across multiple program categories and are structured to include both State and USAID spending.

Having gender roles is good, but it is not enough [if such are dual “hatted”].

Full-time staff – at any level – dedicated exclusively to gender would be ideal. The value of such could be well argued by the Gender Development team of USAID, which has extensive expertise and experience with gender-focus in USAID programming, monitoring and evaluation, and analysis.

It would be equally complimentary and useful for the Senior Coordinator on Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment to maintain a full-time, whole-of-agency focus on strengthening gender integration while housed in the Office of the Administrator – with appropriate staffing to ensure relevant work can be done effectively.

Beyond staffing, embedding the Gender Development Office within the new Bureau for Development, Democracy, and Innovation (DDI) would help to ensure and foster strong gender mainstreaming throughout USAID: 1) support for [evidence-based] gender program design and technical assistance to Missions, and; 2) cutting-edge monitoring, evaluation and analysis of gender investments for applied learning.

Gender as a priority in the Policy Framework of a newly transformed USAID makes deeper impact in monitoring host country progress and achieving self-reliance promising.

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.