It's normal to think that food assistance is simply about keeping stomachs full. But, in fact, it's far more complex than that. It's also about empowering and enabling people to support themselves and their communities on a sustainable basis. A couple of weeks ago, I traveled to Zimbabwe and Mozambique to visit development projects supported by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in partnership with local authorities. It was there that I saw what a difference agricultural development efforts can make in people's lives.
Women Take the Lead
It was clear to me that women play the key role in providing food and income to their families in both these countries. In the areas I visited, small-scale farmers are almost exclusively female. Many of the local men have moved to South Africa to work in mines, therefore women are the community leaders and family providers. Because of this, it is critically important that development programs focus on educating and empowering female farmers. Recent studies have concluded that if women in developing countries had equal access to land, seeds, equipment, training, credit, and markets their farm productivity would increase by 20 to 30 percent. Countries' total agricultural production would increase by 2.5 to 4 percent, and 100-150 million fewer people would be hungry. In other words, ignoring women in agriculture comes at the expense of the poor and already food insecure. Not only is leveling the playing field morally the right thing to do, it is imperative for economic sustainability.
In Zimbabwe's Guruve District, I visited the farms of several women who normally plant just enough crops to feed their immediate families. Through an FAO project each woman had been given twenty hens, feed, and a large cage, as well as training on how to care for the animals. These women were beaming with pride as they explained how well they were handling their new businesses. While the eggs not only provided a much-needed source of protein for their families, when the hens were highly productive the women could sell or barter the excess for much needed income. This, in turn, helped these women develop commercial skills that are applicable to any future venture they may pursue. It also gave them the cash to purchase additional seeds and supplies and expand their farming operations. This project showed me, once again, how agriculture assistance programs do far more than just provide food -- they teach recipients new skills and offer opportunities for increased responsibility. I was so impressed with the enthusiasm with which these women shared their knowledge. They were incredibly proud of what they had accomplished -- and rightly so!
A School for Farmers
In Mozambique, I was able to visit a "farmers' field school." Started by FAO some years ago, it is now a "hands on" training center run by the local women farmers. Building on the skills FAO initially taught them regarding how to plant, irrigate, and fertilize their crops, these women added their own experience and knowledge to the curriculum. For example, the women had developed a very precise recipe for home-made fertilizer which they used when they didn't have money to purchase the store-bought variety. I saw how they collectively formed a "water brigade" from the river to the fields in order to irrigate their crops and how the older, more experienced farmers, taught the younger women the important skills they had developed over the years. By "owning" the program, these resourceful women were helping themselves and their fellow women farmers provide sustainable livelihoods for their families and their community. Impressive! To top off the day, we shared a noon-time meal followed by joyful singing and dancing. Canimambo! Many thanks!
This transition from FAO-supported to locally-controlled projects epitomizes what food assistance is all about: eradicating hunger and malnutrition, while building resilience so people will no longer need to rely on food aid in the future.