Why global feminism and food security go hand in hand

There is a long-standing criticism that Canada’s development assistance is constantly shifting its focus. With the new feminist approach, there is no need to abandon agriculture and food security, writes Matias Margulis. 

By: /
September 21, 2017
India
A woman winnows wheat crop at a wholesale grain market on the outskirts of the western Indian city of Ahmedabad, May 7, 2013. REUTERS/Amit Dave

The Liberal government’s Feminist International Assistance Policy was announced to much fanfare earlier this summer. While Canada’s new policy has the potential to improve the lives of women and girls, notably absent in the government’s new “actions areas” were agriculture and food security.

This is a surprising omission given that nearly half of women living in the developing world work in agriculture and that women and girls face unique barriers to accessing nutritious and sufficient food. Gender inequalities in the countryside trap women and girls into cycles of poverty and hunger. This is why international development institutions such as the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and World Bank and philanthropic bodies like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have made addressing the plight of poor rural women a top global development priority.

Canada’s development aid is unlikely to achieve the ambitious results envisaged unless agriculture and food security are made a priority action area for international assistance, as well as backed by adequate and long-term financial commitments. Below are three reasons why the Liberal government should be placing agriculture and food security at the centre of the new international assistance policy.

1. Many poor women and girls depend on agriculture for their livelihoods.

The FAO and World Bank estimate that between 40-50 percent of women work in agriculture worldwide. Women working in agriculture face gender-specific obstacles to securing adequate livelihoods. These obstacles include lower pay, poorer working conditions, owning fewer productive assets — such as livestock and land (the latter which can only be owned by males in many countries) — and facing greater barriers than men to accessing agricultural inputs, financial services, childcare and extension services. These obstacles have a striking effect on the ground, with male farmers earning greater incomes and producing 30 percent more output compared to women. Improved access to agricultural inputs and services could help women enhance their productive capacity and economic opportunities. In Uganda, for example, it is estimated that closing the gender agricultural productivity gap could bring 13 percent of female-headed households out of poverty.

Girls account for 40 percent of children working in agriculture and also face gender-specific challenges. Like women, girls experience the double burden of contributing to agricultural work as well as responsibility for household duties. Girls working in agriculture are more likely than boys to be unpaid for their labour, denied access to education, and exposed to sexual exploitation (especially when girls are responsible for collecting drinking water by foot over long distances).

Many of the world’s women and girls depend on agriculture for their livelihoods and thus their ability to escape, and stay out, of poverty. Simply put, agriculture should be ground zero for any feminist development policy.

2. It will help achieve the 2030 Agenda and Sustainable Development Goals.

The Feminist International Assistance Policy states that it will contribute to achieving the 2030 Agenda and Sustainable Development Goals of ending poverty and strengthening peace. Indeed, the Liberal government has centred its approach on Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 5, which is achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls. However, it is far less clear how the policy will help achieve SDG 2  (end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture.

So far Canada has committed to providing greater support to fighting malnutrition among women and children as parts of its global health efforts. While this is a positive first step, the international community has adopted a holistic approach for achieving SDG 2 that includes but extends beyond nutrition. Most relevant for the Liberal government’s gender-based approach to development is the SDG 2 target of doubling female farmers’ income and productivity by 2030. Yet there is no commitment in the Feminist International Assistance Policy on how it would concretely work towards achieving this gender-specific goal. 

There are other important aspects of SDG 2 on which Canada’s new policy is notably silent. Take for example the objective to maintain the genetic diversity of seeds and plants. Seed saving is a role that is traditionally carried out by rural women. Community seed saving is essential to maintaining biodiversity; it also provides a vital form of insurance in the case of crop failures and other disasters. Seed saving is one area where Canada’s gender-based approach to development would make obvious sense — yet there are no mentions of seeds or biodiversity anywhere in the policy.

Achieving SDG 2 is vital to building an inclusive world, however agriculture and food security have taken the backseat in Canada’s new international assistance policy. This is not the time for Canada to be complacent on agriculture and food security as the FAO reported last week that global hunger is on the rise.

3. Reviving Canada’s international leadership requires a continued commitment to agriculture and food security.

The Trudeau government’s Feminist International Assistance Policy is supposed to help show the world that Canada “is back” on the international stage. Foreign policy under the Harper government did not always win Canada many friends in multilateral institutions such as the United Nations. But that certainly cannot be said about Canada’s development assistance for agriculture and food security. Canada made agriculture and food security an aid priority in 2009, initially in response to the 2008 global food crisis but kept it as a top aid programming area for nearly a decade. As a new report with the Brookings Institution shows, Canada spent over $4 billion on agriculture and food security-related development assistance between 2009 and 2014, over 40 percent of which has been focused on smallholder agriculture and emergency food assistance. During this time, Canada built a reputation as a reliable and generous donor, including championing agriculture and food security issues at the G7/G8. 

A long-standing criticism, and weakness, of Canadian development assistance has been the constant shift of aid priorities by successive governments. There is always the temptation for new governments to do something different just for the sake of it, even if this does not always improve the efficacy and effectiveness of development assistance. There is nothing in the Feminist International Assistance Policy to signal that Canada will continue its role as a major donor supporting agriculture and food security-related development assistance. 

Abandoning Canada’s recent role as a major global player in agriculture and food security-related development assistance would be counterproductive on many levels. Not only are agriculture and food security vital to achieving gender equality and achieving SDG 2 as argued above, but the government’s lack of a clear and coherent agriculture and food security strategy signals to aid partners that Canada may be retreating on this front.

If the Liberal government truly intends to show that Canada is back on the multilateral stage, the best way to achieve this is certainly not by walking away from one of the few areas of international cooperation where Canada has a strong reputation and has built up credibility.

Walking away also has practical implications on the ground with many on-going, multi-partner development projects going forward without Canada because our development partners are no longer certain about Canada’s commitment to agriculture and food security. In the process, trust that was painstakingly built up with local partners over many years is eroded.

The Feminist International Assistance Policy will determine Canada’s future aid spending. It is well known in the development community that aid funding always follows the government’s stated priorities of the day. Therefore, the absence of agriculture and food security as a top priority in the new policy suggests these are unlikely to be major areas of aid spending. It is difficult to accept a “feminist” policy that does not prioritize the very sector most vital to women and girls’ economic survival.

The Feminist International Assistance Policy is still in its infancy and there is time for the Liberal government to make agriculture and food security a key action area. This month’s UN-sponsored Forum on Women’s Empowerment in the Context of Food Security and Nutrition is an ideal opportunity, for example, for the Liberal government to show that Canada remains committed to supporting agriculture and food security in the developing world.

The government could take action by ensuring agriculture and food security remain a Canadian development priority and that Canada’s aid policy is firmly aligned with the 2030 agenda, including SDG 2. In addition, the government should make agriculture and food security aid programing predictable by establishing a long-term plan with clear goals and targets. This should include budgetary commitments that run through 2030 and directly support efforts to end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture.