Developing strategies to end hunger
 

275 posts categorized "Agriculture"

167 Million Fewer Hungry People in the World, But Sustained Funding Is Still Needed

The number of hungry people in the world has dropped below 800 million for the first time, according to this year’s State of Food Insecurity in the World (SOFI) report, released today. The report, authored by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the International Fund for Agricultural Development, and the World Food Program, takes stock of the progress being made toward global hunger goals.

SOFI_2015The report identifies what still needs to be done as the world transitions to the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals, which will follow the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) when they sunset this year. In 1996, 182 countries at the World Food Summit committed “… to eradicate hunger in all countries, with an immediate view to reducing the number of undernourished people to half their present level no later than 2015.” The first of eight MDGs, all adopted in 2000, encapsulates this commitment, including the target “cutting in half the proportion of people who suffer from hunger by the year 2015.”

So how is the world doing?

The report reviews progress for every country and region. The news is good overall -- improvements outweighed setbacks. But as can be expected with such a broad and ambitious worldwide goal, problem areas remain, and in some regions hunger is still a stubborn problem.

Twenty-five years ago there were a billion hungry people. According to the new SOFI report, this number has now dropped to 795 million. The countries that improved the most had two features in common: strong economic growth that included investments in poor people, agriculture, and food production; and relative political stability. These countries were largely in East Asia and Latin America and the Caribbean. A solid majority of countries (72 of 129) have met the ambitious target of cutting hunger in half.

These are certainly impressive achievements. Consider that natural disasters, civil and regional conflict, and weak governments can damage to poor countries disproportionately. Also, the world population has grown rapidly: it is higher by 1.9 billion people than it was in 1990. Predictions of widespread famine have for the most part not come true, but certainly there have been famines, such as the 2011 one in Somalia that killed at least 100,000 children younger than 5.

Sub-Saharan Africa’s hunger rate is still more than 33 percent, and more African countries (24) are experiencing food insecurity now than in 1990. Hunger rates in countries with continuing crises are more than three times higher than elsewhere, according to SOFI. In Africa and South Asia, “progress has been slow overall, despite success stories at country and sub-regional levels … there is no one size fits all solution.”

This is why sustaining the development work being done in USAID’s flagship hunger and poverty reduction initiative, Feed the Future, is so important. Feed the Future’s focus areas were developed specifically to sustainably reduce global poverty and hunger. It has demonstrated progress in “significantly reduc[ing] both poverty and stunting (a measure of chronic food insecurity)” in countries where it operates, and adequate funding is essential so this progress can continue.    

Scott Bleggi

A Bi-Coastal Vizathon to Expose Hidden Hunger

Hidden-Hunger-Visathon-Announcment-Image, SF Register button, SF Register button, Washington, DC Register button, online

We're excited to announce our second annual HelpMeViz Data Vizathon event. On Saturday, May 30, we will partner with HelpMeViz.com and the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) to bring back our community of data heroes -- coders, data scientists, designers, and data visualizers -- to help shed light on the elusive problem of hidden hunger in the developing world. We’re especially happy to be expanding this year’s vizathon to two volunteer sites—one on the East Coast in Washington, DC, and the other on the West Coast in San Francisco.

IFPRI and Bread for the World Institute have drawn from several brand new hunger and nutrition data sets from Africa South of the Sahara to develop two data visualization challenges centered on two forms of  'hidden hunger':

Challenge 1: Exposing Hidden Hunger

“The ‘hidden hunger’ due to micronutrient deficiency does not produce hunger as we know it. You might not feel it in the belly, but it strikes at the core of your health and vitality.”  -Kul C. Gautam, former deputy executive director of UNICEF

Find a way to bring the problem of hidden hunger out of the shadows. Use the latest global data on micronutrient deficiencies to expose the story of hidden hunger and its massive human costs.

  • Demonstrate the mounting costs of hidden hunger (in lost potential, years, GDP, etc.).
  • Combine data with graphic art and photos to humanize the problem of hidden hunger, giving it a name and a face.

Challenge 2: Showing How Hunger Feeds Obesity:

Use new data on obesity and body mass index (BMI) to tell the story of obesity’s stunning rise across the developing world and the array of health problems that are beginning to mount as a result. This will mean finding ways to count the economic and health costs of obesity as well as showing the gaps in national healthcare systems being revealed by the rise in obesity. 

You can read more details on the data challenges at the event announcement on HelpMeViz.com.

Vizathon Details

HelpMeViz, IFPRI, and Bread for the World Institute are inviting up to 50 guests to each site on Saturday, May 30, from 9:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. to work on these two challenges. The Institute will provide the challenge data and space for participants to work. Breakfast, lunch, and afternoon snacks will be provided. Participants will also receive a printed copy of the 2016 Hunger Report, which focuses on hunger and health and will be released in November 2015.

The event will be blogged live on HelpMeViz. We hope that interested people all over the world will want to lend their voice and their skills to respond to these challenges. Data will be made available at the beginning of the event. Visualizations, conversations, and comments from both coasts and elsewhere will be posted to the vizathon’s website in real time.

If you would like to attend in Washington, DC, or San Francisco, click the links below to register.

Washington, DC: Register to attend the HelpMeViz 2015 Vizathon at the Washington, DC site.

San Francisco: Register to attend the HelpMeViz 2015 Vizathon at the San Francisco, CA site.

Participate Online: Register to participate in the HelpMeViz Vizathon online from anywhere!

Progress on Extreme Poverty: When the Numbers Don't Match the Proportions

By Michele Learner Photo for numbers versus proportions

The world has made an impressive amount of progress against hunger and poverty in the past two generations. Most people in the United States don't realize this. It's not a discrete event, so it doesn't attract much media coverage. Besides, the violence, diseases, natural disasters, and other bad news so prominent in news outlets are enough to give anyone pause when the United Nations and organizations like Bread for the World announce that the world can end hunger by 2030. Do we know what we're talking about?

For those who follow the news in developing countries closely, as most Institute Notes readers do, there's another reason for pause. The world met the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) target of cutting extreme poverty in half -- ahead of schedule, even. We have reported, as have many others, on the impressive and sustained economic growth rates in a number of African countries. So far, so good. But the number of people in Africa who live on less than $1.25 a day is growing.

Why? Brookings Institution analyst Laurence Chandy tackles the question head on. Growth in sub-Saharan Africa has been gaining momentum for 20 years now, averaging 5.2 percent a year since 1995. "Meanwhile," Chandy says, "the number of people on the continent reportedly living under $1.25 a day has continued to creep upwards from 358 million in 1996 to 415 million in 2011—the most recent year for which official estimates exist."

Chandy points out that fortunately, the evidence does not show that this is because all the gains from economic growth are going to the very wealthiest people. And the proportion of Africans who live in extreme poverty has in fact decreased -- Africa is not an exception to the world's success in cutting extreme poverty in half.  Sub-Saharan Africa's extreme poverty rate is still far too high, and that's an understatement. In the most recent data, again from 2011, 47 percent of the population lived on less than $1.25 a day. But that's down from 60 percent in 1996.

Chandy's piece lists five contributing factors to the "rising numbers despite progress" conundrum:

  • Starting from a greater depth of poverty -- poor people in Africa are, on average, further than poor people in other developing regions from the $1.25 a day threshold. The 2011 figures were 74 cents for Africans, 98 cents for others, so actually crossing the poverty threshold will take a longer period of progress.
  • Starting from a high level of inequality -- if Africa were one country, its income inequality rate would be higher than Latin America's. Thus, only part of the economic growth is going toward reducing extreme poverty.
  • Rapid population growth -- at 2.6 percent a year, compared with the world average of 1.1 percent, the growing economic pie must be cut into more slices.
  • A degree of mismatch between the economies doing well and those where many poor people live. Some of the poorest countries have been growing rapidly (Ethiopia, Mozambique), while others (notably the very populous Democratic Republic of the Congo, DRC) have not.
  • Problems with the quality of data. The data is from household surveys, whose results are affected by challenges in a variety of data collection and analysis tasks. Efforts are being made to improve its accuracy. For example, forthcoming new data from Nigeria is expected to show that the country's poverty rate is considerably lower, and falling faster, than previously believed. But for now, as Chandy puts it, "As a general rule, aggregate poverty numbers for Africa should be handled with care."

One thing I took away from Chandy's analysis is the importance of continuing to support progress while also exercising more patience. Progress on data is one area that we at the Institute often highlight, whether in an interactive visualization or a blog series such as Data to End Hunger

Population growth is another area that may simply take more time. Having fewer children is something that follows from but, understandably, lags progress on child mortality. Once parents are more confident that their children will survive, population growth often slows. When I was in Bangladesh for Bread in 2012, for example, several women raised the subject of family size and said that although their mothers had had five, six, or seven children, they themselves hoped to have two, perhaps three.

Another takeaway: people in fragile states need more support and solutions. What has happened in the DRC is not only a tragedy for millions of individuals and for a nation rich in natural resources, but an impediment to the progress of sub-Saharan Africa as a whole.

Chandy's conclusion is that while our intuition may tell us that Africa's economic growth is only benefiting the rich or that its size is exaggerated, the discrepancy between the numbers and proportions of people living in extreme poverty is better explained by looking more closely at Africa's poverty data.

Photo credit: Bread for the World

 Michele Learner

 

Nutrition: A Round-Up of a Packed Week

 

Photo for April nutrition roundup

Jim Kim and David Chang discuss the Future of Food. Photo credit: Asma Lateef for Bread for the World.

By Asma Lateef

The world is much clearer now about the irreversible damage that undernutrition causes to children’s brain development and their lifelong health. Evidence is mounting that countries with high rates of undernutrition among their children also bear enormous economic costs. And there is consensus on the actions to take to scale up strategies that boost nutrition.

Last week as the world’s Finance Ministers came to Washington for the World Bank/IMF Spring Meetings, these issues were not up for debate. Decision makers are moving on – from asking whether undernutrition is an important problem, to finding ways to fund nutrition efforts.  

A few key moments focused the spotlight on underinvestment in nutrition, with some hopeful signs that this is changing:

Nutrition for Growth Scorecard: Are Previous Commitments Being Met?

ACTION released its first scorecard on the pledges made through Nutrition for Growth in 2013. The scorecard was discussed at a civil society forum event, Funding Nutrition for Growth, during the Spring Meetings. It assesses how ambitious the pledges of the major donor countries were and whether they are on track to meet their commitments. The scorecard gives a mixed review on donors’ levels of ambition in their pledges. It also notes that there are too many unknowns, particularly as to donors’ spending on nutrition sensitive actions (programs that improve nutrition but are not “nutrition programs” per se – for example, water and sanitation efforts). Accountability is key: the promised resources must make their way to the communities, mothers, and children who most need them. This scorecard helps us get one step closer.

The Power of Nutrition: Mobilizing Resources from Diverse Sources

At the Spring Meetings, the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation, the UBS Optimus Foundation, and the U.K. aid agency, the Department for International Development, partnering with the World Bank and UNICEF, launched the Power of Nutrition. This new trust fund, to be housed at the World Bank, hopes to leverage private and public resources to raise up to $1 billion to support nutrition action in the African and Asian countries that bear the highest burdens of child undernutrition. Some of these resources will come through the World Bank’s concessional lending/grants arm, IDA.

The Power of Nutrition is the first dedicated fund for nutrition. It is an exciting step forward in filling the resource gap, especially in a year when the international community is setting an ambitious post-2015 development agenda. These plans will need action on nutrition to be successful in ending hunger and extreme poverty by 2030, the target date.

The Future of Food: What Needs to be Done

Also related to the post-2015 goals, World Bank President Jim Kim hosted a conversation with acclaimed chef David Chang at the release of the Bank’s new report, Ending Hunger and Extreme Poverty by 2030: An Agenda for the Global Food System. The report (and the conversation) focuses on improving agricultural productivity sustainably; improving the nutrition of women and children, especially during the “1,000 Days” window between pregnancy and age 2; and linking smallholder farmers to markets.

More on what needs to be done: across town, on the same day as some Spring Meeting events, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs launched a report on agriculture, nutrition, and health at its annual Symposium. “Healthy Food for a Healthy World: Leveraging Agriculture and Food to Improve Global Nutrition” focuses on recommendations for the United States:

  • Congress should commit to a long-term global food and nutrition strategy focused on agricultural development. It should also convene a bipartisan commission on how to tackle global nutrition challenges.
  • The U.S. government, in partnership with universities and research institutes, should increase funding for nutrition research focused on expanding access to nutrient-rich foods and reducing malnutrition.
  • The United States should draw on the strength of its research facilities and universities to train the next generation of agriculture, food, and nutrition leaders -- both here and in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
  • Government and industry should work together to support wider, more efficient delivery of healthy foods, especially through technologies that can reduce food waste and enhance food safety.

At the Symposium, Shawn Baker, Director of Nutrition at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, gave a preview of the foundation’s nutrition strategy that will be released in June. More to come on that! Asma Lateef

As March Becomes April, Prioritize Gender - Climate Change Connections

  Pakistan scene for climate change blog

Climate change could mean dramatically different ecosystems in areas such as Pakistan's Hunza Valley. Photo credit: USAID Pakistan.

By Michele Learner

A key message of Bread for the World Institute's 2015 Hunger Report, When Women Flourish ... We Can End Hunger, is that gender equality affects a wide range of development and other issues not traditionally thought of as "women's issues." The report focuses on how greater gender equality brings reductions in global hunger and malnutrition -- and, conversely, how lack of progress on gender spells lack of progress on hunger as well. As we know, hunger does not exist in a vacuum. 

Until fairly recently, climate change was largely confined to one "silo" -- that of relatively radical environmentalists and "futurists." The talk was of "global warming" and our responsibility to our great-grandchildren and their children. Now, of course, we know that climate change has been affecting people in some communities for years and has begun to reshape large parts of the planet.

As 2015 progresses from March (and International Women's Day) to April (and Earth Day), we underscore the need to keep the intersections of gender inequality and climate change at the forefront of plans to limit and adapt to climate change.

In Tharparkar, a district in Pakistan's Sindh Province (identified as the country's most food insecure region), drought for three consecutive years has meant a rising number of deaths among infants. Women and young children are bearing the brunt of the drought. In addition to their usual heavy workload, many women must also take over the duties of their husbands and male relatives, who increasingly are migrating in search of work.

"Women here are painfully aware that they need to learn how to store surplus food, identify drought-resilient crops, and wean themselves off agriculture as a sole means of survival, thinking that has been borne out in recent studies on the region," reports Zofeen Ebrahim for the Inter Press Service (IPS).

One solution has been to bring a small thorny tree, the mukul myrrh, back from the brink of extinction. Resham Wirdho, 35 and the mother of seven children, told IPS that she tends 500 trees on her one-acre plot of land. She earns about $49 a month from raising the trees. This is a significant addition to her husband's earnings of about $68 a month as a farm laborer. It has made a dramatic difference for her family, she reported: the children eat fresh vegetables and the eldest has been able to begin college.

The capacity to earn additional income -- even in a modest example such as this, with only 2,000 women raising the trees so far  -- is a badly needed sign of hope for women in South Asia, who are particularly vulnerable to the effects of natural disaster. As such disasters become more frequent with climate change, the situation will only grow worse.

The Economist Intelligence Unit's recent report, "The South Asia Women's Resilience Index," placed Pakistan last in the region on the index.  Managing editor David Line said: "South Asian countries need to realize the tremendous capacity for leadership women have in planning for and responding to disasters. They are at the 'front line' and have intimate knowledge of their communities. Wider recognition of this could greatly reduce disaster risk and improve the resilience of these communities."

The connections could not be clearer: progress on gender equality, adaptation to climate change, and ending hunger depend on each other. 

 Michele Learner

 

Three Ways to Reach Gender Equality Sooner

Gender equality, india

Photo Credit: Stephan Bachenheimer/World Bank

The sooner the world achieves gender equality, the sooner it will end hunger. Throughout the month of March (Women’s History Month), we have dedicated this blog to showing why this is true. We’ve examined some of the ways that gender discrimination contributes to hunger, and explained the concept of women’s empowerment and why hunger will persist until the barriers to women’s empowerment are removed. But when will women’s empowerment become a reality? And what can we do to speed up progress?

A recently published study by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research found that at current rates of progress, women in the United States will not receive equal pay for equal work until 2058. Few readers of our blog will still be working then— just one obvious sign that pay equity is much too far away. Although these findings are discouraging, the study also indicated that years or even decades can be shaved off the projection with dedicated leadership and the right action steps.

Returning to the 2015 Hunger Report’s main focus on women’s empowerment in developing countries, here are three high-impact actions that will help achieve both gender equality and the end of hunger more quickly.  

1. Elect More Women 

Women are half of the global population, but hold an average of just 22 percent of seats in national parliaments. Research has found that women in public office at all levels tend to place greater emphasis than men on social services such as education, clean water and sanitation, and nutrition. They are also, not surprisingly, better positioned to understand and advocate for laws and policies that improve the status of women. Gender quotas are one way of ensuring that women’s voices are represented in government, and more than 80 countries have adopted them. Rwanda offers a compelling example. Once women got a foot in the door in that country’s national parliament, they exceeded their “quota” and now hold more than 60 percent of seats.

2. Strengthen Collective Women’s Groups

When marginalized people are free to speak and act collectively, their causes are more likely to be taken seriously by those in power. Beyond government, women can raise their collective voices through labor unions and religious and civil society groups. This can bring change sooner. But in many countries, social norms or even laws bar women from participation in the most influential groups. In Bangladesh and Nepal, women’s efforts to organize labor unions have been suppressed, sometimes violently. This is true particularly in key sectors that pay poorly, such as the garment industry. Yet effective collective bargaining groups represent these women’s best opportunity to lift themselves out of poverty by commanding higher wages and better working conditions.

3. Include Men

As we said in last week’s post, when women flourish, so do men. Evidence repeatedly affirms that empowering women benefits everyone. It adds whole percentage points to economic growth, reduces poverty and hunger, and improves health and nutrition for men, women, and children. But people do not always act according to reason and evidence. Restrictions on a person’s work and productivity based on gender are irrational, but sexist stereotypes and traditions persist at everyone’s expense. The people with the most power to change them – men – appear to be particularly prone to such misconceptions. Gender equality requires that both men and women examine and challenge their perceptions of what is an equitable division of labor. Public policies should not, explicitly or implicitly, reinforce stereotypes that force men into breadwinning roles or women into caregiving roles. Progress requires that men be intentionally, if carefully, welcomed into the discussion. Shared understanding can produce enthusiastic male advocates, and their credibility with other men can speed up social change.

The recommendations in this post were drawn mainly from Chapter 3 of the 2015 Hunger Report. View and download the full Hunger Report and explore stories, infographics, and interactive tools online at hungerreport.org Derek Schwabe

When Women Flourish...So Do Men

Connex and Dyna

Connex and Dyna Malera, Malawian farmers. Photo: Todd Post

When I was researching and writing the 2015 Hunger Report, When Women Flourish … We Can End Hunger, I was advised to make sure I looked at how men are involved in what are identified as “women’s empowerment” programs. This advice came mainly from women who are well acquainted with development programs.

It was good advice, and when I was in Malawi I saw why. My Bread for the World Institute colleague Faustine Wabwire and I contacted the National Smallholder Farmers’ Association of Malawi (NASFAM), asking to see how their women’s empowerment program works. They told us that in a sense all of their programming is about women’s empowerment. You can’t help female farmers overcome the challenges they confront unless gender inequities are a focus of the program.

If you’ve been reading the Institute blog, or Institute publications such as the Hunger Report, you already know that most women in the developing world earn their livelihood by farming small holdings of land. The same is true of men. In rural areas, where hunger is most pervasive, there is really not much else to do to earn income.

Married couples may farm a single enterprise that contributes to the overall well-being of the household, but that doesn’t mean either is farming in the best interest of the whole household. It starts with the crops. The man takes the cash crops for himself, the woman gets the subsistence crops. The husband controls all the income and decides how much to share with his wife, regardless of what she needs to manage her part of the enterprise. None of the decisions about inputs or investing in assets are made jointly. This type of arrangement is virtually universal, making it hard to convince men that it should be -- or even could be -- any other way.

NASFAM provides farmers with training in running a farm enterprise. The training is also an opportunity to use specially designed tools to help both women and men think less rigidly about household gender dynamics. Connex Malera, for example, initially resisted his wife Dyna’s appeals to attend a meeting of the producer group she had joined as part of a NASFAM program in her village. But after he consented and attended one meeting, he could see that working within a group had its advantages. What happened next is something he didn’t expect.

The gender dynamics tool was straightforward: couples described and mapped the various areas of each person’s work, expenditures, property, and decision-making influence. This opened up space for discussion and reflection. Families can use the tool to identify and track changes they would like to make, and it can function as a household contract or plan.

By working together with his wife on a vision of what they wanted to accomplish together within the group, Connex was in a sense forced to listen to his wife’s thoughts on farming. It came as a surprise to him how smart she is — smarter than he is, he told Faustine and me. “I used to say this is a wife and her job is to cook and take care of the children. I am the head of the household and it is my job to make all the decisions. Now we discuss and make decisions together.”

The value of having men in the group extends beyond the changes among just the men in the group and their families. The men become ambassadors for change among other men in the community. They have more credibility with other men than women do, so they can more persuasively make the case for suspending their prejudices against women. Connex recruits other men now. But he does this in subtle ways. For instance, he talks to them at informal gatherings, often when the other men are playing a board game or drinking. At first they dismissed his advice that there was any benefit in working with women. Eventually they grew curious -- first after seeing that his income was rising, and then when a hungry season arrived and he had plenty of food while they were running out. One of the men Connex recruited was Sungani Selemani, who used to think, as Connex did, that it was useless to discuss business with women. Today, he has joined the group with his wife and they discuss all of their household matters and make decisions together. Todd Post

"If she did not fight ... it would have been another story"

In sub-Saharan Africa, a girl with hopes for more than a primary education is unlikely to realize them. For rural girls, the odds are even worse. In a region where a minority of all school children—regardless of gender—even complete lower secondary school (ninth grade), parents must fight to give their daughters an equal chance. This was the experience of Fouzia Dahir, a Kenyan Somali woman whose mother personally shielded her from the social and physical forces that threatened to knock her off the path to a college degree. Fouzia’s story is featured in the 2015 Hunger Report video, just released this week and posted above.

Not only are women and girls the majority of the world’s hungry people, but they are the chief agents the world relies on to help end hunger. Evidence shows that gender discrimination causes hunger, but it also shows that removing gender discrimination leads to benefits that reach every level of society. When women are empowered, families, communities, and even economies are healthier and wealthier. Fouzia’s life and work illuminate this truth. She is the founder of the Northern Organization for Social Empowerment, a non-profit organization in Kenya that advocates for equal opportunities for rural women and girls and equips them to seize those opportunities.

Fouzia’s organization takes direct aim at the largest, most obstinate barriers that stand between rural girls and an education. The most threatening of these is deep poverty, which forces many parents to pull their children out of school to work—simply because the family’s survival depends on it. Scarce economic opportunity and the poverty that results from it exacerbate gender inequality by driving families to make difficult choices about which child gets to go to school. Fouzia’s organization trains rural women to be more productive farmers and connects them to markets so they can earn enough income to send all of their children to school and keep them there.

Social norms pose another pervasive, if invisible, threat to women’s empowerment. Fouzia’s community is no exception. Families who embrace modern education often still hesitate to educate their girls, convinced that their rightful place is in the kitchen. Early marriage is commonplace and virtually always means an end to the child bride’s education. Even girls who manage to evade an early marriage face the next challenge of balancing school and studying with an oppressive burden of domestic work that they alone are expected to shoulder. They must walk miles each way to fetch water, gather firewood, and also do the household cleaning, leaving little or no time for homework. Many eventually drop out of school. This is why Fouzia’s organization works to start conversations among families and between families and schools that encourage a more equitable sharing of household work within the family.

Fouzia is a catalyzing force in her community who is generating very real economic and social returns and making lasting improvements. This would not be possible but for the uncompromising insistence of her mother, herself illiterate, that Fouzia stay in school. Fouzia sees potential similar to her own lost in every young girl denied an education.

You can read Fouzia’s story in her own words and learn more about the importance of education to women’s empowerment by reading the 2015 Hunger Report, When Women Flourish …We Can End Hunger

Derek Schwabe

Tales from My Father: Education Matters for Personal and Global Development

Long before the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were agreed upon in 2000 by world leaders, my father had a vision—to provide me with the best quality of education he could. Besides values, I don’t recall many things about personal development that he emphasized more than the value of education in my life.

My father’s vision of what education had to offer was twofold: the opportunity to advance personal growth by learning the life skills needed for self-confidence and self-sufficiency, and the opportunity to contribute to society and to future generations. In other words, he believed that education empowers individuals and communities to achieve a broader set of development goals—for example, to fight hunger, poverty, and malnutrition, and to build stronger, more stable societies.

My father’s ideals ring as true to me today as they did then. I also know now that without his vision and support, I could easily have been among the hundreds of millions of women around the world whose fate in life is determined simply by the circumstances they were born into. Education carries costs—necessities such as textbooks and supplies as well as the loss of help with household chores—and in some cases, a girl's education is further limited by cultural practices that dictate how far a girl or woman can or should go.

MDG 2 includes a target of ensuring that, by 2015, all children, boys and girls alike, are able to complete a full course of primary schooling. There have been impressive strides forward, particularly at the start of the decade. By 2012, all developing regions had achieved, or were close to achieving, gender parity in primary education. Moreover, some of the nations that have most advanced their children’s access to primary education are among the most impoverished. 

Image1The president and first lady issue a call to action at the Let Girls Learn launch earlier this week. (Photo credit: Faustine Wabwire, Bread for the World Institute)

However, evidence suggests that more recently, progress in reducing the number of children out of school has slowed considerably. According to the World Bank, primary and secondary school enrollment gaps remain in the poorest and most difficult circumstances. Of the remaining 58 million out-of-school children of primary school age, half live in conflict-affected areas. Others who are more likely not to attend school are girls from poor rural households and children with disabilities. The problem is found in many sub-Saharan Africa countries and in some parts of Asia. The same barriers that prevent children from starting school often prevent those who do start from finishing: the primary school dropout rate in developing regions is more than 25 percent. Yet, low-income countries have witnessed a 9 per cent decrease in aid to basic education between 2010 and 2011, from $2.1 billion to $1.9 billion. In sub-Saharan Africa, home to over half of the world’s out-of-school population, aid to basic education declined by 7 per cent over the same period.

Bread for the World Institute’s 2015 Hunger Report, When Women Flourish…We Can End Hunger, shows that empowering girls and women is critical to economic development gains, including ending hunger and malnutrition. The legacy of the past, high dropout rates, and continued significant numbers of out-of-school children mean that illiteracy remains a barrier to development today: 81 million adults and 126 million youth worldwide lack basic literacy skills, of whom more than 60 percent are female.

Last Tuesday, March 3, 2015, was a very special day for me. I had the honor of re-living my father’s tales of education. I was not listening to my father this time, but to President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama in the East Room of the White House. The President and First Lady had invited guests to witness the launch of a new initiative, Let Girls Learn. According to a newly released factsheet, Let Girls Learn will galvanize public and private sector resources to make a final push toward strengthening access and quality primary school education for girls around the world. It will “expand and strengthen existing programs to help adolescent girls complete their education and pursue their broader aspirations.”

The President and First Lady’s call to action through Let Girls Learn is especially timely as the global community forges the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals to carry on the unfinished agenda of the MDGs. My father would agree—it is past time to Let Girls Learn.

  Faustine Wabwire

Sad Statistics for the United States on Maternal Mortality

Infant feet

As a policy analyst, my life revolves around data related to hunger, poverty and nutrition of mothers and their children. Statistics are the tool of my trade. I use them to report, to convey information, and often to advocate on issues. A few stay with me: 805 million hungry people in the world (one person in nine); 165 million stunted children who will never reach their full potential in life.

In my research for the Institute’s series celebrating Women’s History Month, I came across another statistic that will stay with me for a long time. A study by the respected British medical journal The Lancet found that the United States is one of only eight countries where maternal mortality (death from complications of pregnancy or childbirth) is on the rise. The other countries are Afghanistan, Greece, and several countries in Africa and Central America.

In this country, 18.5 mothers died for every 100,000 births in 2013—almost 800 women died here that year alone. This is double the rate of Canada and triple the rate of the United Kingdom! What is going on here? How is it that women in the United States are dying at a faster rate from causes related to pregnancy and childbirth than in almost any other place in the developed world?

There seem to be several contributing factors. Some of the reported rise in mortality is likely due to more rigorous data collection; the United States is one country where data on almost anything is readily available. Another factor is the rise in the number of pregnant women here who have conditions—such as hypertension and diabetes—that contribute to making their pregnancies “high risk.” More girls with heart or neurological diseases are surviving to adulthood—good news, but they remain at higher risk during pregnancy and childbirth.

Perhaps the most shocking statistic is that American women of color – particularly African Americans -- are three times more likely to die as a result of pregnancy or giving birth than their white counterparts. Higher poverty rates, which carry numerous consequences such as more chronic health problems and less access to prenatal care, are a major reason that women of color in our country run much higher risks in becoming mothers. 

There is a parallel between efforts to end maternal mortality and efforts to end global hunger. We know that a lack of available food is not the problem. It is getting access to nutritious food — a particular problem for pregnant women and children – that is a major problem. Affording food and reaching a place where it is available pose the biggest challenges. Researchers have found the same to be true in efforts to end maternal mortality -- particularly during or shortly after childbirth. The major problems are affordability and access to skilled care. This is true in the United States as in many developing countries.

The situation is even worse in “fragile states,” developing countries suffering armed conflict or civil war while also confronting high rates of food insecurity. 

Womwn in healthclinic_UN
Mothers and small children line up at a health clinic. Credit: UN

In its State of the World’s Mothers 2014 (SOWM) report, the international organization Save the Children says: “These countries and territories (more than 50 in number) lack resilience to emergencies and face chronic underlying challenges, including extreme poverty, weak infrastructure, and poor governance. In these settings, children and mothers face an everyday emergency, whether or not a humanitarian crisis is officially recognized by the international system.”

During this Women’s History Month, I encourage you to read Save’s SOWM report and take a look at the statistics on maternal mortality compiled by the World Bank and the United Nations World Health Organization. As a result of a concerted effort by governments, international donors, and civil society, we are making remarkable progress toward the goal of ending hunger.  Much less progress has been made toward the fifth Millennium Development Goal of reducing maternal mortality by three-fourths. An equally concerted and collaborative effort, accompanied by sustained funding for healthcare programs in the United States and overseas, particularly in fragile states, is needed to help women survive as they secure humanity’s future by bearing children.

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