Developing strategies to end hunger
 

232 posts categorized "Agriculture"

A Climate to End Hunger: Climate Change, Food & Nutrition Security, and Poor People

The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said recently that there is increasing scientific evidence that food and nutrition security are at risk from climate change. The report concluded that African countries are the most vulnerable from the “profound and irreversible” changes that have already taken place.   Blog1 

In a world projected to have a population of 9 billion by the year 2050, requiring an increaseof 70% in food production, climate change could instead cause losses of up to 25 percent in the world’s major cereal crops: corn, wheat, and rice. This, clearly, will lead to grain shortages and increasing hunger unless steps are taken to better manage natural resources dedicated to farming and pasture land.

Another danger in an era of climate change is increases in “hidden hunger,” defined as malnutrition caused by deficiencies in micronutrients (vitamins and minerals). In its two landmark series on maternal and child nutrition, The Lancet medical journal helped bring the world’s attention to vulnerable people – especially pregnant women and children under age 2, those in the 1,000 Days window where nutrition is most critical – who eat enough calories but have hidden hunger. This is primarily because their diets are composed primarily of corn or rice and contain few micronutrients. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reports that 2 billion people globally already suffer from hidden hunger.

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So how can we get additional nutritious foods to people in an era of rapidly growing population and climate change? In the past generation, research scientists have developed seed varieties with traits that make them more drought resistant, or more heat resistant, or ready to harvest more quickly, or biofortified (meaning that micronutrients have been added). In the last decade, though, a new generation of seed varieties that combine two or more of these desirable traits have been developed. These more resilient and “climate smart” seed varieties are adapted to different climactic conditions.  So far, though, poor farmers in the developing world don’t have access to seed containing multiple, or “stacked”, traits and improved genetic profiles.

The challenge today is to bring sustainable farming practices together with efforts to increase crop production in ways that are resilient to climate change. This will require a renewed Green Revolution. The pioneering plant science research done by Dr. Norman Borlaug and others did a great deal to reduce mass hunger in Asia in the 1960s and 1970s. To extend the work of the Green Revolution and ensure that plants can survive under new conditions will require major investments in plant research. The World Bank and regional lending institutions can lead efforts to make these investments.

In the words of Nigerian Minister of Agriculture Akinwumi Adesina, who leads agricultural research efforts in a country where 240 million people are undernourished, “We invest in roads, in power, in ports, and we must recognize that building this infrastructure along with improving nutrition is investing in the economy today and in the future of our societies.”

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A Climate to End Hunger: What’s Cooking?

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Photo: Todd Post

In the developing world, women and girls are expected to collect firewood for cooking. The amount of time they spend on this chore varies depending on the local environment, but it is not uncommon to have to travel for hours to collect firewood several times a week.

A lot of trees are cut down as a result. The collection of firewood contributes to deforestation, and deforestation is a major contributor to global climate change.

We all want to reduce our carbon footprint. But what are the real-world choices of people in developing countries? It is one thing to gripe about people in rich countries who won’t part with their gas-guzzling automobiles, but quite another to expect people in poor countries to cook fewer meals in the interest of staving off climate change. I’m not suggesting that we should ignore the effects of their reliance on firewood. There are cost-effective ways to help solve the problem -- and nobody has to go hungry as a tradeoff.

In Malawi just last week, I saw how a simple clay stove—sold for less than a dollar—can significantly reduce the amount of firewood families use. And in turn, it frees up the time women and girls spend collecting it – time that they can now devote to more productive activities, such as work that produces an income or attending school.

A group of women I spoke with, participants in a program implemented by the National Association of Smallholder Farmers of Malawi (NASFAM), had been using open fires to cook their meals. They estimated that before they received clay stoves, they spent about 10 hours a week collecting firewood. With the new stoves, though, they’d reduced that time to less than an hour.

In addition to the stoves, NASFAM gave members of the group some seedlings to grow trees. If only the stoves had been provided, the women and girls would still have needed to walk for hours to get to the forest to collect their wood. They would not have needed to make as many trips as when they cooked over open fires, since the stoves need only a fraction of the firewood – but with trees right outside their homes, they can get firewood without going to the forest at all. Similarly, it would not make sense to plant trees without providing the stoves, since all the wood required to cook using open fires would have decimated the trees in no time.

But here’s the best part of the story: the community is now building stoves themselves and selling them in volume to a buyer, who in turn sells them in other villages for $1 each. They were able to do this because they pooled their resources to purchase the molds needed to make these clay stoves. They’ve also built a kiln. The enterprise is lifting families out of poverty, increasing their food intake, diversifying diets, and making it possible to keep children in school.

This story shows that it’s quite possible to improve people’s lives in significant ways without increasing the size of their carbon footprint. A little bit of technology goes a long way. Todd Post

A Climate to End Hunger: U.S. Farming in 2050

We’re hearing a lot about 2050 lately, especially in the anti-hunger community. It’s the year the human population is expected to reach 9 billion, and -- not coincidentally -- it’s the deadline to double global food production to meet growing demand. What will food production look like in 2050?

A new report from the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) asks: How can agriculture best adapt to climate change? Food Security in a World of Natural Resource Scarcity forecasts what the climate will be like in 2050, then tries to figure out which of several farming techniques-- e.g., drip irrigation, no-till agriculture, precision agriculture--would be most effective for growing maize (corn), wheat, and rice under those conditions. 

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report released last month indicates that worldwide, climate change is already occurring and people are already being forced to adapt to different conditions. Although climate change is a global problem, its effects on food and hunger are likely to be quite localized. 

The report’s North American chapter says climate change could cause “productivity gains in northern regions and where water is not projected to be a limiting factor,” but that heat, drought, and storms in other regions will cause a decrease in crop yields. The report projects that without significant adaptation, the United States will see modest declines in the amount of food grown by the middle of the century, with steeper declines by the year 2100. 

Producing less food can mean higher prices and more hungry people--especially with population growth -- so it’s important for farmers to adapt to climate change and keep crop yields up. The solution isn’t the same for every region or every crop, so the report breaks the world down into square “pixels,” 60 by 60 kilometers. IFPRI has prepared an Agritech Toolbox with country-level data for visualizing which techniques will work best for each crop.  

Map of projected 2050 maize yields in the Americas
From Figure 4.2 of IFPRI report

For example, IFPRI researchers found that for growing maize in the United States, the most successful overall intervention would be to switch to heat-tolerant plant varieties. But as illustrated in a graphic in the report, adopting heat-tolerant varieties of maize wouldn’t change yields much at all in the northern parts of the country. It might not be hot enough there to need new types of corn by 2050. The southernmost corn-growing areas of the United States are likely to have only a small increase in corn yields from using heat-tolerant varieties -- perhaps droughts and storms will kill plants that otherwise could have survived the heat, or maybe it will prove too hot for even the hardiest varieties to thrive. Most importantly, though, there is a large area in the middle of the eastern United States where adopting heat-resistant varieties of maize could increase yields by more than 25 percent.  

Adapting to climate change isn’t enough. We need to change our ways of doing things so as to cause less climate change. For example, we should enable American farmers to not only maintain or increase crop yields despite climate change, but also to reduce waste so that more of the crops in the fields actually reach people’s plates – feeding more people without producing more greenhouse gas. Reducing future climate change can often be done using strategies that also bring people out of poverty, as we discussed in our 2010 Hunger Report.

Even if we succeed in slowing climate change, some of its damage is no longer avoidable. With the planet already experiencing greater extremes of temperature and precipitation, agriculture no longer has a choice about whether to adapt. The IPCC and IFPRI reports show in concrete ways how significantly Earth will change over the next several decades. Ending hunger is possible even in a changing climate, but it will require greater effort than it would have in the past -- on the part of the United States and every other country. 

Stacy Cloyd

A Climate to End Hunger: Agriculture Is Part of the Problem and the Solution

Hunger Report Monday 2 Greenhouse Gas Emissions by Economic Sectors

Editor’s note: Welcome to Bread for the World Institute’s blog series on A Climate to End Hunger. The other day when I realized that Earth Day was approaching, I winced at my conflation of Earth Day with climate change. But it makes sense. Climate change is the biggest threat yet to Earth’s environment – and increasingly widespread hunger is one of its most tragic potential consequences. In this series, we reflect on how we can help prevent such a catastrophe. 

Today, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Working Group III published the third and final contribution, Mitigation of Climate Change, to the organization’s forthcoming Fifth Assessment Report. Working Group III, made up of hundreds of the world’s leading scientists, was tasked with surveying thousands of the latest peer-reviewed studies to gauge the current status of climate change, the hazards it poses to humanity, and, of course, what people can do to prevent and/or cope with those hazards. The Guardian’s Leo Hickman summed up the group’s findings best – and at Tweetable length:

Climate change is real. We are to blame. It will get worse if we fail to act. The solutions are available and affordable. But time is short.

The group’s findings support the warning – stronger than ever – of the threat posed by climate change not only to hungry and poor people, but to the entire global economy. Climate change is increasingly straining global food systems. The message to policymakers is that if all countries, rich and poor alike, do not act quickly and cooperatively, the hard-won global progress against hunger and extreme poverty of the past few decades could be rapidly undone.

More specifically, climate change threatens global food security by causing declining crop yields; disruptions in food access, utilization, and price stability; and significantly reduced access to water, food security, and agricultural incomes in rural communities.

As the report’s chart (above) shows, about a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions are generated by the “Agriculture, Forestry, and Other Land Use” (AFOLU) sector — more than by the transport and building sectors combined. Sustainable agricultural practices will be crucial to reducing AFOLU emissions while still producing enough food for the growing population. Promising mitigation options include afforestation and sustainable forest management, improved cropland management, and restoration of organic soils.

At its core, responding effectively to climate change means building resilience in communities where people have always struggled to produce enough food. It demands strong and organized political leadership, infrastructure, and resources at all levels — local, regional, national, and global. Strengthening local capacity to create and implement informed, effective adaptation strategies is vital to building resilience.

Chapter 5 of the 2014 Hunger Report, Ending Hunger in America, examines how agriculture has been part of the climate change problem, and more importantly, how it must be part of the solution. Visit www.hungerreport.org to read more.   Derek Schwabe

Data to End Hunger: Specialized Food Aid Products

Traditionally, food aid from the United States meant bagged cereals and pulses (such as dried peas and lentils), flour, a blended corn-soy product designed to be mixed with water to make porridge or gruel, or a combination of these. Purchased by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the American Midwest, it was sent by rail or barge to U.S. ports and then continued its long journey by ship. Finally, food aid arrived in the places where it was needed, where it was distributed through emergency and development programs administered by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). For decades, this was the personification of the bounty of U.S. farmers and the generosity of the U.S. public toward hungry and vulnerable people.

Since the beginning of the main U.S. food aid program, Food for Peace, developments in food science and nutrition have taught us a lot about the effectiveness of food aid commodities. For example, while general distribution food aidBlog graph 040914such as that delivered in refugee camps in the Horn of Africa, provides the calories necessary to avert starvation, it is inadequate as a person’s sole source of sustenance for long periods of time. Studies by Tufts University and the Government Accountability Office found that there is a risk of malnutrition because the commodities are deficient in essential micronutrients (vitamins and minerals). This is a significant problem because in recent years, more than 96 percent of all food aid recipient countries have received food aid for four or more years.

Also thanks to advances in food and nutrition science, new food aid products have been developed and are increasingly being used in programs to treat both moderate and severe malnutrition. Food aid products began to be targeted to the specific groups of people for whom they would be most effective. For example, micronutrient-fortified formulations of Corn Soy Blend and Wheat Soy Blend were made (from a blend of partially cooked cornmeal, soy flour, iodized salt, and vegetable oil). Other formulations that have been tested contain soy- or milk-based (whey) proteins, which have been shown to help the body absorb nutrients. This is most critical to malnourished children younger than 2 -- those in the 1,000 Days window of opportunity.

Other new types of food aid belong to the category “lipid-based nutritional supplements” (LNS). One of the first therapeutic LNS foods is a peanut-based product with a name that’s now widely recognized – Plumpy’nut. This and related products marketed by the Nutriset company show tremendous success in helping children with Severe Acute Malnutrition.

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Specialized food products like these are used with mothers and children in the highlands of Guatemala

A study in Niger found that giving Plumpy’nut to children younger than 2 with Severe Acute Malnutrition reduced mortality by about 50 percent – a result heralded as a significant change in the way food aid is used.

Additional LNS products have been developed by U.S.-based companies.  Also, there have been pilot projects that base the therapeutic foods on locally-grown chickpeas, peanuts, cashews, sesame, corn, and soybeans. Using local crops will significantly reduce the cost, which can be a barrier to increasing the use of LNS products in donor-funded programs.

In addition to LNS-based foods, Ready-to-Use Supplementary Food (RUSF) and Ready-to-Use Therapeutic Food (RUTF) products, micronutrient-fortified/enriched milled flours and blends, and meal replacement emergency foods have all been developed and are now in use. Meal replacement products include dairy and legume protein pastes as well as grain-based protein bars. 

Increased use of specialized products is an integral part of the food aid reforms in the recently passed U.S. farm bill. It is noteworthy that the farm bill contains specific language instructing USAID to explore ways in which these products can be stockpiled in food aid pre-positioning sites around the world.  Pre-positioning can make them immediately available in emergencies where children are suffering from life-threatening malnutrition. Better targeting of specialized foods to the most vulnerable populations will save lives.

Other food aid reforms currently under way include increasing the percentage of local and regional purchase of food, and allowing additional flexibility to provide help in the form of food vouchers or cash where appropriate, as opposed to shipping bagged food aid products from the United States. These reforms will reduce program costs and ultimately feed millions more people with the same resources.

This is critical, because according to the Lancet medical journal, malnutrition is the underlying cause of nearly half of all child deaths, more than 3 million children per year. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) reports that one in four children in the world is stunted (below the median height for age of a reference population), a condition related to chronic malnutrition with life-long social, health, education and economic consequences.

Research and data have enabled the development of specialized therapeutic food aid products.  Increasing the use of all forms and formulations of such products is our best weapon against acute malnutrition, particularly among severely malnourished children whose lives are at stake. This is one battle in the war against hunger that we can win.

Scott Bleggi

Data to End Hunger: Water in Nepal

Welcome to Bread for the World Institute's blog series on Data to End Hunger.  This week, we'll  offer different "takes" on this topic - in the United States and overseas, data collection concerns and data access concerns, personal stories and quantitative information.

But they all add up to our main point: Relevant, accurate information is essential to ending hunger.

Photo for water in Nepal

Rice cultivation in Asia, a common sight that obviously requires abundant water. Photo by Myra Valenzuela/Bread for the World.

In Nepal, where at least 75 percent of the population depends on agriculture and 86 percent of the land area is hilly or mountainous terrain, water is a critical variable. Simply put, whether farmers have access to the right amounts of water at the right times determines whether there will be enough food for everyone.

What Nepal doesn't know about its water supply, though, exacerbates the already formidable difficulties posed by the terrain -- in agriculture, industry, and power generation alike.  (Even the capital city of Kathmandu has several hours of power outage every day, referred to locally as load-shedding).

The Inter Press Service reports, "Nepal's hydrologists, water experts, meterorologists, and climate scientists all call for better management of water. But a vital element of water management -- quality scientific data -- is still missing."

"Most of the high altitude data we have on water and climate change is not our own, it is based on global circulation models... In our context, we don't have much to compare with," said Sanjay Dhungel at Nepal's Water and Energy Commission Secretariat.

 And, as Vladimir Smakhtin at the International Water Management Institute of CGIAR explains, "Simulations without data to verify against are meaningless."

Nepal is considered one of the world's most climate-vulnerable nations because of its elevation and its poor, natural resource-dependent population. And there is no shortage of anecdotal information about climate change -- including melting glaciers, poorer soil quality, new pests and crop diseases,  and increasingly unpredictable weather patterns with more frequent and more extreme floods and droughts -- and its impact on agriculture. 

More and more men are migrating to India to find work because of this "reduced cultivable acreage," said Krishna Raj Aryal from the NGO Support Activities for Poor Producers of Nepal.

But since there is so little hard data, there is even less information and guidance reaching farmers, particularly those in the increasingly common female-headed households, where literacy rates are much lower. 

Pilot and demonstration projects by international and local NGOs are already under way. For example, Practical Action runs an adaptation program in which farmers replace some of their rice crop with bananas, which are less vulnerable to extreme weather. Involving the national government is a necessary step in scaling up adaptation.

Newer techniques such as remote sensing -- which can measure evaporation and transporation rates, soil moisture, and other variables -- can supply a great deal of information about water, often without needing much input from on-the-ground research. Exploring this and/or other less costly and time-consuming methods of collecting data could help fill the data gap more quickly.

 Michele Learner

 

A Timely Call to Action

Photo 2 for IFPRI
Photo by Todd Post/Bread for the World


IFPRI’s Global Food Policy Report (GFPR) has become an annual reminder that global food security must remain very much at the top of the development agenda. This year’s report, the third, underscores that with more than 840 million people hungry, addressing hunger and malnutrition is a moral imperative. The report comes out just as the Open Working Group (OWG) on Sustainable Development Goals begins to discuss the Focus Areas for the post- 2015 global development framework. Its recommendations are very timely to feed into the working group’s discussion, which starts March 31, and I hope they do.

The report captures the recent political momentum on nutrition and makes very clear that we can no longer talk about ending hunger without also addressing malnutrition. Undernutrition in the first 1,000 days between pregnancy and age 2 accounts for nearly half of all preventable deaths of children under 5. For children who survive, the consequences are life altering. They suffer irreversible physical and cognitive damage that affects their long-term health and productivity.

Stunting is the outward manifestation of the devastation caused by undernutrition. Today, there are 162 million children who are stunted. That is one in four children under 5. From the very beginning of their lives, their potential and their ability to lift themselves out of hunger and poverty is severely compromised. In addition, they are more likely to become overweight and obese as adults—the double burden of malnutrition. Two billion people are obese or overweight globally; the number of obese or overweight children under 5 has doubled since 1990 and is expected to double again by 2025. This is a global crisis that affects all countries.

The GFPR raises the level of ambition ahead of intergovernmental negotiations on the post-2015 development framework by calling for the end of hunger and malnutrition by 2025. Analyzing the success of four countries, the report makes a compelling case that the right mix of agriculture, social protection, and nutrition policies can lead to dramatic progress in reducing hunger and stunting.  This multisectoral approach to nutrition has been embraced and championed by the Scaling Up Nutrition Movement.

Nutrition is included in the OWG’s Focus Areas along with Sustainable Agriculture and Food Security. The two indicators directly related to nutrition under consideration in this focus area are: ensuring year-round access by all to affordable, adequate, safe, and nutritious food; and ending child malnutrition and stunting. It would be great to see these indicators make it through into the final recommendation from the OWG. In addition, given the multisectoral nature of malnutrition, the OWG should include indicators under the health, gender, WASH, and education focus areas. NGOs working on nutrition advocacy have developed a set of recommended goals, targets, and indicators. These build and expand on the World Health Assembly nutrition targets.

In addition, the GFPR calls for a data revolution. This is vital and should include data that is disaggregated by gender, income, age, race, and ethnicity. Since even short bouts of hunger and undernutrition can lead to irreversible damage in children, we need timely data and improved indicators of dietary quality and diversity, especially among women of reproductive age and young children. Asma Lateef

Day Four in Rwanda

Women_africa

Some time back I went to Iowa to talk with farmers.  It was then I learned an important thing about agriculture. A farmer explained to me, “I never used to care about the price of corn and soybeans. Raising hogs was my business. I grew corn and beans to feed to my hogs.” 

Those are bygone days for small to medium-sized farmers of the two biggest commodity crops in the United States. The concentration of the livestock sector has made it impossible for farmers like the ones I spoke with to compete against the handful of giants who control the market.

I knew what he was telling me was an important lesson then. On a small farm in Rwanda I relearned it and it made me think about what is the best way to help smallholder farmers in developing countries get out of poverty.

In the Kirehe District of Rwanda, I met farmers there benefiting from a program funded primarily by the Rwandan government - and to a lesser extent by the US government - being implemented by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD).

IFAD has donated cows to a group of farmers in the program. Smallholder farmers in Rwanda are some of the poorest people on earth and would never be able to afford a cow without such support. One of the requirements of the farmers receiving a cow was to pass along a heifer to one of their neighbors. This sounds a lot like what the organization Heifer International does, and it is except there are several other components to the IFAD program, but the main thing I want to focus on is the livestock.

Joseline Umugwaneza, a 26-year old woman who was orphaned as a child after the 1994 genocide and has been homeless for most of her life, received a cow on February 28, 2012. This was the beginning of the end of her living in extreme poverty. Joseline’s cow produces 10 liters of milk per day.  She is earning well above a dollar per day now. She has earned enough from the sale of the milk to allow her to open a tearoom and small shop. 

When a smallholder farmer has a cow, she has a source of income far greater than she can ever earn from cropping. Joseline still farms but like the U.S. farmer above, the livestock is the value-added of her enterprise. The cow eats grass predominantly. With a cow she doesn’t have to sow seed, she doesn’t have to weed, she doesn’t have to worry about the vicissitudes of the weather, and she doesn’t have to endure the invariable stretches of hunger between each harvest. Cows are indifferent to the ‘hungry season, they go on producing their milk, providing Joseline with a source of income all the yearlong. Indeed it is the gift that keeps on giving.

The other thing about a cow is it provides a source of nutrition for the family - especially children. Maternal and child malnutrition has become a major focus of our work at Bread for the World and Bread for the World Institute. Thanks to new research over the last five to ten years, it is much clearer that it is not enough just to feed people, we need to get them nutritious foods. The name of the game in agricultural development assistance is no longer just production but also nutrition.

It may not be possible to provide every smallholder with a cow. Some just won’t be able to succeed at animal husbandry. But when I see how much of a difference it has made to Joseline and other farmers like her that IFAD has helped, and in such a short time, I wonder why donors—governments, multinationals, and NGOs—don’t do more programming like this.  

American farmers have been harmed by the loss of their value-added; smallholders in the developing world have barely begun to realize their value-added.  Todd

Day Three in Rwanda

Faustine Wabwire and Todd Post continue reporting from Rwanda. Read about days one and two here.

Today, we’ll focus on the work of nongovernmental organizations. The NGO community in Rwanda is busy helping to empower women. But what does empowerment mean in real terms? Does the word “empowerment” make any sense to you without an illustration?

So here is one—provided by ActionAid Rwanda. About a decade ago a small group of women came together, widows of the 1994 genocide or the HIV/AIDS epidemic, poor to begin with and isolated by grief. First, ActionAid worked with them to develop a skill, weaving baskets, and then to find markets for the finished product to generate a little income. Basket weaving was no mere activity to keep their hands busy. In Rwanda, a basket is a symbol of peace, and their weaving as a group symbolic of the national as well personal struggle of healing.

Together, the women gave each other support and strength and eventually they desired a more substantial income-generating activity. They formed a farm cooperative and grew maize. This led to value-addition by converting the maize into maize flower. The cooperative increased in size as they brought more broken women into the enterprise.

The more successful they were the more time it took to run the enterprise. They realized the work was interfering with their household responsibilities, particularly care giving to their children. They were less poor economically, but more time-poor than before and they found that almost as stressful as when they had no income at all.

The cooperative established a child development center so that the women did not have to choose between employment and their children’s well being. The child development center became an enterprise of its own, opening to other families in their community.

Let’s discuss another kind of empowerment activity that evolved out of their relationship with ActionAid. The women were more confident, more poised to advocate for themselves and their Rwandan sisters. ActionAid provided the women with training to engage with local leaders. The women shared their experience with government officials, particularly their struggle to achieve a balance between employment and household responsibilities, and they exhorted officials to improve policies to allow all Rwandan women to earn a decent income without sacrificing their role as mothers. Policies are improving in Rwanda, maybe not as fast as the women in this example would like, but it has not been for their lack of attention. Todd Post

Day Two in Rwanda

Connie Bwiza, member of Rwandan Parliament (Photo credit: IGIHE LTD)

Faustine Wabwire and Todd Post continue reporting from Rwanda.

On Monday we met with Connie Bwiza, a member of parliament, to hear how women in Rwanda are shaping policy and helping to transform the country. Connie has been in parliament since 1998. She represents Kiyovu, an area of Kigali.

We learned of Connie back in Washington, DC. She has played a prominent role in Rwanda's post-conflict reconcilaition and rehabilitation. She is also involved in several international women's organizations. 

When we contacted her before leaving Washington, DC, she was excited to meet and share what women have accomplished in Rwanda since the genocide in 1994. She also arranged for us to meet with her teenage sons and niece in a separate interview to talk with them about Rwandan youth, the generation born after the genocide, but we’ll say more about that later in the week.

The same day as our interview with Connie an article about Rwanda appeared in the New York Times discussing some of the latest developments in the country’s meteoric rise since the genocide. The article scarcely mentions the role of women and conveys how much of a secret it remains to the public at large.

It turned out to be a mournful day for East African women, especially Faustine, because the parliament in her native Kenya had just passed a bill legalizing polygamy. Connie was outraged and explained how damaging the bill is to all East African countries. Not only is it an affront to women in the region, but it threatens to wreck the close economic ties that countries in the region are building. 

The difference between attitudes towards women in Rwanda and Kenya is not as gaping as this bill might cause you to think. Faustine describes it as a shocking anomaly, and I should add that it remains to be seen whether the president of Kenya will sign the bill into law. Public pressure is already mounting to strike it down.

Such a bill would never come up in Rwanda. A female majority in parliament would not allow it. Moreover, it would not be possible because it does not comply with the rule of law. In Rwanda, the law mandates that every bill introduced in parliament must be evaluated for its effect on men and women, and if a bill is not deemed gender neutral it has no chance of passage.

There is something to be said for the importance of reaching critical mass. Rwanda has held three elections since a new constitution was passed. In the first election cycle, women gained 48 percent of the seats in parliament, and then increased it to 56 percent, and in the most recent increased it still further to 64 percent. Norms don’t change all on their own, change requires a prod from policy, and in Rwanda with a majority of women in parliament there is a veritable guarantee there will be a prod working to up end gender inequality. 

 Countries all over the developing world have passed laws reserving a share of the seats in parliament for women. Thirty percent is the most common figure because the gender equality goal of the Millennium Development Goals includes a 30 percent target. But what is equal about 30 percent, when women make up 50 percent of the population? Todd Post

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