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130 posts categorized "Latin America"

Sad Statistics for the United States on Maternal Mortality

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. 

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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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What do we mean by "women's empowerment"?

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Editor’s note: This post kicks off our celebration of Women’s History Month (March). Throughout our 2015 Hunger Report, When Women Flourish … We Can End Hunger, as well as in much of the Institute’s other analytical work, we emphasize the necessity of women’s empowerment and gender equity – not only as a matter of individual rights, but also as an absolute necessity for further progress against hunger and malnutrition. The link between gender discrimination and hunger has proven persistent both in the United States and globally. This month we present stories, graphics, and analysis to help show the way forward on both fronts – gender equity on one hand, and ending hunger, malnutrition, and food insecurity on the other.

Consider two children from poor households living in an Indian city. They are both 7 years old. They live in the same neighborhood and are both excelling in mathematics at the same primary school, showing every sign of a bright future. But one of these children is more likely than the other to still be in poverty as an adult, simply because she is a girl.

People are born into or fall into poverty for many reasons. But the reason a bright young girl is more likely to remain there than a bright young boy has everything to do with empowerment. Empowerment is what is needed when members of a society lack bargaining powerthe ability to negotiate favorable economic outcomes for themselves. When women and girls lack bargaining power, they are denied the opportunity to develop and use their gifts so they can support themselves and their families.

Some of the most common ways of increasing one’s bargaining power include getting more education, participating fully in the economy (which requires, for example, access to financial services such as a bank account or credit), and benefiting from basic social services such as health care. The availability of such “bargaining power builders” varies widely from country to country, but disempowerment means that women and girls almost always have less access to them than men and boys. In fact, our schoolchildren example may be overly optimistic, because it ignores the likely possibility that, even at age 7, the schoolgirl has already encountered home- or community-level barriers to her health, nutrition, and/or education.

It’s worth noting that neither women nor men living in poverty have much economic bargaining power, especially in developing countries where the vast majority of the population does low-paying, low-productivity work. But even within the constraints of poverty, working conditions for men and women are far from equal: women suffer many more forms of discrimination, which worsen the effects of poverty on their lives.

Empowering women is not only the right thing to do—it is an economic no-brainer. Excluding women from an economy is forgoing the efforts and talents of half the workforce. Studies consistently show that increasing women’s and girls’ bargaining power is one of the most effective ways to lift families out of poverty and boost economic growth, because women are more likely than men to invest their earnings back into the well-being of their families.

Discrimination that establishes and reinforces women’s lower status in society starts within the family and extends through social norms and national laws. Women all over the world have struggled for many years to empower themselves by creating change in all of these areas, sometimes aided by their governments and/or male allies – and there have been many improvements. Check back on Institute Notes later this week for a look at what has been achieved so far and what remains to be done.

Derek Schwabe

Momentum Builds to Reduce Poverty and Violence in Central America

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A couple of years ago, the thousands of Central American children fleeing poverty and violence – and arriving at the U.S. southern border – was a phenomenon ignored by policymakers and scarcely mentioned in the U.S. media.

Fast forward to 2015 and we have a New York Times op-ed penned by Vice President Joe Biden calling for more U.S. investment in the region, backed up by a $1.1 billion Obama administration budget request “promoting prosperity, improving governance, and enhancing security” in Central America.

The President’s proposal would increase funding to the Northern Triangle nations of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador – the home countries of most of the children who migrate – to a level four times that of fiscal year 2014. As reported in Devex, the request would make Guatemala the single largest recipient of funding from USAID’s Development Assistance account.

Meanwhile, the State Department and USAID are developing a new strategy to reduce poverty and improve security in Central America. A new strategy was mandated in the congressional spending bill passed in December 2014. Unlike the president’s fiscal year 2016 budget request, which is an aspirational document, the new State Department/USAID Central America strategy includes $130 million allocated to implement it. It is a “done deal.”

Yet another proposed strategy in the mix is the proposal for the region advanced  by the Inter-American Development Bank, the “Plan of the Alliance for Prosperity in the Northern Triangle.” This plan, as well, was created in response to the child migration issue and seeks to improve the economic and security situation in the region.

Within the past six months or so, Congress, the president, and an important multilateral organizations have all proposed major re-thinking and increases in funding to respond to the Central American child migration crisis.

But what does that mean for Central Americans? According to Vice President Biden’s op-ed, the Northern Triangle nations are already taking ownership of the problem by attacking corruption. But on the ground, we’ve seen little to no change.

The Northern Triangle’s problems of inequality, poverty, and violence are decades – if not centuries – in the making. There is no quick solution. But policy proposals from Washington will certainly need to have an impact in the countries themselves if they are to be taken seriously.

Analysts expect details of the State Department plan to be made public in the coming weeks. So far, there is little information publicly available about how Washington’s analysis of the causes and impacts of poverty and violence in migrant-sending regions will be reflected in the plan’s policies and programs. The administration’s previous strategy was called the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI).

A May 2014 Congressional Research Service report on the $800 million CARSI project states, “It is unclear what has been accomplished with the funding appropriated thus far since U.S. agencies have not released the metrics they are using to assess the initiative’s performance.” Subsequent evaluation has found some positive impact from CARSI but overall, the program has a mixed record in addressing the regions insecurity problems.

Analysts have stated that the State/USAID team drafting the new strategy has realized that CARSI was not working and are integrating those critiques into the new plan.  

Reducing poverty should be front and center in any new strategy seeking to create alternatives to undocumented immigration for Central American children and adults. While the motivations for migration from the region are mixed, poverty and a lack of economic opportunity are primary factors in driving migrants to the United States.

In the coming months Bread for the World Institute will be analyzing and sharing examples of programs and strategies that U.S. development agencies can adopt – and then work to bring to scale – to help ease the deep socioeconomic divisions and inequalities in the three Northern Triangle nations. 

Andrew Wainer

Celebrating the Tenure of USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah

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Dr. Rajiv Shah welcomes guests to the launch of Bread for the World Institute's 2011 Hunger Report in November, 2010. (Laura Elizabeth Pohl/Bread for the World)


Dr. Rajiv Shah will be departing USAID (the U.S. Agency for International Development) this week. His appointment as USAID Administrator came in the wake of Haiti’s devastating earthquake in early 2010, just as famine was hitting South Sudan and at a time of continued powerful aftershocks from the global food price crisis. USAID sets and implements the U.S. government’s development and emergency food aid policies, and its employees staff U.S. Missions in countries around the world where hunger and poverty are endemic. In addition to managing a series of crises, Dr. Shah also set out to revitalize an agency that had long been criticized for being overly bureaucratic and dependent on large U.S. implementing partner organizations to carry out many of its programs.

We will remember Dr. Shah’s time at USAID for his passionate commitment to and impatience in the fight to end hunger and malnutrition. In five years, remarkable progress has been made against food insecurity and malnutrition, and U.S. leadership has played an important role. In 2010, Dr. Shah created the Bureau for Food Security at USAID to implement Feed the Future, the U.S. global food security initiative. Under his leadership, USAID also developed the first-ever Multisectoral Global Nutrition Strategy, which will improve coordination across the agency’s bureaus and programs and, most importantly, the effectiveness of U.S. investments in nutrition. 

In addition, President Obama and Administrator Shah have been relentless advocates at the global level for greater and smarter investments in agriculture, food security, and nutrition. They secured new commitments of resources from other countries, multilateral institutions, and the private sector. Dr. Shah served on the Lead Group of the Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) movement, helping to provide strategic direction as SUN was getting off the ground. At the country level, USAID has been a key SUN partner. Today, SUN, whose members at last count are 54 countries with high rates of childhood stunting, has begun to change national policies and commit funding to fight malnutrition.

We also remember Dr. Shah’s time at USAID for increasing attention to strengthening local capacity and institutions, including recognizing the key role of local civil society. David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World, is a member of USAID’s Advisory Committee on Voluntary Foreign Aid, designed to give policy guidance directly to the Administrator, and was honored to participate in an ACVFA working group that developed a paper on local capacity development. Beckmann later co-chaired the ACVFA task force on strengthening Feed the Future’s collaborations with civil society. Reflecting on Shah’s tenure, Beckmann said, “I thank God for Raj Shah’s outstanding leadership. USAID’s increased effectiveness is making a difference in the lives of millions of people, and it has set the stage for bipartisan collaboration in the U.S. Congress on international development issues. ”

We were honored by Dr. Shah’s presence at important moments for Bread for the World. At Bread’s 2011 Hunger Report launch, Dr. Shah called the report, Our Common Interest: Ending Hunger and Malnutrition,
“the best statement [he’s] read about the importance of Feed the Future to U.S. efforts to combat global hunger and malnutrition.”  He announced the establishment of the Bureau of Food Security at the launch. Dr. Shah was also the keynote speaker at Bread’s 2012 Gala to End Hunger.

He addressed Bread for the World members, representatives of international civil society, and global nutrition stakeholders at the 2013 Sustaining Political Commitments to Scaling Up Nutrition event in Washington, DC. It was here that he announced USAID’s plan for a Global Nutrition Strategy.

Dr. Shah’s individual accomplishments, and USAID’s accomplishments during his tenure, are too numerous to list. Under his leadership the agency prospered. Bread for the World developed closer working relationships with key management and program staff. He has set the bar very high for his successor and has put in place strategies and programs that assure continued U.S. government leadership in the global fight to end hunger and extreme poverty. We at Bread for the World wish Dr. Shah continued success in all his endeavors and look forward to working with the next USAID Administrator.

Scott Bleggi

The President's Budget a Mixed Bag on Food Security and Nutrition

President Obama released his final budget on Monday, February 2, 2015. As was reported by Bread for the World in a press release, the budget invests in people as a key to sustained economic recovery. It includes increased funding for maternal, newborn and child health, and it prioritizes early childhood care and education.

The budget can be lauded for these important domestic funding initiatives, but it is more of a mixed bag in addressing international food and nutrition security. It requests a $14 million reduction from Fiscal year 2015 enacted funding levels in nutrition spending, which is allocated to USAID’s Global Health Bureau.  This is disappointing given worldwide recognition of nutrition’s role across development sectors, and global momentum to improve nutrition policies and programs, especially those focused in the 1,000 days ‘window of opportunity’ from a women’s pregnancy to her child’s second birthday.  Investments here are among the smartest that can be made, with long-term health, social and economic benefits accruing to both individuals and countries themselves.

The International Affairs (150) account in the budget, which funds overseas operations, counterterrorism efforts, humanitarian relief and development assistance is again less than 1% of the total.  At $54.8 billion it does enjoy a small (2.4%) increase over the previous year’s funding but is still many billions below what was spent as recently as the year 2010.

As was reported by the World Food Program, “…humanitarian aid programs were among those that got hit the hardest by budget cuts. Overall humanitarian accounts went down by 13%. International Disaster Assistance was cut by $154 million. Food Aid was cut by $66 million.”  All this during times of historic demand for global assistance. To say that USAID and its implementing partners are stretched thin is an understatement. In fact, according to the Famine Early Warning System web site, there are eight “areas of concern” – Central African Republic, Central America and the Caribbean, Mauritania, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, South Sudan and Yemen – that are being watched closely.  Any of these countries or regions can easily slip into food insecurity, requiring additional funding.  Save the Children reported it was “concerned with the funding levels for humanitarian assistance”.

The President’s budget builds on the Administration’s efforts to increase access to early childhood care and education for U.S. children from birth to age five. But at the same time it proposes cuts in disaster assistance, food aid and nutrition, cuts which paradoxically, could have a devastating effect on children from birth to age five overseas in countries where help is most needed.

The President’s budget has been presented to Congress, which will likely now develop a budget of its own.  If the final budget is approved with additional cuts to the 150 Account and any new global humanitarian conflicts arise, a very tight funding scenario could turn disastrous.

The advocacy community will surely be focused with Congress on restoring funding to this critical account.  And surely Congress can find ways to not have the most vulnerable population overseas – women and children - bear a disproportionate amount of cuts in a budget of $4,000,000,000,000.

Scott Bleggi

On Immigration, Actions Will Speak Louder than Words

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Ana Zamora was a guest of the First Lady at the 2015 State of the Union Address. Zamora is a 20-year old immigrant who lives in Dallas, TX. She was brought to the United States at the age of 1.

Words are powerful, but sometimes what’s left unsaid truly tells the tale. That was the case during President Obama’s State of the Union address on Tuesday, where despite the fact that he  barely mentioned immigration, his message was clear: It’s time to move on from past immigration debates and enact comprehensive reform.

In addition, the Republican English-language response delivered by Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) was silent on immigration. However,  the Spanish-language response delivered by Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-FL.) called for immigration reform.

The chances of a major Congressional overhaul of immigration policy during 2015 are slim, but there will be major action next month as the administration begins implementation of President Obama’s 2014 executive action. The action will provide  relief from deportation for about 4 million undocumented immigrants.

This implementation is expected to move forward  despite the fact that House Republicans continue to challenge the action in Congress and in the courts. The Congressional challenge has little chance of success as President Obama has already indicated that he will veto any bill seeking to roll back the action, known as the Deferred Action for Parental Accountability (DAPA) program.

But the court challenge by 25 states, led by Texas, could create a fearful atmosphere locally for undocumented immigrants eligible for the program. That will be the true challenge to the DAPA program.

Bread for the World supports the president’s action because it will provide more opportunity for low-income people to move out of poverty. The action will allow some undocumented immigrants the ability to seek further education, job training, find new jobs, and start their own or enhance an existing small business.

Research finds that deferred action can lead to an average wage increase of 8.5 percent for immigrant workers and that it also can have benefits for the U.S.-born and the overall economy.

The very few words devoted to this issue by the president and the Republican’s rebuttal may be an acknowledgement that in spite of the continuing Congressional rhetoric,  both sides know that the debate of words on DAPA is winding down and that the action of implementation is about to begin.

 

Three Charts, Three Reasons Empowered Women and Progress on Malnutrition Go Hand in Hand

Improvements in the status of women drove about half of the dramatic reduction in child malnutrition that the developing world has achieved in recent decades. This and many more pieces of evidence brought together in the 2015 Hunger Report affirm that ending discrimination against women and girls–besides being the right thing to do–is crucial to ending hunger. Here are three compelling charts that show how this plays out across an array of important empowerment measures:

As More Girls Complete Secondary School, Stunting Rates Fall

As More Girls are Married before Age 18, Stunting Rates Rise

As Maternal Deaths Increase, Stunting Rates Rise

 

The three charts above compare rates of child stunting (a key measure of chronic malnutrition) in low- and middle-income countries against three sample empowerment indicators: rates of secondary school completion for females; rates of death from complications of pregnancy or childbirth; and rates of child marriage. Each dot represents one country. 

Measuring gender discrimination is complicated because it is pervasive. It cuts across all aspects of human life. This is why the United Nations named a minimum list of 52 gender indicators that are essential to gauging progress. (Yes – these 52 items are the minimum list). The indicators encompass five areas: health, education, human rights, public life, and economic participation.

We can see that stunting rates are lower in countries where women are more empowered – i.e., where they do better on these indicators. This is an issue that merits a more robust research agenda because it shows us an important way forward on hunger.

A note on stunting: stunting means that a child has suffered chronic malnutrition before her/his second birthday. We can “tell by looking” because stunted children are far too short for their age, but the most significant effects can’t be seen: damage to health and cognitive development. Stunting undermines how well a child does in school and even her lifetime earnings. At the national level, stunting can cost several percentage points in GDP growth. Globally, one in four children is stunted.

Visit an interactive tool on the 2015 Hunger Report website to compare global stunting rates with any of 15 important women’s empowerment indicators, view trends by region, and see where individual countries fall. Read this to learn the story of how the tool was created.   

This post is part of Institute Notes’ ongoing series on data to end hunger.

Derek Schwabe

A Global Nutrition Report: Passing Grades, But More Effort Needed

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These children will reach higher and go farther with proper nutrition. (Photo credit: accesstonutrition.org)

What is the extent of malnutrition and how effective are the measures being taken to fight it around the world? What’s being done by governments through policy mechanisms, development assistance, and donors with their program partners? Is civil society sufficiently prepared to be active partners and eventually take over efforts in their own countries? What measures of program and policy effectiveness have been developed?

The Global Nutrition Report (GNR) seeks answers to all these questions. First launched in London last month, its launch in Washington, DC, takes place today with events at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), which co-authored the report, and later at USAID, where Administrator Rajiv Shah will speak to his agency’s and U.S. government efforts to reduce malnutrition through its programs and policies. The GNR is a “call to action” to place malnutrition – both undernutrition and obesity – higher on the development agenda.

IRPRI notes in the GNR that "165 million children under the age of five are estimated to be stunted (i.e. low height for age). Two billion people are estimated to be deficient in one or more micronutrients. Nearly 1.5 billion people are estimated to be overweight and over 500 million to be obese. These conditions all have severe consequences for survival, for morbidity, and for the ability of individuals, the economy and society to thrive.... and yet, resources to specific nutrition programs amount to a small fraction of one per cent of domestic or aid budgets."

The GNR includes a “dashboard” of more than 80 indicators of nutrition outcomes, program coverage, funding, and political commitments for all 193 United Nations member countries, “…which they can use to hold policymakers to their commitments and urge them to make new ones.” The report was first announced at the Nutrition for Growth Summit in 2013, and its release was a main topic of discussion at the Second International Conference on Nutrition (ICN2) held in Rome last month.

The report was delivered by an Independent Expert Group and guided at a strategic level by a Stakeholder Group whose members also reviewed the report. IFPRI oversaw the production and dissemination of the report, with the support of the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) in London. The Lancet medical journal provided an external review of the report, which is funded by the U.K. Department for International Development (DFID), the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Government of Canada, the Children's Investment Fund Foundation, the European Commission, Irish Aid, 1,000 Days, and the CGIAR Research Program on Agriculture for Nutrition & Health.

Recommendations in the report for governments, donors, NGOs, and nutrition community stakeholders include:

  • Building and sustaining global alliances to generate substantial improvements in nutritional status at the national level;
  • Larger investments in human infrastructure;
  • Scaling up nutrition interventions by scaling up local partner capacities; and
  • Expanding investments in “nutrition-sensitive” actions in agriculture, social protection, water, sanitation and hygiene, education, and women’s empowerment programs.

The GNR emphasizes that key challenges remain -- especially in the area of accountability, which must be strengthened in all areas. The report notes pointedly that relying on coordinated actions across development sectors, none of which have nutrition as the primary goal, allows policymakers to avoid responsibility.

Three suggestions were made for improving accountability and leadership. First, in the new set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for 2030 that is currently being developed through a global process, the nutrition stakeholder community needs to ensure that more ambitious SDG targets are set, including a target for nutrition, and that additional nutrition indicators are included. Second, national legislation and policies must insist on accountability among nutrition stakeholders, including self-evaluation and monitoring processes for member countries of the Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) movement.

And finally, there is an urgent need to fill the huge gaps that remain in collecting nutrition data. As an example of this, the report says that only 60 percent of the 193 member states of the UN have sufficient data to assess whether or not they are on course to meet global targets.

Without better data and stronger accountability, we stand to lose much of the global momentum on fighting malnutrition that has been built in just a few years’ time. The next GNR could contain more failures than passing grades. But if we sustain the political will that has been created, build local capacities, and scale up successful nutrition interventions, a goal once thought to be merely aspirational gets ever closer: ending hunger and malnutrition in our lifetimes. Scott Bleggi

Second International Conference on Nutrition: Moving the Discussion Forward

In the 20 years since the first  International Conference on Nutrition (ICN), global awareness of the critical role of nutrition in human development has grown to record levels. Today, the dual problems of malnutrition -- undernutrition and obesity – are the focus of efforts by both governments and private companies. Undernutrition rates have dropped in the intervening years, but obesity has grown to the point where it now kills more than three times as many people as undernutrition. 

The first ICN was seen as an opportunity to bring leading nutrition scientists together with governments to address a growing problem. ICN2, being held this week in Rome, goes further by finalizing the wording of a Declaration on Nutrition, as well as details of its implementation, and seeking the signatures of the governments in attendance.

The proposed declaration is a pivotal document that, after reaffirming commitments made at the 1994 ICN and at World Food Summits, sets out specific plans of action and international targets that will lead to the eradication of all forms of malnutrition. Action items include reshaping food systems through public policy; improving nutrition by strengthening institutional capacity and encouraging collaboration among all stakeholders; promoting initiatives for healthy diets before pregnancy, through the 1,000 days period of early childhood, and in schools; and ensuring that a framework with actions and objectives is integrated into the 2030 global development agenda that will be finalized in the coming year.

Advocates are concerned about the very small role of nutrition thus far in this Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) process: there are more than a dozen goals and nearly 200 targets, but nutrition is mentioned only once. The declaration also asks the United Nations General Assembly for its endorsement and declares a “Decade of Action on Nutrition.”

Proposing such aspirational goals for ICN2 has led to wide-ranging discussions. Some have criticized the declaration’s lack of accountability and spending targets. Others have criticized its lack of emphasis on nutrition-sensitive issues such as water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH), and a lack of recognition that nutrition directly impacts health interventions.  Another point raised is that in order to make advances in nutrition, there must be economic solutions as well. Critics have also pointed out that in some countries, “donor interest in nutrition is waning.” It is in fact true that scaling up successful nutrition outcomes in a district, region, or country requires multiple-year planning and adequate funding.

One bright spot of ICN2 was Pope Francis adding his voice to the fight against hunger and malnutrition.  

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Pope Francis addresses political leaders at ICN2 Photo credit: FAO

In his apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (Joy of the Gospel), Francis said, “We are scandalized” by not having enough food for everyone and the resulting hunger. In his remarks at ICN2 on November 20, Francis said that food, nutrition, and the environment must be viewed as global public issues at a time when nations are more tightly linked with each other than ever before. He admonished global leaders to make sure their pledges to assure food security for all citizens are put into concrete practice, saying that the right to a healthy diet is about dignity, not charitable handouts.

The U.S. government’s commitment to improved nutrition increased when it began to fund the Global Health Initiative (GHI), which is now complemented by nutrition components of the Feed the Future initiative. Recognizing nutrition as a concern that crosses traditional development sectors, USAID adopted and has begun to implement a Multi-Sectoral Nutrition Strategy. Other government agencies and offices have begun working on a Global Nutrition Coordination Plan that will encourage collaboration and hopefully add value to the efforts of individual programs to improve nutrition. Finally, the House of Representatives has introduced H.R. 5656, the Global Food Security Act, which has a primary objective of reinforcing programs that “accelerat[e] inclusive agricultural-led economic growth that reduces global poverty, hunger and malnutrition, particularly among women and children….”

The objectives of ICN2, the policy goals of U.S. government nutrition strategies, and passage of H.R. 5656 are all reachable if we are, in the words of Roger Thurow, “outraged and inspired” to take action on global hunger, poverty, and malnutrition.

Scott Bleggi

The “Third Way” of Women’s Empowerment

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Policy discussions of U.S. development assistance that promote women’s empowerment tend to head in two directions: improving women’s ability to participate in the economy and increasing girls’ enrollment in school.

There’s no question that policymakers should indeed be talking about these dimensions of empowerment. But I wish they’d also talk about what I’ll describe as a “third way”: increasing the share of women leaders in government. Here we scarcely hear a word.

The eight Millennium Development Goals include a goal to promote gender equality and empower women. One of the targets is to increase the percentage of women in national parliaments to 33 percent. Globally, women currently hold about 25 percent of seats in national parliaments. Given that women are half the population, I think it’s fair to say that they are still grossly underrepresented in government leadership. In addition to the obvious injustice here, there are implications for efforts to end hunger and poverty. Experience worldwide shows that when women gain a larger share of political power, governments enact more policies that reduce gender inequalities and promote women’s empowerment.

Earlier this year I was in Rwanda, the only country in the world where women hold a majority of the seats in the national parliament. Sixty-three percent of Rwandan parliamentarians are women. One way countries have increased the share of women in parliament is by reserving a fixed percentage of seats for women. These countries include Rwanda, which reserves 30 percent of seats for women. But in the last three election cycles, women’s share of parliamentary seats has increased from 49 percent to 56 percent to 63 percent. Clearly, it’s more than the reservation policy that has brought a majority female parliament to Rwanda.

I went to Rwanda because I wanted to see the effects on policy development of having a majority of women in parliament, and I guess I wanted also to test my own assumptions about women’s leadership. I tend to think that the fastest way to reduce gender inequality and promote women’s empowerment is to elect more women to office. I’m all for improving women’s ability to participate in the economy and increasing enrollment rates of girls in school, but those are part of the longer-term strategy. A reservation policy allows a society to put gender equity on the fast track by giving a jolt to the status quo.

Having a female parliamentary majority has made Rwanda a more equitable society. For example, all proposed legislation is reviewed to determine whether it perpetuates or reduces gender bias. No piece of legislation that moves through parliament escapes this scrutiny. That’s the kind of jolt I’m talking about.

In the 2015 Bread for the World Institute Hunger Report, When Women Flourish…We Can End Hunger, we recommend that all U.S. development assistance include similar gender analysis – aimed at ensuring that policies and programs do not perpetuate gender inequalities or discriminate against women and girls. In practice, this would mean, for instance, that agricultural development assistance must serve female and male farmers equitably.

A major change like this might even produce a great enough seismic effect to affect how the U.S. government conducts domestic policy. Here in the United States, women hold less than 20 percent of seats in Congress. In the 1970s, when Congress was debating the Equal Rights Amendment, policymakers considered congressional reservations as a way of giving women more political voice. This was not the sole reason the ERA failed to gain ratification, but an association with the ERA may be one reason we scarcely ever hear members of Congress -- including women -- talk about political reservations as a strategy to increase the share of women in Congress.

It is difficult to imagine what the impact on legislation of a female majority in Congress would be. Perhaps there would be no difference at all, although I doubt it. There is too much room for improvement. Just one example: the United States remains the only developed country in the world that does not offer paid maternity leave. I suspect that would change if there were a majority of women in Congress. Todd Post

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