Women hold key to hunger solutions

Public policy leader Catherine Bertini works to empower the world’s girls as the missing link in global food aid programs.

Catherine Bertini

Teaching a man to fish, as the old adage counsels, is all well and good. But educating a woman so she knows how to farm more efficiently and feed her family a healthier diet? Now that’s a giant step down the path of food security for a lifetime, says global public policy leader Catherine Bertini.

“The single most important development [for combating hunger], if it was implemented worldwide, could be to educate girls. In so many places, that’s just not the case,” says Bertini, a Syracuse University professor of practice, public administration and international affairs who was executive director of the United Nations World Food Programme from 1992 to 2002. Most of the farmers in the world are women, she says, yet they receive less education and training than men.

Education is also critical to changing eating habits in developing countries, Bertini believes, and gender can play a major role here too. A radio program in Ghana, for example, might teach people how to grow tomatoes and use them in their diet. But in order to reach the women who do the growing and cooking, the program needs to air when women would be available to listen to the radio and when their husbands are not controlling the knob, says Bertini. She also teaches a course on girls education at Syracuse University and created a UN-hosted trust fund for girls education with the $250,000 she received as the 2003 World Food Prize Laureate.

What women want

Even the immediate task of distributing food in developing countries can be more effective when women are taken into account, says Bertini. During her tenure with the UN World Food Programme, she determined the best approach involved directing the food to women because they were going to cook and serve it. “Then we had to listen to them about what they needed. We had to work with chiefs in villages to try to get them to listen to women about what they wanted,” she says.

In what used to be the southern part of Sudan, for example, the UN flew in the food for safety reasons, dropping it out of the backs of airplanes. The UN staff there then collaborated with each village chief, and often a village committee was set up to determine how the food would be distributed. But Bertini found that some of the food was being sold on the side of the road instead of going to the women and children who needed it. She developed a formula to ensure that women would be a majority of each village food distribution committee.

“That was a way to make sure women would have part of the process, [because] they would know who was the most needy,” she says. And when the food was distributed to the women committee members, it didn’t end up for sale on the side of the road. As a result of Bertini’s efforts, women now receive more than 60 percent of the World Food Programme’s assistance.

Personal satisfactions

Bertini’s interest in helping the world be better fed had its roots in her childhood, shaped by her grandmother. “When we would see a very unfortunate soul, [someone who was homeless], she would say, ‘There but for the grace of God go I,’” says Bertini. “I’ve just always thought I’m really fortunate that I am where I am, that I have the talent, that it’s my responsibility to use it wherever I can to help improve the lives of others. I have some skills in organizational leadership, so putting the two of them together became a critical part of my life’s work.”

Her work is personal to her, says Bertini, who is also a senior fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. When she was overseas working for the UN food program, she made it a point to sit down and talk with the women in their homes, around the grounds and fires. “If I was in part of any country for five days, at least three of those days I was in the field,” she says. “You’d have to do certain business with the government, but I didn’t want that to be the majority [of my time there].”

People are hungry because they’re poor, and they’re poor because they’re hungry.”
—Catherine Bertini

In fact, her admiration for the women she met inspired her to begin collecting figurines of women at work. “I started collecting [the] figurines . . . because that’s what I saw: women working in the field. I have a collection of over 350 wall hangings and figurines, at display in museums in my hometown, of women at work around the world,” she says.

The power of cash

Bertini, who is a presidential appointee to the USAID Board of International Food and Agricultural Development, envisions even more changes that would help alleviate global hunger sustainably. She believes, for example, that the United States could magnify the impact of its aid to developing countries by sending cash grants along with offering training to help communities grow their own food rather than relying on U.S. food donations. The current practice of shipping U.S. commodities to developing countries discourages food production there by driving down the price of locally produced foods, yet it fails to provide a long-term solution to hunger, she says.

In Jordan, for example, refugees from Syria have been given vouchers for food that they can buy from Jordanian merchants. “This way they’re a contribution to the economy as well,” says Bertini. But most of that support is coming from countries other than the United States, although the recent $956 billion farm bill “gives the U.S. a little more authority on [providing] cash. It gives more flexibility, which is a step in the right direction,” she adds.

Over time, a new commitment to market-oriented, environmentally sustainable farming in developing nations could jump-start economic growth, says Bertini. The resulting increase in global agricultural production also would reduce the weather-related risk faced by U.S. farmers and food companies while developing new sources of food.

Ultimately, though, this is a moral issue, says Bertini. “We don’t want people starving. We don’t want to see people desperately hungry,” she explained in a video produced by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. “Poverty and hunger are totally inter-related. People are hungry because they’re poor, and they’re poor because they’re hungry,” she added.

Ann Meyer

Wilmette, Ill.-based business writer Ann Meyer has covered the food industry since 1988. Her work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, BusinessweekSmallBiz, Retail Leader and many other business publications.

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