Aid to women farmers could help alleviate global food crisis

Consider the positive work of institutions such as the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Millennium Challenge Corporation and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Each executes admirable job building programs with an emphasis on women farmers.

In contrast, the World Bank under President Robert Zoellick has been slow to embrace the potential for female farmers, especially small farmers, to play a key role in alleviating the world’s worsening food problems.

Increasing gender equality in poor countries such Asia, Africa, and Latin America can make a significant difference to food security and to broader economic development. According to FAO’s 2011 “Women in Agriculture” report, 43 percent of the agriculture labor force in developing countries is female. Women work in agriculture sectors including crop development, livestock management, forestry and fisheries.

When women farmers use the same level of capital, equipment and technology, they achieve the same yield levels as men. Unfortunately, inequities between men and women farmers in developing countries remain. Female farmers lack equal access to production resources, land, livestock, financial services, markets, training and technology.

The inequitable reality makes some recent moves by the World Bank so disappointing.

The World Bank’s purpose is to reduce poverty and to improve the living standards of the people in low and middle-income countries. Supporting female farmers in tropical regions would go a long way toward boosting agriculture yields and empowering women. Yet during its April 2011 D.C. meeting to discuss, among other things, world food prices, the World Bank largely ignored the role women and small entrepreneurs can play in the developing world to improve food security.

One area where the World Bank could play a beneficial role is in support for women working in plantation-scale agriculture, particularly of palm oil. While less well known in America, palm oil provides a critical food additive and cooking oil for much of the developing world. In comparison to fruit and vegetable oils, the oil palm offers much higher yields – generating unparalleled economic returns and health benefits for poor communities.

Due to pressure regarding deforestation, the World Bank has been hesitant to support palm oil agriculture in recent years and has imposed incredible amounts of red tape and other obstacles to limit plantation agriculture.

Ironically, the primary driver of deforestation in the developing world is extreme poverty – the very thing sustainable palm oil development would amend. A thriving agriculture sector – with women playing a vital role and made possible by Bank support – would actually be an ecological triumph as well.

Indeed, evidence demonstrates palm oil farming gives women in particular a huge boost. Female farmers in Brazil, for example, saw their profits increase from $170 a month to $2,500 a month when they began farming palm oil.

The World Bank is asking for a big increase in funding from the U.S. Congress. After Zoellick lobbied for increased support, Treasury Secretary Geithner worked to provide the World Bank with a capital increase of $586 million – approximately $117 million a year for five years. Given these additional funds, it’s a good time for Congress to insist on greater accountability and better policy.

In a time of deep fiscal anxiety, it’s understandable that foreign aid would come under scrutiny. But as the experience of women in poor countries demonstrates, a little capital goes a long way. From a humanitarian perspective, there’s no bigger return on investment. Our Congress is encouraged “not to be penny wise and pound foolish” when considering our foreign aid, given the great return on the small investment.

Eva Clayton is a former Democratic member of Congress from North Carolina (1992-2003) and was assistant director general of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (2003-2006).