Opinion: Invest in women to halve Africa's hunger

NAIROBI, Kenya — Over 200 million additional people have been pushed into hunger in the past three years as a result of the food and financial crises. The U.N. estimates that some one billion people now go hungry.

Empowering women small scale farmers through financial support and technology is key to sustainable agricultural development, and can work towards the Millennium Development Goal of halving hunger by 2015, according to "Fertile Ground" a new report by ActionAid.

Small scale farmers are responsible for 90 percent of food grown on the continent, and produce about half of the global food supply.

Ironically, 75 percent of hungry people in the world are small holder farmers.

Almost all agricultural policies assume that farmers are men, a fact that renders women voiceless in terms of policy making. ActionAid believes that investing in women will boost food security more than ever as women constitute the majority of farmers in most African countries.

Up to now, women farmers have been virtually ignored and discriminated against by governments and donors — despite producing up to 80 percent of food in Africa, women own only one percent of the land and receive only 7 percent of extension services and one percent of all agricultural credit.

To achieve the Millennium Development Goal of halving hunger the U.N. estimates that an additional $40 billion per year is required globally.

Recognizing that a 10 percent budgetary allocation by low-income countries will cover only part of the investment needed, donors must make a guaranteed upfront commitment to closing the gap, so that the ambitious efforts required to reduce hunger by 50 percent become operationally practical.

To achieve this, the focus of public investment should be shifted to low-cost, sustainable techniques.

Training and advice by agricultural specialists who visit women farmers in the fields are needed to support such initiatives. These techniques can help reduce climate risks to the benefit of women and poor farmers.

Governments in the developing world have very constrained budgets, with low levels of tax revenue and insufficient aid, and currently spend relatively little of their available funds on agriculture.

But from 2000 to 2005, African governments nearly doubled their agricultural spending, but still allocated it only around 5 percent of their national budgets — about $8.7 billion in 2005.

In the same period, donor aid to agriculture in Africa stalled at around $1 billion per year, falling below 4 percent of total aid to Africa.

Though in the past few years, African governments have increased their spending on agriculture to an average of 6.6 percent.

As much as this is commendable, experts say it is not enough.

ActionAid’s research shows that all eight African countries that spent more than 10 percent of their budgets on agriculture during 2004-07 have reduced the proportion of hungry people over the last decade.

They include Ethiopia, which reduced hunger from 63 percent to 46 percent between 1995 and 2005, and Malawi, which reduced it from 45 percent to 29 percent.

At the U.N. Millennium Review Summit this year, supporting women farmers must be the focus of coherent national plans to make a five-year breakthrough against hunger, backed by allocation of at least 10 percent of the government budget to agriculture.

Donors must commit to underwriting all credible national plans for halving hunger, and covering any shortfall beyond developing countries’ efforts.

Governments must develop robust national breakthrough plans for halving hunger by 2015 through a massive scale-up of public goods provided particularly to women farmers and other smallholders.