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Naila Kabeer

May 9th, 2023

The importance of what, why and how: Comments on the FAO’s 2023 report on women in agri-food systems

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Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Naila Kabeer

May 9th, 2023

The importance of what, why and how: Comments on the FAO’s 2023 report on women in agri-food systems

0 comments | 10 shares

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Professor Naila Kabeer shares her comments on the recently releases report from the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) on ‘The status of women in agrifood systems’.

The FAO launched its new report ‘The status of women in agrifood systems’ in Rome on the 13th April. Here are the comments I prepared for the launch. They relate to elements in the report that differentiate its earlier 2011 report, ‘Women in agriculture: closing the gender gap for development’. They also draw out a number of points from the new report which I think are worth emphasis.

The rationale for the focus on women is that while the agri-food sector accounts for around a third of the global labour force, both male and female, the actual proportions, particularly of women, are much higher in LMICs. It accounts for 71% of female employment in South Asia compared to 47% of male and of 66% of female employment in sub-Saharan Africa compared to 60% of male. Women’s role in agrifood systems is critical for their livelihoods, for the welfare of the family and for the productivity of the sector. Yet women have access to fewer productive resources than men and their working conditions are more likely to be irregular, informal, part-time and either unpaid or poorly remunerated.

The focus of the new report on the agri-food sector, which is in contrast to the earlier focus on agriculture, is to be welcomed. Not only does it give a central place given to food production, surely the most valuable contribution made by agriculture, but it  extends its analysis beyond agriculture to the agri-food sector, from production to questions of distribution, from farming to a broader concern with livelihoods.

The report also moves beyond the previous focus on ‘closing gender gaps’ in access to resources and opportunities’, the intermediate cause of women’s disadvantaged position, to the constraints that create these gaps and constitute the deeper, underlying causes. This brings aspects of patriarchal relations that would otherwise have remained invisible onto the FAO’s agenda.  The  norms and customs that underlie the asymmetrical gender division of unpaid domestic labour are one example. The discriminatory practices that confine them to marginal positions in the agri-food system are another. The pervasiveness of gender-based violence within and outside  the home is a third. We might add that addressing these underlying constraints will not only empower women, but is also likely to increase the effectiveness and sustainability of efforts to close gender gaps.

The report’s emphasis on ‘intentionality’ is another important step. The goal of empowerment requires that transformative intentions are incorporated into every stage of  programmes  – from the research that lies behind the decision to initiate programmes to their design, implementation, outcomes and impacts.  In other words, the question of intentionality means that, along with what an organization does, how it goes about doing it is critically important.

An illustrative example is ‘education and training’ which is cited both in the report but also in the wider literature on pathways to women’s empowerment. But this can be operationalized in very different ways. It can refer to one-off transfers of technical knowledge imparted in a top-down way in environments that are completely divorced from the actual environment in which it will be put to use. Or it can refer to efforts which combine technical knowledge with life skills and use methodologies that are likely to add to effectiveness make sense. The report mentions the importance of peer-to-peer learning and participatory and visual tools to which I would also add practice-based learning on the job or in the field.

The report recognizes that programmes that bundle together different elements that are designed to address the multiple and intersecting constraints that hold women back are likely to be far more effective than the simple, single stranded interventions that address on constraint in isolation without anticipating the effect on other constraints. Patriarchy is systemic and needs to be tackled as a system.

It also points to the importance of building group solidarity as a critical aspect of efforts to empower women. Here again,  intentionality matters. For instance, our research in Bangladesh found that savings-led groups to promote livelihoods and collective capabilities were more likely to have livelihood as well as empowerment impacts than credit-led joint-liability groups set up to ensure loan repayments.

What these various points have in common is an emphasis on the importance of the intangible conditions that promote empowerment. Interventions are not simply about transfer of material resources by programmes to recipients but also about the transformation of mind-sets and relationships involved: the mindsets that govern relationships between programme staff and participants; relationships among participants themselves; and finally relationships between participants, the wider community and the state.

A final learning point is about learning itself. The report cites a large number of studies of policies and interventions that worked but it also notes that the evidence in many was unclear. As it comments: ‘significant gaps remain in the availability, scope and granularity of data and in the evidence on what works and under what conditions for building more inclusive agrifood systems’.  I welcome the report’s recommendation on methodological pluralism. Quantitative data can tell us what worked, but also, very importantly, what did not. Qualitative data that help us understand both sets of outcomes. Longitudinal studies are also valuable in impact assessment because the time element is important. Certain impacts may occur in the short run in the light of intensive efforts  often invested at the beginning of a programme but disappear in the long run when programmes go to scale. On the other hand, other impacts may take some time to materialize; a short time horizon in impact assessment studies will lead to dismissal of the effectiveness of a programme.


The views expressed in this post are those of the author and do not reflect those of the International Development LSE blog or the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Featured image: Female sheep herders in Turkey, JOC Marjie Shaw via nara.getarchive.net.

About the author

Naila Kabeer

Naila Kabeer is Professor of Gender and Development at the Department of International Development. Naila is also a Faculty Associate at LSE’s International Inequalities Institute and on the governing board of the Atlantic Fellowship for Social and Economic Equity. She has done extensive advisory work with international agencies (World Bank, ADB, UNDP, UN Women), bilateral agencies (DFID, SIDA, CIDA, IDRC) and NGOs (Oxfam, Action Aid, BRAC, PRADAN and Nijera Kori). Her most recent projects were supported by ERSC-DIFD Funded Research on Poverty Alleviation: Gender and Labour Market dynamics in Bangladesh and West Bengal.

Posted In: Development Economics | Inequality | Topical and Comment

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