Institute Insights: March 2018


Gender equity is essential to ending hunger. Photo: Stephan Bachenheimer / World Bank

From the Director

Each year, the world celebrates International Women’s Day on March 8. March is also Women’s History Month in the United States.

Gender equity is a matter of fundamental human rights. It is also essential to ending global hunger and malnutrition. For both reasons, it is a key issue for Bread for the World Institute.

The 2015 Hunger Report, When Women Thrive: We Can End Hunger, is a comprehensive look at why and how gender equity is essential to sustainable progress against hunger. The report offers policy recommendations to advance gender equity. The Institute has also produced materials that look at more specific issues related to gender and hunger—for example, the need to secure women’s land rights in order to boost agricultural productivity.

The most important reason to work toward gender equity as part of our mission of ending hunger is, of course, that women and girls are human beings. They are more likely to be hungry and malnourished than men and boys in their communities.

In addition, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), adopted by the United States and 193 other countries in 2015, include ending hunger and all forms of malnutrition by 2030. The world cannot meet this goal if half the world’s people face restrictions that weaken their health, nutritional status, educational attainment, and/or other ingredients essential for them to contribute fully to their families and communities. Communities working to end hunger and extreme poverty need “all hands on deck.”

The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day is #PressforProgress. The world has made some progress on issues that are critical to women and girls. Universal primary education and parity between girls and boys in primary school were largely achieved as part of the earlier Millennium Development Goals effort (2000-2015). The goal of reducing maternal mortality by three-quarters was not met, but significant numbers of mothers’ lives were saved. Between 2000 and 2015, deaths during or immediately after childbirth fell by 45 percent—and perhaps even more importantly, low-income countries shared in this progress. Sub-Saharan Africa cut its maternal mortality rate in half.

But speeding up progress on gender issues is essential since, according to the World Economic Forum's 2017 Global Gender Gap Report, at current rates it will take more than 200 years to reach gender parity.

Advocates all over the world will be “Pressing for Progress” both on International Women’s Day and throughout the coming year. Honoring women’s contributions is an important ingredient in the sustained effort to change social norms that is needed to secure gender equality. More specific areas of focus this year include challenging stereotypes and bias, maintaining a mindset for gender parity, influencing the beliefs and actions of others, and celebrating women’s achievements.

Bread for the World Institute is very active in promoting better nutrition—for everyone, but particularly for women who are pregnant, babies, and toddlers. They are in the 1,000-day critical window for human nutrition. More generally, malnutrition contributes to a fifth of all maternal deaths and disproportionately affects women’s health and productivity. This month’s #Marchis4Nutrition campaign will raise awareness among policymakers of the many important benefits of good nutrition and the impressive “return on investment” of investments in nutrition.

Over the past several months in the United States, we have been seeing women and men calling for an end to gender-based harassment and violence, and for laws and policies that increase the accountability of those who commit these offenses. In this issue of Institute Insights, we look at how sexual harassment affects women in low-wage jobs and the difficult choices they face to be able to put food on the table for their families.

Asma Lateef is director of Bread for the World Institute

Asma Lateef is director of Bread for the World Institute.

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A Kenyan woman and boy struggle with the dusty wind looking for water. This is what climate change looks like in Kenya and other parts of sub-Saharan Africa. Photo by Jervis Sundays / Kenya Red Cross Society

A Fair Budget for Women

By Faustine Wabwire

We have made great progress in reducing hunger and poverty around the world, but the  continuing near-famine conditions in four countries in Africa and the Middle East remind us that those gains are fleeting. The global progress made over the past several decades is in part due to the contributions of the United States as a leader in supporting economic development. As the world recovers from the recent setbacks, the United States must continue to lead by example.

The U.S. international affairs budget, and the policies and programs that implement it, should reflect our national commitment to enabling people to free themselves from hunger and malnutrition.

On February 12, 2018, the administration released its proposed budget priorities for fiscal year 2019, which begins October 1, 2018. This formal expression of the administration’s priorities includes proposed spending levels to help achieve the global development goals adopted by the United States in 2015. Funding to bolster global stability, stimulate economic growth, and advance development is housed in the international affairs budget. The proposed budget contains funding recommendations for diplomacy, development, and humanitarian assistance—all important priorities to end hunger and malnutrition.

The administration’s proposed budget comes at a critical juncture: more than 20 million people in northeastern Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, and Yemen face ”famine or a credible risk of famine" in the coming six months. With access to people in need and sufficient funding, we can avert the worst impacts of these crises. Yet the administration’s proposed budget would cut funding for these humanitarian disasters by 30 percent from current funding levels.

The administration and Congress need to take a longer-term view as crucial funding decisions are made. Not doing so means that people who could be saved, a majority of them young children, will die of starvation.

There is a lot we can learn from past experience. We know that it’s better and cheaper to prevent calamities than to respond to continually recurring emergencies. At a time of such intense controversy over the federal budget, it is also essential to remember that investing in a country’s agricultural systems so that people are able to feed themselves not only saves lives and strengthens economies, it also saves money in the long run and makes the world more stable and peaceful for all of us.

USAID Administrator Mark Green explains in an interview with Devex that he shares this approach. “My philosophy is that the purpose of all of this [aid] is to end the need for its existence,” Green said to Devex in one of his first extended interviews since coming to USAID. “I think that I’m more focused on building the capacity of our partners and also incentivizing reform in our partners, such that they can lead themselves.”

Over the years, U.S. leadership on addressing world hunger crises has helped to demonstrate the power of commitment from all actors—countries themselves, donors, and the private sector. For example, investing in sectors that create jobs provides a stabilizing effect in a post-conflict or post-crisis situation and enables people to increase their incomes. This, in turn, helps build assets that allow communities to improve health and nutrition outcomes. Higher incomes and more assets are vital to building resilience against future shocks and crises.

In Bread for the World Institute’s 2017 Hunger Report, Fragile Environments, Resilient Communities, we provide sobering evidence of the need both to resolve conflict and to reach malnourished children as quickly as possible. Children living in a country affected by conflict are twice as likely to be hungry and nearly three times as likely not to be in school as children in a low-income country that is free of conflict.

And, as the Institute often mentions, the research shows that nutrition in the 1,000-day window between pregnancy and age 2 is foundational. If a child is malnourished during this time, the consequences are irreversible. In the current near-famine conditions, providing mothers and young children with the nutritious food they need is an urgent priority. A fully funded international affairs budget will not only save hundreds of thousands of lives, but will also make it possible for U.S bilateral and multilateral programs to help communities continue to build resilience against future crises.

Faustine Wabwire is senior foreign assistance policy advisor with Bread for the World Institute.

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The clay stove this Malawian woman is pictured with has reduced the amount of time she spends collecting firewood by hundreds of hours per year. Alongside the stove she shows off the mold used to make it. Photo by Todd Post / Bread for the World

Better Nutrition: Important for All Women and Their Countries

By Jordan Teague

The month of March, which includes both International Women’s Day and #Marchis4Nutrition, is an especially opportune time to focus on one of our favorite subjects at Bread for the World Institute: women’s nutrition. Gender equality and good nutrition are mutually reinforcing, and the two converge around issues such as iron-deficiency anemia.

Half a billion women worldwide, their ages ranging from adolescent to middle age, suffer from malnutrition in the form of anemia. Anemia causes one in five deaths during pregnancy and childbirth. It also carries a higher risk of miscarriage, stillbirth, premature birth, and low birth weight.

Too often, however, this is where the nutrition community’s discussion of anemia ends—with its impacts on women during pregnancy and childbirth. One reason is that our current evidence base is strongest and most rigorous when it comes to the 1,000-day critical window for human nutrition, between pregnancy and age 2. In addition, this window is when malnutrition causes irreversible damage among young children.

Women are more than mothers, as important a role as this is. Anemia can and does affect any woman, whether or not she is a mother or in her childbearing years. Anemia causes fatigue and reduces a woman’s physical strength. This reduces both her quality of life and her ability to earn a living, particularly in communities where daily physical labor is essential to growing food and otherwise providing for a family.

Women are essential contributors to any economy through both paid work and unpaid work, such as child care and household chores. Not only do individual women suffer from the symptoms of anemia and other forms of malnutrition, but the whole community loses when women are unable to accomplish all the work necessary for survival, let alone for improving life in the future. The World Bank estimates that each $1 invested in preventing and treating anemia produces $12 in economic returns from a combination of better health and higher productivity among women.

Although it is easier to quantify anemia’s impacts on health and economic productivity, less tangible considerations, such as women’s satisfaction with their work, are important as well. Preventing and treating anemia supports women in their right to the dignity of work, a topic Bread for the World Institute delves into in our upcoming 2018 Hunger Report, The Jobs Challenge: Working to End Hunger. When women’s nutritional needs are met, they can more easily succeed in their work. Whether this is a professional career, running a household, paid labor, or elements of all these, work is a universal source of dignity in human life.

Anemia and other nutrition problems that affect women disproportionately are not concerns only in low- and middle-income countries. In the United States, about 9.8 million women, their ages ranging from adolescent to middle-aged, are anemic. That is 13 percent of our entire female population. Women of color are far more likely to suffer from nutritional deficiencies in general and anemia in particular. African American women, for example, are anemic at three times the rate of white women.

As Bread for the World Institute has previously discussed, female-headed households with children in the United States are much more likely to experience hunger and poverty than other households. There are numerous factors that contribute to the problem, including single mothers’ concentration in low-wage jobs and lack of affordable child care. Poor nutrition plays a role as well. Poverty often means limited access to nutritious foods and good health care, which in turn makes it more difficult for women to free themselves from poverty using strategies such as qualifying for a higher-paying job or starting a small side business. It is part of a vicious cycle.

Where can we go from here on global women’s nutrition? One possibility stems from the Task Force on Women’s and Family Health hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). Its report, published in 2017, outlined a possible nutrition initiative for adolescent girls, which includes an anemia component. The task force estimated that $40 million over four years would provide anemia prevention and treatment services for 75 percent of the adolescent girls in 13 countries with high burdens of malnutrition.

Women’s health and well-being could be significantly improved at a cost of just $9 per woman per year, as estimated by the World Bank for low-income countries. Focusing on women’s nutrition—regardless of their motherhood or marital status—has enormous potential to improve the lives of entire communities and nations.

Jordan Teague is international policy analyst with Bread for the World Institute.

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Gender-based harassment in our country’s workplaces makes it more difficult for women to work at jobs that pay enough to keep their families from experiencing hunger. Photo by Joe Molieri / Bread for the World

Sexual Harassment: Part of the Job?

By Michele Learner

Miyoshi Morris needed to clock in at 6 a.m. for her shift at a Ford Motor Company plant in Chicago, but she was having trouble finding a childcare center that opened early enough. A male manager approached her and said he could “help” with her record of tardiness.

It turned out that his proposal had nothing to do with adjusting her work hours or with finding child care. Instead, it was another instance of sexual harassment at the plant. Recently, the deep-seated “culture” of sexual harassment at its two Chicago plants led Ford to agree to a multi-million dollar settlement of claims of sexual harassment. This is Ford's second such settlement, as The New York Times reported in "How Tough Is It to Change a Culture of Harassment? Ask Women at Ford." Morris was a claimant in the first settlement, in the 1990s, which Ford settled for $22 million.

Women with low-wage jobs, particularly women of color, are among the most economically vulnerable groups in the United States. Those with a high school education or less and limited skills often have few options if a male supervisor assaults them, verbally or physically. If they report him, they risk retaliation, job loss, and sometimes their safety. Often, especially for women with families to support, they simply can’t afford to take those risks.

The New York Times reported that ultimately, Morris took a retail job rather than enduring ongoing harassment at Ford. But her job there had paid $23 an hour, while the retail job paid only a third of that. Now she mows lawns during the day and works as a home health aide at night. “I’m 61 years old, and I cut grass for a living,” she said.

Low-wage workers were among the women interviewed in depth by Time Magazine when it named the Silence Breakers, also known as #MeToo on social media, its 2017 Person of the Year. TIME reported: “Nearly all of the people interviewed about their experiences expressed a crushing fear of what would happen to them personally, to their families, or to their jobs if they spoke up… [Isabel, the pseudonym of a woman who works as a strawberry picker] felt trapped and terrified when her harasser began to stalk her at home, but felt she was powerless to stop him. If she told anyone, the abuser warned her, he would come after her or her children.”

Tarana Burke started the MeToo movement in 2006 with the founding of her nonprofit Just Be Inc., renamed MeToo in 2008. The many stories of sexual harassment and sexual assault she had heard from victims, most of them women of color, led her to recognize how closely these offenses are tied to power dynamics in society. Burke works to shift those dynamics by amplifying survivors’ voices and creating “empowerment through empathy” for them.

Abuse on the job is a clear violation of a worker’s rights. For the millions of women who are paid less than a livable wage, sexual harassment on the job poses a further threat to accessing nutritious food and other necessities for their families. Morris was forced out of a job that had supported her family. Isabel is still working in the fields; for now, she sees no viable way to escape the harassment. The pervasive presence of gender-based harassment in our country’s workplaces makes it more difficult for women to secure the autonomy and respect needed not only to work, but to work at jobs that pay enough to keep their families from experiencing hunger and food insecurity.

Michele Learner is associate editor with Bread for the World Institute.

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Photo by Margie Nea for Bread for the World

Infrastructure Includes Both Repairing Bridges and Investing in Children

By Todd Post

The administration’s interest in infrastructure could be an excellent opportunity for bipartisan cooperation in an initiative that would benefit everyone. Congressional Republicans and Democrats alike seem to agree that underinvestment in the nation’s infrastructure is hobbling the economy.

The U.S. economy has been in a productivity rut for more than a decade. Productivity growth can lead to higher wages and rising living standards for everyone. True, this is not inevitable—it depends heavily on the federal policies that determine how the gains are distributed. But before such policies even enter the picture, the economy must resume its productivity growth. Earlier periods of high productivity growth, especially when combined with low rates of unemployment, have done more to spur wage growth among low-income households than anything else.

How can we spur productivity growth? One effective strategy is to upgrade physical infrastructure, such as roads, bridges, and rail lines. The average U.S. commuter spends more than 40 hours every year stuck in traffic, and the cost to the economy, much of it in lost productivity, is estimated at $160 billion annually.

Policymakers have so far limited their discussions of infrastructure to physical infrastructure. I propose that we think about infrastructure in broader terms. Jim Kim, president of the World Bank, makes the case: “Investment in physical infrastructure is much discussed and recognized, but investments in human – what I call "gray matter infrastructure” is too often overlooked – gray matter being the brain.  It's important for future productivity and health of individuals, and it's critical to the economic competitiveness of nations.”

Although American policymakers rarely talk about “gray matter infrastructure,” economists agree that government investments to strengthen human capital pay enormous dividends. Examples of such investments are early education programs, high-quality child care, and good nutrition.

If you’re a regular reader of Institute Insights, you’re aware of Bread for the World Institute’s advocacy for early childhood nutrition, especially during the 1,000 days between pregnancy and age 2. This is the most important window for human nutrition, when good nutrition produces the most significant gains for lifelong health and physical and cognitive development. A team of leading economists from around the world calculates that every dollar spent on preventing malnutrition generates a “return on investment” of approximately $16 through a combination of increased productivity and reduced medical costs.

Low levels of investment in gray matter infrastructure have profound economic implications. In fact, our country’s “greatest competitive weakness,” according to the Council on Foreign Relations, is “the deep and growing achievement gap between socioeconomic groups that begins early and lasts through a student’s academic career.” This bears repeating: our country’s most important competitive weakness is not taxes, regulations, trade barriers, immigration policies, or any other of the “usual suspects.” It is a lack of attention to reducing the impacts of socioeconomic inequality. 

Physical and human infrastructure is in urgent need of attention in the United States. Policymakers could create long-term benefits for our economy and society by adopting bipartisan measures that strengthen both types of infrastructure.

Todd Post is senior researcher, writer, and editor with Bread for the World Institute.

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