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Lack of Empowerment of the Food-Insecure Population

"The right to food is not a right to be fed, but primarily a right to feed oneself with dignity”

(United Nations Human Rights, 2010, p. 3)

While the world’s wealthy people are empowered to build rockets and explore outer space, 925 million of its poor are so powerless that they cannot even afford enough quality food to secure themselves a minimum diet. Lack of empowerment, defined as the increase in the capacity of the poor to escape from hunger and poverty under their own power (Burchi, 2006, p. 12), is one of the root causes of food insecurity and global hunger.

Empowerment is defined as the increase in agency (Samman, 2009), which is “an actor or group’s ability to make purposeful choices” (Samman, 2009, p. 4). The mechanism which enables agents to become effective is called “opportunity structure,” (Samman, 2009, p. 3), and this is what is sorely lacking for the nearly one billion people who are unable to feed themselves. The World Bank outlines four key elements to opportunity structure (Narayan, 2002), each of which include many underlying issues which are generally missing in food insecure areas:

  • Access to information: In food insecure areas, access to information tends to be characterized by a lack of general education, including literacy and numeracy (addressed in the Primary Education solution), a lack of knowledge about basic health and sanitation, and a lack of knowledge transfer about agricultural innovations (addressed in the Farmer Education solution and Innovation Villages).
  • Inclusion and participation: There is often both a lack of representation for the poor in their local and national governments (addressed in the Nation protocol), and a lack of representation for developing countries in international organizations (addressed in the Nation protocol).
  • Accountability: In many countries with food insecurity, accountability is undermined by corrupt governments which don’t act in their citizens' best interests, and aid organizations which are not directly accountable to their beneficiaries (addressed in The Fundamental Approach to Aid).
  • Local organizational capacity: A lack of access to credit in impoverished regions hinders organizational capacity, forcing farmers to live year-to-year without the option to invest in tools such as fertilizer, seeds, livestock, irrigation systems, healthcare, and education, which would greatly improve their well-being in the long run (addressed in the Microfinancing solution).

Furthermore, women are often less empowered in these regions. They have less social power, political power, and economic opportunity, and lower rates of education (Lopez-Claros, 2005) even though their empowerment is of critical importance because they are responsible for raising children and managing family’s nutritional needs.

According to a study done by Christopher Udry, simply “reducing gender gaps in schooling and in the control of agricultural resources by men and women in Sub-Saharan Africa has the potential to increase agricultural productivity by ten to 20 percent” (Grebmer), not to mention the effect which it would have on poverty.

All of the above issues constitute what is generally termed a “poverty trap.” These factors contribute to poverty, which then contributes to these factors, preventing the poor from bettering their own situations. Changing these factors will shift the opportunity structure, allowing hungry people to escape from the poverty trap and gain food security under their own power. Shifting more power to the poor will allow the people who understand the problems faced by their communities inside and out, to propose their own solutions, a model which has proven much more effective than a system in which outsiders propose solutions to problems which they don’t fully understand. For example, several NGOs, including Solar Cookers International (Solar Cookers International, 2009) launched a wide effort to distribute solar food cookers to Haiti after the earthquake. After designing, transporting, and distributing these cookers, they then spent even more resources training families in their use. The end result of all these efforts was that very little was accomplished. Families were used to cooking meals at night, rendering the cookers practically useless, something which would easily have been foreseen by someone familiar with the area's culture (Robert Bates, personal communication, October 2010).

Instead, the best solutions come from people who understand the problems inside and out.

There is currently a tremendous amount of unrealized potential in the developing world. For example, William Kamkwamba, a 14 year old boy in Malawi, built a “working windmill out of a tractor fan blade, a broken bicycle, an old shock absorber, and some blue gum trees” using only an eighth grade textbook from a local community library (Markham, 2010). If an eighth grade textbook has the potential to enable so much creativity in a single youth, the possibilities of empowering all of the 103 million children currently out of school (Glewwe, 2006) are truly endless.

Aid givers, by assuming that they know better than the people they are trying to help, are doing the impoverished, and the entire world, a terrible disservice. While dumping food aid on a hungry region might stave off hunger for a few more days, providing lunches to schoolchildren has the potential to give an entire generation of bright minds the tools to eliminate hunger in their own communities. Such an approach, which allows people to help themselves, will be much more sustainable and effective in the long term.

Refer to Microfinancing solution, The Fundamental Approach to Aid, the Nation protocol, the Farmer Education solution, Innovation Villages, the Primary Education solution, the Urban Agriculture solution, and Food and Cash for Work solution to read about different approaches to empowerment.

Works cited: 

Burchi, F. (2006) Education, Human Development, and Food Security in Rural Areas: Assessing Casualties.

Freedom from Hunger. Hunger Facts. Retrieved November 22, 2010 from

Glewwe, P., Zhao, M., & Binder, M. (2006). Achieving Universal Basic and Secondary Education: How Much Will It Cost? Retrieved November 11, 2010, from American Academy of Arts and Sciences:

Grebmer, Klaus, et. Al. (2009). 2009 Global hunger index. Washington, D.C.: International Food Policy Research Institute.

"Helping Haiti." (2009) Solar Cookers International. Retrieved November 23, 2010 from

Markham, D. Harnessing the wind with junk: Malawian wind inventor William Kamkwamba. Green Living Ideas. Retrieved November 22, 2010 from

Narayan, D. (2002). Employment and poverty reduction: a sourcebook. World Bank.

Samman, E. and Maria Emma Santos. (2009). Agency and Empowerment: Review of Concepts, Indicators, and Empirical evidence. Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative.

Lopez-Claros, A. (2005). Women’s Empowerment: Measuring the Global Gender Gap. World Economic Forum. Retrieved November 29, 2010, from

United Nations Human Rights. (2010). The Right to Adequate Food. New York, NY: Office of the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights.  Retrieved November 29, 2010, from