World Food Day: No Day Off For Women

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) calls for the day to ensure humanity’s freedom from hunger. Frank McDougall, an Australian economist and delegate to the League of Nations, had influenced Eleanor Roosevelt who persuaded her husband Franklin to make food a world priority. President Roosevelt called a Conference on Food and Agriculture in May 1943. A preparatory commission was set up, chaired by Lester Pearson who was then the Canadian Ambassador to the United States. A signatory meeting for the FAO constitution was held in Quebec on October 16th 1945, date which was later chosen to be World Food Day.

The FAO headquarters was set up in Rome, Italy, where the International Institute of Agriculture (IIA) existed. Although the IIA was created in 1905 by King Victor Emmanuel III, it had had close relations with the League of Nations. Also, having FAO in Rome was a symbol that Italy was accepted in the world community despite its joining the Allies late in the day. Sir John Boyd Orr, a Scot nutritionist, League of Nations activist and later active world citizen, was the first Director-General where he tried to deal with both immediate and long-term issues relating to agriculture, food, and nutrition. Boyd-Orr set the pattern for strong leadership of the FAO secretariat on food issues, with most governments dragging their feet.

In 1959, the then Director-General, B.R. Sen launched the Freedom from Hunger Campaign. This was followed by the first World Food Congress in 1963, by which time, the newly independent African states had joined the FAO.

Despite a good deal of real expertise in the FAO, it took the FAO as well as national aid agencies a long time to translate the observation that women do a large share of agricultural work into real programs. Even as late as 1980 when the Brandt Commission report summed up development thinking of the 1970s, the vision of poverty and of agriculture was not gender specific. A typical example from the Report follows: Many hundreds of millions of people in the poorer countries are preoccupied solely with survival and elementary needs. For them work is frequently not available or, when it is, pay is very low and conditions often barely tolerable. Homes are constructed of impermanent materials and have neither piped water nor sanitation. Electricity is a luxury. Health services are thinly spread, and in rural areas only rarely within walking distance. (1)

This description is true, but there is no indication that poverty can impact women differently than men or if women can have other strategies to cope. Although 1975 was the first International Year of Women conference, the impact of women on those planning agricultural and rural development was slow in being felt.

Women started being visible in the UN development efforts in the 1980s. Although there have always been sections of the UN Secretariat concerned with "women’s issues", they had little influence on agricultural policy. The higher profile for women in agriculture came largely through non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in consultative status with the UN and from the research capacity of the UN, in particular the UN Research Institute for Social Development in Geneva. NGOs have always been the link between the "grassroots", local development efforts and the macroeconomic planners at FAO, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the World Bank. Women have been particularly active as representatives of NGOs and have cooperated among themselves in raising the image of women in the economy. Unfortunately, one has to repeat the same thing many times before an idea sinks in and is translated into programs. However, two ideas became the avenue through which visibility of women in agriculture was gained.

The first concept and practice was "popular participation". As government-led development projects stagnated, the idea that the rural world could organize itself, perhaps with government training, started to grow. The late 1960s, with the May 1968 manifestations in Paris, made "popular participation" a household word. There had already been some programs using popular participation or community development approaches, but they were often considered as marginal by national governments and UN agencies. However, NGOs kept pushing. Many small projects were able to show not only that women were key elements in much agricultural production but also in marketing goods.

Marketing was the link to the second idea that was developing through the 1980s – microfinance. Small loans to people, often women, would help people who were already productive to expand their scope. Many micro-loans were related to better marketing of agricultural products or the transformation of agricultural products. While microfinance is only one aspect of rural development, its successes proved that women were productive and able to expand their activities. Again, as examples piled up and as people aggressively insisted on the role of women, governmental and UN projects became increasingly gender sensitive.

Two research programs of the UN Research Institute for Social Development increased knowledge of the role of women in agriculture. The first was a series of reports on popular participation, in particular Gail Omvedt’s study of women’s movements in India and Thailand. (2) The study underlined the role of women in agricultural movements for greater justice and land rights. In doing so, the research showed the important role that women play.

The second UNRISD program was an innovative research program called Food Systems and Society. Its aim was to ask "Why is it that in a world of plenty millions of peasants, landless labourers and urban workers suffer from hunger and malnutrition? Why do famines still occur? What factors contribute to the rapid deterioration of traditional peasant economies, pushing millions of people off the land into urban slums each year? (3) While the questions were not new, the systematic approach of looking at the food chain from seeds to food on the table showed what and who was active at every stage.

The Food Systems and Society project did not have all the impact that it should have had. The Director of UNRISD at the time, Solon Barraaclough wrote an analysis of the food system of Nicaragua shortly after the Somoza government was overthrown and replaced by the Sandinistas. (4) The report was considered as too favourable to the Sandinistas’ efforts by some in the US government. Barraclough was pushed out of his post, and most of the planned studies in the program were not carried out. However, controversy is often the best way to get attention, and many people in the UN system read Barraclough’s study who probably would not have if it had not cost him his job.

Thus coming from social science research and from NGOs reporting on local efforts, the visibility of the role of women in rural life has grown. Plans are no longer written as if men were doing all the work. Realities on the ground are better analysed. But patterns change slowly. World Food Day is not likely to be a day off from work for most rural women.

***Rene Wadlow is the Editor of and an NGO representative to the United Nations, Geneva.


1. Independent Commission on International Development Issues. North-South: A Program for Survival. (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1980)

2. Gail Omvedt. Women in Popular Movements: India and Thailand during the Decade of Women (Geneva: UNRISD, 1986)

3. Rolando Garcia. Food Systems and Society: A Conceptual and Methodological Challenge (Geneva: UNRISD, 1984)

4. Solon Barraclough. A Preliminary Analysis of the Nicaraguan Food System (Geneva: UNRISD, 1983)

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