Women, food security and peacebuilding: from gender essentialism to market fundamentalism

Is gender equality advocates' emphasis on women as agents of change helping to legitimize a neo-liberal vision of government, and working against women's engagement in promoting food security and peacebuilding, asks Rob Jenkins
Rob Jenkins
28 June 2011

That women’s engagement in resolving and recovering from conflict is crucial to sustainable peace has been an article of faith, and an element of international law, since the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1325 in 2000. It took a decade of missed opportunities, however, for the UN to develop a systematic action plan for redeeming the promise of 1325. The September 2010 Report of the Secretary-General on Women's Participation in Peacebuilding contains a concrete set of commitments for UN actors working in post-conflict settings.

Among the urgent tasks facing post-conflict governments and their international backers is ensuring the availability of food. Access to nutrition is both a human right and an essential means of reducing the likelihood of conflict-recurrence. The idea of ‘food security’ as a dimension of ‘human security’ is nothing new. Nor is the notion that women – as agricultural producers and managers of household budgets – are critical contributors to the food economy. Nevertheless, international agencies have failed to address the linkages between gender relations, food security, and peacebuilding.

A recent seminar at the International Peace Institute (IPI) in New York attempted to fill this gap. UN officials, academics, Member States, and gender-equality advocates discussed obstacles that prevent women from contributing to increased household nutrition and national food availability in post-conflict countries, including pervasive gender-based violence and credit markets that are biased against women.

The most striking feature of the discussion, however, was the implicit assumption underlying almost all of the remedies proposed for addressing these obstacles: a minimalist state, restricted to a limited range of ‘market enabling’ functions. This is consistent with the wider discourse on women’s engagement in post-conflict recovery, where a highly circumscribed role for government is now the default setting.

The state’s role in enhancing women’s contribution to both national and household food security in post-conflict settings is now typically reduced to three main elements. The first is physical security for women. Increasingly, a legacy of contemporary armed conflicts is the normalization of violence against women. When living in constant fear of gender-based violence, women – even in ‘post-war’ settings – are less able to tend their fields or travel to markets.

Second, the state must supply basic infrastructure – especially rural ‘feeder roads’ that link remote areas, where poor female farmers mainly reside, to market centres. To increase women farmers’ awareness of prevailing market conditions, some analysts stress the need for improved ‘information infrastructure.’ Cellphone networks and agricultural-extension networks should be facilitated by post-conflict states, though not necessarily operated by them.

Third, post-war states must ensure property rights for women. Where women are excluded – by law or custom – from owning land, or where wives cannot inherit title from spouses killed in conflict, they cannot obtain formal-sector credit to purchase seeds, fertilizer, and other agricultural inputs. When insecure property rights make women vulnerable to arbitrary dispossession, they have little incentive to invest in land improvements or tools to increase agricultural productivity.

Physical security, basic infrastructure, and property rights are of course essential – both for peacebuilding in general and as instruments for increasing women’s capacity to contribute to food security in particular. But to confine post-conflict states to these three functions is to accept a stripped-down, neo-liberal vision of government. That World Bank officials would adopt such an impoverished approach to the public sector is no surprise. But one generally expects a more ambitious agenda from gender-equality advocates, particularly when seeking to influence officials responsible for food policy in post-conflict environments. Unfortunately, it appears that women’s rights campaigners are so desperate to be taken seriously, and so appreciative when officials adopt gender perspectives on economic activity, that they have ignored the highly circumscribed policy framework within which these ideas are being considered, and to which the gender-equality lobby is, indirectly, lending legitimacy.

What is not mentioned in contemporary discussions on women and food security in post-conflict contexts is as revealing as what is. Few policy documents even consider, let alone advocate, designating state entities as buyers of last resort for key food crops, a mechanism that can reduce price volatility and spur longer-term investments by small and marginal farmers. State involvement in distributing fertilizer and other agricultural inputs is similarly absent from the policy agenda. There is no discussion of developing a network of government-licensed shops to ensure the continuous availability of food grains and other essential commodities at affordable prices to voucher-holders. The idea of state support for the promotion of agricultural cooperatives – to, among other things, spread risk and increase producer leverage – is also not addressed.

By neglecting to consider these and other ‘active state’ approaches, ‘women, peace and security’ advocates not only exclude promising methods for enhancing food availability; they also overlook potentially important mechanisms for advancing gender equality in post-conflict reconstruction more generally. For instance, regulations governing the establishment and operation of agricultural cooperatives could specify quotas for women in their management. This could have a multiplier effect on women’s empowerment – beyond the potential effects on food production – by contributing to other elements of the UN 'Action Plan for Gender-Responsive Peacebuilding' which calls for greater opportunities for women’s civic engagement in countries emerging from conflict.

Likewise, a network of government-subsidized ‘fair prices shops’ in which food is made available to poor consumers at affordable prices could similarly be designed to benefit women – for instance, by specifying gender parity in the distribution of licenses to operate these establishments, or distributing vouchers exclusively to women household members.

Some advocates for enhancing women’s engagement in peacebuilding perceive increased receptivity in the policy community for more active state approaches to the food economy in post-conflict countries. According to Henk-Jan Brinkman, the UN Peacebuilding Support Office’s Director of Policy Planning, even the World Bank has begun to reassess its knee-jerk antipathy to state involvement in agriculture. The ability of governments in Indonesia and India to win re-election in 2009 amidst a global food price crisis – through heavy state intervention – allegedly opened many eyes in Washington and beyond. Brinkman cited the World Bank’s 2011 World Development Report (WDR), on ‘Conflict, Security, and Development,’ indication of a new approach.

The WDR does not, however, offer much encouragement. While recognizing the contribution of food insecurity to conflict, the report prescribes actions consistent with a minimalist vision of the state. It notes that ‘countries with weak institutional capacity were more likely to suffer violent social unrest during the food shocks of 2008–09’ but does not recommend strengthening the capacities necessary for more robust intervention in the food economy. The WDR refers to food ‘price shocks’ as ‘beyond the control of the state’. True enough. But if supported by their international donors, even post-conflict governments can adopt policies and build institutions to insulate people from the worst effects of price volatility.

Instead of advocating the creation of such systems, the Bank focuses on a familiar recipe: sound macroeconomic policy, improved market information, and increased foreign investment in the agricultural sector. Only two mildly interventionist initiatives are mentioned in the WDR: a price-stability mechanism for rice in Southeast Asia and Ethiopia’s Productive Safety Net Programme. The Bank grudgingly entertained the possibility of food reserve systems in conflict-affected countries, but only as a temporary measure to ‘bridge the lags in food aid response’.

There are legitimate reasons for scepticism about greater state involvement in the food economy. Government intervention in agricultural production and marketing has often gone disastrously wrong. The potential for well-intentioned policies to generate inefficiency and corruption is all too real. Collectivisation of agriculture – in Mao’s China and Nyerere’s Tanzania – produced human tragedy on a vast scale.

But to capitulate to such fears, without considering how such shortcomings might be overcome, constitutes a failure of imagination. There are cases where active-state approaches to food security have benefited marginal farmers and poor consumers. For all its flaws, Egypt’s food subsidy system widened access to essential commodities. Mexico’s agricultural cooperatives have produced notable successes, alongside a number of failures. Minimum support prices and export controls in India combined with state-assisted dissemination of green-revolution technologies – increased food production dramatically, despite imposing very real social and environmental costs. Adapting such policies to post-conflict countries – and designing them in a more gender-responsive fashion – will be hugely difficult. But that is insufficient grounds for taking them off the table entirely.

Another reason why active-state approaches to gender and food security are absent from the peacebuilding discourse is the fear of unrealistic expectations. When state authority, let alone administrative capacity, is weak, no one wants to overburden the public sector with additional functions. The Egyptian, Mexican and Indian states are infinitely more developed than their fledgling counterparts in Liberia, El Salvador and Cambodia. Almost every discussion of peacebuilding features at least one impassioned plea for realistic ‘sequencing’: the international community should first consolidate states, then (maybe) think about expanding their functions.

This logic has undeniable commonsense appeal. But it need not always hold true. We must at least consider the possibility that assigning the government an active role in the food economy – beyond the minimalist agenda of providing physical security, basic infrastructure and property rights – might itself help to consolidate state authority. Might not the social contract between citizens and the state best be cemented by making the government a visible guarantor of adequate nutrition? Government-licensed food outlets that distribute essential commodities to state identification-card holders could allow public authorities to reach places they otherwise do not. Such an outpost might evolve into a site for other state functions – such as postal delivery and the registration of births and deaths. Building women’s engagement into the design of such systems sends a strong signal that gender equality is central to the state-building project.

The neglect of active-state approaches to gender and food security in post-conflict settings is also a reflection of unexamined ideological biases. Three decades of market-centred development ideology has taken its toll. Beneath the veil of heterodoxy, the ‘post-Washington Consensus’ policy environment remains extremely hostile to state involvement in economic activity – nowhere more so than in the case of post-conflict countries. Even more troubling, this bias is increasingly reinforced by another, less obvious ideological influence – the desire of gender-equality activists to emphasize women’s role as agents of change. This is the foundational premise of Resolution 1325, ritually repeated in almost every public discussion of women, peace and security issues.

Given the longstanding tendency to characterize women as ‘victims’ (of war, of development, of states, of patriarchy), stressing women’s potential as promoters of peace, of more inclusive politics, of sustainable development, is understandable. In the context of discussions on food security and peacebuilding, this tendency is manifested in the conviction that women’s innate capacities as farmers, innovators, and household managers can work wonders – if only states would get out of their way and, at the margins, provide a minimally enabling environment for their talents to flourish. Hence the oddly World Bank-ish acceptance by gender-equality advocates of physical security, basic infrastructure, and property rights as the natural boundaries for government action to promote women’s involvement in post-conflict economic reconstruction. It is a surprisingly short distance, in other words, from market fundamentalism to gender essentialism. One denigrates the state’s potential role explicitly; the other by implication.

Contemporary debates on gender and peacebuilding have highlighted key obstacles preventing post-conflict governments from tapping women’s full potential as producers of food and facilitators of household nutrition. Removing these impediments is necessary but not sufficient. Gender-equality advocates must consider whether they are reinforcing – perhaps unwittingly – an impoverished conception of the state’s role in the food economy, and passing up unique opportunities to enhance women’s participation in the state-building and peacebuilding process.

With thanks to Prakirti Nangia, Hunter College, NYC, for contributing research







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