Despite billions of dollars in aid for economic development, many Third World countries are watching helplessly as the rate of poverty among their people outstrips economic development. The problem is especially acute in rural areas -- and especially among women.
Idriss Jazairy, the able and energetic Algerian diplomat who is president of the United Nations' International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), is convinced that any effective attack on rural poverty must turn the conventional approach to economic development on its head. Let economic development trickle up from thousands of small projects in the countryside, he says. The assumption that large efforts to increase a nation's overall economy will trickle down to rural areas just hasn't proven true.
Under Mr. Jazairy, IFAD has embarked on an eminently sensible effort to alleviate grinding rural poverty by investing in one of the most productive and overlooked segments of any economy -- women. The very fact that the concept strikes many people as revolutionary and innovative shows just how much women's work -- which in many rural areas of the world averages about 16 hours a day -- is taken for granted.
Men in these same circumstances (who put in a mere eight to 10 hours a day on various kinds of labor) are often the sole targets of economic development efforts. But that approach is ultimately self-defeating.
To cite one example, Mr. Jazairy describes how efforts designed to provide small farmers with fertilizer for maize and other cash crops turned out to be futile. Why? Cash crops are traditionally handled by men (who reap the profits), while women are responsible for food crops. But women have the chore of weeding all the crops, and they soon noticed that fertilizer increased the number of weeds, adding more work to their long days. Small wonder the women began throwing out the fertilizer before it could be used.
But perhaps the most compelling reason to focus economic development efforts on women is that so many women are finding themselves without enough income to secure even the most basic needs. The World Bank defines the poverty level on a country-by-country basis, but to give one example, the poverty level in Nepal covers any family with an income of less than $91 per year.
Around the world, the number of people who live in these grinding circumstances is growing -- but it's growing significantly faster for women than for men. An IFAD analysis found that in developing countries, 550 million rural women live in poverty. That represents an increase of 50 percent over 20 years ago, while in the same time period the number of rural men living in poverty increased by only 40 percent.
One reason seems to be the increase in female-headed households, which are more economically vulnerable. Many women and their children are suffering the effects of male migration to cities and overseas in search of work. Others are widowed by AIDS, civil strife or other causes. Some are divorced or abandoned as changing social trends strain traditional family bonds.
Whatever the reason, when women struggle alone to make ends meet they face an uphill battle. As a result, their children lack proper shelter and nutrition and have no hope of obtaining an education.
But IFAD has found that these women are a good investment. In fact, poor rural women have a better record than men for savings and investments; 97 percent of loans to women are paid off on time.
But in the developing world, women receive only 10 percent of the institutional credit, even though they provide a large part of household cash income through cottage industries, crafts and farming.
By investing in "women's work," IFAD has produced remarkable results. One example is Santamaya, an abandoned, 28-year-old mother of two who lived in a rural village north of Katmandu, the capital of Nepal. Santamaya joined an eight-member women's group organized by an IFAD-supported project. The group granted her two loans, one for 120 rupees ($30) to buy a beehive and one for 3,000 rupees ($71) to buy a loom.
She now sells honey for 50 rupees a liter in Katmandu and her woven carpets bring 1,000 rupees each. From a landless woman with no means of support, Santamaya has become a productive, self-sustaining member of the country's economy. She has lifted her family out of poverty and given her children a chance for a brighter future.
On Feb. 25, more than 60 wives of heads of state will gather in Geneva with U.N. officials for a summit on the economic advancement of rural women. The meeting is designed to bring more visibility to rural women -- and to IFAD's contention that small investments in poor women can reap big rewards.