Why we need a gender and empowerment development outcome


by Nancy Johnson | June 2, 2014

Dairy in Bangladesh

Photo by Akram All (CARE Bangladesh, Strengthening the Dairy Value Chain project). Source: Flickr (IFPRI-Images, Gender, Agriculture and Assets)

How important is it to consider gender and empowerment as distinct development outcomes of agriculture research? If our research programs are targeting women or other marginal groups to benefit from key outcomes like improved income, productivity, or nutrition, what’s left to measure in a gender and empowerment outcome?


Nancy Johnson, Senior Research Fellow for A4NH, recently returned from a workshop convened by the CGIAR Gender & Agriculture Research Network where members of 15 CGIAR research programs grappled with this question. The objectives of the workshop were straightforward:  to reflect on the meaning of the common gender development outcome (known in the CGIAR as an IDO), identify the theory of change behind it, and suggest some indicators and ways to measure them. We asked Nancy to share her reflections on the workshop and to explain why she thinks it’s important to maintain gender and empowerment as distinct outcomes of agricultural research.


A positive development I’ve observed from the CGIAR reform process is that the integration of gender in agricultural research for development has been given a boost. Gender is hardly a new issue, but the focus on development outcomes and theories of change makes it easier to see why gender matters and where gender issues need to be considered in order to achieve our goals. Through a collective process of defining development outcomes, the CGIAR research programs identified a common outcome related to gender and women’s empowerment:  Increased control over resources and participation in decision-making by women and other marginalized groups.


One reason we gathered in Cali was to recommend some indicators that could be used to assess progress towards achieving this outcome. We reached general agreement on the types of indicators to be used, though of course there are lots of details to iron out about what resources it is important for women to control and what decisions they should participate in. Control of resources is an active area of research and there are lessons emerging from the Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index, the Gender, Agriculture & Assets Project, and the Gender Asset Gap Project about what resources are important as assets and how control can be measured.  In terms of participation in decision making, in addition to the more standard questions about who controls the income women earn and how much influence they have over major household purchases (see the DHS questionnaire), the group felt it was important to develop better measures of women’s “voice” in collective decisions. We need to go beyond simple measures of membership in community organizations or producer groups to capture whether women feel that the decisions made in these groups reflect their preferences.


For me, one of the most surprising and interesting questions that emerged was whether we really need a gender and empowerment IDO. This may sound like an odd question given that we were a group of gender experts. The reason it came up is that many of the other outcomes such as income, productivity, and nutrition specifically look at benefits for women as well as other groups such as children or the poor.  This is great and we certainly are not suggesting that they should not do this, but if CRPs are already sex disaggregating their impacts, what is left to measure in the gender and empowerment IDO? The outcome of this debate led to the theory of change that I think we all had in mind but hadn’t quite articulated in this way before.


The basic idea is that the new knowledge, technologies, practices, institutions and policies that emerge in part from agricultural research change the economic returns to key productive resources in agriculture (e.g. land, water, forests, livestock, human capital). These changes in the returns to resources alter the balance of power in gender relations and may lead to shifts in men’s and women’s control over these resources and the benefits that derive from their use. Why? The current distribution of rights and responsibilities in agriculture reflects existing gender norms. If the “value” of those rights and responsibilities changes, the resulting distribution may not be consistent with those norms so either norms change or benefits get re-distributed in ways that are consistent with gender norms.


Let’s say a research program aims to benefit women by investing in improving the productivity of a crop traditionally managed by women. If the research is successful, more farmers – male and female – may become interested in this crop. The fact that a crop is a woman’s crop today doesn’t mean it always will be. There are several ways women could become inadvertently marginalized in this scenario. Women may not have secure rights to the land they were using to plant the crop. By improving the productivity of the crop, the land where it’s grown may become more valuable, and more likely to be taken over by someone else with a stronger claim to the plot. Alternatively, women may lose control of income from the crop or control of how the money is used as the market opportunities become more lucrative. By anticipating these outcomes, programs can take actions to avoid them.


We concluded that changes in the value of resources and their benefits interact with gender norms, rules and customs that regulate cooperation, conflict and the balance of power among men and women in farm households, communities and other institutions. Therefore, although closely linked to many of the other IDOs, women’s empowerment is different. It refers to changes in agency and control, which can affect whether men or women want to adopt agricultural innovations and how they share the resultant increases in production, food or income. This theory of change is very consistent with the gendered pathways from agriculture to nutrition that guide work in A4NH and other nutrition-sensitive agricultural research and development programs. I expect it will be a strong basis not only for collective monitoring of developing outcomes, but also for joint research across the CGIAR research programs and with our partners.


 Further reading 


This post is part of a blog, the Gender-Nutrition Idea Exchange, maintained by the CRP on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health. To add your comments below, please register with Disqus or log-in using your Facebook, Twitter, or Google accounts. You must be signed-in or registered in order to leave a comment.