Opinion: Toward gender equality and social inclusion in the COVID-19 age

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Women practice social distancing while selling produce at a market in Kenya. Photo by: Sambrian Mbaabu / World Bank / CC BY-NC-ND

The term “food systems” went from fringe to mainstream in 2020. In April 2020, societies across the economic spectrum had begun to experience significant food supply chain gaps, stemming from the most immediate effects that COVID-19 had on food security, nutrition, and agriculture.

As a result of COVID-19 and pre-existing food crises, global policy and program experts continue to actively re-think existing models to strengthen food and market systems, foster resilience, and improve food security and nutrition outcomes for those most in need.

What is GESI?

Learn more about World Vision’s gender equality and social inclusion approach.

Just as COVID-19 exacerbated existing health care disparities within many contexts, the pandemic has deepened existing vulnerabilities within food and market systems, reinforcing the need for nuanced responses that address risks and opportunities related to gender equality and social inclusion within these systems.

Emerging narratives

World Vision is proud of its longstanding commitment to ending global poverty, hunger, malnutrition, and food insecurity in the nearly 100 countries where we work. According to internal program data, more than 90% of our global development and emergency programs include core food security, economic development, nutrition or agricultural livelihoods interventions, and we apply a “gender equality and social inclusion lens” to each one to ensure we are considering the effects on vulnerable members of society.

Over the past year, World Vision has focused on five emerging narratives that we believe are critical to the future of local food systems:

1. Use the incentives created by COVID-19 to build back better. We are operating in a climate with a greater willingness to “fail fast and recover quickly” than has traditionally existed within international development. Major donors including U.S. Agency for International Development, World Bank, International Fund for Agricultural Development, and others are re-investing in design “pivots” that allow current programs to adapt to COVID now, while planting seeds for long-term recovery. Notable within this space are conversations on: a) green recovery and the opportunity that this dialogue offers for promoting gender equality through the “triple bottom line” of sustainable social, economic, and environmental resilience; and b) fostering more resilient and inclusive food supply chains and environments that lead to better nutrition outcomes for all.

Read the Aftershocks Report 

In July 2020, World Vision published a report on the impacts of COVID-19 on poverty, livelihoods, and child hunger based upon survey data collected in 24 low-income countries across Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and Asia. Read the full report for more information on recommended program and policy actions to protect livelihoods.

2. Use the momentum of the COVID-19 response to prevent further erosion of development gains. This includes helping smallholder farmers — most of whom are women — to produce and sell more, working with partners to build safety nets, for example through our USAID-funded work with the Organization for Relief and Development of Amhara and CARE in Ethiopia; keeping food markets open and able to absorb and rebound from shocks, by unlocking access to much needed capital and financial services through privately funded programs in places like Tanzania and Zambia and U.S. Department of Agriculture-funded work in Cambodia; and by fostering nutrition-sensitive, gender-responsive and socially inclusive local food systems in relatively fragile contexts such as places in Bangladesh where we work.

3. Intentionally bridge health and food systems responses to COVID-19. Practical ways to tie food and health systems responses going forward include:

a) Social and behavior change for shaping food consumer decision-making toward locally available, affordable, and nutritious options.

b) Addressing emerging pockets of malnutrition, particularly amongst children under 5 and in light of differential urban and rural trends.

c) Integrating referral networks to expand the reach of interventions for young children, pregnant and lactating women, and other groups already prone to food insecurity and those experiencing multiple vulnerabilities.

4. Promote systems resilience. Resilient food and market systems are self-organized to effectively adapt to stressors such as COVID-19 through systems-level safety nets, emergency response mechanisms, and active engagement with frequent trend analysis.

5. Design for gender and social inclusion, or GESI: Based upon the Food and Agriculture Organization’s overall framework for promoting nutrition-sensitive food systems as well as our own gender equality and social inclusion framework, World Vision has developed a broad framework for integrating the five domains of GESI inquiry — access, decision-making, participation, systems, and well-being — with the three food systems domains (supply chain, food environment and consumer behavior) to address both immediate actions for systems change such as keeping goods and services flowing in times of crisis, and long-term enablers — for example food safety policies — of sustainable outcomes. While COVID-19 first drove the need to explore these issues more deeply, integration of GESI and food-systems thinking provides long-term value in building back better.

Guiding questions for designing gender equality and social inclusion within food systems. Source: World Vision

The broad framework shown above seeks to answer the question: What are the most important conversations to have about gender equality and social inclusion in designing and implementing food systems-informed actions? World Vision first piloted this concept in 2020 through work with FAO and Action Against Hunger in 12 countries across sub-Saharan Africa.

As the development community continues to wrestle with the effects of COVID-19 on food systems, we must act boldly in this moment to advance creative solutions that offer quick wins from which to build. In taking program and policy action around the four emerging narratives described above, we must also actively share data and evidence for understanding what worked and why.

Visit the Future of Food Systems series for more coverage on food and nutrition — and importantly, how we can make food fair and healthy for all. You can join the conversation using the hashtag #FoodSystems.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Serena Stepanovic

    Serena Stepanovic is the senior director, Food Security and Livelihoods sector at World Vision United States. She has more than 23 years of international development experience, with a specific focus on serving rural, smallholder farming communities since 2007. She brings to her work a passion for strengthening local food systems, promoting social and behavior change and fostering innovation.