What Difference Does it Make?

People ask me all the time to justify why the work we do matters.  “Poverty will always be there”, they tell me, “so why bother?”  It’s a fair question.  We need to know what impact we’re having, and what is working, to be able to do better programs, help more people, and end poverty. In places where we aren’t making a change, we need to do better.

Any time I go visit a community I ask the same question: “What difference has it made?”  Because I know what I think we’ve accomplished, but I don’t always know what matters to the community.  I can’t see what they see.  I get numbers and spreadsheets and pictures, but that’s not the same as watching your own life change.  For the Pathways project, the effect I can see is that 50,000 women farmers in 6 countries have now been able to earn $3.9 million using new farming techniques, and enough land to cover half of Manhattan.  Women have also been telling us that they are now able to work together with their husbands to make decisions at home.  And these are big changes.  But what does that mean when it’s your life? For a woman farmer, what difference did it make?

This week I’ve been in Malawi visiting communities, and as always, I am awed by the things they tell me. Communities are taking what I think of as minor amounts of money—$10 here, $150 there—and changing their lives.

Veronica can pay school fees and send her children to school. Justina is able to calculate how much she spends, and actually make a profit on her work, rather than just selling to the first buyer she meets. Boston can measure how big his own field is—without waiting for a government extension worker, so he knows how much seed to buy.  This makes it 3-5 times cheaper for him to plant the right amount of soy to get the best yield.  Anesi’s children are healthier, because they are getting better food.

The changes aren’t just about income and expenses, either, as significant as those may be.  Some of the changes are about the pride women are able to take in their new skills, and the way they and their husbands now work together.  Sofeleti says that for her, the biggest change is that now she can run a business and earn money.  It makes her feel independent, like she is really contributing to her family’s well-being.  She and her husband sit down and make decisions together, rather than him deciding all by himself where the money in their household will go.

So what difference does it make?  For these farmers, it’s the difference between a profit and a loss, between poverty and opportunity. It’s the difference between waiting for someone to come give them things and taking charge of their own futures.  It feels like a big difference for them; it would be a big difference for anybody.

About the Program: CARE’s Pathways Program is based on the conviction that women farmers possess enormous potential to contribute to long-term food security for their families and substantially impact nutritional outcomes in sustainable ways. The program builds on CARE’s expertise in smallholder agriculture, financial inclusion, nutrition, women’s empowerment and market engagement. Working in partnership with others, Pathways promotes transformative change in women’s live and the lives of their families by combining and expanding upon the best of what we know. Pathways aims to increase the productivity and empowerment of women farmers in more equitable agriculture systems at scale. Specific objectives include increasing the productivity and empowerment of 50,000 poor women farmers in sustainable and equitable agricultural systems; enhancing the scale of high-quality women-responsive agricultural programming within and beyond CARE; and influencing debates and policy dialog on women and agriculture at local, national and global levels. Mali is one of six Pathways countries, along with Ghana, Tanzania, Malawi, India, and Bangladesh.

About the Author: Emily Janoch is the Senior Technical Advisor for Knowledge Management and Research for CARE USA’s Food and Nutrition Security team.  She has 9 years experience in international development, focusing on how to work with communities to get solutions that work for them.  She has a Masters’ in Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School.