May 2008 Newsletter: All Politics is Local


Throughout the developing world, people at the local level are struggling to meet their basic needs. Does our community have access to clean water? Will the teacher come to school today? Is there a health clinic nearby where I can take my sick child?

Local government is closest to the people and has the mission of working with people to meet these basic needs. In the developed world, for the most part, local government functions well, and therefore, the ease of overcoming these challenges is often taken for granted. Clean water comes with the turn of a knob, and there is a doctor a phone call away.

Unfortunately, in the developing world, these government bodies are largely ineffective. First, they do not represent everyone — women often have little or no voice. Second, the central governments often fail to provide sufficient financial resources to village councils, and restrict their freedom and authority to make decisions. Finally, there are almost no effective ways for people to hold their local government to account.

Mobilizing people to be authors of their own development, empowering women as key change agents, and making local government work are the three essential elements for achieving the sustainable end of hunger and poverty and the Millennium Development Goals. The Hunger Project is working in partnership with local governments throughout South Asia, Africa and Latin America to ensure that they support their local communities.

Empowering Elected Women Leaders in India

In India, The Hunger Project’s core strategy is to strengthen the leadership of elected women representatives on village councils (panchayats) across 14 states. The Hunger Project has expanded the capacities of 65,000 elected women leaders to date. These women are now exercising their leadership and bringing about change in their villages, affecting the lives of 6.5 million people in rural India.

During elections, The Hunger Project manages a campaign to encourage women to actively participate in the election process both as voters and as candidates.

The Hunger Project also facilitates the creation of federations of elected women representatives, which serve not only as a support structure for the women, but also as a form of collective action through which they can lobby for policies favoring their leadership.

Following the 2006 tsunami, The Hunger Project facilitated the development of microplans in 17 panchayats, each of which was ratified by both the gram sabha (general assembly of all adults in a village) and the district government. The microplans, which have prioritized the needs of the panchayats, are helping the villagers to negotiate with the district administration and obtain services and programs that are relevant to them.

Profile of Leadership

Radhia Adivasi is the sarpanch (panchayat chair) of Chak Dehi village in the state of Madhya Pradesh. She is a tribal woman, which means she faces all the marginalization and exclusion that Dalits, once referred to as “untouchables,” experience. Radhia lost her mother when she was a young child, and became responsible for the maintenance of the household. She has never attended school. She is illiterate and learned to write her own name only after she was elected to office in 2005. Radhia and her husband live on less than US$1.50 per day.

Radhia’s leadership has led to the construction of four additional schoolrooms during the first three years of her term as sarpanch. To accomplish this, she, along with the president of the village parent teacher association, made trip after trip to the district official’s office. Radhia knows there is much more work needed in her village, and her future plans include persuading a local member of parliament to commit to moving ahead with a much needed bridge, so that villagers will be neither isolated nor endangered during the annual monsoon season.

Ensuring Transparency and Accountability in Bangladesh

In Bangladesh, union parishads (UPs) — each of which covers a population of about 20,000 people — are the unit of government closest to the people. The Hunger Project is mobilizing and empowering the people of UPs to implement effective strategies for the sustainable end of hunger.

The Hunger Project mobilizes the elected representatives in UPs to raise their voices for decentralization of power and access to resources. Initiatives of the elected representatives include ensuring 100 percent sanitary latrine coverage, 100 percent birth and death registration, and open budget meetings to provide transparency and accountability.

The Hunger Project also catalyzed the creation of SHUJAN (Citizens for Good Governance) to strengthen grassroots democracy, ensure transparency and accountability of local administrations, and take initiative at the national level for reform and to formulate pro-people policies. Participants in SHUJAN also work for election reform, so that honest and competent representatives can be elected at all levels of government.

Creating Long-term Development Plans in Mexico

In Mexico, The Hunger Project works in partnership with municipios as the form of government closest to the people. Elected members of municipios serve three-year terms and may only serve once. This creates a significant challenge for long-term planning and development, and makes it nearly impossible for local government officials to develop strong networks at the state and national levels that could help them gain access to more resources. The Hunger Project empowers the local communities to develop plans that are owned by the people, who then elect representatives to help them achieve the plans.

Moreover, through their participation in Hunger Project meetings and trainings, previously isolated government employees come together as unified teams to work in partnership with the people to achieve local priorities.

Forging Effective Partnerships in Africa

One of our greatest successes in Africa has been in creating partnerships to bridge the gap between grassroots people and local governments.

Local government officials are included at every stage of the Epicenter Strategy. The first step in any community is for The Hunger Project to meet with local government representatives to apprise them of our approach and gain their support. Government officials participate in a district-level Vision, Commitment and Action Workshop, along with invited representatives from villages. When the villagers build the epicenter building, local government provides nurses, teachers and supplies for the preschool and health clinic.

Prior to the launch of the Epicenter Strategy, government programs were unable to reach the people living in remote, isolated villages. As the epicenter community gains confidence, it also gains a stronger voice, and is more able to negotiate with local government to obtain services such as roads, electricity, extension workers and pharmaceutical supplies.

Hunger Project partners, particularly women trained through the African Woman Food Farmer Initiative, are also participating directly in local democracy by using their new-found confidence and leadership to get elected to local and district assemblies.

The Hunger Project’s work in Africa has also benefited from increased decentralization. When national governments began to decentralize — giving more resources and decision-making authority to local-level government — our epicenters immediately began to create effective partnerships with local governments in order to obtain resources they needed for their communities.

It Takes a Cluster

Traditional villages may comprise fewer than 100 households, and are often too small to have a voice in government and manage social services such as health centers or schools. In each region in which The Hunger Project works, local communities joining together in clusters of villages have a stronger voice, and are able to demand access to the human and financial resources of local government. They have become the authors of their own development and are achieving lasting progress in health, education, nutrition, family income and gender equality.

Message from Jill Lester, President and CEO

During my first 100 days with The Hunger Project, I traveled to India, Ghana and Bangladesh to see The Hunger Project’s wonderful work firsthand.

In India, I met with 85 leaders of 12 federations of elected women representatives created by The Hunger Project. Many of these women are laborers who sacrificed days of wages to come together from eight districts across Rajasthan. They shared their triumphs in overcoming corruption, successfully demanding access to government programs, halting child marriage, and improving the quality of schools and health programs.

In Bangladesh, I joined a delegation of investors from the U.S., Australia and Europe. We participated in the second annual meeting of the Unleashed Women’s Network, a team of more than 1,200 volunteer women leaders whom we trained in legal and reproductive rights and who serve as resource people and advocates in their villages.

In Ghana, I saw the impressive impact of our Epicenter Strategy. People are deeply committed to building and running their epicenters as the authors of their own development. I visited communities in each stage of the process, including Atuobikrom Epicenter, which has recently achieved self-sufficiency.

My experiences over the past 100 days have transformed me from someone with an intellectual appreciation of The Hunger Project into someone profoundly convinced that we have the right approach and now must expand it.

I want to express my gratitude to Hunger Project investors around the world who make these strategies possible as an expression of partnership with our sisters and brothers in Africa, South Asia and Latin America.