I have had the opportunity to see a lot of really powerful speakers at the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) Annual Meeting. Talk about internalized patriarchy: I was most excited to see Presidents Obama and Clinton speak, and though I was excited to see Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, she was not at the top of my list. I have to tell you all, I was most personally affected by Secretary Clinton’s words. Our politics differ in a number of ways, but seeing her speak in person her morally motivated passion is undeniable. As she talked about fundamentally shifting our approach to hunger I got chills and even teared up a little. I have heard Secretary Clinton be accused of acting only out of a desire for power probably more than anyone else in politics. I think this stems partly from an insidious assumption that for a woman to be successful she must lose part of her humanity, which is supposed to be focused on nurturing others.
In his introduction of Secretary Clinton, President Clinton said that in the second half of 20th century the U.S. government gave up on helping those in poverty feed themselves. The thinking became that those with food would just give some to others. “This persisted through Democratic and Republican administrations, including my own. We were all wrong.” By focusing on aid in situations of crisis instead of empowering small farmers and creating structures for them to sell their crops locally, “We forgot the dignity element of being able to feed yourself.”
Picture a farmer. Who do you see? More internalized (U.S.-centric, racially privileged) patriarchy: my image was a middle aged white man in the U.S. farm belt. Secretary Clinton shifted this picture forever with one simple but emphatically stated word: “She.”
The majority of the world’s farmers, including the majority of small farmers, are women. Secretary Clinton asked us to, “consider the daily life of the typical small farmer… She works all day in a field, sometimes with a baby strapped on her back. If she’s lucky drought, blight, and pests don’t destroy her crop and she has enough to feed her family and maybe sell a little.” The small farmer has extra food to sell. Hungry people want to buy it, but can’t afford to. “This simple transaction can’t take place because of complex forces out of their control.”
Secretary Clinton said empowering small farmers to sell their food, “will set off a domino effect,” changing the conditions in regions, countries, and the world. We must shift away from an aid framing, though, and focus on empowerment. Secretary Clinton implied this requires questioning assumptions about U.S. superiority: “Few know better the complex issues that hinder a country’s food supply than those who live there.”
Secretary Clinton recognized this re-framing of food security, which her State Department and the Obama administration plan to act aggressively on, “Will no doubt spark enormous debates around the world and a lot in our own country.” I imagine I will disagree with plenty of how it plays out – the seeds for this were evident in some of her remarks. But I am excited about and inspired by the approach.