Landing the big one: Can we rely on the private sector to empower women and improve child nutrition?
A lot of traditional thinking in development says that the private sector can be a powerful force for tackling problems associated with poverty, but it can’t do everything. For example, private-sector actors, with their financial motivations, have incentives to work with poor farmers on value chains. But, the thinking often goes, they can’t be counted on to deliver other outcomes we want to see, like empowering women, because they do not perceive any gain from doing so.
A new project by WorldFish in Bangladesh, supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, challenges the traditional logic, however, and 3ie’s impact evaluation (also supported by the Gates Foundation) will shed light on how WorldFish’s innovative model works. The project seeks to improve livelihoods by strengthening the aquaculture sector in Rangpur and Rajshahi divisions of northwest Bangladesh (‘divisions’ are the highest-level administrative units in Bangladesh).
There is good reason to think that fish—and aquaculture in particular—are going to be crucial for both healthy diets and livelihoods in the coming decades. In the recent EAT-Lancet Commission report, fish is the only animal product among the Commission’s “emphasized” foods critical for healthy and sustainable food systems in the Anthropocene era. Moreover, global consumption of fish has been increasing. Between 1961 and 2016, the average annual percentage increase in global fish consumption outpaced human population growth. In 2016, global fish production peaked at 171 million tonnes. The bulk of the production still originates from small-scale farming systems and practices in developing countries, such as Bangladesh. This means that developing countries are now grappling with the challenge of improving practices and management systems in the aquaculture and fisheries industry to meet this demand.
The WorldFish approach relies on local service providers (LSPs) to deliver the intervention, and these LSPs are mostly private-sector actors (e.g., seed producers, feed dealers, etc.). The idea is to lean on LSPs to strengthen aquaculture value chains so that smallholder fish farmers will see productivity increases and income gains. So far so good.
But the goals of the WorldFish project also include empowering women and improving nutrition for women and young children. Currently, women are not well represented in the aquaculture value chain and often participate in only a limited range of roles (such as those that do not require travelling beyond the homestead pond). At the same time, undernutrition, especially for women and young children, is unacceptably high and dietary quality and diversity unacceptably low. For instance, a 2015 report found that in Rajshahi division, 16 per cent of children were acutely undernourished (the highest rate in the country) and 32 per cent were underweight; in Rangpur division, 72 percent of women consumed diets with inadequate diversity. Given this context, the WorldFish project will use mobile apps, and training workshops to deliver nutrition- and empowerment-related messages in hopes of opening up opportunities for women to take on more substantive and lucrative aquaculture activities, while also improving diets by getting more nutritious fish species on the market. But can we trust private-sector LSPs to work towards these goals?
3ie’s impact evaluation intends to find out. Together with WorldFish, we have identified this as one of the most pressing and useful questions the evaluation can address. So WorldFish will be deploying two different versions of their intervention. One version will rely entirely on private-sector LSPs to deliver all aspects of the intervention, including those we don’t normally think of as falling within the purview of the private sector, like nutrition education and women’s empowerment. The other version will take a more traditional approach by enlisting NGOs to perform these functions. Having these two models operating side-by-side will allow us to conduct a head-to-head evaluation of how well each model achieves each of the intervention’s various goals. An embedded process evaluation will help us to understand the implementation process and associated challenges, as well as the relative costs, risks and political realities of the different models. In this way, 3ie and WorldFish will be able to explain the ensuing findings and provide grounded and actionable recommendations to WorldFish and policymakers in Bangladesh.
The details of how WorldFish will try to spur the private sector to make headway against inadequate nutrition and limited opportunities for women are still being ironed out. But the WorldFish team is taking a very analytical approach to identifying possible avenues of getting this to work (we witnessed this during a recent planning workshop in Dhaka). If the impact evaluation reveals that the private-sector model is successful even for nutrition and empowerment outcomes, it will be a big step forward in our understanding of how to involve commercial entities to promote development goals. And if the study shows that the desired results don’t materialise, the process evaluation will help us understand where the theory of change breaks down and how it might be tweaked to better leverage the private sector to achieve holistic and inclusive development.
We’re excited to be a part of this innovative endeavour and are now in the early stages of designing the study and implementing a baseline survey. We have assembled a multidisciplinary research team with nutrition and gender experts. In the near future we’ll also be bringing on team members who will be based in Bangladesh and will guide the implementation of the evaluations. Over the years, 3ie has learned that a diverse team that includes experts on methods, the sector, and the local context is crucial to ensure buy-in for the evaluation and to engage effectively with stakeholders throughout the study cycle. Stay tuned for updates on how this intriguing project unfolds.
With inputs from Kanika Jha Kingra and Pooja Sengupta.
This blog describes ongoing work in 3ie’s Impacts of aquaculture on livelihoods, nutrition and women’s empowerment in Bangladesh project, visit the project page for more information.
How will 3ie maintain critical distance needed for an effective evaluation when both intervention and evaluation are funded by the same donor? Potential outcomes already read predetermined: measure proof or tweak the theory of change. Ample evidence shows private sector interventions can work in specific contexts, but can be disastrous when exported elsewhere (think finance and farmer suicide or changing gender relations leading to disempowerment). Will this assessment be used to advocate for other enterprise interventions in other locations?
Look forward to hearing from you. Congrats for the work, exciting question to evaluate: "Can we rely on the private sector to empower women and improve child nutrition?". I'm keen to know.
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