Knowledge for a sustainable world

Development Programme:
Gender and Social Difference

Overall Strategy:

The goal of the Gender and Social Difference programme is to produce innovative and high-quality research and practice for demonstrable impact on reducing inequalities and gender justice in sustainable development.

Our strategy is to collaborate with partners to:

  • Promote human rights, gender justice and empowerment through sustainable development pathways
  • Contribute to the reduction of poverty and workloads, build resilience and improve environmental adaptation
  • Strengthen institutional and individual capacity to facilitate meaningful participation, dialogue and inclusiveness
  • Foster learning-oriented, accountable and transparent organisational cultures with men and women for governance transformation and behaviour change
  • Develop and refine innovative methodologies to explore and address inequitable social norms and power relations, and encourage participation and empowerment with men and women

This approach is integrated across our inter-disciplinary programmes and projects and is also the focus of independent research and consultancy. Our expertise is also utilised in teaching and learning activities at the Institute within the UK and internationally, including NRI's Masters programmes, the NRI seminar series, delivery of short courses, and supervision of post-graduate students.

Methodological capability and innovation

The Gender and Social Difference programme uses a range of innovative mixed qualitative and quantitative methods to understand, explore and address social norms and power relations. This includes data collection at multiple levels: individual, family and household, society and state. Using these methods we have been able to develop cutting edge research in gender and social difference.

Examples of these methods include:

  • One-to-one and household interviews and self-assessments
  • Focus group discussions, role plays, workshops at the community and institutional levels for capacity strengthening
  • In-depth case studies and longitudinal interviewing to understand impact
  • Participatory gender and social auditing to support partners to reflect on institutional capacity and stimulate shared learning
  • Grounded theory approaches to develop contextually-rich frameworks around specific issues and the life-cycle
  • Participatory and action learning processes involving the use of video documentation, study tours and peer to peer learning and exchange
  • A range of quantitative techniques to generate gender and social difference data, including large-scale surveys


Our experience includes gender and social difference work across selected dimensions of international development which has contributed to our methodological approach. These dimensions fall under the following main themes:

Gender and social difference in staple crop value chains

Issues of cultural and socio-economic positioning, gender and power relations play a crucial role in value chains and influence who participates, who benefits and by how much. Women in particular play vital roles but are over represented in low-value and low-technology cultivation and processing activities in agricultural markets, with limited access to finance, agricultural inputs and decision making channels. This is compounded by the tendency for commercialisation and mechanisation processes to exclude women. Our work aims to generate new knowledge on how value chain development can be inclusive and can 'work' for women, the less affluent and marginalised groups.

Our recent work in this area is on cassava value chains in sub-Saharan Africa (Ghana, Malawi, Nigeria, Tanzania and Uganda), for the Cassava: Adding Value for Agriculture (C:AVA) project funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Cassava Growth Markets project funded by the European Commission, along with research conducted in partnership with CIAT (International Centre for Tropical Agriculture), International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) and CIRAD (French Agricultural Research Centre for International Development) under the CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas (RTB). This work aims to understand gender and social difference dynamics and inequalities in cassava value chains and identify identifying impacts of market and technology development and value chain upgrading, given the important role of cassava for food security and income-generation for women.

More examples of our work in this area.

Gender and poverty in global value chains

Policy makers are increasingly focusing on the potential of global cash crop value chains as a means of generating wealth, but such value chains are highly gendered, with poorer or more marginal groups less able to participate as they often lack the necessary resources, such as land, labour and capital. There are risks of further exclusion of marginalized people from market-led agricultural development initiatives and processes, despite the potential gains for relatively better off smallholders. Understanding the opportunities, risks and impacts of new business models and investments for disadvantaged smallholders and workers, currently favoured by many donors, requires greater attention to gender and issues of social inclusion. This work is also complemented by the Equitable Trade and Responsible Business programme.

A considerable part of this work has been conducted on the poverty impact of sustainability standards and corporate codes of practice in global value chains, from the 1990s to the present. Examples include: Fairtrade, sustainability standards and ethical sourcing on cocoa, tea, flowers, wine and cotton value chains throughout Latin America, Africa and Asia. These studies have all paid specific attention to the efficacy of such codes and standards in tackling poverty and gender issues.

More examples of our work in this area.

Land rights, gender and social difference

Access and control over land and natural resources is highly gendered and determined by positions within marital and household relations and kinship networks. In Africa and elsewhere it is often reflected in disadvantage for single, divorced or widowed women within customary tenure systems in rural communities. In the context of increasing land commercialisation, the formalisation of tenure systems and broader land rights movements, women's land rights has become a vital area of our work.

Security in women's land rights is not only fundamental in accessing finance, agricultural inputs and services, but is linked to greater social status, resilience to hunger and poverty, investments in education and healthcare, HIV prevention and even responses to gender based violence. However, the majority of women in developing countries lack secure access to and control over land, which increases their vulnerability to dispossession, in case of widowhood, divorce or migration of the husband.

Land rights are also negotiated along class, ethnic and family lines where particular social groups, such as youth, orphans, or those living with HIV/AIDS, often lack secure access and control over land. Services designed to support communities in exercising their land and natural resource rights in these changing and challenging environments need to give attention to strengthening women's capacity and voice for community based land and natural resource management and enterprise activities.

Our recent work in this area includes a study on women's land rights in dryland areas for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), conducting a final evaluation of the Women's Right to Land project led by ActionAid in Guatemala, India and Sierra Leone, and gender and community engagement capacity building for resolving land and natural resources conflict in Mozambique, with funding from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, UK (FCDO), Millennium Challenge Account (MCA)/ Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) and other European donors.

More examples of our work in this area.

Gender, climate change and environmental sustainability

Climate change is the most urgent challenge that we face globally and is interlinked with other stresses affecting the rural and urban poor. Women in particular have a vital role to play in climate change adaption and mitigation at the household and community levels, specific to their roles in agriculture and food systems, including resource management, agricultural production, post-harvest activities and food security. In sub-Saharan Africa70percent of agricultural workers and 80 percent of food processors are women. However, their ability to adapt to the changing environment is often limited by inequality in access to resources and decision making. This inequality is likely to be exacerbated as resources become even more constrained. In addition, women's voices, along with the voices of other marginalised groups, are often ignored or excluded from technological, institutional and political strategies to address climate change impacts.

NRI has significant experience in integrated gender, social difference and spatial marginality perspectives in climate change work. Our recent work includes mainstreaming gender and social difference perspectives in research exploring urban-rural social and environmental interdependence and impacts of climate change on agricultural and food systems for the FCDO and International Development Research Centre (IDRC) Climate Change and Adaptation (CCAA) programme. We are also integrated a gender perspective our work on strengthening adaptive and social learning, through study tours guided by the CCAFS climate analogue tool and use of participatory video, in the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) 'Farms of the Future' project. Specific research focusing on gender and social difference has been conducted in the climate change thematic area for CIAT Africa, UNDP, ODI, FAO Oxfam and DFID (now FCDO).

More examples of our work in this area.

Gender, social difference and post-harvest losses

Addressing post-harvest losses in agriculture is important for achieving food and nutrition security goals, along with improving the incomes of smallholder farmers in the developing world. Causes of food losses and waste are complex and connected to a range of socio-economic and technical limitations. Perceptions of what constitutes waste vary among socio-economic and cultural contexts and social groups.

Food loss and waste are found to disproportionately affect women and the poor in many areas, who have less capacity, means and incentives for improved post-harvest practices such as timely harvesting, adequate and safe storage facilities and efficient processing technology. These issues are compounded by the constraints faced by these groups in accessing credit and technology, agricultural inputs (land, labour and capital), along with high levels of illiteracy and lack of training. There is also a risk that investment in storage and processing facilities with new technology can displace female involvement and benefit from these activities. This could impact on women's access to income, which in turn, could have wider implications for food and nutrition security as evidence shows women are largely responsible for household food provision.

Such issues influence both the prevalence of food losses and waste and the likelihood that potential innovations can be adopted and have positive impact. Sustainable and equitable innovations, therefore, need to explore opportunities to strengthen and expand the role of women, poorer households, youth and other disadvantaged groups in chains which are intended to become more commercial and competitive as a result of the innovations.

In this capacity, gender and social-development expertise is a feature of NRI's 'Postharvest Loss Reduction Centre', which aims to produce knowledge on reducing losses, enhancing financial and nutritional value and ensuring food safety. Work is also being conducted under the Gratitude project funded by the European Union, on reducing Losses from Roots and Tubers, in understanding the gender dimensions of cassava and yams losses, and work for Alliance for the Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) on the role of innovative finance to address losses in Africa.

More examples of our work in this area.

Strengthening capacity in gender and diversity sensitive approaches

We also work on strengthening capacity in institutions and organisations in order to understand and address issues of gender and social difference. For example, at an institutional level, we seek to identify the ways in which we and our partners think and act in relation to gender and social difference. We encourage dialogue and lesson sharing among our partners, with the aim of contributing to a more nuanced understanding of difference and inequality. This information is fed into the design and implementation of our programmes to ensure that an equitable impact is achieved, that opportunities for women and vulnerable groups are promoted and that participation is supported.

One example of our work in this area is the Strengthening Capacity for Agricultural Research and Development in Africa (SCARDA) project, where NRI played a strategic role in strengthening the gender and social difference capacity of national agricultural research systems. These activities included the development of the SCARDA gender strategy, monitoring and evaluation framework, a four-country study focusing on the constraints and opportunities in attracting women and minority groups into higher agricultural education.