The truth is, we were never on track to reach SDG 5—global gender equality—by 2030. Development experts knew this before they even finalized the goals. But today, halfway to our deadline, progress remains slow, even stalling. Our data partner Equal Measures 2030 now estimates the world won’t reach gender equality until at least 2108—three generations later than we’d hoped.
Of course, metrics like “years to gender equality” are imprecise numbers, but they’re based on hard, undeniable data about things like health outcomes and economic participation, political representation, and secondary education. And today, that data is screaming one thing: Gender equality is falling further and further out of reach.
Why? One explanation is that big, global shocks like the pandemic disproportionately destroyed women’s livelihoods.
But frankly, blaming COVID-19 alone would be a cop-out. We have to ask harder questions: Why do gender-neutral events like pandemics have gendered effects? And why, after decades of high-profile efforts to improve the lives of women and girls, is equality still generations out of reach?
Here’s the honest answer: It’s because the world still hasn’t focused enough on gender equality—and when it does, it treats symptoms, not the cause.
If you dig beneath the “years to gender equality” metric, you’ll see that economic inequality is one of those root causes. The World Bank reported that the difference in expected lifetime earnings between women and men amounted to $172.3 trillion globally even before the pandemic—twice the size of the world’s annual gross domestic product.
Over the years, efforts (including our foundation’s) to close this gap have centered around “women’s economic empowerment,” a shorthand for providing women with jobs or cash. These are proven ways to lift measures of economic equality—but even so, true economic power continues to elude millions of women.
So we’ve got to keep asking questions: Once women have this money, can they actually spend it? Or do their husbands hold that power?
When a woman secures a job, can she actually work and care for her children? Or is she set up to fail?
These questions illustrate the difference between theory and reality. Because when we create policies to change economic indicators, we might not be changing actual lives. We can’t just talk about empowering women without making sure they are actually gaining power in their families and communities.
The difference between having money—and being able to spend it
One of the surest ways to build economic resilience is through cash transfers from governments to citizens. During the early days of the pandemic, 1.3 billion people worldwide received emergency cash from their governments.
These emergency transfers are often doled out without regard to gender—which means that men, who are more likely to have government ID or appear on tax rolls, are much more likely to receive the cash. But it’s women who usually have the greatest financial need.
Many women in low-income countries earn a living through informal work, which means they have to weather economic crises without a regular paycheck, paid leave, or unemployment insurance. Many of them resort to survival strategies that entrap them in poverty: A 2021 study of women in the informal workforce found that 52% had drawn from savings, 46% borrowed money, and 17% sold or pawned assets to survive the pandemic.
Digital financial tools like mobile money accounts are an efficient way for governments to provide effective gender-intentional cash transfers. And those mobile payments give women more control over their money than a cash payment—because when money is deposited directly into her own online account, it’s harder for her husband or anyone else to claim it for themselves.
We’ve seen what happens when women get the opportunity to spend microfinance loans with less spousal pressure: In Uganda, women who invested these disbursements in their businesses saw 15% higher profits compared to those who received their loans in cash. And in Niger, distributing cash transfer payments through mobile money instead of cash meant women were more likely to visit the market, sell grains, and participate in the economy in other ways.
Digital payments pay dividends in surprising ways, too: The World Bank found that a person who receives a digital payment from their government is more likely to take advantage of other financial services, such as saving or borrowing money. And women can use digital tools like smartphones and mobile money accounts to open up avenues to new economic opportunities: getting credit to start or grow a business, accessing knowledge about new products, and connecting to local and global marketplaces.
For example, our foundation is working with India’s Ministry of Rural Development to digitize the country’s Self Help Group program for women. Across India, there are thousands of self-help groups—they’re often called “women’s empowerment collectives”—where women come together in pursuit of their personal or economic goals. Sometimes, they pool their money to purchase assets and equipment that support their livelihoods and economic growth. The new digitization process will bring this experience online, allowing women to do bookkeeping, access credit, and even reach new customers via their smartphones.
Digital tools will have the most impact if they’re provided along with support, such as digital financial literacy training. A 2019 Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab study in India found that when women were trained to use financial accounts they controlled, they were 7% more likely to earn income, had 30% higher earnings, and were more likely to make purchases.
The difference between a job being available—and being able to take it.
But even with the opportunities that digital tools unlock, there remains a systemic barrier for many women who want to earn money of their own.
In June, I visited the Institut Pasteur de Dakar in Senegal, where I met Dr. Billo Tall, the Institut’s director of clinical research and data science. She told me that she wouldn’t be where she is today if not for the university where she studied making special accommodations to help her care for her infant son.
Dr. Tall’s story illustrates a fundamental truth: Women will never have full economic power without real caregiving infrastructure in place. In virtually every society, women are expected to care for children, family members, and homes without getting paid to do it. It’s an essential yet undervalued responsibility that has stopped countless women from entering and thriving in the workforce. In low- and middle-income countries, unpaid caregiving makes up more than half of women’s total working hours, meaning they have less time available to earn an income.
Now imagine a world in which a generation of unpaid caregivers became paid entrepreneurs running child care businesses of their own.
During the pandemic, I spoke with Sabrina Habib, the co-founder of Kidogo, a Kenyan social enterprise organization that partners with Kenyan women running informal daycares. It offers a triple dividend: child care for Nairobi’s low-income families, better livelihoods for the “mamapreneurs” providing the care, and more efficient and profitable child care businesses throughout the community. Everyone wins.
What might be possible if similar child care models spread not just throughout the country, but throughout the world?
For starters, it would reap huge economic rewards. Investing in child care infrastructure at scale isn’t just essential for a woman’s sense of autonomy or even her family’s bottom line—it’s the smart thing to do for our economies. When our data partner Fraym conducted large, nationally representative surveys in Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa, they found that if better government child care policies and funding were in place, nearly 15 million women would enter or re-enter the labor force.
The key to the future of progress
True equality depends not only on a woman’s ability to access a livelihood, but also on her ability to control it fully. It means not just putting food on a kitchen table, but also being able to make decisions for her family around that table. It means not just benefiting from a government policy, but designing those policies. It means not just empowerment, but real, lived power.
Because when women have power—over their money, over their own bodies, and in society—we all benefit. Women are force multipliers: An extensive body of research shows that when women can control their own money, their sense of self changes. So do the expectations of those around them. Their children are more likely to attend school. Their families are healthier. Their household income grows—and so does the global economy.
So when it comes to the future of progress—not just on the global goals related to gender equality but on those on good health, quality education, ending poverty, and more—there is one engine that can drive them all: women’s power.
In February, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine interrupted the flow of grain from Europe to Africa, creating another humanitarian crisis on a second continent.
Fourteen African nations relied on Ukraine and Russia for half their wheat. Now, those shipments were canceled, and the supply shock spiked the price of replacement wheat to its highest level in 40 years. Prices eventually started falling in May, but in the interim, there were the makings of a modern famine, with world leaders sounding the alarm bell, calling for an influx of aid—money and pallets of food to be shipped to sub-Saharan ports immediately.
Even before the war in Ukraine, food aid had been skyrocketing, and it’s projected to keep rising through the end of the decade.
In one sense, this is a very good and necessary thing. The world should be generous and prevent people from going hungry. But in another sense, it doesn’t solve the larger problem.
The goal should not simply be giving more food aid.
It should be to ensure no aid is needed in the first place.
It’s worth stepping back and asking a basic question: Why did a crisis in Eastern Europe threaten to starve millions of people six thousand miles away?
It’s a complex issue. But mostly, it’s a story about where it’s easy to produce food—and where it isn’t.
Since the 1960s, agricultural productivity has increased all over the world. Farmers saw their harvests get bigger, but they didn’t get bigger everywhere at the same rates. In places like China and Brazil, harvests boomed, while productivity in many South-East Asian countries—Laos and Cambodia, for instance—lagged behind the global average. In sub-Saharan Africa, harvests grew much more slowly than those anywhere else in the world—and not nearly fast enough to feed the domestic population.
When a region can’t grow enough to feed its people, there’s only one solution—to import food—which Africa does on the order of US$23 billion a year.
Each African nation is different, but none is likely buying grain from Eastern Europe because it wants to. It’s importing because it has to.
The low agricultural productivity has everything to do with the conditions in which African farmers labor. Most eke out a living by farming very small plots of land, often less than a hectare (2.4 acres), without enough irrigation or fertilizer, so whenever there’s a shock to the wider food system—and the total global supply of food is reduced—they cannot grow enough to make up the deficit. People go hungry. This time, the shock was a war that created a disconnect between Eastern European farms and the global supply chain, but next time it could be a different type of shock, like a drought or heat wave that wipes out entire farms across Africa. In fact, that’s the more likely scenario.
This is where climate change enters the story. The war in Ukraine was a major disruption to the global food supply, but climate change presents a much, much bigger problem. It’s the largest threat to food production since the invention of agriculture, especially in Africa where the environment is deteriorating faster than anywhere on Earth.
To more clearly see the potential impact of climate change on farming in Africa, our foundation recently supported development of a data visualization tool called an “Agriculture Adaptation Atlas.” When experts saw the visual results, they were alarmed. The easiest way to understand is by focusing on a single crop: corn (or as most of the world refers to it, “maize”).
Maize accounts for about 30% of all the calories people in sub-Saharan Africa eat. It’s an incredibly important crop, but also a sensitive one. When temperatures exceed 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit), the growing process starts breaking down; pollination and photosynthesis slow. Every additional degree above 30 Celsius per day cuts crop yield by at least 1%. For example, if there are five days of 35 degrees Celsius (95 Fahrenheit) temperatures, that’s five multiplied by five—25% of the harvest is lost.
That’s what the Agriculture Adaptation Atlas predicts: By the end of the decade, 30% of Africa’s maize crop will exist in these conditions—as will every other food source, from crops to livestock. And that severe climate stress is the principal reason 32 million more people in Africa are projected to be hungry in 2030.
For farmers on small plots of land, there aren’t many obvious solutions. A recent survey by the World Bank and the Nigerian government asked farmers, “How are you responding to lower crop yields,” and the second and third most common responses were “eating less” and “selling livestock,” while the top answer was just “do nothing.”
Fortunately, there are other, better options.
How can farmers fight climate change? Magic seeds
Fourteen years ago, our foundation began supporting a group of African crop researchers. Their goal was to develop a new type of maize—what I started calling “magic seeds.”
Of course, the seeds weren’t actually magic, but by breeding select varieties of the crop, the researchers believed they could produce a hybrid maize that would be more resistant to hotter, drier climates. They succeeded wildly.
When researchers in Kenya compared plots of this new maize, which they called “DroughtTEGO®,” with the old one, they saw the DroughtTEGO farms were producing an average of 66% more grain per acre. That harvest is enough to feed a family of six for an entire year, and the family would still have so much surplus maize that they could sell it for about $880, equivalent to five months of income for the average Kenyan. In fact, many farmers could finally afford to send their kids to school or build new homes once they switched to DroughtTEGO.
This kind of agricultural innovation is happening around the world, including in Punjab. The region’s farmers grow India’s two main staple crops—rice in the wet season and wheat in the dry northern Indian winter—but climate change is upending their livelihood. In 2010, and then again in 2015, early heat waves turned the wet season into a dry one, overcooking the rice. In response, local farmers worked with the Punjab Agricultural University to find a new solution: a short-duration rice variety that required three fewer weeks in the field. It could be harvested before the climate change-induced heat waves cooked the crop. And it allowed farmers to plant their wheat earlier, too. With one seed, Punjab was supercharging two crops.
Innovations like DroughtTEGO maize and short-duration rice give me a lot of hope that agricultural productivity can still increase despite the changing climate. But I wish these new seeds would be adopted more quickly. Investment in agricultural R&D is still much too small.
Let’s go back to that skyrocketing graph of food assistance and place it next to the R&D budget for new innovations like magic seeds. That line is flat by comparison.
To address the current food crisis and increase agricultural productivity, one important solution is making the slopes of these two lines look more like each other, with big funding increases for magic seeds—and other fundamental investments in agriculture, too.
After all, productivity is not simply a “Jack and the Beanstalk” problem, where farmers can plant magic seeds and—poof!—their crops grow sky high. It’s more complicated than that. Farmers need support in many different ways, such as micro-financing so they can afford to buy fertilizer, or rural infrastructure like new roads so their crops can be easily transported to market. Even “the magic seeds” need adjacent investments so they can keep working like magic.
And they need to go through the proper checks, too. For countries that want to take advantage of these and other innovations, it helps to have strong systems and policies in place to help evaluate performance and safety, while efficiently delivering products to small-scale farmers. It’s critical if we want to get the latest seed technology to farmers as fast as we can.
AI for Ag
Short-duration rice and DroughtTEGO maize are producing big yields today, but they aren’t guaranteed to continue doing that in 2030 or 2050. Farmers will need to plant even newer seeds as the environment changes in unpredictable ways. How do farmers and researchers determine what those seeds should be? Or when they should be planted? We can’t rely on what’s worked before.
For most of history, agriculture has been a process of slow evolution, something farmers could tweak and perfect over the centuries because the conditions were roughly the same. Everybody’s farm looked more or less like their grandparents’, so they planted the same things at the same time, maybe making a few innovations on the margins.
At the same time, breeding the best crops has largely been a slow, manual process conducted by a handful of modern plant breeders. CGIAR (formerly known as the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research) is the world’s largest network of crop breeders, and in Africa, they have just three people devoted to selecting the best bean varieties out of millions of potential options.
We need to speed this plant breeding work up, and one solution is what researchers call “predictive modeling.” It’s artificial intelligence software that processes the genome sequences of crops along with environmental data—everything from soil samples to satellite imagery—and then conjures up a data-based vision of what farms will need to look like in the future. From this computer model, researchers can identify the optimal plant variety for a particular place. Or they can do the reverse: pinpoint the optimal place to grow a specific crop.
This technology is still in its early stages, but similar predictive models—ones that anticipate where farms might be hit by an invasive species or crop disease—have already seen huge results. For example, last year, farmers in Ethiopia worried that an outbreak of a disease called wheat rust would devastate the country’s harvest, but an “early warning system” alerted farmers to where exactly the rust would spread so they could take preventative measures. By the end of 2021, Ethiopia hadn’t seen its wheat crop decline at all. In fact, the country had its largest harvest ever.
Innovation, not just donations
Hunger might not be a completely solvable problem. No one can reasonably promise that every one of the world’s eight billion humans will always have enough to eat. But ensuring that sub-Saharan Africa and other low-income regions can feed their own people? That’s a very achievable challenge, so long as the world changes how it approaches food crises.
It’s good that people want to prevent their fellow human beings from starving when conflicts like Ukraine interrupt the food supply, but we also have to recognize that those crises are symptoms of a deeper problem—many countries don’t grow enough yet, and climate change is making farming even harder. That challenge can’t be solved with donations. It requires innovation.