All the World’s a Stage: Theater Programs to Alleviate Hunger are Counting on It

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By Molly Theobald

Broadway symbolizes the art of live theater around the world and is an integral piece of New York’s identity. In one of the most high-tech and highly touristed cities in the world, the classic entertainment of a Broadway play manages to remain a main attraction. Even in the tough economy of the 2009-2010 theater season Broadway shows grossed around $1.02 billion. And starring on Broadway has long been seen as the pinnacle of acting. Generations of dreamers have come from far and wide—risking everything—for the chance to act in a Broadway play.

FANRPAN uses theater to help women farmers and influence agricultural development policies. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

That’s the power of theater; it provides an intimacy and immediacy of message that is lost in the perfect storm of television, online media, and portable music devices that we are caught up in during our day to day lives. And it makes one wonder how that could be harnessed to do more than just entertain. Maybe, for example, it could be used to help end world hunger.

With the population of people going hungry worldwide near 1 billion that might seem like a bold statement, but one organization, Food and Natural Resource Policy Analysis Network (FANRPAN), in Southern Africa, believes it is one bold statement worth some investment.

FANRPAN’s Women Accessing Realigned Markets (WARM) project is using theater to infuse it’s more ambitious main goal—to strengthening the capacity of women farmers’ influence in agriculture policy development and programs in Southern Africa—with a little of the impact and immediacy that audiences have come to enjoy at the Fringe Festival every year.

It’s especially important that FANRPAN get creative in its methods because women in some parts of sub-Saharan Africa—the epicenter of world hunger—make up 80 percent of the small-scale farmers and produce 60 percent of food. Yet, women throughout sub-Saharan Africa are often even more disadvantaged than their male-counterparts, usually lacking access to the credit, land, training, education, markets and tools they need to properly feed their families.

Furthermore, funding for agricultural development as a whole has been steadily declining for the past fifteen years. And women farmers receive the least amount of what little attention the funding community is paying to agriculture. For example, only 5 percent of extension services are targeted specifically at women. It leads one to believe that the donor and policy making community may have lost its way a bit in the fight to alleviate global hunger.

FANRPAN’s Theatre for Policy Advocacy is a project to use local theater to explain agriculture policy to people in rural areas, and to bring stories from rural areas back to the government. By using popular theater personalities to travel to communities in Mozambique and Malawi and stage performances based on policy research by FANRPAN, Theatre for Policy Advocacy is engaging leaders, service providers, and policy makers and encouraging community participation in addressing women farmers’ needs.

After performances, community members, women, men, youth, and local leaders are engaged in facilitated dialogue about the issues raised in the performance. These moderated conversations give community members a chance to openly talk about the challenges they are facing without upsetting the status quo. And most importantly, it allows women to tell development organizations, policy makers, and funders what they really need, giving a voice to important, but widely ignored, food providers in rural sub-Saharan Africa.

As world hunger continues to rise, the power of theater programs—such as the one FANRPAN has developed—to help alleviate that hunger and poverty is obvious to anyone who has ever stepped foot into a Broadway theater.

The time for the funding community to act is now.

Molly Theobald is a research fellow for Nourishing the Planet.

To read more about innovative ways to spread awareness, see: Innovation of the Week: Using Digital Technology to Empower and Connect Young Farmers, For Sustainable Development, Everyone Plays a Role, Innovation of the Week: Makutano Junction Soap Opera and A Sustainable Calling Plan.

To purchase your own copy of State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet, please click HERE. And to watch the one minute book trailer, click HERE.

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