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March 13, 2009 10:48 AM

RDI doubles its fundraising in a down economy

Posted by Kristi Heim

Some of the top experts on land rights and their impact on women are lawyers working with Seattle-based Rural Development Institute.

Their approach seems to be paying off, even in a tough year for non-profits. RDI's annual Women's Day fund-raising event defied the anemic economy with a turnout of 550 people Thursday and a total of $115,000, twice the amount it raised last year, not including sponsor underwriting of the event.

"Land is the most fundamental asset for most of the poor in most of the developing world," said Roy Prosterman, who founded RDI 40 years ago and has been nominated for a Nobel Prize. When I profiled him a few years ago, he was content not owning a house, property or even a car.


Women's ownership of property has been tied to respect and social standing. Gitanjali Chaudhry, 17, of New Delhi, started attending women's self-defense classes last year after being harassed by men on her way to school.

While women are responsible for most of the world's agricultural production, they own just 2 percent of the land, according to RDI. In some countries women don't have a right to own property; they are property. Such entrenched customs are hard to change, but RDI has made progress in places like Kyrgyzstan by advising the government to strengthen women's ownership rights in the process of reforming land laws, said Asyl Undeland, a Kyrgyz anthropologist.

I've always thought what RDI does is an interesting counter point to the explosion of microfinance, and RDI addressed that during the event.

"Before you can give a woman a loan to help her lift herself out of poverty, first she has to have land," said Radha Friedman, RDI's associate director of development and communications. If she doesn't have land, it's hard to use the money for a sewing machine or a cow, since she may have no stable place to earn her living.


RDI's Tim Hanstad worked in the fields in Skagit County as a boy.

In India, RDI has a strategy of purchasing land from sellers to obtain "micro-plots" for landless farmers to build a shelter, grow food and raise animals. RDI CEO Tim Hanstad moved his family to India and lived there for about four years to get the program going with a grant from the Gates Foundation. Now the concept is part of the country's current five-year development plan.

For years, RDI toiled in relative obscurity. But last year it won a World Bank competition for its "barefoot lawyers" project to offer legal aid and education to China's rural poor, and a new $6.7 million Gates Foundation grant to expand its "micro-land ownership" program across India.

RDI is also expanding in China and Africa. This fall it will create a Global Center for Women and Land in Seattle to train law and policy experts on gender-specific problems related to land rights, and build an electronic library of laws related to women's land rights that practitioners around the world can access and use to share information.

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