Extreme poverty and gender inequality are two of the most daunting challenges faced by the developing world. To tackle these challenges, many policymakers are turning to public works programs. Such programs can help governments provide stable, balanced wages to households in need, while at the same time investing in important infrastructure, like roads and irrigation systems, that can promote economic development in the future. But these programs are not without controversy.

This article is cross-posted from ChinaDaily, written by Shenggen Fan, the Director General of International Food Policy Research Institute.

Use, control, and ownership of productive assets – land, money, livestock, and education, to name just a few – are essential stepping stones on the path out of poverty. But this pathway can look very different depending on whether you are a man or a woman. Growing evidence suggests that women typically have fewer assets than men, and that they use those assets differently. What’s more, agricultural development programs may impact men’s and women’s assets in different, sometimes unexpected, ways.

Fertilizer use in India has exploded since the government began a subsidization program in the 1970s. National fertilizer consumption rates increased by 50% during the 1990s. But research has shown that the effectiveness of these inputs has actually declined – on average, 8 kilograms of grain were produced per kilogram of fertilizer in the late 1990s, compared to 25 kg of grain per kg of fertilizer in the 1960s.

High food prices affect poor populations in a variety of ways. While households that only consume food suffer as a result of rising food prices, households that also produce food can actually benefit from price increases. But there is another, less recognized avenue through which high food prices can impact the poor: rural wages. The lion's share of the world's poor relies on agricultural jobs to make a living; whether or not agricultural wages increase as a result of rising food prices therefore has significant implications for how those price increases will help or hurt.

Last week, India’s executive branch passed the historic National Food Security Bill (NFSB), an act that will dramatically increase the number of people who receive food subsidies from the government. While India’s existing food distribution system, the Targeted Public Distribution System (TPDS), is already enormous, the NFSB proposes to increase coverage to 75% of India’s rural population and 50% of the urban population – a whopping 800 million people.

Asia is a region characterized by unique agricultural and economic opportunities and challenges. In recent years, many Asian countries have made great strides in transforming their agricultural systems and reducing their numbers of poor and malnourished. Despite this progress, however, the region remains home to most of the world's poor and hungry, and faces additional challenges in the form of environmental degradation and climate change.

One of the most populous countries in the developing world, Bangladesh has made impressive strides in recent years in both food self-sufficiency and poverty reduction. Since 1990, Bangladesh's Global Hunger Index score has fallen from 37.9 to 24.0, meaning a fall from extremely alarming levels of hunger. And from 2000 - 2010, the incidence of poverty in the country declined from 49 percent to 32 percent. Still, much remains to be done to ensure that the country continues its upward climb.

With breaking news about new cases of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) coming out of China, questions arise again about how this disease is transmitted and what can be done to prevent future outbreaks. While the Chinese government has heightened disease detection efforts and increased prevention, control, and communications efforts in response to the recently reported cases, a strong global response is also necessary to control the spread of this disease.

Asia is home to more than two-thirds of the world's poor and hungry. And as populations around the world continue to grow, the region's most vulnerable people will be faced with even greater challenges in the coming decades. Climate change and unsustainable resource use are likely to impede agricultural productivity, exacerbating already high and volatile food prices and presenting significant barriers to poor populations' access to affordable food supplies. But the news is not all bad.