Today, Dina Powell, former Assistant U. S. Secretary of State, native of Cairo, and current Head of the Goldman Sachs Foundation, has posted an article in the Huffington Post about the importance of women’s economic empowerment for the future of Egypt.
Powell observes that violence against women has surged since the Arab spring began and has reached shocking levels in just the past week. She also remarks on the fragility of women’s rights in the area, which appear endangered under the unstable conditions of revolution.
Powell draws the conclusion that every major institution studying women’s empowerment has reached: empowering women economically is essential to maintaining rights and dampening violence against them. As I documented in a previous post, women’s economic participation is lower in the Middle East than any other region in the world–and their lack of rights and safety are similarly shocking. These parallels between economics, rights, and safety are not coincidences, but constitute a pattern echoed, if less dramatically, throughout the world.
Powell’s perspective on the politics of the circumstances is also well drawn: Egypt’s political instability is closely tied to its economic freefall; until the economic problem is solved, circumstances will likely continue to deteriorate. Helping women to engage in the economy, either as workers (female labor force participation in Egypt is less than 25%) or as business owners. is likely a good strategy, especially because of the way women tend to deploy income and assets.
In the video at the bottom of this blog post, Powell remembers that, in her work with the State Department, ground conditions in unstable settings consistently pointed to the empowerment of women as a solution, largely because women tend to be more future-oriented. Because they are always thinking a generation ahead, women work toward stability and prosperity with more consciousness and determination–and would act as a force for good because of this, if they can only be granted access to the economy. I found this to be an interesting hypothesis, not one I had heard before, in spite of the otherwise massive documentation of the positive effect of women on national development. This perspective on the link between women’s empowerment and economic stability was enlightening to me, and explained a lot about why the U. S. State Department has come out so solidly behind women in their international agenda.
Powell talks about the effectiveness of the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Women program in Egypt. This program teaches business skills to women entrepreneurs, but also includes a great deal of painstaking follow up to assess the effects and find places where more support is needed. It is, in my opinion, a very well-designed program with a long-term view. I have been privileged to teach in that program in China, as Oxford is the GS partner in Hangzhou and Chengdu. In just the past week, I have been given a copy of the report on the effectiveness of the 10,000 Women program in India, which parallels the observations that Powell makes about its positive impact in Egypt.
However, there haven’t been many reports yet from the corporations who are managing programs among women in developing nations, which include ExxonMobil, Coca-Cola, and Walmart, as well as Goldman Sachs and long-time players like Avon. Powell refers to a call from Arianna Huffington for the World Economic Forum to be focusing on programs that work, especially in the arena of women’s entrepreneurship. A laudable goal and an agenda I hope to see reflected in the post-2015 Millennium Development Goals.
Tracking and measuring the impact of programs such as Goldman Sachs require intense focus and substantial investment. Even then, it is a difficult task because the world is still learning about how to influence and anticipate outcomes. So, these reports may still be a long time coming and we (that is to say, the informed public interested in women’s entrepreneurship) will have to examine them carefully, comparing their respondent bases, selection criteria, metric definitions, and so on. As the group attending the Power Shift Forum observed, there is still a lot to learn and it is important to give ourselves the permission and breathing room to learn it.