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Global Action, Local Empowerment

These sisters were minding the shop in the mountains around Pokhara in Nepal. We had reached them after winding our way up a steep trail, lined on both sides with stalls trying to sell traditional crafts to tourists. I felt concern, as I so often do when traveling in the developing nations, that there simply weren't enough tourists marching past these shops to sustain a village. A different way of producing and marketing needs to be found if children like these are to reach their full potential.

It is easy to focus on the supply side of women’s economics and forget that every economy needs customers.  For people focused on women’s entrepreneurship, the attention is often trained on getting female business owners skills, technology, and financing.  All these are important. But no business can survive unless someone buys its products or services.

When working in developing nations, I have often noticed a basic problem for local businesses:  people in the setting simply don’t have much money to spend. And I have speculated that the solution would be something that connected businesses on the ground to global companies who sell to Western markets. That way, businesses in poor nations can tap into Western wealth.

This first occurred to me when I was working in Bangladesh with CARE’s economic development unit. My chief contact there was Asif Ahmed, a brilliant economic mind who has instituted some remarkable innovations in development practice. Among many other things, he was working with local businesses who were sourcing craftwork from local women. But instead of merely making the same traditional stuff, the companies were being encouraged to reach out to the global market by going to trade shows and the like–not just to make contacts but also to learn about design preferences that could be adapted to local crafts.

Here is our Bangladesh team (except me because I am behind the camera) at a meeting in Oxford in 2009. On the left is Saif Al-Rashid, who will speak at the Forum as CEO of Jia, then Catherine Dolan who is my long-time research partner, Christine Svarer heads up private sector engagement at CARE UK, Saif Islam is a member of CARE's economic development unit in Dhaka. On the right is Asif Ahmed.

This strategy seemed to work in some cases, but there was always a tension between the demand from the very large buyers who dominate trade in Bangladesh and the cottage industry nature of local crafts. Something made by hand can seldom be produced in the numbers and to the standards of sameness that machine-made, mass market items are.

I remember in particular one company who was making stunning scarves using vegetable dyes.  Natural coloring is subtle–you get soft greens, mottled ochres, variegated indigos.  You could look at these scarves and immediately imagine them in Pier One–or even anthropologie or Sahara. But not on the shelves at K-mart, where standardization was required.  And the scarves did not appeal to local Bangladeshis, whose preference is for bright colors and who see handmade stuff as “shabby.”

What these folks needed was a way to make contact with a wide variety of retailers, a list that would provide enough market segmentation to fit a range of products. I have never felt I had the skills or connections to help do this myself.  But I have long thought that somebody ought to be working to make this kind of thing happen.

From left, Ed and John Priddy, Cherie Blair, US Global Ambassador for Women Melanne Verveer, and Jackie Spedding. Mary took this photo! And Cherie Blair, as well as John and Jackie, will be speaking at the Forum.

Last year, I was proud to be appointed to a State Department subcommittee on women’s access to markets. And through that experience I was pleased to discover that just such an effort had begun. On this committee were, among others, Meg Jones, Elizabeth Vazquez, and John Priddy.  Our liaison with State was Jackie Spedding.

Meg Jones heads up a program called Global Action for Sourcing from Women Vendors  (whew! say that three times real fast) at the International Trade Center, which is a joint agency of the World Trade Organization and the United Nations.  The ITC’s reason for being is to facilitate trade, especially for the developing countries, and Meg’s mission is to help women make trade deals. She holds annual events where women come in from everywhere to meet with major buyers. (My doctoral student, Mary Johnstone-Louis, and  I attended the one in Mexico City in 2012.) This program has only been working since 2010, so there is still a ways to go–in particular, more buyers in more industries are needed!–but it is growing and becoming more effective at an astonishing rate.

A really interesting element in all this is WEConnect International, led by Elizabeth Vazquez.  WEConnect is an online platform that provides training for the vendors and connections to buyers.  Importantly, they register and certify businesses as women-owned. This is crucial because the global community doesn’t have enough information about women-owned businesses, which makes it hard to form policy and programs. And, to be candid, men will often use their wives to front as if they were women-owned to get the benefit of these programs.  So there has to be a screening mechanism.

Behind WEConnect stand some of the biggest businesses in the world. So, though they are still just a small NGO, they punch way above their weight, moving from one country to another, holding launch events and pulling in women.  They are going to Nigeria and Indonesia this year. (Mary has already travelled to see their launch events in Lima and Santiago.) At these events, WEConnect also provides basic business training like how to give a sales pitch.  In Mexico City, it was a hoot to see all these ladies rehearsing their elevator speeches with each other.

Full Circle Exchange, which aggregates the products of many female vendors and sells them in sufficient quantities to big outfits like Walmart, was founded by brothers Mark, Ed, and John Priddy.  Full Circle Exchange is now a main supplier to Walmart’s “Empowering Women Together” program.

John Priddy, a Peabody Award winner, has also begun a video business, which films these women’s empowerment events to provide materials for dissemination and fund-raising. The beautiful video below was made by John’s group.

John says it was Jackie Spedding who drew him into this work. Jackie was at the US State Department when I first met her, but she was working on supplier diversity at Walmart before she went to Washington.  She is a charming, enthusiastic woman–it is easy to see that her ideas for helping women would be contagious.

Having these passionate people so well placed to assist women who want to build businesses is a momentous development. Their efforts can make the difference between businesses that merely struggle to provide subsistence and thriving concerns that provide prosperity for employees and their families.

All these folks–Asif Ahmed, Meg Jones, John Priddy, Jackie Spedding, and Elizabeth Vazquez–will be on a panel at the Oxford Form for Women in the World Economy, talking about opening global markets to women.


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