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Meeting with Henriette Kolb of the Cherie Blair Foundation

Over Christmas, I had an interesting meeting with Henriette Kolb, chief executive of the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women. Henriette is a lovely, intelligent woman, very candid and clearly sincerely dedicated to having a real impact on women’s economic lives around the world. Henriette emphasized three themes–confidence, capability, and capital–through which she organizes her thoughts and the activities of the CBFW. Henriette wrote about these themes in depth in a report called “Confidence, Capability, and Capital: The Cornerstones of Women’s Empowerment.”

These three themes resonate with what my colleagues have found in our soon-to-be released report on Avon’s system in Africa. Women’s self-esteem, their skills level, and their ability to attract and manage capital are all necessary components, whether you are dealing with the extreme poor, as we were in our Avon work, or with a slightly more prosperous (but still disadvantaged) group, such as CBFW and Goldman Sachs have targeted.

Last summer, Henriette presented similar thinking at the Center for International Private Enterprise conference called “Democracy that Delivers for Women.” In the speech, she emphasizes the need for multisector engagement, the importance of women’s entrepreneurship, the huge community payoffs that can accrue from programmes aimed at empowering women, and the need for resources and training to support women in economic activities. The Q&A section of this talk demonstrates the wide cross-section of organizational types and sizes that have come to view women’s economics as a central mission, as well as the complex challenges they face.

The current configuration of the Cherie Blair Foundation’s activities include a mobile technology programme, a mentoring programme, and a business support programme. In the CIPE speech, Henriette alludes to the benefits of mobile telephony for women in the developing world. The CBFW and the GSMA have published two reports on a global study into this domain, one focusing on the consumer side and one on the entrepreneurship opportunities at retail. In other projects, Henriette mentioned NGOs, such as CARE, as well as an impressive group of large multinational corporations who are also involved in women’s programmes, such as Exxon Mobil, Google, and DHL.

Because of the origins of the Cherie Blair Foundation in the political realm–as well as Henriette’s experience at the United Nations–there is also a good connection to the international political system. Indeed, it struck me as I was talking to Henriette that the remarkable combination of political and corporate forces being brought to bear on behalf of women was truly historic. I think very few people are aware of just how much emphasis this topic is getting in the policy arena and how many big corporate players are lining up in support. At the same time, Henriette’s observations about the many challenges yet to be faced, the complexity of conditions in each site, resonate with my own experiences.

The challenges to these programmes are significant. In particular, I feel that the intransigence of the gender structure itself and, especially, the presence of violence as a tool that polices the barriers for women, is often underestimated by people studying and designing programmes to benefit women economically. We are still too prone to seeing economics as a separate sphere from familial life, from religion and ritual, from sexuality. We need to build understanding about these things into our plans, our selection processes, our curricula, and our measurements.


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