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Initiatives for women will have ripple effects

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The stakes are high: Women's empowerment promotes higher and more inclusive growth by enlarging the labour force, enhancing productivity, expanding opportunity, reducing poverty and helping to contain inequality.

Washington

EMPOWERING women around the world, and especially in developing countries, is an urgent priority that goes well beyond social justice. Ample research has demonstrated and in several cases quantified the broader benefits for the economy, decision making, politics and society as a whole.

The Women's Global Development and Prosperity Initiative (W-GDP), announced by the White House last month, is one of the most promising steps to date towards furthering those goals. With a thoughtful design in place, success now depends on its implementation, particularly in three areas.

The proposal spearheaded by Ivanka Trump, US President Donald Trump's senior adviser, aims to reach 50 million women in developing countries by 2025. It is well positioned and builds on the Women Entrepreneurs Finance Initiative backed by Group of 20 countries.

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W-GDP has three pillars: "improving women's access to quality education and training"; enhancing the enabling environment through "continuing efforts to fund and support women's entrepreneurship and access to capital, markets, technical assistance, and mentorship"; and identifying and reducing "policy, legal and regulatory barriers to women's participation in the global economy". 

The pillars are reinforced by a structure that provides additional financing and is underpinned by a "whole of government" approach through the participation of 10 US government agencies and departments. W-GDP also allows for public-private partnerships, with emphasis on US companies already active in developing countries.

The stakes are high: Women's empowerment promotes higher and more inclusive growth by enlarging the labour force, enhancing productivity, expanding opportunity, reducing poverty and helping to contain inequality. And greater female participation in decision making offers additional benefits. By helping to create more inclusive and diverse approaches to leadership, the participation of women reduces the likelihood of mistakes caused by blind spots, inertia and both conscious and unconscious biases.

There are also political benefits to helping women. An emerging body of research shows that - starting from what is commonly a low base - the larger the number of women at the higher echelon of government, the lower the probability of external armed conflict and civil wars. The involvement of women can also allow for faster resolution of tensions, including longstanding ones.

Then there are the benefits for society as a whole. Research has demonstrated that the greater economic empowerment of girls and women plays an important role in reducing domestic violence, child marriage and teenage pregnancy. This promotes better educated and healthier societies as well as more stable ones.

For all those reasons, empowering women in developing countries is in the national interest of the donors in advanced economies, including the US. Progress would help reduce the incentive for economic migration, counter the extremism that fuels cross-border terrorism, and could even contain the type of misguided military adventurism by developing countries that sets back development and often results in large-scale refugee problems.

Progress requires an agile mix of top-down and bottom-up measures, some generic and others highly customised. And it requires being aware of the behavioral science constraints mentioned above, which can prove recurrent and binding when not managed and accounted for.

That is why W-GDP's overall design could help the programme succeed where previous efforts have faltered. There are three main challenges to successful implementation: First, the need to develop greater operational specificity for each of the three pillars. The focus here should be to target and complete the missing parts of value chains, including by addressing market and institutional failures in individual developing countries. There is ample research which shows the potential effectiveness of well-designed measures in areas including microfinancing, transportation, care and time to market.

Second, and as explicitly noted in the W-GDP announcement, the programme would need to ensure robust accountability on both sides - that is, for the US agencies and partner companies that are involved on the donor side; and for the recipients.

This should involve not only quantitative metrics, but also qualitative ones that reflect the sharing of best practices, the developments of networks, and learning from mistakes (which there inevitably may be given the complexity of some tasks and some environments). BLOOMBERG