To Promote Growth, Empower Women

Research shows that gender equality can promote much needed economic growth in the developing world.

by Dana J. Hyde, MCC CEO

This month, we celebrated women who changed history. We remembered the women leaders, artists, and scientists who transformed society and paved the way for generations to come. Activists like Nobel-laureate Malala Yousafzai, who received a Nobel Prize for her fight for the right to education; writers like Maya Angelou, whose work has inspired generations; and pioneers like Sally Ride, America’s first female astronaut. We recognized women who continue pushing forward — starting businesses, leading research, and giving back to their communities.

These achievements have played a significant role in driving gender equality and, notably, in promoting shared economic prosperity. There is a growing body of research that documents the link between equality and economic growth. Christine Lagarde, the head of the International Monetary Fund, calls gender equality an “economic no-brainer.”

And yet, there is still a perception that the global community has to choose between support for women and girls and achieving the broader goals of international development; that addressing girls’ educational needs and creating workforce opportunities competes with other development efforts, like access to clean water or energy.

But in fact, addressing gender inequality is critical to the entire global development agenda, including the Sustainable Development Goals adopted last year by the international community. Empowering women and girls — Goal 5 of the SDGs — is not just about equity; it is a challenge that will help advance all 17 Sustainable Development Goals.

At the Millennium Challenge Corporation, a data-driven economic development agency I lead within the U.S. government, this challenge helps drive our work around the globe. Our analyses show that gender inequality is a major bottleneck to growth in many partner countries, and that successful integration of gender considerations at all levels of development improves outcomes. Three lessons inform our approach:

First, policies matter. Governments that fail to codify equal opportunity for men and women are holding back economic growth. According to the World Bank’s report, Women, Business and the Law 2016, 90 percent of the 173 economies reviewed had at least one law impeding women’s economic opportunities. That’s why at MCC, we use a series of governance indicators, including Gender in the Economy, to select countries that are eligible for MCC grants.

Binetou, the president of a women’s farmers association in northern Senegal, said the MCC-funded irrigation perimeter in Ngalenka is helping the group’s members bring in much-needed extra income.

Second, gender considerations need to be systematically integrated across all development sectors, including infrastructure. Too often, infrastructure projects in areas like power and water are considered entirely separate from gender issues. And yet at MCC, where the majority of our grants support infrastructure, we are finding that infrastructure has a direct — and sometimes greater — benefit for women and girls. It has the potential to free up valuable time that women can use more productively, including the 40 billion hours that women spend annually collecting water in Africa alone, which is time away from school, work, and their communities. By ensuring that infrastructure projects reach women, planners can tap this enormous economic potential.

Girls learn new skills at an MCC-funded high school in El Salvador’s Northern Zone. MCC’s rehabilitation of high schools in El Salvador is expected to benefit more than 9,700 students each year.

Third, cultural norms have to support girls’ education and employment. As President Obama pointed out at the unveiling of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals in September, “There is a long tradition in every society of discriminating against women. But that’s not an excuse for [not] taking a new path in order to make sure that everyone in a society has opportunity.”

That path can begin with providing all girls with a quality education. United Nations research shows that an extra year of primary school boosts women’s earning potential by 10 to 20 percent, and an extra year of secondary school raises earning potential by 25 percent.

Importantly, a quality education means preparing women for a 21st century workforce. Take the so-called STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math). Women are heavily underrepresented in the STEM fields, largely because girls are discouraged from pursuing them. In Georgia, for example, the lack of skilled STEM professionals — male and female — was a clear constraint to economic growth, and MCC research found that social and cultural norms played a big role. As a result, MCC is providing professional training to school principals and secondary school English, Math and Science teachers. And it is partnering with San Diego State University to provide students in Georgia a world-class STEM education.

Partnerships and private sector investment are increasingly important to achieve gender equality. More than 1,000 business leaders around the world have signed on to the Women’s Empowerment Principles, which offer businesses guidance on how to empower women in the workplace, marketplace and across communities.

These are the kinds of concrete commitments we need to lift up women around the world. As this Women’s History Month comes to an end, let’s celebrate the accomplishments of women who seized opportunities, and praise the women who helped make those opportunities possible. And let’s commit to create new opportunities for the millions of people around the world who haven’t yet had a chance.