#CGI2013 Kicks Off With Conversation on Women’s Empowerment and Accountability

The Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting kicked off today with a discussion ranging in topics from women’s empowerment to tax evasion. It turns out that when you get together a former US president, a rock star turned philanthropist, the head of the IMF, two global business leaders and a grassroots human rights activist, a very interesting and impassioned conversation results.

Fitting with CGI’s mission of bringing together leaders from government, NGOs and the private sector to better develop solutions to global problems, the conversation started with the issue of raising funds to combat these issues. Managing Director of the IMF Christine Lagarde acknowledged the role of the IMF in these endeavors due to their ability to raise $1 trillion from member states. But, she quickly pointed out, this is the result of an institutional focus on people rather than on money. By developing relationships among member states and within the institution, the IMF has remained relevant even as the world it was born into changed dramatically. But despite the ability to leverage massive amounts of funds to combat real problems, some people are still being left behind.

This turned the conversation towards the plight of women and the frequent lack of efforts to empower women into leadership roles. Khalida Brohi, a Pakistani social entrepreneur who first became involved in trying to end honor killings in her country after a friend lost her life to one, noted the difficulties women often face in trying to combat traditional gender roles. This is also a topic of interest to Facebook CFO Sheryl Sandberg who pointed out that even in the US, the latest census figures shows that no progress has been made in the last 10 years to bridge the gender gap. In other words the need for greater women’s empowerment is an issue that impacts developed and developing nations alike and should not be treated as a problem of one but not the other. In order to address gaps on a national level, it is useful to look at and learn from the approaches taken by others. Doing so and empowering women into leadership roles in the US, Pakistan and all places in between will lead to a more productive and peaceful world where fewer people are left behind.

But what is the best way of doing that? While there are more women in leadership positions around the world today, some of the biggest gains occurred in less than optimal circumstances. President Clinton pointed out that it is no coincidence the first national to have a majority of parliament seats held by women is Rwanda because 85% of victims in the Rwanda Genocide were men. With no one left to lead the country, there was no option but to elevate women into leadership roles. But we shouldn’t need that level of catastrophe to bring women into power, Clinton reasoned, so how else can women be empowered absent extreme tragedy?

At this question the panel offered several suggestions, some of which may clash with one another. Lagarde noted that given Japanese policies on immigration and the population growth rate, including women in the labor force is the only way for Japan to continue to grow economically. As a result, the inclusion of childcare in Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s economic stimulus package is an important step in empowering women to participate in ways that may have been blocked before. Clinton argued that sometimes the best way to empower women was to help them keep their own status quo. In particular, Clinton highlighted the growing issue of corporate land grabs in Asia and Africa; rather than encourage or allow foreign multinational corporations (MNCs) to come in and buy land for commercial production, the best way to help women in these communities is by allowing them to keep their land so they can keep growing food to provide income for their families and employment opportunities within the community.

Brohi took a different approach based off her experiences in Pakistan. Admitting that her first campaign against honor killings was fueled largely by passion and not strategy, it ultimately gained the opposition of tribal leaders which forced many of their activists to flee out of a concern for security. But after taking a step back and looking at the situation more objectively, she realized that she would never be able to change traditional practices without the help of the guardians of those traditions. So she went back to tribal leaders and rather than preach to them, said “Let’s promote your culture and traditions.” With their help, she set up a work center where women could be employed making traditional handicrafts. By giving them jobs, the women could earn their own income and pursue their education but without putting themselves at risk with the tribal leaders. This form of empowerment – a simple employment opportunity – is all the community needs to give them, she said. “Women will take care of the rest.”

While women empowerment has the potential to greatly boost economic growth and equality in many countries, it is naïve to suggest that it is a silver bullet. This was the main issue raised by Sudanese businessman and good governance advocate Mo Ibrahim who pointed out that there are also inequitable relationships between developing countries and MNCs which hinder national growth. Too often these companies profit from what they take from developing states but never give back. This is obviously a major issue for Ibrahim who slammed the behavior of corporations, particularly those working in the extractive industry, for taking resources but failing to pay local taxes, be accountable to local communities or transparent in their activities.

This vein of discussion hit a nerve with many of the panelists, particularly with the issue of who should bear the brunt of blame for bad governance in developing states. “For every corrupt leader there are 50 corrupt businessmen,” Ibrahim argued while Bono backed him up by saying to MNCs: “You can’t have it both ways. You can’t give alms to the poor while having a hand on their throat.” Clinton and Lagarde took a more lenient approach to the role of MNCs by pointing out the difficult business climate they often operate in, including high levels of corruption on the national level and the difficulties of current international agreements when it comes to taxation and transparency. While Lagarde continued to advocate that problems with unfair exploitation could be fixed with courage and commitment, Ibrahim noted that most of the institutions that would be involved in that – the UN Security Council, IMF, and World Bank – are broken and continue to be formed in such a way that benefits the Global North over the Global South.

Who is most responsible and who should lead in efforts to ensure transparency – national governments or the MNCs investing in these states – remained unresolved as the discussion ended. Likewise, while the importance of women and women’s empowerment was agreed upon by the panelists, the best framework or action plan to pursue it remained unclear. But the debate over these issues was fitting for the opening plenary of CGI 2013 as it highlighted how interrelated so many of these key issues are. However it also highlighted how much further work there is to be done in bringing governments, NGOs and the private sector together to address real problems for both developed and developing nations.