Scaling up Women
This public domain photograph was provided by the United States Department of State

The recent and ongoing upheaval of political systems in the Arab world seems to be the marking of a transitional period in our collective histories.  From the removal of Zine el- Abidine Ben Ali and the start of the “Jasmine Revolution” in Tunisia, to Mubarak’s ousting in Egypt, to Libya’s ongoing turmoil, Bahrain’s episode, and Yemen’s anti-government unrest, rebellion against autocratic leaders and calls for pro-democracy reforms are sweeping across the region.  The youth participation in these rebellions is particularly interesting (for more on regional indicators check out the Economist’s Arab League Map).  But these sweeping declarations for “change” appear to be accompanied by another feature of this transitional time, that of gender equality.

Duncan Green’s blog, comments on the linkage between the “Arab Revolution” and a “women’s rights revolution,” citing Soumaya Ghannoushi’s piece in the Guardian form March 11.  Ghannoushi documents a female political-activist voice through the narratives of Saida Sadouni, affectionately known as the “mother of Tunisia’s revolution,” and Tawakul Karman, the Yemini student arrested for “organizing  unlicensed demonstrations” against President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s government in Yemen.

Women across the Arab region are demanding a role in government, greater visibility in society, and a greater role in business.  In the New York Times expose “A New Arab Generation Finds Its Voice“, some of the young people interviewed, both young women and men, spoke to the greater collective freedom brought about during this sweeping revolution.  Rinad Ayed, one of the young women interviewed for that piece said, “In the next generation, you will see women are there as well.  This freedom will be for everybody, not only for men.”  The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), which recognizes that “the struggle for democracy goes hand-in-hand with recognition of fundamental workers’ rights… particularly for women,” launched a new Arab trade union women’s network on March 8 in support of this cause.

The United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (U.N. Women) report, 2009 World Survey, also enunciates that “there are significant development gains to be made in ensuring women’s equitable access to and control over economic and financial resources, including in relation to economic growth, poverty eradication and the well-being of families and communities.”  In assessing these developments, among the logical issues to be considered is the role of private funding in contributing to the empowerment of Arab women and the contribution of female entrepreneurs in the process.

Such experts as Gayle Tzemach Lemmon have commented on the value that access to capital brings to women in the workforce, particularly in small businesses.  In her interview on APM Market Place, Lemmon spoke to the power of capital, in regards to scale, for female entrepreneurship.  She speaks to some of the hurdles for female entrepreneurs: “Access to capital is daunting, because there’s a lot of microfinance available, and everybody is pretty quick to put women in the microfinance bucket.”  International organizations have addressed the macro issue of empowering women economically, but have not offered the same cadre of solutions to put larger scale business opportunities in the hands of women outside of the micro-lending process.

The United Nations, however, does begin to identify the challenge facing women in entrepreneurial endeavors.  In the  Millennium Development Goals: Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment (Progress Chart 2010) provides some insight with the following assessment:  “Women have fewer entrepreneurship opportunities than men.”  The data in the 2010 progress chart shows that “Only between 1 and 3 percent of women employed in… developing regions are ‘employers’”.  In North Africa and Western Asia the figures, as of 2009, for the number of female and male employers in terms of total workforce, are the most disparate, with 2% versus 12% and 1% versus 6% respectively.

When aiming to seed female enterprises with the capital needed to scale up, sources such as philanthropic giving and remittances should be considered.  According to the World Bank, global foreign direct investment figures for 2009 in North Africa and Western Asia were roughly $17.5 billion and $42.5 billion respectively (regional composition based on U.N. geographical sub-regions).  The CGP 2010 Index on Global Philanthropy and Remittances cites the total scale of funding for development assistance by U.S. corporations broadly being $7.7 billion; the total size of U.S. Private Philanthropy was $37.3 billion.     

Corporations and private entities can be further encouraged to invest in social entrepreneurship as it can directly impact international sustainable development efforts.  The multi-stakeholder investments by corporations into local women’s entrepreneurial endeavors boosts their corporate social responsibility image, not to mention their position in potential new markets.  Jane Nelson, of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Corporate Social Responsibility Initiative, notes that investment in social entrepreneurship by corporations is an innovation that is part of the growing recognition of the central role that the private sector is playing in “ensuring effective development outcomes.”

Anecdotal and research studies of women in entrepreneurial ventures may also be used to support the enhanced giving by private entities looking at the connection between the corporate sector and entrepreneurs.  Gayle Tzemach Lemmon’s new book The Dressmaker of Khair Khana, is an excellent example of an anecdotal story that speaks volumes to the ingenuity and determination of female entrepreneurs in Afghanistan and the broader Arab world which could spur new investments from the private sector.   Some other things to consider are to what degree mentoring plays in the effort to enhance women’s empowerment in developing regions, and the role of cooperative mentoring programs in scaling up female entrepreneurs in developing regions.

While scaling up the ability for women to empower themselves through entrepreneurial means is important in development, in democratization, and in achieving growth, it is also crucial to recognize the contrast between state aid and private philanthropic giving in support of this effort.  In a public lecture at the London School of Economics, Diane Elson discussed the role of gender responsive budgeting.  In some of the more traditional masculine dominated societies, where the responsibility of things like child care and elderly care fall on women, public services in these areas prove to be extremely important in securing female financial autonomy.

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