Women as Partners in Progress and Prosperity

Melanne Verveer
Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues 
Keynote Address at the Pathways to Prosperity in the Americas Women's Entrepreneurs' Conference
Washington, DC
October 8, 2009

Good afternoon. I am delighted to be here with all of you today to mark the first Pathways to Prosperity in the Americas Initiative. On behalf of Secretary Clinton and the Department of State, I want to applaud the aspiring entrepreneurs, mentors, and Pathways Envoys for your enthusiasm and commitment to this collective venture. You are leading the way.

I want to thank our partners in the private sector and NGO community, especially Beth Brooke and Ernst and Young; Count Me In for Women’s Economic Independence; Eugenia Podesta and Vital Voices; Agora partnerships; and the members of the Business Council for International Understanding who understand that investing in women as a good business strategy and an element of engendering greater corporate social responsibility. We also appreciate the support of the Inter-American Development Bank and the International Finance Corporation (IFC), and the generous contributions so many other organizations that have played a part in making this conference possible.

President Obama’s appointment of an Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues – a first for my country – reflects the importance of women’s progress around the world. The major economic, security, governance, and environmental challenges of our time cannot be solved without the participation of women at all levels of society. Empowering women is one of the most effective and positive forces for improving conditions around the globe. Indeed, no country can prosper if half its people are left behind.

Today, there is a growing body of research from sources ranging from the World Bank and UN to the World Economic Forum and major companies such as Goldman Sachs, McKinsey, and Ernst and Young that correlate investments in women with favorable outcomes for greater economic growth, good governance, and democratic progress.

Why are investments in women critical? Not too long ago, the “Economist” magazine said, “Forget China, India, and the internet; economic growth is driven by women.” Lloyd Blankfein, CEO and Chairman of Goldman Sachs, underscored this same point, when, in launching his company’s “10,000 Women” project, said “There is no better low-hanging fruit to pick for increasing GDP than investing in women.” Women add true value to the economies of the world, and world economies suffer when their participation is absent. Secretary Clinton underscored those points when she re-launched the Pathways to Prosperity Initiative in El Salvador last May. Pathways is all about integrating women into regional objectives: spreading the benefits of free trade, advancing social justice and inclusiveness, and growing opportunity and prosperity.

This conference lays the groundwork for a sustainable businesswomen’s network, drawing upon a diversity of talent gathered in this room. It is a forum for the women business leaders here from 14 countries in the Americas, a place to come together in a network to collaborate and share best practices with women who are developing new skills and abilities. Our Pathways Envoys from the United States and Latin America, strong women leaders with experience in both government and the corporate world, also have a vital role in leading and sustaining this initiative.

Just last week at the UN General Assembly in New York, there was a palpable feeling that the time is right for real change and real action for women’s issues – that they can no longer be treated as a side event or an afterthought, but, rather, as integral to all aspects of our engagement with the world. So, too, momentum is building to make women’s economic advancement and partnership in international trade a priority.

When we are facing so many entrenched global problems – wars, natural disasters, poverty, sexual-based violence, human rights abuses, and destabilizing conflicts – that disproportionately affect women, it is heartening to be able to talk about the positive steps that women, governments, and the private sector are taking for the promotion of economic opportunity, access to trade and open markets, and the promise of greater prosperity.

Trade has been an undeniable source of economic progress for our countries. In 2008, U.S. trade with Pathways countries was over $1 trillion dollars, and trade among all Pathways partners was nearly $2 trillion. Yet, we acknowledge that the gains from trade have not been evenly shared. The promises of opportunity remain elusive for too many people in this hemisphere, including for women. The Pathways initiative seeks to close that gap, and women’s empowerment is integral to the process.

In this hemisphere, we’ve certainly seen progress in terms of increased gross domestic product and reduction in poverty, especially the most abject poverty. But it is also true that Latin America stands out, according to the United Nations, as having the greatest internal economic disparities of all areas of the world; the greatest distances between “haves” and “have-nots.” The level of inequity and inequality is actually higher than anywhere else.

Great disparities also exist between men and women in the region. According to a World Economic Forum study on closing the gender gap, which focused on 58 countries, in no country are men and women equal in terms of economic participation, access to health and educational services, or political participation. On gender equality measures, Canada comes in at number 7, just after the Nordic countries. The United States ranks 17, followed by Costa Rica at 18. Not all countries in the hemisphere were included, but it is worth noting that, out of the 58, Colombia ranked 30, Uruguay 32, Argentina 35, Peru 47, Chile 48, Venezuela 49, Brazil 51, and Mexico 52. It is clear that there is much room for improvement in raising the economic status of women in the region.

Against these challenges and the challenges of the global economic downturn, women in our hemisphere represent an opportunity for advancing progress and prosperity. As Secretary Clinton has pointed out: “Pathways to Prosperity can and will help spread the benefits of economic engagement and trade to women, rural farmers and small businesses, Afro-descendents, indigenous communities, and others too often left on the sidelines of progress.”

Similarly, major corporations and institutions such as the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) are also recognizing the importance of investing in women and are making women’s economic participation a priority. According to the IDB, “Without a doubt, women joining the work force will improve the overall efficiency of a country, whether developed or developing.”

Studies by the World Bank have documented how increasing women’s educational attainment and promoting their equal opportunity in the labor force and public life can reduce poverty and promote national growth. Investing in women also greatly enhances the well-being of their families and their children, who are more likely to survive and thrive if their mothers are healthy and educated.

We know that gender equality makes for smart economics, and yet there are still obstacles and barriers to women’s economic entry at several levels. To start with, the work that they already do is not merely undervalued, it is often overlooked. The value of women working in the informal sector, or those who are providing income in the form of remittances, often remains invisible, though their work is critical.

Second, although small and medium enterprises account for a large share of firms, employment, and GDP in the region, women are disproportionately excluded from this sector. If we are serious about making shared prosperity and social inclusion our priorities, we must ensure that women are gaining access to the opportunities to participate in trade and other income-generating activities.

Third, the remittances on which many women depend have been adversely affected by the global economic downturn. After foreign direct investment, family remittances make up the second-largest source of external financing in developing countries. According to the IDB, El Salvador receives about 18 percent of its gross domestic product from money abroad, and Guatemala, about 12 percent. Two-thirds of recipients of remittances are women and, according to the UN Population Fund, women tend to send a larger proportion of their lesser resources home than do men, and are more likely to spend those fund on social needs: food, clothing, and education for their children.

With the economic downturn, it is estimated that, in 2009, flows of remittances to Latin America and the Caribbean may drop by 11 percent over 2008 levels. This only underscores the need to increase women’s earning abilities at home.

Microcredit and microenterprise development have received considerable attention for their potential to lift women out of poverty within their own communities. The United States has been a champion of microfinance programs for women in developing countries.

I’ve seen so many examples of successful microcredit projects for women. With the support of the U.S. Agency for International Development, Afro-Caribbean women in Colombia have been earning a profit out of a simple vegetable, the gourd, by turning it into two product lines: food packages for sweets and decorative objects for homes. Through this project, 600 Afro-Colombian heads of households were able to abandon coca production and create a new livelihood. Women are banding together at the local level throughout the region on similar projects, from indigenous women in rural parts of Mexico to Peruvian women in the Andes.

Women in the hemisphere, as you know, have aspirations beyond the microenterprise level, however, and need access to markets, finance, technology, and training opportunities to build small and medium businesses and more fully compete in the global marketplace. This conference is a way to catalyze these aspirations. By banding together and working as multipliers, women at this conference can promote progress and prosperity.

While you are all gathered here this week, you will be exchanging knowledge, experiences, and successes – your “lessons without borders” – and laying the groundwork for a future partnership with counterparts in the region. As President Obama said at the Summit of the Americas last April in Trinidad when he talked about our renewed engagement in the hemisphere, “there are no junior partner and senior partners.” We all bring something different to the table. You represent a broad range of talent, creativity, and ingenuity – the hallmarks of successful entrepreneurs.

The scope of business savvy here can help lay the groundwork for a unique sustainable women’s business network. From the “Queen of Jeans” in Canada to the exquisite textiles of Guatemala and Peru; from Mexican chocolate to gourmet Chilean food products; from “Scents for the Soul” in Costa Rica to Colombian jewels; along with the more technology-driven software solutions and film production enterprises from the United States to Uruguay, the entrepreneurs and mentors at this conference will have plenty of experiences and knowledge to share, and trade and partnership opportunities to explore.

Working together, we can ensure that what we accomplish here is not just talk, but action: the unleashing of women’s talent as entrepreneurs, the forging of partnerships, and the cementing of alliances to create jobs and ease access to markets, technology and trade opportunities, that will enable women to take their businesses to the next level. Women “pay forward” their successes to their community and to the next generation. We hope this conference will be just a start to new and enduring economic opportunities for women and a better life for everyone. When we gather together down the road, we’ll look back on our progress and say: “Remember when we were present at the creation of this?”

Above all, these partnerships put a human face on economic progress and remind us that the bottom line is about improving lives and creating a better tomorrow for our children. As Secretary Clinton said at the last Pathways to Prosperity Ministerial meeting in El Salvador, rather than defining economic progress simply by profit margins and GDP, our measures are the quality of human lives: whether families have enough food on the table; whether young people have access to schooling from early childhood through university; whether workers earn decent wages and have safe conditions at their jobs; whether parents have access to medical care for themselves and their children so that children dying before adulthood is a rarity, not an accepted fact; whether women are empowered to fully participate and contribute to the economy; and whether every person who works hard and takes responsibility has the promise of a brighter future.

You are truly creating a new pathway to prosperity and we are all, together, the pathway for unleashing the potential of women in advancing economic growth and opportunity throughout the hemisphere.