Making the Most of the Millennium Development Goals Summit: Advancing Progress Through the Empowerment of Women and Girls

Melanne Verveer
Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues 
Center for Strategic and International Studies
Washington, DC
September 7, 2010

Thank you, Lisa, for that overly generous introduction. And thank you for the invitation to be here, for the important work of the Commission and the leadership that you and Steve Morrison have brought to its important work. I wasn’t in my new position but for several weeks when Lisa came by to offer sound advice on what we should be doing on women’s health and infectious diseases—long before the GHI was announced. I know firsthand of her distinguished work at the State Department, with the Gates Foundation, with UNAIDS and now at CSIS, as deputy director of this important project.

I also want to acknowledge the CSIS Commission on Smart Global Health Policy, whose recommendations are both innovative and persuasive. We look forward to seeing the ideas in your recent report take hold.

The timing for this morning’s discussion could not be more appropriate. In just a few weeks the leaders of the world will gather at the UN to assess the progress that has been made on the Millennium Development Goals (MDG)—and to chart the way forward. Ten years ago, when the 189 heads of state and government signed onto the Millennium Declaration they committed themselves to a set of eight time-bound targets that, when achieved, would end extreme poverty and improve the health and well-being of the world’s poor.

The U.S. fully embraces the MDGs. As President Obama has said, “the MDGs are America’s Goals,” and development has been elevated as a central pillar—with diplomacy and defense—of our engagement with the world. We are firmly committed to working with the many partners in this common cause towards meeting the Goals by 2015 and helping to ensure that the gains are sustained long into the future.

At this 10-year juncture there is much to celebrate and there is much that remains to be achieved.

We have made progress, thanks to the hard work and commitment of so many…the citizens and governments of countries that have prioritized development and invested in their people …the sustained efforts and effective partnerships among donor governments, the UN and other multilateral agencies, the private sector and NGOs.

Today, the number of people living on less that 1.25 a day around the globe has fallen by nearly 400 million—putting the MDG poverty target within reach. More boys and girls are attending and completing primary school. Almost 2/3 of developing countries have met the goal of eliminating gender disparity in primary education. AIDS-related mortality has decreased and more than 5.2m people in low and middle income countries are receiving anti-retroviral treatment. A third of the countries where malaria is prevalent have seen a drop of at least 50% in the number of cases.

And also importantly, women and girls have made considerable progress in the last decade. More women are contributing to the economic, social and political life of their countries. Despite the progress, we all know that much work needs to be done if we are to meet the targets set for the achievement of the MDGs.

The U.S. will outline a strategy for our nation’s contribution to meeting the MDGs, which will be formally released at the UN Summit. The strategy calls for a focus on innovation (including basic and applied research, expanding access to effective technologies and practices and approaching development in new and improved ways).

It also calls for an emphasis on sustainability which will require the promotion of broad-based economic growth (including helping countries adopt pro-growth policies, promote trade and infrastructure investments and entrepreneurship; supporting partner countries’ efforts to strengthen governance and democratic institutions and building lasting service-delivery systems).

Central to our efforts is the recognition that investments in women and girls are at the center of our development agenda AND—gender equality is the key to progress and sustainable development. This is the topic I would like to focus on this morning.

Women’s Equality: The Key to Realizing the MDGs

As we mark 10 years since the adoption of the MDGs, we also mark 15 years since the Fourth UN Conference on Women. Beijing and the MDGs are linked. Beijing recognized that women’s empowerment and rights are also a requirement for the empowerment and advancement of all people—men and women, boys and girls.

Today there is broad recognition that MDG 3—the promotion of gender equality and empowerment of women—is the linchpin to the achievement of all the other MDGs. It is a simple fact that no country can get ahead if half of its citizens are left behind. As Secretary Clinton has often stated, women and girls are one of the world’s greatest untapped resources and investing in them is one of the most powerful forces for international development. Promoting gender equality is not just the right thing to do—it’s the smart thing to do.

Yet we are far from overcoming gender inequality. We know that women are still the majority of the world’s poor. They do 66% of the world’s work in return for less than 5% of its income. This has untold consequences on economic growth and development. Despite progress in education, 2/3 of the unschooled children are girls and 75% of illiterate adults are women. Women and girls disproportionately suffer from inadequate health care and violence against them is a global epidemic. Women are half the world’s population yet they hold less than 1/5 of the positions in national governments, and far too often women are excluded from the negotiating table where conflicts are to be resolved, although it is their experiences and actions that will be critical to sustaining peace. Efforts to achieve environmental sustainability all too often exclude women even though they are largely the custodians of natural and household resources.

If we are to achieve the MDGs, women and girls must be at the core of our development strategies. The question is not whether we can afford to invest in them—it is whether we can afford NOT to do so.

Today there is a volume of research that demonstrates that investments in women and girls correlate positively with poverty alleviation and a country’s general prosperity. Women-run small and medium-size businesses are proven drivers of GDP. The World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Report which measures the gap between men and women in a given country in terms of economic and political participation and access to education and health survivability shows that in those countries where the gap is closest to being closed, those countries are more economically prosperous. Gender equality is smart economics.

Women are a reliable investment because the money they borrow is not only likely to be repaid; women also have a multiplier effect because their resources are used to benefit their families and communities. We know that when women take their rightful place and bring their talents and experiences to bear in the political arena, they are more likely to invest in the public good. At the country level, higher rates of female participation in government are associated with lower levels of corruption.

We also know that educating a girl is the single best development investment that can be made with positive payoffs on a range of critical development outcomes, from her future employability to her family’s health. For this reason, the U.S. is putting women and girls at the core of its development and foreign policy.

This includes consulting with women as we design and implement our policies and carefully considering the impact they will have. And it includes measuring our progress in part, by how much we improve the conditions of the lives of women and girls. If we are to achieve our development outcomes, it also means mainstreaming gender into our core development efforts. It means adopting measurements and evaluations. It means gender mainstreaming in budgeting. It means that it is a core consideration in our QDDR review process.

This commitment to investing in women and girls characterizes many of the major policy initiatives through which the Obama Administration is contributing to meeting the MDGs.

The Global Health Initiative

The first is the Global Health Initiative, a $63 billion program to improve health and strengthen health systems worldwide. This is an enormous undertaking, so we are employing a strategic focus on those whose health has the biggest impacts on families and communities: women and girls. We are scaling up our work in maternal and child health, family planning and nutrition.

For much too long progress on MDGs 4 and 5 has not been on track. Today we have a propitious—and long overdue—moment to finally attack the high rates of maternal and child mortality. As the Secretary said in recent speech on the Global Health Initiative: “Saving the lives of women and children requires a range of care, from improving nutrition to training birth attendants who can help women give birth safely. It also requires increased access to family planning which represents one of the most cost-effective public health interventions today.”

With the support of the UN Secretary General and his Global Strategy for Women’s and Children’s Health, which we welcome and will be unveiled at the MDG Summit—as well as the commitment of the UK, Norway and others, Canada’s leadership during the G8, the dedicated efforts of health leaders like the Gates Foundation, the broad NGO community, and the major commitment of the US through the GHI—all of these forces are arrayed to once and for all make progress on MDGs 4 and 5. And the recent Lancet report indicating some progress in reducing the rate of global maternal mortality should give us all confidence that our efforts will pay off.

Through efforts under the GHI, we are committed to promoting sustainability, by focusing on strengthening existing health systems and by building on them to help countries develop their own capacity to improve the health of their people. This will provide women with access to an integrated package of essential health services. We are also developing innovative strategies to improve health through mobile technology to deliver health information—for example—to pregnant and new moms. Further, we are linking our health programs with successful efforts to remove the economic, cultural, social and legal barriers that create obstacles to obtaining care for women and girls—including gender-based violence, harmful traditional practices, such as early marriage and FGM, the lack of education and of economic opportunity.

The GHI also reinforces the U.S. commitment to addressing the global pandemic of HIV/AIDS by strengthening our focus on HIV prevention, treatment and care. The funding for PEPFAR will increase, as will its impact. Its prevention strategies will be more comprehensive. For example, through GHI and PEPFAR, we hope to provide women and girls—in particular adolescent girls—with the tools and knowledge they need to protect themselves. To integrate HIV/AIDS treatment with programs that address gender-based violence, a scourge that contributes to the spread of HIV. And we are scaling up our treatment of HIV-positive mothers so they are less likely to pass on the virus to their children.

Feed the Future

Second, investing in women is also a key pillar of the President’s Feed the Future Initiative, which was developed under Secretary Clinton’s leadership. It is a $3.5 billion commitment to strengthen the world’s food supply, so farmers can support their families and food can be available more broadly. It focuses on sustainably reducing hunger through greater agriculture productivity and recognizes that most of the world’s food is grown, harvested, stored and prepared by women who comprise the great majority of the world’s small-holder farmers.

To that end, it recognizes that women farmers have specific needs for training, access to financial services, markets and decision-making if they are to become more agriculturally productive. In some regions, women produce 70% of food, earn 10% income, and own only 1% of land. The reform of land tenure and property rights, as well as inheritance laws, can help advance women in farming and help to secure the world’s food supply.

Advancing Climate Change

Third, women are also instrumental to the US response to the challenge of climate change. As part of the effort to address climate change the US will contribute our share as called for in the Copenhagen Accord for “fast-start” funding to help meet the adaptation and mitigation needs of developing countries, including clean energy technologies. Women in the developing world are the hardest hit, whether by tsunamis or droughts. They are 70% of the small scale farmers and have primary responsibility within their families for securing water, food and energy sources.

They are also key problem solvers who can play a significant role in safeguarding their families and communities from environmental hazards and promoting sustainable solutions to climate change. For example, new small-scale technologies such as cookstoves and solar lanterns can not only make a difference through the agency of women who are the primary consumers of these products but also become sustainable businesses and promote women’s economic empowerment. Women can play a role in assembling, selling and repairing these products, and also contribute to the development of a new green economy.

To this end, Secretary Clinton will soon announce a new major initiative—a public-private partnership that will safeguard health, promote women economic empowerment and the environment—and thereby to further the MDGs.

Investments for Economic Growth

Fourth, to alleviate poverty, economic growth is essential. Because women-run small and medium size businesses are key accelerators of economic growth, we have focused policy efforts on increasing women’s economic opportunities. Studies show that to grow GDP, there is no better or more effective investment, no lower hanging fruit to pick, then investing in women-run small and medium size businesses. Yet we know that women confront an array of barriers from training and access to financing to markets and discriminatory regulations—barriers that have to be overcome if their economic potential is to be unleashed.

In conjunction with the recent AGOA Ministerial (African Growth and Opportunity Act), for example, we created the African Women’s Entrepreneurship Program to provide women with the tools and skills they need to more successfully access AGOA and its benefits for building businesses and markets.

We are working with APEC (Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation) countries to put a first time focus on women as drivers of economic growth. Half of the APEC countries have developing economies. It is calculated that the Asia-Pacific region is shortchanged in excess of $40 billion a year in GDP because of the untapped potential of women.

With respect to women’s waged employment outside of agriculture, one of the key indicators for MDG 3, progress has been slow. According to UNIFEM, women’s share of non-agricultural employment has increased in the last decade by only 3%.

To power women in business—whether micro or SMEs—women need access to a full range of financial services. Women need savings accounts, insurance and remittances regimes that would allow them to have financial identities (something difficult for poor women who lack formal identification documents). Today there is a wide array of innovative financial arrangements from mobile banking to work of self-help organizations like SEWA that will make it possible for poor women to become more successful economically. For example, the International Finance Corporation is working with Ugandan banks to offer loans to women so they can buy land where the land itself can serve as collateral. Securing land and property rights has a direct impact on women’s ability to access finance and financial inclusion is closely tied to women’s ability to contribute to economic development.

Political Participation

Fifth, another key indicator for MDG 3—gender equality—is women’s political participation.

We know that when women bring their talents and experiences to bear in the political arena, they are far more likely to invest in the public good than their male counterparts. The number of women serving on the village and city councils in India—the panchayats—are a well documented example of the difference women are making in investing in safe drinking water, education and other community needs. Yet, women are significantly outnumbered in the parliaments, provincial councils and peace processes, and democracy without their participation is a contradiction in terms.

Conflicts exacerbate poverty and undermine development generally. Women need to be active participants in conflict resolution, peace negotiations, political transitions and post conflict reconstruction if countries are to stabilize and peace is to be secured and sustained. The US has been working within our own government, bilaterally and multilaterally to accelerate implementation of the UN Security Council Resolutions that link women to peace and security.

Where women are oppressed and marginalized, societies are more dangerous and extremism is more likely to take hold. As Secretary Clinton has stressed, the subjugation of women is a threat to our national security and the common security of the world because the suffering and denial of the rights of women and the instability of nations go hand in hand.

Role of Innovation

Lastly, let me mention the important role of innovation. I am often reminded that more than 30 years ago my friend. Mohammad Yunus, then a young economist, lent $27 out of his own pocket to a group of poor craftsmen in a small town. That small loan would inspire a whole new lending system to lift people out of poverty, particularly women.

Innovation is critical to successful development. Secretary Clinton has promoted the importance of innovation, technology and public-private partnerships as fundamental components of how we conduct development work.

One example of innovation is mobile technology, which has proven to be a powerful tool to transform global development. Gender, however, is rarely factored in to mobile technology solutions for development. The role of mobile technology in banking, teaching literacy, providing critical health information, economic empowerment, and protecting women from violence is evidence of the potential of the mobile phone to transform the lives of the poor. Mobile technology can also be used to develop accountability measures to report data back.

Today, for example, there is approximately 1 mobile phone for every 3 people in Bangladesh. Yet, around the world, there is a gender gap in mobile usage in low and middle income countries. In order to begin to address this gap and better advance development, Secretary Clinton next month will announce a new partnership on mobile technology.

The Secretary has also announced an Innovation Award for the Empowerment of Women and Girls. In partnership with the Rockefeller Foundation, the goal of the award is to build on the most pioneering approaches to empowering women politically, economically and socially around the world – specifically, through a global competition to award innovations that have enormous potential for scaling up and thereby achieving broader development outcomes.

Initiatives like these indicate the centrality of investing in women and girls as a fundamental principle of our approach to development and foreign policy. The only way we can hope to meet the fundamental challenges of our time is to incorporate the needs and tap the talents and potential of women and girls around the world. It is with this message and in this spirit, that we join hands with our partners to accelerate progress towards meeting the MDGs, and to create a better world for us all.