LEWISTON – Most businesspeople can cite the factors for smart economic growth: access to money, reasonable interest rates, sensible government policies.

Andrew Morrison, a senior economist with the World Bank, adds another: gender equity.

“Gender equity matters because it’s a matter of intrinsic fairness,” said Morrison, brother of Androscoggin County Chamber of Commerce President Chip, who did the introductions at this month’s Great Falls Forum. “A second argument … is that it is not only unfair, it’s inefficient. The converse to gender inequality is smart economics.”

Morrison, who previously taught at Tulane and the University of New Mexico, spends his days trying to help developing nations solve gender equity and violence issues. He came up from Washington, D.C., to address the public policy forum at the Lewiston library and tout the World Bank’s mission, which is to reduce poverty in developing nations through loans, grants and policy-making efforts.

It’s a daunting task. The bank’s Millennium Development Goals focus on reducing the number of people who live on $1 or less per day from 45 million in 1990 to a little over 20 million by 2015.

“We’re nowhere near the goal,” he said, as charts depicting mortality rates, educational attainment and disease rates flashed on a screen behind him.

Key to improving the world’s prosperity is getting more women into the labor force and removing barriers to female entrepreneurs.

Simple things – like changing land title documents to have space for the husband’s and wife’s names – have significant impact. In many developing countries, the only collateral people have for loans is their property. If a woman’s name isn’t on the title, she has no access to financing.

When women do have opportunities, they get things done. One Vietnamese woman took the money she received from a micro loan and bought a pig, which had three litters. Now she has a thriving pork business, which she uses to augment her family income and their diet.

In Mexico, a woman trained to use a forklift was able to buy a house because her salary qualified her for a mortgage. In Egypt, where fewer than 50 percent of businesses employ women, the World Bank is offering training to companies to recruit and train female employees.

“We anticipate that the firms that do it will have better work atmospheres and productivity,” Morrison said.

But more women in the workplace has impact beyond the business world. Educational goals and literacy rates get a boost when women work, Morrison said.

Data evaluated by the World Bank shows a direct correlation between women working and better health within a family. One study showed an increase in children’s height between 11 and 15 percent when mothers provide household income.

“Women’s power changes the composition of spending in the household,” he said. “The more assets a woman brings to a marriage, the more a household will spend on education and nutrition, which leads immediately to better outcomes in reducing poverty.”

And there are lessons Americans can learn from some of the World Bank programs, all of which are targeted for the developing world.

In Brazil and Mexico, World Bank programs pay poor people a stipend every month to get kids vaccinated and attend school. There is a much higher success rate when the money is channeled through the mother, rather than the father. The model is being considered for some urban school districts in the United States, Morrison said.

Ultimately, leveling the worldwide playing field for women transcends simple fairness to fostering change.

“Gender equity matters (because) it reduces poverty and promotes growth,” Morrison said.

 


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